For many actors, a return booking to play a part they’ve made their own would look like they’d made it. But Sunil Peck discovers that Donna Lavin hopes it’s only just the first step on the road to stardom.
It’s 24 hours before Donna Lavin is due to go into the studio to record the second series of The Pursuits of Darleen Fyles, a drama for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour daily drama serial.
The production tackles the relationship and employment issues that Darleen, a young woman with learning difficulties, has to deal with on the road to living independently as an adult.
The director tells me that Donna, who has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties, became a cult hero among listeners after the first series was broadcast in 2009. She is due to feature in about 48 out of 50 scenes in the second series so you’d think she’d be nervous.
“I’m used to it now so I’m more relaxed and I know what to expect and I’m not so nervous,” says Donna. “Before the first series I’d have sleepless nights, I needed the toilet five times an hour and I couldn’t eat anything. But once there, I felt alive!”
Despite the pressure, it’s Donna’s infectious enthusiasm rather than her nerves which shine through.
“It’s exciting, but I suffer terribly from stage fright, it sounds silly. It’s because I’m convinced that everyone will laugh at me or point out my mistakes.”
The plot, which has covered uncaring service carers, workmates who take advantage of her good nature and her mother’s fear of Darleen having sex, is not autobiographical, but Donna, who lived in a care home for four years, does work with the writer and director to develop the storylines.
“In the second series, Darleen takes driving lessons, and I’m taking driving lessons in real life. But I’m doing a lot better than Darleen does! Darleen gets married too and a few months ago the writer and director asked me what I thought my wedding dress might look like. I told them I would have a bright red one and it was in the script!”
The drama was adapted for television in 2010. “My mum forced me to watch it,” says Donna. “It was awful. I closed my eyes when I came into shot. I think the other actors did a wonderful job.”
The Telegraph’s TV critic said that Donna’s performance was “terrific”.
“I don’t think I was, you see yourself differently to how others see you and as an actor I’m too close to it all and I know where I’ve made a mistake even if the audience don’t.”
Despite her successful television debut, Donna preferred playing Darleen on the radio which was “not as demanding”.
“The radio is very relaxed and chilled out. If you want a break you can have a break, there are bright rooms and you can sit down with your bottle of water. Television was a lot different. There were loads of people running towards me messing with my hair and looking at my face to decide what mascara would look good. At first I couldn’t bare it. A girl likes to put her own make-up on so it feels a bit weird for someone else to do it. But by the end of filming I was like ‘can I have another touch up please?’. I had my own trailer too, it was lovely! But I didn’t use it because I didn’t get many breaks! We started at about eight o’clock in the morning and finished at seven and it took just over two weeks to film. It was demanding because you could end up doing the same scene five times in one day because it had to be shot from so many different angles. It was draining, but in a good way.”
Now 28, Donna’s acting career began when she was 19 and studying business administration at college.
An audience member approached her after a play and asked if she fancied auditioning for Mind the Gap, a theatre company for actors with learning difficulties.
“Oh my god, the audition was really embarrassing! We had to do this restaurant scene with a difficult customer. I was running out of excuses and ended up throwing chopsticks at him and saying ‘you can use these to eat your pizza’. Then my foot caught on the table leg and I went flying and the table collapsed on top of me. I said ‘you don’t get out of that one, you still have to pay for your dinner’.”
Donna left the audition in tears thinking she’d blown it, but it was probably her improvisational skills that landed her a job with Mind the Gap.
“They rang me that night to offer me a part! I asked them why they wanted me after such a disastrous audition and they said ‘it was a bit of a disaster, but you showed us that you could carry on through it and that’s the most important thing’.”
In her four years with the company, Donna performed on national tours of Cyrano and Of Mice and Men. The director liked her voice and she was often cast as the narrator.
“You get a lot of lines, more than anyone else. That’s what an actor wants but at the end of the day it’s more demanding and you get more tired than everyone else. You need more breaks, but you’re the one who has to keep it flowing. One of the reasons I left was because I’d worked for four years solid and I had no social life, I was absolutely knackered.”
On her last day at Mind the Gap, Donna met Pauline Harris, a director on the look out for a disabled actor to star in a radio drama.
“Somebody had said to me that I should see Donna so I set up an audition,” says Pauline. “I sent her an extract from a play to see how she interpreted it and sight read, and she knocked me out. It was a great reading. I asked her to do some improvisation around some of the ideas we had for the character and she brought life, energy and wit and a quirky dimension to it.”
Pauline goes on to talk about an attempted rape scene in a nightclub toilet in the first series of the Darleen Fyles which she says illustrates why Donna is such a “bloody good actor”.
“We talked about the rawness of it and how to get in touch with those feelings, and then she just did it in the first take.”
Donna’s gift of being able to act harrowing and more mundane scenes with equal aplomb, and the speed with which she learned to play to a TV camera, has convinced Pauline that Donna would be a great addition to Coronation Street.
It’s an opportunity Donna likes the sound of too. But despite her acting prowess and the success of the Darleen Fyles, she is finding it hard to land other roles. Donna says that it’s not because of prejudice, it’s because acting roles are in short supply.
“I keep sending my CV to agents but none of them are taking me on. It’s hard to go to auditions if you don’t know they’re on. If you don’t have an agent you have to pretty much figure it out yourself. But if you don’t know anybody you’re going to miss out. I hope to get more TV work and then I might get somewhere.”
If Donna has her way, she’ll be playing Darleen for a long time to come. But is she keen to play roles where her character is not defined by her disability?
“It doesn’t really matter to me. But my dream role is to be a really bad character who kills her husband or something. I think it would be fun to go home at the end of the day and say ‘I’ve killed someone today or I’ve robbed a bank today!’”
She does rule out any nude scenes because “it gives out the wrong message. I want people to see my shows, not me. I want to be a good role model for disabled people. I want other disabled people to look at me and say ‘she did it, so I’m going to’. I think you have to keep an air of respectability about you.”
As someone who believes that aspiring disabled actors ought to have equal opportunities in the mainstream rather than having to rely on companies like Mind the Gap to get a break, Donna is proud to be doing her bit to promote a positive image of disabled people as actors.
Donna dreams about starring as the first disabled person in a blockbuster movie. So does she think she will be living her dream if we happen to bump into each other in another five years?
“I shall open the gates to my mansion and let you in, I’ll introduce you to my limousine driver and I’ll show you my pool, tennis courts and my home cinema room. That’s the dream but will it happen? Nobody knows. I’ll probably have to go to America to make it on the big screen.”