Friday, 27 February 2015

13 Questions with...Gemma Oaten

Gemma Oaten: Plant the SEED to getting your life back!

An extremely talented actress (and very beautiful, might I add!) with a successful and promising career, currently featuring on ITV's Emmerdale as Rachel Breckle, but her journey to the woman is she is today has not been easy. Gemma Oaten has revealed that she has, in the past, suffered from a severe eating disorder. It was a challenging experience but she has battled the illness and is now involved in her mum's charity, SEED, which helps and guides those currently struggling with an eating disorder. To raise awareness as part of her Eating Disorders Awareness Week press campaign, I got the chance to speak to Gemma Oaten about acting, Emmerdale and most importantly, how she bravely overcame her eating disorder. It's time to plant the seed to an eating-disorder-free life.

1. How did it feel bringing Rachel Breckle back to Emmerdale this year?
Gemma: It's been amazing. I'm very tired because I live in London so I do a lot of commuting. I think East Coast trains, they're pretty used to seeing my face now! (Laughs) But, you know, it's fantastic and I've missed everyone dearly. It's really nice to sort of come back and just pick up where I left off, really. 

2. You're a very hardworking actress and you were awarded the role of Rachel quite early on in your career. How did it feel getting the role?
Gemma: Yeah! Way back when! The most surreal, amazing, wonderful day of my life. I'm from Hull and I grew up watching Emmerdale and Corrie - predominantly Emmerdale, being the Yorkshire soap...nothing against Lancashire folk cos my boyfriend's from Lancashire so I've gotta be careful! It was just like, one of those surreal moments! I always remember watching Emmerdale as a kid and thinking "I've gotta do that! That's like the dream job!" So when I got the call to say I'd got it, I was in a little flat living off nothing in a little bedsit and then the call came! The next day I was going to have a costume fitting, so it was the best call. Probably one of the best in my life, yeah. 

3. Have you filmed Casualty yet? 
Gemma: Yeah! It's all filmed, it's so far ahead. It doesn't come out 'til March 28th, I believe. And I filmed it in [the] end of October. So, yeah, there is a big sort of gap in between but I loved it. I was working with a director who actually taught me at drama school so that was even more satisfying, because it sort of felt like I really...I know it sounds silly because I've done Emmerdale and Doctors...but I felt like I'd really made it then cos I'd made Joe [the director] proud, you know, by getting this role and she was directing me now at a professional capacity rather than at drama school. 
Me: I hear you play a drug that right?
Gemma: Yeah! Heroin addict! Oh my God! Mum was like "Oh, for God's sake Gemma, can you not get something happier?" In Doctors I played this girl who burnt down the pub and Rachel, she's had a bit much, hasn't she? And then I get a heroin addict! 

4. So let's move on to speaking about your support for your parents' charity, SEED. Please tell us about the charity and what it aims to achieve.
Gemma: Well, it was sort of born out of our struggles and frustrations when I was younger and developed anorexia at the age of 10. So bearing in mind back then that would've been 1994, because I'm 30 now, things were very different. There wasn't any real support services. I went to the doctor and was told I wasn't thin enough to be anorexic which was just sort of unbelievable because my parents were saying "yeah, but she's losing weight, she's not happy and she's not eating. What more do you need?" Then, as a family, as I went through therapy. I got put in a psychiatric adolescent unit and that was just unbearable. My family weren't supported and we had to go through hell and back at these horrible family therapy sessions, with somebody ripping my family apart, insinuating all sorts. My mum being the woman that she is and being quite determined was just like "no, this is not happening to another family". So her and dad sort of started a little helpline in our front room in Hull! Predominantly for carers; so people like the families, friends. You know, because there's not support out there and [there's] not understanding to them. Then, it's just grown and grown and grown and it's something that, way back when, it was hard thinking anorexia owns so much of our lives as it is, why being more into our family? But actually as I started getting stronger and started recovering I was so, so on board with it. I just understood finally how important it is for somebody to make a difference and I'm very privileged that I've got such a wonderful mum and dad and I'm very proud that they're the ones that have started to make changes. 

5. Am I right in thinking your mum got an MBE?
Gemma: Yeah! She did! Wow. What a day that was. I think I was due to graduate from drama school about two weeks after and we went to...I think it was St. James' Palace. But yeah, she met the Queen and yeah. If was unbelievable. She's a wonderful, mesmerising woman. I know that I am the lucky one calling her my mam. 
Me: Well done to her!
Gemma: Aw, thank you. 

6. So you admirably battled and dealt with anorexia for 14 years, what would you message be to anyone who's currently battling an eating disorder? 
Gemma: I'm not going to lie. It's a long, hard slog but the change will come when you're ready and you're ready to talk out. That's one of the biggest things that I've been trying to promote; that suffering in silence is that: it's suffering. There are people out there like SEED, they do a lot of good doctors out there and a lot of good teams coming out more and more to raise awareness of eating disorders. My advice would be to be brave and not be ashamed. Not to sort of hide it because an eating disorder is a clever, mental health illness. It tricks you into thinking you should feel guilt, and you should feel shame and you're disgusting and my advice would be don't listen to it. Be strong and make that first step. Just think of your future and think of your life back in control for yourself. Recovery's not easy but it's well worth it. If I can do it after 14 years of hell, anybody can. I stand by that and I know that sometimes when you're in the stick of it it's hard to believe but that's the truth of it. It can be done and it doesn't have to be on their own. 

7. You mentioned your drama school earlier, you graduated from the DSL in 2010 - how would you describe your experience there? 
Gemma: Hard! I did a year's course and it was (bearing in mind I'd spent half my life with an eating disorder and isolated and in and out of hospitals and on bed rest), I'd managed three years previous to start getting my life back on track and was working in retail shops...I even worked in like McDonald's and TK Maxx, and cleaning. So I was starting to build my life up and my grandma died and I suddenly thought "I've got to do this for her" because it's all I ever spoke about to her. One thing that I'm thankful for from my eating disorder: it made me strong. It made me gutsy and it made me determined and I worked really, really hard to get there.

8. How would you describe your experience there?
Gemma: I did feel like a fish out of water at first. You know, I came across as the northern class clown but I think as the year went on I really grew as a person and people started to realise that I meant business. You know, I meant what I said when I wanted to achieve my dreams and I did! I've got some brilliant friends from there, one of them who I'm seeing today so it was a life-changing experience really. 
Me: I'm sure your grandma would be so proud of you now as you're so successful! 
Gemma: Aw bless you. You're lovely! 

9. As I say, you've been successful so what advice would you give to any aspiring actors? 
Gemma: Never let anybody put limitations on you. You're in charge of your own career and your own path. If you work hard and have a good work ethic and ultimately are nice to people, then you'll go far. I think one of the biggest things you have to say is be kind. Especially in this industry, it's a tough one. It doesn't take a lot to be nice and to be kind and to be grateful to other people. Because that assistant director or that runner who you're looking down to one day might be your boss. You won't get the job. (Laughs) It's as black and white as that: be kind, work hard, keep your head down and keep believing in yourself. 

10. So you've also done some radio presenting in your time away from Emmerdale! How was that?
Gemma: Yeah! Yeah, I did. That was brilliant. I did that with Capital Radio which was a brilliant experience and as you can tell I'm a motor mouth so I really had to sort of just take deep breaths every now and again and not say anything wrong! Luckily I came away unscathed and they've not banned me from the station for life so I did alright, I think. I loved it. I loved it. It's really nice being able to be intimate with people, you know in terms of when you're speaking to them and you know that they're listening on your every word, really. I like being me, as well as acting. I'm alright! (Laughs) 

11. What moment do you feel has been the highlight of your whole career? 
Gemma: It's got to be Emmerdale. Yeah. It's got to be. And I guess the soap Best Newcomer nominations were a little bit surreal, back in the day. Having my name flash up at the Soap Awards, that was pretty epic. I know it sounds a bit random but being on This Morning. I've been on This Morning twice now [three times at the time of this interview being published!]. Me and my grandma and grandad used to sit and watch it and I always used to say I'm going to sit on that sofa one day. Unfortunately, my grandma didn't get to see it but my grandad did. I'm privileged that he got to see it in his lifetime. So yeah, that was another massive highlight for me. [Going on This Morning to speak about Eating Disorders Awareness Week], aside from the acting, is a massive achievement, in terms of my voice being heard and being able to support other people. 

12. If you could invite any celebrities or famous people to a dinner party, who would they be and why? 
Gemma: This is probably one of the hardest questions ever...Who would I invite and why? Oh God! Sasha Bran Cohen! Because he's a little bit off the wall and a little bit crazy but then when you see him in interviews he's so intelligent and like on it and I think he's a really talented man and I think he'd be quite good for the comedy values. I think if anything got too deep for a dinner party, I think Sasha could pretend to be Borat and everything would be alright. And...Judi Dench! I've met her before but there's just something about her and I'd love to spend the whole evening with the woman. She's an absolute legend. And then...Albert Einstein, I reckon. Yeah. Bring on Einstein. He could explain a few things to me! (Laughs) Make me feel intelligent or completely baffle me. A lot of his theories are part of The Secret, there's a book called The Secret and I think it'd be fascinating to open up a conversation about philosophy. And he's not just like an inventor, he had a lot of ideas about the way the universe works and you The Secret is one of those things in terms of you give out to the universe what you get back sort of thing. So yeah. Those would be my three: Sasha Baron Cohen, Judi Dench and Albert Einstein. 

13. Finally, do you have a message for all your fans and supporters?
Gemma: They're amazing and I can't thank them enough from the bottom of my heart, for welcoming me back so lovingly and I was in the studio yesterday and I got this gorgeous card from everyone on Twitter. And it's such a privilege to be a part of soap because it's part of everyone's lives and you get people saying thank you for making us smile and it's so bizarre but yeah, it's such a privileged position to be in And I can't thank the fans enough for making me feel like one of the luckiest! 

If you are struggling with the similar challenges that Gemma faced, or you know someone who is, visit SEED - the eating disorder support service. Follow @GemmaOaten's journey on Twitter. Watch Gemma talk about her anorexia and more on This Morning earlier this week, as part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

Thanks for reading!
- Adam!