Cockneys vs Zombies: Michelle Ryan Interview

There’s an unwritten journalistic law that says you can’t mention Michelle Ryan without sticking the words “former EastEnder” in the same sentence - and we don’t have the moral courage required to break it. But she’s also no stranger to SFX territory: having starred in the short-lived update of The Bionic Woman , and been a one-time-only companion of David Tennant’s Doctor in a Doctor Who special, Michelle’s been an SFX cover star twice!

She’s never been in a horror movie before, though, so Cockneys vs Zombie s represents a first for the Ryan CV. In this British horror-comedy, scripted by Doctor Who and Torchwood writer James Moran, Ryan plays Katie, who’s helping her cousins carry out a bank robbery when the zombie apocalypse kicks off, and gets a nasty surprise when they emerge to make their getaway to find the streets crawling with the living dead. We caught up with Michelle on location, back in April 2011.

SFX: So is this the kind of film that you would normally watch?
Michelle Ryan: Well, zombie movies have not really been hugely on my radar. Then I was shown Shaun Of The Dead and I was like, “Ohhhh okay, there’s a really strong genre there.” Then just before we started shooting this, I watched [1974 film] The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue , and I realised how scary the zombies are. Because I was thinking zombies are not something that really scares me, but then I watched that movie and they move so fast, they’re intent on killing, and they’re just scary!

That’s quite an obscure movie! How did you come to watch that?
Oh, I love obscure movies. I think I probably read about it in a magazine, and I love those old-school movies. And I think this film has a sense of that old-school mentality. It’s the Cockneys’ version of how they defeat the zombies - it’s very raw and it’s that family unit muddling through. They shouldn’t defeat them, but they do!

So what appealed to you about this particular script?
When I met the director Matthias [Hoene] he was just brilliant. We spoke for an hour about movies and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do this.” We spoke about everything from the kind of seventies genre to crazy horror films, to the way things would be shot. The title brings up certain ideas, and the producer was like, “Every cliché you’re thinking about… it’s not gonna be that.” And I was like, “Oh, good”, because I was thinking along the lines that it would be something different.

There was that period after the success of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels where everyone seemed to be doing a British gangster film – it’s not like those films, then?
No, it’s very different from that, because there’s a female character who is so ballsy, whereas that wasn’t included in those kinds of films. And it’s also about a much younger group who aren’t competent in their positions. Most of them are just flying by the seat of their pants, whereas Katie is the confident arrow amongst it all. Mainly, it’s about family and uniting. Then it’s got the much older actors too: there’s Alan Ford, who’s playing the granddad, who is head of the family, and Honor Blackman, who’s his girlfriend – so I think it’s quite different. That’s the other thing that drew me to it. I was like, “Oh, this is different.” Okay, it’s a “vs” kind of title, but it’s not anything that I’ve seen in recent years.

We know your character is a bank robber: what else can you tell us about her?
She’s pretty fearless and incredibly feisty, and isn’t interested in any flirting, or anything other than just doing the job. It’s like: “Boys, not interested!” - that’s her stance. At first she’s quite frustrated by being called in to help her cousins, Terry and Andy, to do this bank job. She feels like they’re incompetent - the team they’ve got together, it’s laughable. I mean, she’s crazy but she’s still aware that there are boundaries, whereas Mental Mickey has none. And with Davey Tuppence she’s like, “He’s just a liability. Nice enough guy, but I can’t believe you would let him organise the robbery!” So she’s a little pissed off from the start with everyone, really! Katie’s fearless and a little crazy, but she’s still thinking, “I don’t want to go to prison, we can’t get caught with guns... this needs to be done properly”. She’s come from quite a tough crowd who she’s run with, and now she’s going back to her roots, and it’s frustrating for her when things aren’t done properly. And once the zombies go crazy and take over everywhere, the whole thing is to meet up with her granddad at the OAPs’ home. He’s sort of the head of the family. Katie is pretty competent, but she’s looking to him for answers.

Click on "Next" (below right) to read the second half of the interview.

What kind of film is this in terms of the mixture of tones?
Well, it’s a zombie movie and it’s very much a comedy as well. There are moments that are so silly, but it works. I think it’s because of the spirit of the piece, which is the family coming together and uniting, that sort of working class spirit. And everyone is great: the actors they’ve cast, character-wise, are so brilliant and strong, I think that elevates it. And then the director has a great vision for it. So all of that is making it what it is.

With those elements of the importance of family and the East End setting, is there a connection between this and your days working on EastEnders ?
Not really, because this is all set in one day, and it’s very much about survival and how people deal with that. At first the threat isn’t as close, but then it spirals. And there’s a lot of freedom doing this: the director is happy for us to improvise a little, to throw lines in at the last minute, for us to really find our characters. In that way it’s very different.

What’s been the weirdest situation you’ve found yourself in on set?
I think probably when Annabel, who’s one of the stuntwomen, got shot out of the back of a van. She’s bitten, she turns into a zombie, and Mental Mickey shoots her out of the back of the van, and she pings back. So you have this zombie doing this crazy stunt - that was pretty mad! Also, just all of us dressed up in builders’ uniforms doing a bank robbery. When we were doing the robbery scene I had a hat and a moustache, so we’re in this bank and I had a moment of bowling along [mimes masculine swagger]. The director said, “Just tone it down a bit”, and I was like, “Well, this is my guy walk!” So there is that freedom to play, but still the stakes are very high, which I think makes it really interesting.

How unpleasant does the film get in terms of violence and gore?
Well, when Annabel gets shot out of the back of the van and her insides are shot through, that’s pretty brutal. And there is a moment when a baby zombie gets kicked over, when it goes into zombie mode! Everyone was like, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy!” So there’s definitely an edge to the movie of violence and aggression.

I assume you weren’t kicking a real baby about…
It was a dummy baby, of course! Though there was a real baby there for certain moments and it was so good! It was putting its hand out at certain moments and gurgling and doing all of the right things, which was pretty cool. It was like, “This is a genius baby, performance-wise!”

This is your first horror film. Has it made you think about doing some more?
It really will depend on the director. I think this kind of project could be awful in the wrong hands, so it will depend on the director’s vision for any project. But I think it’s great to be able to mix it up, to do something serious and then something really fun. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Any yearning to get made-up as a zombie yourself?
None! No, I’m quite happy shooting them! I’d much rather be on the side I’m on!

Ian Berriman

Cockneys vs Zombies is released in the UK on 31 August.

Watch the Cockneys vs Zombies opening titles .
Watch the Cockneys vs Zombies trailer .
Read our Cockneys vs Zombies interview with writer James Moran.
Enter our Cockneys vs Zombies competition .

Deputy Editor, SFX

Ian Berriman has been working for SFX – the world's leading sci-fi, fantasy and horror magazine – since March 2002. He also writes for Total Film, Electronic Sound and Retro Pop; other publications he's contributed to include Horrorville, When Saturday Comes and What DVD. A life-long Doctor Who fan, he's also a supporter of Hull City, and live-tweets along to BBC Four's Top Of The Pops repeats from his @TOTPFacts account.