So familiar is her face that meeting Michelle Collins is rather like bumping into an old friend. The 55-year-old actress has graced TV screens in sitting rooms the length and breadth of the country for years thanks to roles such as Walford’s scheming Cindy Beale in EastEnders, Stella Price in Corrie and Abby Wallace in Two Thousand Acres of Sky to name but three.
But she’s much more than a TV actress as stage roles in Calendar Girls, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and most recently Mrs Meers in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie attest. Indeed she started her acting career at The Cockpit Youth Theatre in Marylebone when she was in her early teens so the stage is very much her home.
And to prove the point - and that she’s long since left soapdom behind - she’s now starring in A Dark Night In Dalston, a gritty two-hander at the Park Theatre in a role she tells me that was specially written for her and that she is also producing.
Wearing a smart black suit and with her blonde hair tied back which shows off her amazing cheek bones, she oozes glamour, and greets me with that warm and familiar smile.
She’s also refreshingly down to earth and full of energy and joie de vivre.
Indeed she’s keen to tell me about the production, written by Stewart Permutt, in which she plays a woman called Gina. It takes place on one Friday night where just outside Gina’s flat, a young Jewish man, Gideon, is attacked. She decides to help him and offers him shelter.
As the play progresses, and we find out more about the two characters, it’s clear that Gina is not the woman you first think she is and nor is her life exactly as she describes it. But it’s not just Gina, as Gideon too goes on his own journey of self discovery.
Darkly funny it is also intense, poignant and sad with an ending that hits you between the eyes.
I suggest that it’s quite an honour to have a part written for you, and take the lion’s share of the lines. However Michelle says her involvement in it was really driven by her desire to find a “meaty and challenging leading role” given the dearth of such parts once women actors hit their 40s.
“I had wanted to do something like this for a while and had spent time researching writers before a friend recommended Stewart,” she smiles.
“We met and I told him I wanted something challenging and interesting and he went away and came up with this.
“I’m really excited about it because it’s a real character led play with a great script that touches on themes such as mental health and how areas change.
“Gina is such a great role - she’s a complex character as she’s not all that she seems. She’s an older woman who doesn’t have a career and is living in an area that is changing massively. And although she’s someone who isn’t mentally ill, her situation, where she’s given up a life to care for her husband, has made her vulnerable.
“She’s lost in society and finds it hard to fit in thanks to the gentrification that is going on around her which has resulted in different communities coming in.
“Despite the fact she doesn’t really have a lot going for her, she does see the bright side of life so when she sees Gideon being attacked her natural instinct is to reach out and help,” she adds.
“Him coming into her life questions things for her and gives her a new start. It also makes Gideon question his own faith.
“She also really enjoys his company and as the play progresses we realise they are essentially two lonely people who meet and change each other’s lives.
“It’s been great to take on this role - it’s very intense and I loved the script although it’s tough because there are just the two of us on stage. I’m really excited about it.”
It’s clear during our chat that Michelle’s work ethic is strong. She grew up in Hackney and although she says she wasn’t sure how she could act for a living she was determined it was what she wanted to do.
“I loved drama and English at school and went to youth theatre as a teenager and that was it,” she smiles.
“I say to a lot of young people who want to break into acting to go along and get involved in their local youth theatre. It’s a very good way of getting into it.
“I didn’t go to stage school though as we couldn’t afford it - it’s worse now and I worry that it’s becoming even more unaffordable for a lot of talented young people which isn’t great.
“But I always wanted to be an actor and had a hunger for it so I just didn’t give up.”
It was her drive and determination that she says enabled her to not only forge a career as an actor but also helped her survive what is a notoriously difficult industry.
And it is this drive that she says prompted her to tackle the issue of the lack of strong female leads head on.
“It’s so obvious there is a lack of lead roles for actresses my age in both theatre and TV,” she says.
“There is also unfortunately a lot of snobbery in this profession where a lot of people think TV actors can’t do theatre. I have never auditioned at the National Theatre or Donmar for example - not because I don’t want to, I’d love to!
“So, I felt that if it wasn’t going to come to me I would create something for me instead which is why this play came about.
“Besides, I think it’s great to be versatile - I love variety and also I get bored quite easily so I have tried to do everything - including musicals even though I’m not a trained singer!
“But I love theatre, it’s much harder and more demanding and you have to be fit and very focused.”
This love of variety has now led Michelle to taking on the role of co-producer, something she made a conscious decision to tackle.
“I’m getting my head around it but I do like a challenge,” she laughs. “I’m lucky in that we have a great team for this production and we get on really well so I’m really excited about it.
“I don’t do bucket lists as a rule but this was something I really wanted to do and prove I could. And at least I can say I’ve tried!”
A Dark Night In Dalston is on at the Park Theatre between March 7 and April 1. Tickets cost £18. Visit www.parktheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7870 6876 for full listings.