With the first live ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ show only days away, Natalie Gumede knows she has to “be sensible” and listen to her body.
A back injury when she was 19 means she hasn't danced for 10 years and the former ‘Coronation Street’ actress is now finding out exactly what her body can do.
"It was a very difficult thing at the time," says Natalie. "At the time I was in a lot of pain. It became apparent that my pelvis was very weak. But it hasn't dominated my life. I've got through my life exercising and ten years on, I'm finding out what my body will let me do in the dance studio."
Like all Strictly contestants, Natalie, 29, had to pass a medical check before appearing on the show and she also assured doctors that she was happy her body was strong enough to cope with the rigorous training. She says: "You just have to be sensible, take it easy and listen to your body and say 'I can't do those moves'. Yes my joints are hurting but I don’t think any more than anyone else’s."
Natalie doesn't come across as someone who would have a problem being sensible, aware and level-headed. The first thing she does as she walks into the cafe for our interview is apologise profusely for changing the time of it. She admits she is conscientious and applies herself - which is why she and her Strictly dance partner Artem Chigvintsev are getting along so well.
"He’s somebody who wants to work hard and so am I, so it’s a good match,” she says. "The way he teaches is very methodical. I just get frustrated with myself as I’m not always able to do what he’s telling me to do. But he’s very patient, calm, warm and encouraging."
Natalie, who played Tyrone Dobbs' abusive girlfriend Kirsty Soames in ‘Coronation Street’, has come under fire in the press for her previous dance experience, with accusations that she has an advantage in the show. The actress says she is trying not to take the criticism to heart and just concentrate on the task in hand.
"I danced as a child and I'm also an actor who went to Italia Conti Theatre School and danced there but I've never done ballroom before," she explains. "It's very much a different skill. There are people every year who have danced before. All the contestants come in at different basic levels and we all have to improve from that. The point of Strictly is about applying yourself, improving and most importantly enjoying it."
Taking part in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ was Natalie's dream and she describes herself as a “crazy stalker super-fan” when it comes to the BBC One show. “When I got ‘Coronation Street’ I called one of my best friends to tell him I'd got the part. The first word he said back to me was ‘Strictly’ because I’ve wanted to do it forever and something like Corrie gives you that platform to maybe do it one day. I can't believe I'm part of it. It's a real privilege. The show is magic on a TV screen."
Although training for eight hours a day, the actress reveals she has actually put on weight as she's been eating far more than usual, after Artem instructed her to “just keep eating”. She's also been getting through a lot of socks, dancing without shoes while waiting for her footwear to arrive. "I've been posting pictures of holey socks on Twitter and people keep saying 'cut your toe nails' and I'm like 'but they are!' - really indignant" she laughs. A big jolly laugh.
After pursuing comedy acting roles, Natalie couldn't believe her big break was playing such a sinister character in ‘Coronation Street’. Kirsty was the perpetrator of domestic violence, beating Tyrone black and blue. She says: "I'm a bit of a goofball, there's a natural funny bone in me somewhere and Corrie was the complete opposite of that. It’s interesting that having played a role like that, people think I must have something in me which is a bit aggressive - which is absolutely not true. You don’t relate to a character like that. Every actor has their methods but really for me I was just pretending and I have nothing more profound to say about it." The huge laugh follows.
Natalie admits people are wary of approaching her in the street due to Kirsty's demeanour. "I think they think they’ll get someone who’s quite stern and quite dark or perhaps not very friendly, but I hope I am," she says. "It's an odd phenomenon to go from complete anonymity walking down the street to people thinking they know you. I don't think it's healthy to be too ok with being recognised but I don’t leave the house without make-up anymore or big sunglasses, just in case. You can’t let it run your life but just a little bit of foundation can make a whole bit of difference!"
You do believe her sincerity when she says she can't be grateful enough for her ‘Coronation Street’ experience but leaving the show earlier this year was the right time as the storyline felt “complete”. However with the door still open for her character to return, would she go back?
"In all honesty I don’t think you know until the time comes if you’re asked. It feels like it’s done with for now. It's not something I’m looking to do, at the moment."
Having worked as a jobbing actress getting bit parts and topping up her income with admin and temp work for nearly 10 years before ‘Coronation Street’, Natalie appreciated the luxury of having regular work. She admits it took her a while at first to adjust to the erratic and uncertain nature of the entertainment industry.
She says: "I’m not a spontaneous person. I need plans and routines. But now I understand that’s not the way this career is going to be and I’m so lucky to do what I love. I never forget that. I’ve started to get ok with the unknown and trust a bit more that things will come along but I haven't got to the point where I have confidence that I'll keep working."
However wary she is of being complacent now, she confesses she never had any doubts that one day she would get her break and was lucky to have a supportive family behind her as she persevered in her chosen career. "My mum is the absolute rock behind everything that I’ve done. I always knew I’d perform in some way. There was never a plan B, even though it took a long time to happen. It’s about how much you want something. I thought if I just kept working on myself and being proactive and not giving up, that at some point someone would get it. Now I can’t believe that people get it!"
The actress is currently single but isn't looking for love as "relationships come when you least expect them." What she currently cares about is "family, friends, being generous, being happy within yourself and being the best you can be." She says: “I’ve always been someone who wants to try my best. I wouldn’t say I’m competitive. I don’t believe in comparing yourself to other people. I believe in just working hard for myself so I know that at whatever stage Strictly is over for me, I’ve tried my best and represented myself in the best way I can. As long as you know that, then you can be happy I think.”