|We’ve done interviews in some fancy locations in our time. Today isn’t one of them. We’re on an industrial estate in deepest Surrey, home to the studios of TV crime show of the moment Law & Order: UK, and we’re here to meet Freema Agyeman, the Doctor Who gal turned legal eagle, who has swapped daleks for the dock. She’s also traded in Martha’s purple leather jacket for the slick pencil skirts and stylish-but-sensible blouses of her latest incarnation, lawyer Alesha Phillips.|
Freema is in costume and despite the city heels, she is the teeniest, most petite person we have ever clapped eyes on (she has size 2 feet and very wee hands). Famous people are always smaller than they look on the telly (don’t ask us why), but, seriously, Freema makes Kylie look like Mike Tyson.
We leave the actress’s also-tiny trailer (no Hollywood Winnebagos in Chertsey, folks) for a tour of the set, including a very dark and deserted court room (Bradley Walsh and co are currently filming over in the police station, while Freema isn’t needed until the last scene of the day). The actress is loving it on Law & Order and very giddy over the spectacular viewing figures – 6 million are tuning in each week.
‘Because it’s a new show, we all feel protective over it, like it’s our baby. With Doctor Who, the train was already steaming ahead and I was just jumping aboard whereas, with this, I have a different kind of pressure. I didn’t know how it was going to go, but it’s doing really well. It could have been the most miserable end to filming but we’re all on a complete high.’
Doctor Who, of course, propelled Freema in to the kind of overnight celebrity every fame-hungry wannabe would chop off more than one Fake Baked limb for. And, if rumours are to be believed, the actress will be returning to the show for David Tennant’s final episodes.
‘I don’t know where all that came from. Nothing is confirmed, but with that show, the door is always open. I have a great relationship with Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies – he texted me on Monday saying he loves Law & Order. It will happen, but whether it’s for the specials or in 10 years’ time I don’t know.’
And she’s excited about the new Doctor, Matt Smith. ‘He’s got a great look. He seems so grounded and excited about the whole thing, and he’s got this quirkiness about him, but also seems wise. He’s got an old head on young shoulders. I can’t wait to see what he can do.’
Freema, who turns 30 later this month, had her life transformed instantaneously when she was announced as David Tennant’s right hand woman. ‘Before I did the part, I had a meeting with the producers with my mum and my sister. They said they’d called us all in because all our lives were going to change overnight. My boyfriend quickly had to get used to people stopping me and wanting to have a chat. He’s not in the business, he didn’t know what to say, they don’t know who he is, so he’d walk on a few steps and then come back. Now he goes, “I’ll just be over there”. We’ve worked out a little system.’
Freema’s boyfriend James couldn’t be further removed from showbiz – he’s an estate agent, in fact – and, thus, has played his part in keeping Freema’s size 2s firmly on the ground.
‘James is really supportive and having him around reminds me of how fantastic it all is. If I start to treat it like it’s a day job or just work, I go home and I have him squealing with excitement that I’m in a magazine or that he just heard me on the radio. He and my family keep everything in perspective for me,’ she says. ‘I’d just got together with my boyfriend before it all
happened and I’d moved into that phase of my life where we’d moved in together and relished nights in. He’s a good cook and I’ll get the DVDs in. I was already getting to that point, so when this all blew, I wasn’t seduced by the celebrity lifestyle. It’s like “this is my life” and “this is work”. If it had happened when I was younger, I might have lost my way.’
That’s not to say she doesn’t like the odd turn on the red carpet, the place where she really realised the true extent of her overnight fame. ‘I’m not very glamorous. But I have access to people who are,’ she laughs. ‘I realise image is a massive part of the industry, and I’m finding a new appreciation for getting glammed up and the red carpet. The first one I did was the MOBOs, when I’d just started filming Doctor Who, and no one had any idea who I was. I could hear the photographers going “Who is that? No idea”. I was laughing to myself because no one had a clue. And then I went to the BAFTAs after we’d aired and the difference was incredible. It threw me because I was just expecting to totter inside and it took ages. My name was being shouted all over the place from photographers and Who fans. I love it, I really do.’
Aside from Doctor Who, Law & Order: UK and tottering down the red carpet in a fancy frock, Freema also dabbled in a spot of corset-wearing in the period drama Little Dorrit last year.
This was another landmark moment in TV for the actress who was not only the first black Doctor Who girl, but a black girl in a period drama who wasn’t a servant. ‘I never entertained getting a Dickens part. I thought, “What are the odds of me getting a part in this, that isn’t me in the kitchen?” It just took imagination, and if you’re going to transfer a classic to the screen, it takes a lot of adaptation to do it, so it was just taken that little bit further, without dramatically changing the story,’ she says. ‘Dickens was really liberating – and constricting at the same time because of the corset, of course – but liberating in the sense you’re covered from your neck to your ankles and no make-up at all – we were on high definition so you’d have been able to see powder and everything. It was nice not to worry about how I looked and just focus on my acting.’ So surely to goodness Hollywood is next? ‘I don’t know, that’s the ultimate, but the reality is, I don’t think it’s that easy. I can’t see myself going out there and just giving it a go. My career here is going so well and I have major opportunities, so it’ll be the work that guides me. It would be slightly unwise to knock all that on the head,’ she says.
Hollywood or not, Freema will never be lost to fame or take it all for granted. In fact she still hasn’t quite got to grips with the fact that she actually is famous. ‘I’ll be doing my everyday things and not have my work head on. And people look at me and I’m like, “What are they staring at? Oh... ”’ she laughs. ‘Some weeks I’m pottering about like I did three years ago, others I don’t recognise my life.’ And with that she goes back to her tiny trailer to read her lines and wait patiently for her next big moment. Of which we can only imagine there will be many, many more...
The moment I realised I was famous…
Was when we did a Doctor Who box-set signing in HMV – I’m under no illusions 80% of that crowd were there for David, but you stand and look out at this sea of people. They’re very devoted, a group of them still follow me around. I was going to go to a convention but it clashed with filming Torchwood. I went to a Star Trek convention, dressed up as this character called Dax, so I’d no way turn my nose up at a Doctor Who convention.
The strangest place I’ve been recognised is…
In the gym. I was getting changed and someone came up and started talking to me. I’m like, ‘Do I pull my towel back up or carry on moisturising or what?’ Sometimes I don’t get recognised at all – the first thing people say to me is ‘You don’t look the same in real life’. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not. Certain days I’ll get stopped 10 times, others none at all, I think it depends how I’m dressed and if I’ve got make-up on.
How Freema keeps in shape…
• I used to be absolutely addicted to the gym and I do still love it. At my best, I go about four times a week. I go with my sister and I love the whole steaming afterwards and then we go to get something to eat, make an event of it.
• I always have to have breakfast before I leave the house, even if it’s 4am and I’m not hungry. It’s just a way to take 10 minutes to wake up, so I’ll have my little bowl of cereal. When I get in to work I have poached eggs on toast, which they lovingly prepare for me. I have a big lunch – today, I had cheese and red onion quiche with potato wedges and salad. I eat little and often in the morning but I need a big lunch to see me through the afternoon, and then I don’t need to pick when they bring sandwiches and cakes around. When I get home I have a lovely glass of wine and something light like hummus and bread, or soup. I couldn’t sustain myself if I skimped on food – I work 16-hour days, I need the energy, I can’t afford to be stingy on what I eat.
• Law & Order: UK is on ITV1, Monday, 9pm