"It felt like being the new kid at school and I just had to jump in and be the biggest version of myself as quickly as possible."
Emer Kenny first came to public attention in 2010 playing Zsa Zsa in EastEnders spin-off E20 before joining the main soap as the daughter of Tina Carter. Since leaving the soap, she has starred in a number of TV series including Pramface, Harlots and Father Brown and written for a number of shows including EastEnders, Harlots and Save Me.
2022 promises to be a big year for Emer with the upcoming launch of Karen Pirie on ITV, a three-part drama based on acclaimed author Val McDermid’s The Distant Echo, which she has not only written and executive produced but also stars in.
Before that though, Emer can be seen starring alongside Tom Davis, Steve Stamp, Allan 'Seapa' Mustafa and Hugo Chegwin in new Channel 4 comedy The Curse, where she plays Natasha Fantoni, wife of criminal Albert, who also narrates the series.
When I first heard that the teams behind two of my favourite comedies of the last decade, People Just Do Nothing and Murder In Successville, had teamed up for a brand new comedy on Channel 4 about a heist in the 80s, I was immediately sold.
Written by Tom Davis and director James De Frond along with Steve Stamp, Allan 'Seapa' Mustafa and Hugo Chegwin, The Curse is set in the East End of London in the early 1980s and follows a gang of hopeless small-time crooks who through their own stupidity and poor judgement find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest gold heists in history.
The six-part comedy is loosely inspired by an infamous robbery from the early ’80s, where six men raided a depot near one of London’s airports thinking they’d walk away with £50,000 in cash, only to stumble across seven thousand bars of gold, with a street value of tens of millions!
I recently caught up with Emer to discuss what it was like working with an already established group of writer-performers, her most memorable moment on set, learning to not control everything and why she believes the way series one ends lends itself to a follow-up.
When I found out that the talent from People Just Do Nothing and Murder In Successville had come together to create The Curse, I just knew it was going to be brilliant. Is that how you felt when you first heard about the project?
Oh absolutely. I was a huge fan of both teams, so when I got the email for the audition I couldn't believe that those two creative forces were merging. I just knew it was going to be brilliant. And it was! It was that thing that I thought it was going to be. Fun and challenging.
How would you describe The Curse and your character, Tash?
The Curse is a heist comedy, set in 1982 and follows a group of East End, low-level... I wouldn't say criminals, but they are on the edges of the criminal underworld. They'd like to think of themselves as gangsters. Phil (played by Hugo Chegwin) certainly thinks of himself as a gangster.
My character Tash owns a cafe with her husband Albert (played by Allan 'Seapa' Mustafa) and when they get this opportunity to pull off a heist - for what they think is a couple of hundred grand - they go into it and actually end up tripping over something like 300 million gold bullion.
They bite off way more than they can chew because they do not have the brains and they're not tough enough to deal with what they're faced with.
And Tash also narrates the show, doesn't she?
Tash is basically the mastermind of the whole project. She has all these blokes wrapped around her finger and she convinces them that it's their idea. Really, it's all her.
Steve Stamp plays my brother, Sidney and Allan plays Albert, my husband and she makes them into the mastermind and the leader but actually, she's pulling the strings.
Why do you think she's masterminded this all?
Tash is aspirational. She runs this cafe, has such a sweet husband who's working his arse off - and so is she - but they're skint and she wants more. She wants nice clothes and a holiday and a better life for their daughters.
And she doesn't see a way to do it, because she's already working really hard. So she convinces everyone to do a heist for her! As you do, when you want a holiday and some gold!
What was your favourite part about playing Tash?
Just being with those boys on set was just a dream and James (De Frond) the director who did Murder in Successville. He is brilliant with improvisation which I think is so tough as a director because in the edit you've got all these different versions of something. The set was so free and comfortable and such a nice environment where you could throw anything out there.
When I first got there, I was really really nervous because these boys had known each other for so long - and I'd done lots of comedy, but it was just a bit scary. They've even known Tom (Davis) for years so they all have this camaraderie, but they made me feel really welcome.
It felt like being the new kid at school and I just had to jump in and be the biggest version of myself as quickly as possible. Once I jumped off that cliff and landed alright with them, and tried out some jokes, I remember sitting there being like "This is mad, this is my job! This is a job. I can't believe I'm sitting here being able to chat shit." It was truly, the best fun I've ever had on a set.
How much was improvised then?
Well actually, watching it back, there are only little bits of the improv that got in, but they're really good. They're really funny so really worth getting. Because the show has such a story that we had to hit, we would always shoot the scene as is in the script, then after that, we'd shoot a bunch of improvised stuff to add in.
Sometimes it's just little stuff, like adlibs or reactions that make it in, but the environment that was created, where you could try stuff out was helpful for getting the comedy right.
What was it like working with Allan 'Seapa' Mustafa?
We got on so well. It was instant. We just had chemistry, I think, straight away from the audition. And I was wondering if I was going to. I'd never met him before. Rick (Edwards, Emer's husband) had met him and was like "You're really going to like him. You guys would get on.".
The audition I remember was really nerve-wracking because they were all there, sitting around this boardroom table, I was stood at the end and had to do one of the scenes from episode one which is where she seduces Albert into doing the heist, in bed!
So I'm sitting next to Allan and I'm thinking "I've just got to go for it. I've just got to seduce him in the corner of this boardroom." - but he's a dream. He's so naturally funny. They all have a different comedy style and his is that he just keeps going, saying stuff, improvising. And it's all funny. He comes out with some real gold.
So it was brilliant, but it was really hard actually because quite a lot of the time the camera's on his shot and he's just spewing out nonsense and I'm standing there shaking, laughing, and having to look at the floor because if I look at him, he's going to make me laugh - he'd be like "Look at me, Tash. Look at me."
Who was the worst at corpsing?
I mean, we were all pretty bad. Hugo (Chegwin) corpsed a lot. Actually, Tom (Davis) corpsed all the time. Allan's really good at looking you in the eyes and keeping it quite straight.
But Steve made me corpse the most because he's amazing at staying really serious whilst saying the stupidest stuff. And he's got that silly little voice as Sidney as well which just made me laugh so much!
There's a growing trend for comedy that's brilliantly written and performed, but light on jokes. Where as The Curse feels like it's not afraid to be funny whilst still delivering a great story. Would you agree?
Oh that's really interesting. because when I watched it, I mean, I laughed, but because I knew the jokes and I knew what was coming what I found really interesting about it was that it's so strong a story.
It feels genuinely hooky at the end of every episode. Especially with the hook of the narration, and that moment at the end of episode one, you really want to know what happens. So I was hoping that the funniness and those jokes would come through, so I'm really glad that you think that.
What was it like being transported back to the 80s?
It was great. When I first got the script, I was really excited because East End crime drama, I thought I was going to have massive hair, be in a bodycon and wear lots of gold and be really blingy.
But then I got to the costume fitting and they were like "Well... Tash is really skint and she hasn't got any money. She works in the cafe so it's going to be a tabard. You're going to be quite greasy and tired." - and I was like "Yeah, no. OK. Maybe series two we can get some more gold?"
The production designer did such an amazing job with these old locations in Liverpool - these really rundown cafes, she built this amazing flat for us. So much brown and swirly carpets! I was born in 89 so I don't remember any of it.
A lot of my costumes are brown and beige and paisley sacks that I wear, which I actually learnt to love. I did wear a lot of sparkly bronze eyeshadow which I did get quite into, so that rubbed off a little bit!
Any memorable moments on set?
We got to the end of one day, it was one of the first couple of days of filming, and we were filming quite late and they realised that they had to pull a scene from the next day, forward to that day.
It was the scene that I'd done in my audition. The seduction scene in bed. And so we had 20 minutes to shoot it and it was sprung on us. I already knew the lines because of the audition, but I turned to Allan and said "You know that's a kissing scene, right?" - and his face! He said "I didn't think we'd have to do that so soon!"
We had just met and he hasn't really done many kissing scenes, because in People Just Do Nothing, he only kisses Mich a couple of times, I think. So he hasn't done loads of that and knew her really well anyway, so it was different.
Over the years, I've done loads - and he'll hate me for saying this - he looked so nervous and he was lying back, but actually, it worked for the character because Albert is quite nervous and Tash is the one in control.
I was like "Right, look. Just lie back. Lie there and I'll do everything." So if you look at that scene, he's looking at me terrified! But it totally works, so that was pretty funny and memorable.
Who do you think The Curse will appeal to?
I think this show has such broad appeal, which is what I think is so clever about it. You're going to get younger viewers who love People Just Do Nothing and then you're going to get older viewers who recognise the 80s and all of the references. Also, it's a heist and I think everyone loves a heist. t's just one of those genres that everyone really responds to.
It's got a really blokey sensibility because of those guys, so I think guys will love it, but I loved it and I think women will respond to it too because it's just funny and cool. So I honestly think it has such a broad appeal.
Will you be looking at Twitter when it's out to see what people are saying?
I haven't done that for years, so I don't know. It's hard, isn't it? It's very brutal out there. I remember when I did Beaver Falls, I saw a tweet that said "This girl has the most punchable face on TV" and I found it quite funny, but also, it haunts me.
Having now put my blood, sweat and tears into making something, I find it really hard to express any negative view about anything! Because if you don't like something, you can just not put anything out there about it.
If you have any love and respect for the art of it, you know that everyone has put their heart into what they're making. Sometimes it doesn't work. But it doesn't mean that they weren't a brilliant artist.
You've acted in a lot of comedy so far in your career. What is it about comedy you enjoy?
I don't know, I just get cast in them. I do go up for drama! It's just a joy to make people laugh and a joy to shoot. Often the characters are quite big and cartoony so there's a joy in finding the truth and the naturalism within that.
I adore comedy and I would love to do more, but I would love to do more drama as well. Because I haven't done much so far. But I am in Karen Pirie (which Emer also wrote) coming up soon, so that will show a different side.
What have you been enjoying on television recently?
I've just finished Dopesick. It's so good! It's such good writing. And I've just watched Impeachment which was amazing. Clive Owen is so good as Bill Clinton and I love Sarah Paulson. She's my icon. She's just so good.
At the end of 2021, you posted on Instagram about learning "to not try and control everything... because the happy accidents and the surprising moments are the best bits" - What did you mean by that?
I'd had such a big year work-wise. I wrote Karen Pirie, I exec'd it, then I was on set exec'ing it and then I was in it. Then just as I finished I got The Curse which is one of my first leading roles really. So 2021 was this wild ride of anxiety.
You just worry about whether you're doing a good job and I think my reaction to that is to prepare lots, be on top of everything and have a view on everything - especially when you're writing and exec'ing.
I was in the edit while I was filming and I realised that although you do need to do that in those positions, there is some beauty to the things that happen which you had no part in. There are amazing things that happen that you don't expect and in The Curse a lot of the improv was like that. Just being able to let go instead of trying to control everything and Control the performance.
It's about just letting it happen and not worrying so much about if something is going to be good. I think to trust the talent around you, and trust yourself because you're there for a reason and unexpected brilliance can come out of nowhere.
As an actor as well, your performance is in the director's hands. I learnt that more than ever being on the other side of the camera with Karen Pirie. I just realised the director has absolute control over what take you use.
Going back into acting after that was really interesting because I'm always trying to give my best performance in every single take, but then, in the end, I don't have control over which take they pick anyway! You've got to throw it up and give away the control.
And finally, do you think The Curse could come back for a second series?
Yeah, they've got a whole arc and idea for it all, because the first series ends on a really big hook. Which is a great hook and I think the second series would be like the first series but more ambitious. So fingers crossed we get to make that because I think it would be amazing.
The Curse starts Sunday 6th February at 10pm on Channel 4