April Pearson

Like most aspiring actors, April Pearson has had to wait a long time for her big break. She'd been acting in the theatre for 14 years before she got her big break on TV, starring as 17-year-old Michelle in E4's new flagship drama Skins. Yet this is not another case of a thirtysomething being (mis-) cast as a teenager. Instead, the producers (the team behind Shameless) have been scrupulous about only casting teenagers in the lead roles. Teens playing teens: What a novelty!

This can only mean that Pearson started acting practically the moment she was conceived. She laughingly acknowledges that she first joined a drama group at the absurdly tiny age of three. Whether it's experience or just natural talent, her time in amateur dramatics has served her well, if her mature and funny performance as the sexually precocious but vulnerable teenager Michelle is anything to go by.

Ahead of the launch of Skins, she talks about her experiences filming her first TV show, why Skins is just what young adults have been waiting for, and what it's like to stick your tongue down the throat of a perfect stranger.

So how on earth did you end up joining a theatre group at the age of three?
[Laughs] There was a new drama group starting up in Bristol, and I was one of the founder members, and I've just kind of stuck with it ever since. Obviously I've never done TV before, but I've done lots of plays at school and with my drama group.

How does a three-year-old decide they want to get into theatre?
My mum was friends with one of my three-year-old friends' mums, and she wanted to set up a drama group for young children, so I got into it through my mum, really. I think it was a kind of outlet for my childish energy.

So did you have any idea what acting in front of the cameras would be like?
Not at all. I didn't know the names for any of the jobs on set like the gaffer or the grip or whatever, or how it all worked or anything. Both my parents had worked in TV at some point, and my dad still does, on Casualty. But I'm pretty experienced at getting on stage and not being nervous, and at adopting a role.

So how did you end up landing the role of Michelle?
The casting director came to my school, and I got my first audition there. She was looking around Bristol schools for possible cast members, and my drama teacher said I should have a go, so I spoke to the casting director, and went for another couple of auditions, and got the part.

It must have been a thrilling thing to find out. How did you hear?
Hannah [Murray, who plays Cassie] and I were the first to find out that we'd got the parts, and it was really weird. I hadn't expected it at all. But obviously the producers thought I was right for the part, so it was an incredible shock as much as anything.

Do you want to go on and make a career as an actor?
I always have, yeah. I didn't know I'd start so young. I thought I'd go through the drama school route, and learn more about the profession. I think I'm incredibly lucky to have started my chosen career so young.

There are a lot of teen dramas out there. Why should people watch Skins?
I think it's the show that teenagers have been waiting for. It's not coy, it's not got any boundaries, everything is in it. It's not been created to suit or please parents, it's been created for 16-24-year-olds to watch, and I think that's very important. And it's written by young people and starring young people. If you're a 40-year-old, you might not be quite as in touch with the language and the culture of teenagers. And it was great, as well, that we were allowed to change lines if we didn't think they sounded right. When we got on set, they were perfectly happy to listen to us and to see what we could come up with.

What sort of a character do you play?
Michelle is 17, she's friends with the rest of the gang, she goes out with Tony, who is the love of her life, and is almost a trophy husband, in a way. She's got the hottest guy in school and she's not going to let him go, even if she knows that he's not always the nicest of guys. She's got a pretty rough life at home, her mother's been married seven times in the last three years, and she doesn't get much attention from her, so she seeks that from boys by wearing short skirts and low-cut tops.

Is it embarrassing to play a character who flaunts her sexuality so much, or can you just play up to it and enjoy it?
It's not something that I would do, but it's quite a fun role to play. It gives me the chance to be the outgoing, confident girl that I'm not necessarily always like in my own life. At times you think 'Oh God, I've been standing on this street for four hours now in a tiny skirt, what am I doing?' But basically it's cool, I like it.

So there's not much of you in the character?
I think in any character you have to bring a certain element of yourself, but I like to think that we do things differently. She's not really bothered about what she does at school, she's more interested in going out, and what she looks like. I hope I'm not quite that superficial.

Is Skins an accurate portrayal of teenage life?
I think it's accurate to the extent that it shows what kind of things go on in teenagers' lives, but I think it exaggerates it for the purposes of comedy and entertainment for young people. It's not all about 'this is what teenagers do, it's very bad'; it's more 'this is what teenagers do, let's make it funny'. This is a teenage show, and at the end of the day the whole point of it is to be entertaining. If it was a documentary, then maybe it would be different, but it's suppose to be light-hearted and funny. It doesn't directly revolve around drugs and sex anyway, it's just a part of what they do. Teenagers don't always want to watch something and be bombarded with 'you mustn't do this, you mustn't do that' - besides, that'll probably make them rebel and want to do it more.

A lot of your scenes are with Nicholas Hoult [Hugh Grant's co-star in About a Boy]. Was he quite helpful with all of his experience in front of the camera?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, half the time I forgot that Nick was more experienced than we were, because he's so normal and friendly. But he always seemed to know what was coming next, which made me feel more relaxed. My first scene was with him, and he knew all the jargon that the director would say, and it was part of his everyday life. So that kind of relaxed me, made it all a bit less scary.

What was it like having to film the more intimate snogging scenes with him?
Was it embarrassing?
The first few times it was quite tough, because obviously you're thrown together in this situation, I'd never met him before, and one of the first things we were asked to do was stick our tongues down each others' throats. But after a while we got to know each other and became friends, and it was much easier. It's odd, but when he's Tony and I'm Michelle, it's just supposed to happen.

When the show transmits, will you watch it with family members?
Well, I know that my parents have definitely been aware of what's going on - throughout the whole process they've known about the show's content, so I don't think I'd be too embarrassed in front of them. They know what to expect. But grandparents? I think I'd sit there cringing, thinking 'Oh God, please fall asleep.' But it's really not designed for my grandparents, they're not the target audience, so they'll probably think it's outrageous.

Was it fun to be filming with people the same age from Bristol?
Yeah, it's been great. None of us really knew each other, but we were all thrown together and we get on really well. In fact, it's weird that we haven't seen each other for the last week! When everything's finished, I'm sure we'd miss each other loads if we didn't see each other.

What was the experience of filming like? Was it everything you'd hoped it would be?
It's true what everyone says - it's not as glamorous as you think it is. But the weirdest thing, for me, was the first day we were filming, it was pouring with rain, and I was standing in a field, and someone came up to me and held an umbrella over my head. That was very strange - I felt like I was being treated like a star!

Skins begins on E4 on Thursday 25th January at 10pm.

By Benjie Goodhart

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