Caroline O'Hara: the Coronation Street star on her acting journey and championing Burnley Empire Theatre
From the girl finding her feet at Basics Junior Theatre School, this Burnley woman has transformed into a star of several hit BBC and ITV shows.
Caroline O’Hara’s dream exploded into life when she was cast in her first play at 14-years-old. It was Len Taylor, a veteran director for Rossendale Players, who catapulted her down that path, making her the leading lady in The Diary of Anne Frank.
Commenting on the influence that growing up in the North-West had on her ambitions, she said: “It was when I saw West Side Story in Manchester that I realised how special theatre is.
“I also loved the camaraderie of Basics and met some wonderful people. I don’t think I’d have become an actor if the group hadn’t existed or if I hadn’t performed as Anne with the Rossendale Players. It was a challenge but I knew it was what I wanted to do for a career.”
Acting wasn’t her only love as a child. At first, Caroline, a former pupil of Habergham High School, was drawn to buildings and dreamed of becoming an architect.
It’s just one more reason why she couldn’t turn down the chance to help save Burnley’s Empire Theatre from demolition.
“We are so lucky as people in a small town to have such an incredible building,” she added.
“So many people are going to be proud when it is finished being restored.
“The only other venue built by the same 19th Century architect is in Shaftesbury Avenue in London. That makes it so special. And with Burnley drawing in more students, the future of the Empire is exciting.”
It will bring endless gifts to the town, she added, offering something for everyone, from students to the elderly.
In fact, a new wave of people could be inspired to take up acting. And, as Caroline knows, an actor’s world isn’t just about ITV, Hollywood and the West End.
Performance can offer an escape from the stresses of every day life. It can also be emotionally and intellectually nourishing for amateurs and professionals alike - as well as audiences.
“I’ve always found people fascinating and I remember copying people at just five-years-old,” she said.
“I feel more comfortable when I’m in a character. It’s like I’m in a bubble. I feel safe encased in another person, learning about why they do what they do.
“You also learn about both the world and history through stories. It’s a different kind of learning to reading facts.”
Caroline’s first TV role came at age 14 when she starred alongside David Morrissey in Out of the Blue.
At 18, university called, and she landed a place at The Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, one of Britain’s top drama schools, whose alumni includes Minnie Driver.
But the road to her dream career wasn’t without its obstacles..
“It was a huge wake-up call when I left drama school and realised no-one cared about that,” Caroline said.
Despite this, her talent shone through, securing her a part in London in some of Britain’s best-loved TV dramas, including The Bill, Casualty, Emmerdale and Coronation Street.
And then there is the series of Warburtons advert in which she starred alongside Peter Kay, The Muppets and Hollywood megastar Sylvester Stallone.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said.
“The Muppets stay in character all the time and I had a full conversation with Kermit The Frog. Kermit forgot his lines once and was rather embarrassed.
“And Sweetums, who is a huge Muppet who towers above everyone, threatened to eat me when I accidentally stood on his foot.
“And Sylvester Stallone is a very sweet, generous man, as are all actors who are at the top of their game.”
Caroline then toured for a year with an American theatre company, starting in New York and finishing in Los Angeles.
“It’s always the character which draws me to a project. Next I would like to work with Mike Leigh, Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott, who are the greatest storytellers. And my Holy Grail of jobs is working with David Fincher. I gave him my showreel last year, but he hasn't called yet. He's probably just busy.
“I started acting because I love dramas which push actors to their extremes. I always want to know what motivates characters to act. I hope in the future people will consider me to be a character actor.”
It’s one of the reasons she looks up to Oldham’s Sarah Lancashire, better known as Catherine Cawood in BBC One crime drama, Happy Valley.
“I love her as she’s an incredible actress. I’m always blown away by her. Whenever she’s in something, the audience love it,” Caroline said.
These days, life is jam-packed. Last Tuesday, Caroline appeared as a CEO who is raped in an episode of BBC One’s Doctors called The Little Black Dress. It is now available on BBC Iplayer.
And over Christmas she played a mum in BBC One’s moving film, Wonderland, about a family struggling with the pressures of modern life.
She said: “There were so many mums who wrote in to say the show had made them feel guilty because they don’t get a lot of time to spend with their kids.
“The mother’s role in society is the most vital. Mums always feel guilty but they should be proud of themselves. It’s sad how unappreciated they feel.
“The year before, the BBC did a similar show from a father’s point of view - he didn’t have much chance to spend time with his daughter. Hardly any men wrote in about that.
“I think mums need more support. They feel like they can’t talk about their feelings - it makes them feel like failures.”
Perhaps the importance of expressing oneself is behind Caroline’s drive to push herself as a storyteller. Last year in LA, for example, she began writing a TV series.
“I found myself living alone in an apartment in the Hollywood Hills. It was really difficult to get anywhere so I started to write. It was an amazing experience. I think we all have stories inside us.
“I think everyone should tell their own story.”
And, she added: “I really like being sat alone in a room, letting characters come alive, without always being aware of what they’re going to do next.”
Caroline is now back in LA, auditioning for shows during pilot season and working with The Groundlings, a theatre company specialising in improvisational comedy. Among its alumni are Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell.
Having made a name for herself as someone who isn’t afraid to take on a wide variety of emotionally challenging roles which highlight vital issues, the realm of comedy offers exciting new territory. And Caroline is aware of just how much light comedy brings to the world.
“If someone can make me laugh, I’m drawn to them,” she said. “I watched a documentary recently about laughter. All the great philosophers studied laughter and it seems there is no reason for humans to laugh other than social connection. We have to eat, and breathe, and sleep, but laughter doesn’t have a purpose other than fun. Even rats laugh.”