In-demand actress Katherine Kelly has gone from Coronation Street’s cobbles to a lead role in the gripping drama Liar. But despite being watched by millions, she manages to walk around incognito – and, as she tells Francesca Babb, that’s the way she likes it.
It can be hard to place Katherine Kelly. She’s played barmaids and aristocracy, detectives and jihadis. The list of shows she’s been in is impressive, including Coronation Street, The Night Manager, Mr Selfridge, Gentleman Jack, Class, Cheat, Liar and Criminal. She has a habit of popping up on heartland British TV, ‘and yet I go through life unrecognised,’ she laughs. ‘It takes a long time for people to clock who I am and I can easily roam around without anybody saying anything. I love that – when people know who you are, it restricts the conversation because they think I won’t want to hear about their life. For me, it’s important to be in the real world and have real conversations, even seeing what people drink in the pub, what they’re wearing and talking about. To me, that is interesting.’
Thanks to the variety of characters she’s played in her career, Katherine is able to blend in with the crowd. She was a fan favourite from the moment she walked on to the cobbles of Coronation Street in 2006, as leopard-print loving barmaid Becky McDonald. Having won countless awards, she quit six years later and was determined to take on versatile roles, going on to play posh Lady Mae Loxley in Mr Selfridge. Even now, aside from playing a detective in Netflix’s Criminal and ITV’s Liar, her characters couldn’t be more different.
Katherine has done everything in her power to avoid being typecast, with no desire to take the well-trodden path in any aspect of her life. When I ask her for a word that would sum her up, ‘contrary’ is her amused answer. ‘I’m not interested in playing it safe,’ she says. ‘Failure doesn’t frighten me. You can’t be brilliant if you’re not prepared to fail, so I’ve always tried to keep everything varied, not just whether it’s television or theatre or radio, but also the characters that I play. I love the variety. The things I tend to turn down are the ones that are too similar to something I’ve done before – that aren’t saying anything new or are a little beige. I’d rather have the challenge.’
That would certainly describe her current character, DI Karen Renton in Liar, where she has joined Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd for its second series. The first focused on Joanne’s character Laura Nielson desperately fighting for justice after being date-raped by Ioan’s Andrew Earlham. The second sees her battling to be believed again, but this time over her innocence in his murder. DI Renton is tough, unemotional and has no qualms about posing hard questions to Earlham’s victims in order to try to find the murderer.
I wonder if Katherine found this lack of empathy difficult to navigate. ‘Karen has an innate ability to leave her emotions at the door, and I can’t do that,’ she says, sipping a black coffee and, in her sheer polka-dot blouse and faded denim dungarees, fitting in perfectly among the throngs at London’s trendy Standard Hotel. ‘I would be a terrible police officer. I’d make a far better care worker, putting the kettle on and nurturing someone through it. A lot of characters I play can be quite far away from me, but I enjoy working out how to get there.’
It is thanks to her parents that Katherine is fearless. Born and raised in Barnsley, via a couple of stints in Florida, she is the eldest of four children – two girls and two boys.
‘My mum and dad don’t give a sh*t what anyone thinks about them,’ she laughs. ‘They never did. They’re very grounded; not hippies in any way, but they’ve been real free spirits and it would seem that compared to a lot of my contemporaries, I am quite… I wouldn’t say thick-skinned, I just don’t really care what people think about me. Reviews have never hit me hard. You have to remember, in Barnsley, if people think you’re crap, they’ll come and tell you. They’ll shout it across the street. Of all the people I know, I only value about half of their opinions because we don’t have the same taste, but I do love to know what my nan thinks. When Gentleman Jack came out, she told me how much she’d loved it. She didn’t mention the fact that the show’s central relationship wasn’t a heterosexual one. Who’d have thought?’
It was through her family that Katherine discovered acting. Her parents were in local am-dram groups, her dad the driving force behind the opening of Barnsley’s Lamproom theatre and, as a consequence, Katherine and her younger siblings appeared in productions. It was her dad, whose own career had involved being a nurse, a miner and a radio DJ, who encouraged her to apply for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) after he found a leaflet for drama schools at the job centre.
‘I’d never had an acting lesson before, and there wasn’t the option for drama GCSE at school,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe I got in. But I don’t hold with limitations people put on you: “You were born there, so this is your spectrum of jobs or life expectations.” I felt on the back foot when I arrived [at Rada] – I’d never heard of [method acting pioneer] Stanislavski – but I really enjoyed it. It felt like everybody was there because they wanted to be the best actors they could be, not because they wanted to be famous. Different people from various walks of life. I learned as much from them as I did from the teachers.’
Katherine’s a real people person. She loves hearing their stories, watching how they work. And it’s a trait that can’t hurt when it comes to figuring out the sort of tricky characters she so often plays. ‘I worked with quite a high-maintenance actress recently,’ she says. ‘And another actress said to me, “God, you’re a good babysitter”, but I didn’t see it like that at all. We’d be talking for hours and she didn’t ask me one thing about myself. But I don’t care about that; I don’t want to talk about myself. I’m interested in her and why she is like she is. I never make up my mind about somebody based on someone else’s opinion. I always speak as I find and give people a chance.’
Her friends are an eclectic mix – ‘a running theme with all of them is that they’re very undemanding,’ she laughs – from childhood pals and drama-school buddies to royalty. She’s best friends with Mike Tindall and his wife, Princess Anne’s daughter Zara. ‘Mike lived in my village and we used to ride our BMXs around,’ she says. ‘Then we both moved down South. He was amazing at rugby and I was good at drama and we were both really dedicated, so there would be nights where we would be out at a club til two in the morning with everybody, but we’d be on soft drinks because he’d got a match and I’d got rehearsals the next morning.’
Mike is godfather to Katherine’s eldest daughter Orla and Katherine is godmother to their daughter Lena. It’s probably worth mentioning that Lena’s other godparent is Prince Harry. ‘It’s really touching to be asked, because they have a lot of friends,’ she says modestly. The Queen, Harry and Meghan all attended the christening but royalty is not something that intimidates Katherine. ‘My dad’s Irish, so I don’t come from a royalist background,’ she laughs. ‘And anyone who has ever met Zara will tell you that she is so effortlessly cool and down to earth and ace, she sort of disallows that in a really clever way. I can’t remember a time when Zara wasn’t a part of Mike’s life.’
Katherine married digital analyst Ryan Clark, who she met at a New Year’s Eve party in his native Australia, in Las Vegas in 2013. They live in North London, in Crouch End – picked at random because it was close enough to King’s Cross for her to be able to get the train back to Barnsley and her family whenever she needed – with their two daughters Orla, six, and Rose, three. ‘I love London,’ she says. ‘I’ve lived here as long as I’ve lived in Yorkshire and I realise that, as Yorkshire as I am to my core, I love the melting pot of people and cultures here. It feels as though we’re all mucking in together.’
She also loves motherhood, even though today it meant that her carefully planned morning prior to our interview, with some yoga to help her relax, was instead spent on the phone to Orla’s school, frantically discussing an infected finger. ‘I didn’t think I’d spend as much time at A&E in my life, but with two, it’s like a swinging door,’ she laughs. ‘I look at my watch and think, “Ooh, half seven on a Friday night, now’s quite a good A&E time – let’s go!”’
As for the rest of the fears that raising daughters can bring on, she tries not to think about them. ‘I had a rural childhood, with no other kids around, so my brothers were my best friends,’ she says. ‘We would all go around in my mum’s high heels for half an hour and then we’d go outside to play football. I simply didn’t grow up with gender stereotypes. So, yes, I think about the potential danger zones of bringing up girls, but if I had sons, I would be thinking about the potential danger zones of bringing up sons as well. If you let it, you can really have a good worry for yourself, and I try not to. I try to just deal with what’s in front of me.’
Katherine turned 40 last year – for most people, the perfect opportunity to throw a massive party: for her, the absolute opposite. ‘I just didn’t feel like it, to be honest,’ she says. ‘I’d been to a couple of really fabulous 40ths the year before that were more like weddings, and I felt a bit partied out. And, I don’t really hold with the numbers thing. I won’t do it just because some external body says, “It’s your 40th, you should celebrate”. Plus, my kids are so little and they’ve never been great sleepers – they’re an absolute joy to me, but if you’ve got a headache and a hangover, the morning after is the longest day that you’ve ever had.’
As for the actual ageing part, Katherine is pretty happy where she’s at. Her roles have never been better or, importantly for her, more varied, and with Orla in school, and Rose in nursery, her time is more manageable. ‘I’ve got a much better work balance than I had ten years ago,’ she says. ‘I’ve felt older in the past than I feel now, and I’ve certainly looked older: not enough sleep and a bit too much going on, probably a bit underweight. I look back at pictures of me four years ago, and I just think, “God, you look absolutely exhausted. You look 45.”’
But that’s the thing with Katherine Kelly –she can look any age and she can act like anyone. She’s a chameleon. It’s what makes her brilliant at what she does and if she carries on picking those roles the way she has so far, it’s what will help her keep her anonymity, which is just the way she likes it.
The many faces of Katherine Kelly
She’s the chameleon queen of primetime TV
2006-2012 Her turn as leopard-print-loving barmaid Becky McDonald in Coronation Street won Katherine multiple awards
2013 After leaving Corrie she returned to the small screen playing aristo Lady Mae Loxley in the historical drama Mr Selfridge
2016 Joining the cast of BBC’s Happy Valley in her first detective inspector role, playing Jodie Shackleton
2016 Katherine popped up in BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel The Night Manager
2016 Starring in Dr Who spinoff series Class as physics teacher (and secret alien) Miss Andrea Quill
2019 In tense thriller Cheat about a dangerous relationship between Katherine’s university professor and her student (Molly Windsor)
2019 Playing Elizabeth Sutherland in Gentleman Jack with co-star and on-screen husband Derek Riddell
2019 As detective inspector Natalie Hobbs, with co-star Lee Ingleby, in hard-hitting Netflix series Criminal
2020 Her latest role is tough cop Karen Renton who leads the murder investigation in series two of ITV’s Liar
The new season of Liar continues on Monday at 9pm on ITV