INTERVIEW — Kara Tointon

Kara Tointon
(photo courtesy: ITV/Ovation TV)
Kara Tointon is a familiar face across the Pond, but here in America, she is just starting to make her mark. With the help of Ovation TV’s “The Halcyon,” she should soon become a household name. The British series, which is produced by Chris Croucher, who also produced “Downton Abbey,” airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on Ovation. And while the show is similar to “Downton” — it’s been called “Downton Abbey” in a five-star hotel — the fact that it’s a British period piece during wartime is where the similarities end. Recently I spoke with Kara, who plays the seductive and sassy songstress Betsey Day, and she gave me the inside scoop about the series.

Celebrity Extra: Can you give me a bit of background about yourself? How did you get your start in acting?

Kara Tointon: I’ve been acting since I was about 11 years old. My parents wanted me to have an outlet to get my confidence up other than through school means because I didn’t always find school and academia so easy when it came to reading and writing. So I did lots of speech and drama festivals. I really enjoyed public speaking. That’s what sort of got me into acting.

And when I joined the agency at the age of 11 — a young age, it seems — I just auditioned around, and I did lots of ads for different TV shows in the U.K. That was my introduction into doing this sort of job. I took it more seriously when I got 16. I did a show called “Teachers,” which is a British comedy (which also starred Andrew Lincoln of “The Walking Dead” fame). I guess that’s when I decided that I would take it more seriously. And I decided to make this my career.

CE: You’ve done your fair share of British television, most notably “EastEnders,” which seems to be a rite of passage for most British actors.

KT: It’s really funny because when we in the U.K. watch American shows; they look so beautifully done, and I guess it’s quite funny because our equivalent is “EastEnders,” which is very gray and quite depressing. I was actually an extra on the show when I was about 12 years old. And then I ended up going into it as a character when I was 21. I think it’s maybe different in the States, but in the U.K., when you’re on a show, sometimes it can be a great thing, but people get to know you as that character. I went into acting basically because I enjoy playing different characters. I would say I’m more of a character actor; I enjoy different personalities and accents. So that was interesting to be in one place with “EastEnders” for four years. And at the same time, it was really nice to feel part of a team. I do enjoy that kind of teamwork. And then I was ready to do other things, like theater. I feel like I’ve learned more through my time doing theater work than I have in the whole of my career — having an audience and doing the voice work. When you then come back to filming again, you realize the strength that you’ve built up from doing live theater.

CE: You’re in rehearsals now for a play, right?

KT: Yes, I’m rehearsing for “RSC Live: Twelfth Night.”

CE: I love that play — it’s so much fun to read and to watch performed.

KT: So I think as well. It’s a really good one.

CE: And you starred in “Pygmalion” on the West End with Rupert Everett and Diana Rigg.

KT: That was a great job, actually. And Rupert, he’s very funny and charismatic. He’s a bit romantic that you just want to be with him and listen to what he has to say. There’s never a dull moment. And that was such a great female role. A dream job, actually.

Cast of The Halcyon
(photo courtesy ITV/Ovation TV)
CE: Tell me your impressions of “The Halcyon” when you first read the script.

KT: I got sort of caught up in it very quickly because you could see that this was going to be a very atmospheric, fast-paced series. And they said that music was going to absolutely be at the heart of this show. And that can sometimes be difficult logistically when you’re trying to film and always have music in the background, especially when the scene is performance-based. But they managed it really well.

I just loved all the characters, and I just felt that it was something that could go anywhere. They introduce the characters really well. And for me, it’s funny, but in the first couple of episodes, I don’t have very much, but you understand what each character is about and their part within the realm of the hotel. And because the backdrop is a hotel, it gives you so much scope because you’ve got the upstairs-downstairs aspect, but you can peer behind those closed doors. It’s just a wonderful idea for a show.

CE: Tell me about your character, Betsey.

KT: I’d describe Betsey as a complete alley cat. She’s very streetwise. She hasn’t had the easiest upbringing. But she thinks the best of herself. And she’s not scared to say that as it is. I love to play a character like that. It’s so enjoyable. Because most of the time, you’d love to be like that in your own life. It’s a lot of fun. And she has a voice and she sort of banks on being sexy. She’s not actually sexy; I think she’s a tomboy. But she’s found by Sonny Sullivan, who’s the bandleader of the hotel’s band, and it’s given her a place and she’s found her feet in this hotel. And she’s having the time of her life.

CE: There are hints early on that she hasn’t had the best parental role models in her life. How does her mom play into that? And how does this translate to her relationship with Sonny?

KT: When her mother turns up, you get the gist that she has a difficult relationship there with her. And her mother sort of flutters in and out of her life. And we see a nice development with Sonny and Betsey because of this in that he’s the first male who she can depend on. He has become a true rock in her life, and she’s never quite had a relationship with a man like that before. So we see where that develops and that strong friendship that they have, along with their love of music together. It works really well.

CE: Can you give me a little historical background of how and when the series begins?

KT: Absolutely. When we pick up the series, the Second World War hasn’t started yet, or England hasn’t officially entered the war. So at this point, people aren’t feeling quite so scared yet; for a long time, when the sirens would go off, I didn’t realize, but there wasn’t a sense of urgency because they didn’t think it was coming. They didn’t believe it was happening until that first time that bombs do start landing, and it shakes everyone up. And then life changes. So it’s kind of nice to see that buildup of what’s happening before the bombing raids and then when it actually becomes a reality. It really does kick things off for all the characters.

CE: Just the opening scene — which is actually the penultimate scene from the last episode, but we get a glimpse of what is to come as the series then flashes back to “Six Months Earlier” — they don’t quite take the sirens seriously until a bomb blasts through the lobby of the hotel.

KT: We filmed that scene last, actually, which is quite strange, isn’t it? When you do a whole series and that’s the beginning. And that final scene I think is my favorite scene of the whole series. It was quite special because I got to sing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which is one of my favorite songs.

CE: I really like the relationship between Betsey and Emma. There is a real love there; it’s not women trying to backstab each other.

KT: Yes, it’s really nice because she’s a bit older than Emma, but she really cares about her. She says it straight. She can see that Emma hasn’t had an easy time growing up — you know, she lost her mom. But Betsey has a real empathy for Emma, and she wants the best for her. Which is really true friendship there.

CE: I have read that it’s been described as “Downton Abbey” set in a five-star hotel, but aside from being a British period piece set in wartime, for me that’s where the similarities end. “The Halcyon” truly is its own show.

KT: It’s such a compliment to have a comparison to anything that’s been so successful like “Downton Abbey.” I can see the similarity because you’ve got the upstairs-downstairs element, but it’s a completely different backdrop of the hotel and storyline-wise and character-wise. The best way to watch anything is just to go in completely fresh-eyed, and just take it for what it is; you’ll get the best outcome when you do that. It’s a really warm show with a great heart, and it’s fun to get carried up by the journey.

CE: What was life like on the set?

KT: As a set, it was probably the most elaborate set I’ve ever seen. And I got to see it from the beginning stages where it looked nothing so opulent as was the outcome. There’s just a warmth about it, because we all know the Second World War so well — not the stories behind the facts, but rather the facts of it and what ultimately happened. What’s interesting is that when one is put in those scenarios, where you’re living on the edge, you just live for the moment. And I think that really resonated with me that when you’re living like that, things actually develop quickly, especially with relationships and with your friendships. And you appreciate so much more because you don’t know how long you’ve got to enjoy it.

And that electricity — I remember the atmosphere being on set. It was just delighting in the colors and everything. There’s something about that time, as awful as it was, that was electric and beautiful. You have this music influence and people just wanting to have fun because life was pretty hard. There was a lot of love, and often good things can sometimes come from bad times.

I just remember being in love with the atmosphere. It was a great cast and crew, and everyone enjoyed being at work. It was great, great fun, the most enjoyable thing I’ve done. I was getting to wear these beautiful outfits, and the people were acting as if I were Rita Hayworth or something. It was a fun part for me especially.

CE: What can viewers look forward to as they begin watching “The Halcyon”?

KT: The show is heartwarming, fast and furious. We can look forward to love triangles, and the trials and tribulations of people who are in different societal classes, and what the war would bring. There’s going to be gut-wrenching moments, but all with great music and upbeat fun. There’s just some really great characters too, my favorite being Lady Hamilton. I’m just really excited to see everyone’s development throughout.

(It was recently announced that the show had not been picked up for a second season, however, Chris Croucher is shopping it around to other networks. If you like what you see, please make your voice heard to help bring this phenomenal series back for another season.)

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