Roxanne McKee keeps it real in fantasy drama

Roxanne McKee. Picture: Rachell Smith
Roxanne McKee. Picture: Rachell Smith
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FROM soap siren in Hollyoaks to epic heroine in supernatural drama Dominion, Roxanne McKee’s respect for the strength of her characters is what keeps them real

YOU might not think a politics degree would qualify you to play the female lead in an apocalyptic supernatural action TV series, but Roxanne McKee reckons hers has come in very handy.

Dominion. Picture: Bold Films/Sony Pictures TV/Universal Cable Productions /The Kobal Collection

Dominion. Picture: Bold Films/Sony Pictures TV/Universal Cable Productions /The Kobal Collection

Season two of Dominion, the epic drama of a war between humanity and the angels, and sci-fi channel Syfy’s top show, is back on 15 July and sees McKee as Claire Riesen, leader of the city of Vega. With God vanished, the archangel Gabriel and his army of lower angels have turned against mankind, and it’s up Riesen to fight back, aided by the archangel Michael. Riesen is the kind of leader who opposes the hierarchical system she has inherited and defends the people’s rights, making her popular with the citizens of the former city of Las Vegas.

“You think about your Humes and Machiavellis, and wonder how you would implement various political philosophies and certain rules and regulations,” says McKee, who graduated with a degree in Social Policy and Political Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London.

“I feel that Claire is intrinsically good and pure of heart and spirit. She was trying to do what’s best for the masses, but when she got power she started to change and think about eliminating the opposition. My friends on the show and I discuss it, and one of them called me a dictator recently. That hurt,” she jokes. “Claire doesn’t want to be like that. She has been thrown into a political system that’s in place and change takes time. Every political decision she makes has consequences. And we only have to look at past political leaders to know that they didn’t think they were doing the wrong thing at the time,” she says.

“Claire is a socialist at heart, living in an elitist society. There’s a class system in place and those lower down are poverty stricken. You could make comparisons to places that are like that at the moment, but let’s not,” says the 34-year-old. “I’m not going there.”

When we speak over the phone it’s late afternoon in Cape Town, where McKee has been filming since the beginning of February, and with the final touches of the second season of Dominion almost in the can, she is getting ready to return to the UK next month. She’s tired but exhilarated after getting up at 4.30am to climb Table Mountain, a feat she’s completed several times since she started work on the show last year.

“I’ve been up a lot by different routes and today was a new one. A three-and-a-half hour hike and a bit of a run when it started pouring with rain, but it was still beautiful. I don’t mind the rain, I have Irish blood and Scottish McCrackens on my father’s side, so my skin is probably meant to be in cold weather.”

McKee has to keep fit to tackle the role of Riesen, which, apart from the stamina required to play the lead, also needs a lot of shooting practice, not to mention some jumping off buildings.

“It’s long and tiring this one, 13 episodes in total, so the hiking helps a lot,” she says. “I just really enjoy being outside – I’m not as keen on the gym, to be honest. I love anything energetic and outdoors, so what I do depends on where I am in the world. If it’s warm, I’ll surf or paddleboard; if it’s in England I’ll run or cycle. When I come back to London I’m going to take up parkour classes.”

The role of Claire Riesen is a world away from that of Louise Summers, the part that made McKee’s name in Channel 4’s daily soap, Hollyoaks. It also earned her the accolade of Sexiest Female at the British Soap Awards and the Inside Soap Awards in 2007 and 2008. It was back when her politics degree was coming to an end, and unsure about finding herself “in an office”, McKee went along to an open audition for the soap.

“I had done a drama A-Level and acting was something I always wanted to do but wasn’t sure I would get into. I don’t come from a theatre background at all and no-one else from my school went off to do that. Then this audition came up and I thought I might as well go along; it would be a good experience,” she says.

McKee nailed the audition, beating 35,000 other hopefuls as part of a nationwide search to find a new actor for the series, and with that her life went in a completely different direction. For the next four years she played the part of Summers, before finally exiting, in true soap style, by attempting to kill her fiancé on their wedding day. “Getting the part on Hollyoaks was daunting. I had done some performance and read Meisner and Stanislavski for the A-Level, but I didn’t have the technical abilities – although I’m not sure that anyone coming out of drama school would have either. So I learnt on the job, and it meant I could do a course at Rada at the weekends too.

“I’m very grateful to Hollyoaks for giving me the role, because without that experience, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Liverpool was fun, but making the programme was like a technical course. I challenge anyone to do it – shooting 13 scenes a day and making it natural, then going home to learn your scenes for the next day. TV soap is a hard medium and doesn’t get the credit it deserves. In film it’s two scenes a day; in soap it’s 13. They deserve a big pat on the back – and people love it.”

After Hollyoaks came Lip Service, a lesbian TV drama set in Glasgow, for the BBC. “That was so much fun, playing Lou Foster, a bisexual who goes through a lot of emotional turmoil. She was just greedy really, seeing a married man, but falling for a woman. That show was original and groundbreaking and I had a great time in Glasgow, making friends and going to a few gay bars. I’d love to shoot something else there.”

Next up was a part in the feature film, Ironclad, followed by Doreah the handmaiden in the massive Game Of Thrones, before last year’s feature film, The Legend Of Hercules, and now Dominion, created by Vaun Wilmott and loosely based on the 2010 film, Legion.

“All of my roles have been very different,” says McKee. “I’ve been really lucky. I don’t know what it is, but different people just see me differently and I’m very appreciative of that. I have been able to explore various aspects of my own character through my work. Claire is very different to Louise in Hollyoaks, and Doreah in Game Of Thrones is very different again. But there are small facets that are similar, and what I bring to the characters is a sense of realism. No matter what journey they are on, or what they are doing, they’re doing it with some strength and using the tools that they have. Claire is using her education while Doreah is using her sexuality. Doreah was brought up in a whore house and sold at a young age, whereas Claire grew up in a palace and was protected by her military father. But each has to learn to survive in different ways.”

“It’s important to me to like them,” says McKee. “I look at them as women of strength, whatever that strength is. I have to understand and appreciate them, otherwise it’s going to be a hollow experience playing them.

“Claire has developed in terms of strength of character over the two series. She started off in the pilot as innocent and vulnerable and as time has moved on, she’s grown up a bit. She had to banish her father and kill the angel that had inhabited her mother’s body, find out she was pregnant, and take over as a political leader.

“She has to have the strength to unite the city and make changes. She is still growing as far as her political understanding of her environment is concerned but she’s realising she’s going to have to make tough decisions and is not going to be liked all the time. Sometimes making the right decision means forsaking your own happiness.

“This season is darker, tougher, and people are going to be incredibly shocked by it. It’s exciting and the writing is very brave.”

Whether she’s playing a soap femme fatale or the kind of woman who can lead a rebellion against angels, McKee doesn’t hang around waiting for parental approval.

“You probably know more about what I have done than my mother does,” she laughs when I reel off some of her films and TV shows. “After I had been acting a few years I told her to watch one of my roles. Later, when I asked whether she’d seen me, she said, ‘Yes, you were kissing such and such a boy.’ I said to her, ‘That was someone else, in another programme!’ She would have put the TV on in the background and been pottering away,” she laughs.

“My parents barely watched any TV when I was growing up. But my mother was a very strong influence on me. She had her own business and worked incredibly hard. My dad worked away from home in computers and she looked after us, and did a lot on her own.”

It was McKee’s mother who gave her the name Roxanne. “She wanted an x in my name because she thought if she put a kiss in it, it would bring me luck.”

Since their daughter had showed such academic promise at school in Sussex, it’s little wonder her parents didn’t foresee her choice of career. “I think they wanted me to do English at university because that’s the subject I had a natural leaning towards but I decided I wanted to figure out how the world works, so I did politics,” says McKee.

“They were shocked when I went into the industry, but now they realise it’s quite a solid profession. Once I was in the door, they relented.”

McKee knew when she graduated that she didn’t want to join the nine-to-five, but she did enjoy writing and drama. What would she have done if she wasn’t acting?

“I would like to do something involved with nature in some way. I love what Bear Grylls does. Visiting different countries and photographing the wildlife, something like that.”

When she’s not somewhere filming, McKee is based in London, but after four years on Hollyoaks, she has embraced enthusiastically the concept that the life of an actor can be peripatetic.

“I really live out of a suitcase and I’m all over the place. I’ve filmed in LA, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and now South Africa. Italy is my favourite country, and I love Hawaii too.”

However, the constant travel makes it difficult to have a relationship and McKee’s latest fell by the wayside as working away from her boyfriend took its toll.

“It’s difficult because you’re moving around all the time. My ex-boyfriend came out here to South Africa when I was filming, but we broke up, although we are still close. It was difficult, but I think that when you meet the right person you will make it work and put in the effort,” she says.

“But it’s better to feel fulfilled on your own. And as long as you’re having good experiences on your own then the right person will appear in your life and they will be able to put up with the fact you’re not always around.”

With season two in the can, McKee is already looking forward to a third. “Dominion is doing incredibly well. It’s Syfy’s highest rating show and this one will do even better. I really hope it takes off and not just because I’m in it, but because everyone involved deserves to reap the success of the show.”

But, as is the family tradition, McKee will probably miss the programme, because she can’t bear to watch herself.

“I rarely watch the stuff I’m in. I don’t like it. The best thing to do is do it, and put your heart and soul into it, then go out and have a glass of wine. It’s just a job.”

And with that, off she goes to down a glass of South Africa’s finest. It’s thirsty work, fighting archangels.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

• Roxanne McKee stars in Dominion, Season 2, Wednesdays at 9pm from 15 July on Syfy