What attracted you to The Aliens – it’s not like anything we’ve particularly seen on British TV before?
I can’t remember if I was just given the sides with my part or if I was given the script straightaway, but once I read the episode, like you said, I thought we’d not seen anything like this before so I wanted in. There was a lot of political and current stuff that was quite interesting used in the comedy, but my character is what attracted me, because she is just so funny – one of those characters that you read and it just jumps off the page before me doing anything.
Fintan is a great writer: he’s really nailed this character who’s a bit off the wall. It’s a great part to get and I go through the series reacting to all the madness that’s going on around us.
She’s got the same name as me, except she’s Holly with a y and I’m Holli with an i. Completely different entities!
How would you describe her?
I play Lewis, the sister of our main lead, played by Michael Socha. While he’s quite straight laced and wants a good life for himself and a bit of normality, she’s a drug dealer, a little bit off the wall. Bless her, she’s got a heart: I can see it even if nobody else can. She’s constantly getting him into trouble which he doesn’t want to be in and he will do anything to get away from. But because it’s his sister, there’s a real loyalty there, and he’s a good guy so she’ll often drag him into stuff that he doesn’t want to be part of.
She’s a great recurring character throughout the series. But there’s so much going on – there’s something for everyone. There’s some really exciting big scenes, and then you come back home and I’m there and you get to see the other part of his life with his family,. And he’s outside with all the crime he’s having to tackle I think it’s a really fast exciting show – especially the first episode.
In the first episode, you’re really caught up in the problems…
Yes, it wasn’t spaced out through the series, I’m straight in there!
What was the audition process like? Standard sides to the agent and go in…
Yeah. Pretty much. Every now and again you get a part that you really want, and I literally saw my name all over it. I thought, “It’s not enough that you’ve got the same name as her, you’ve got to bring something else to the table.” I remember going in thinking that I really wanted this, and I was just so ready for it. I knew all my lines, and jad my reactions ready. I really enjoyed her, she was such a fun character to play – I was literally like, “let me at it”. I think it was quite soon afterwards that I got the job. Often it’s about looks so they said I’d work if I dyed my hair, which is what they did to me soon after. I was brunette and now I’m a blonde.
About four months altogether for the whole length. For me it was two weeks in London and then back and forth to Bulgaria for about two months and then a few weeks in London just before Christmas. It was one of the longest jobs I’ve done consistently.
I get bored quite easily but this job I couldn’t because I just wanted to be part of the whole thing. All the scenes are so different, which was so exciting: we’d be wondering what we’d get up to today. And filming in another country was quite interesting – lots of travel, but I got to come back quite a lot.
Had you filmed abroad before?
I went to Cape Town in February last year for a week to do You, Me and the Apocalypse. That was my first time properly in a hot country. Bulgaria isn’t hot exactly but it was lovely to be somewhere different, and there was a lot more space there. In London you barely have any derelict areas to film in any more because there are apartments on them now. It was nice to have a space and some country to go out and film there.
How much of what happens to Holly did you know at the beginning, or were you getting scripts and finding out stuff about her as you went along?
We were finding out. It’s quite funny when you take on a job and you know what happens in 1, 2 and 3, then you realise when you’re doing it you have no idea what’s going to happen to your character. My fear was that she dies in her sleep – really boring – but I don’t think that’s going to happen, so that’s good.
As we were doing 1, 2 and 3 we were getting drip-fed information about 4 and 5, because they were still working on it. They were talking to the channel and seeing what tone they wanted, so things were changing a little bit as we went along.
I would go up to Petra our producer and say, “I know you know something! Tell me!” You really want to know what happens to the character because you start to care about them by that stage. But I won’t tell you…
Equally, you don’t want to be playing foreknowledge of something…
It’s quite freeing, I suppose, you’re right; you’re with the audience for episodes 1 and 2. We’re all in it together. None of us know what is going to happen later on! Just like life, I guess. It’s how you deal with it when it comes…
That’s good news to hear. That’s exactly what I want from my career. I think there are lots of things that can define you wherever you are: if you are a woman, if you sound quite sweet, if you sound quite harsh; if you’re working class or middle class… There are lots of things where people can go, “she’s that girl, call her in for that only”. That’s always been my dream, and I think my agent’s great as well by not pigeonholing me. Even if casting directors before have said I’m not right for a part, he’ll say, “you should give her a go”, and he’ll brief me on it, and we’ll just try. I’ve never been someone who’s liked one sort of music, or one sort of clothing – my dream is to be as diverse as possible.
I think all my characters have had heart, there’s a lot about them, they’re soulful – but they’re from completely different periods. You can have that: a girl who has got to struggle but yet she’s got heart about her. She can be from the 1400s or the 1970s or now. I think that doesn’t change the essence of a character.
What made you want to get into acting?
I think before I knew I wanted to do it, my mum used to take me to pantos and I’d leave feeling really sad. All the other kids were running around, high on sugar and popcorn and panto; I would leave feeling really forlorn, and I didn’t know why, but I think it was because I was looking up thinking, I want to do that.
Age about 10, I got into the school play accidentally and loved it. I was shaking like a leaf beforehand, but I went on and did it, and when I came off, I realised I didn’t just die, I didn’t fall on my face. It’s terrifying going on stage the first time.
I knew from about 15 that this was going to be my career because I wasn’t going to do anything else. Against all odds – I didn’t go to drama school – I knew from that age I wanted to get into it. After college, it was one of the careers that you can get practical with: if you want to be a doctor, you have to study, you have to pick up some books. You can’t just go, “Can I cut your arm open and see what happens?” So I thought, let me take a “gap year” – in quotation marks because I’m still on the gap year – and see what I can get out of it.
I made my own showreel in my bedroom then my agent found me through the last episode of The Bill.
I wanted to be a vet for about two weeks when I was seven, but I got over that because I was too sad when animals died. I’d be a mess if I was a vet!
I’d love to do a lead part. I say that, but then look at how much work Michael had in The Aliens… you are non-stop completely. I am not under any illusions that that’s when you’ve made it: that’s where the hard work really begins. It would be nice to do that, because it would be a challenge.
Also the characters that I’ve played, I love them, I think they’re all really brilliant, but they’re just supporting parts, not the lead. I guess their storylines aren’t written as lead roles: it’d be interesting to do something like that.
Lots more movies – but like I said, as diverse as possible. In a way I want to test everything. I like changes.
I want to do some more theatre; there’s nothing like that. You really have to get back down to the ground and work from being completely naked and work your way back up again. That’s something I’d like to do again. I’d love to do some voiceovers – cartoon voiceovers would be amazing.
Now I’m doing it, it’s so wonderful to do the full spectrum of the things I want to do.
What was the biggest challenge for you of The Aliens?
Some days were extremely cold – that’s such a boring thing to say! My toughest day – and it sounds like First World Problems – I was picked up at 3 am in London, got a flight at 6, arrived at 9 am (because of the time changes), picked up straightaway – and I didn’t realise that ahead of me was five hours having my hair done, and I hadn’t eaten… That day was horrible. I was falling asleep while they were doing my hair!
It’s so funny – the glamorous life isn’t. It all sounds glamorous – getting on planes, going to a hotel, getting your hair done for free. It all sounds great in theory… but all I wanted to do was eat and go to bed and sleep because I was filming the whole day the very next day. Just the travel, and the things people don’t expect to be hard, are.
Friends come on set, and for the first five minutes they’re spellbound, and then you can guarantee the next thing they’ll say is “Why are they doing it again?” They’ve got no idea. You have to really love it.
Probably nothing succinct, because I like to ramble!
The premise is that aliens crashlanded on Earth 40 years ago, and in my opinion, apartheid was drawn up there. Humans were one side of a wall, the aliens on the other. They look exactly the same, they speak and communicate the same. There’s nothing that different. But we are completely against them. They’re alien objects to us. Within that is a place called Troy where the aliens live, and there’s a lot of crime and a lot of undercover dealings – which there are in places which are impoverished.
In a way, it’s a wild concept but actually very relatable to most cities in the world, and most people. I see a lot of immigration comments in there: we do treat immigrants as if they’re different to us. But they bleed the same as us, and they all come from one planet. I think this is really powerful – we treat people so differently for absolutely no reason.
Watch it! Just watch it!
Thanks to Pip Gill for assistance in arranging this interview; portrait of Holli Dempsey by Jonathan Prime
The Aliens continues on E4 on Tuesdays at 9 pm