See me, feel me, touch me? Phone my agent

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Young stars of stage and screen may find that fame can be a poisoned chalice. Jonathan Croall meets two new recruits to celebrity status to find out how they are coping with the glare of the limelight.

Fame has already knocked on Paul Keating's door; for Milly Gregory it may arrive soon. Yet unlike many youngsters thrust early into the world of show business, both seem well-equipped to deal with its artificiality and myriad insecurities.

"You have to watch out for people who warm to you because of your position rather than who you are, or for people who aren't as true as they seem, " says the young star of the West End musical Tommy, who's just turned 20. "So I'm wary but I think I have quite a good instinct about people."

At 17 Milly Gregory, one of the main characters in a new teenage soap opera Island, is equally cautious. "Acting is a wonderful job, but it is just a job," she says. "I may be on TV, but I'm not different from anyone else in the street. I'm just a normal girl, I don't expect to be treated differently. "

While Paul has become an actor more by accident than design, Milly spotted her vocation at an early age. Yet though they've grown up up within a few miles of each other - he's a Cockney, she's a Hackney girl they've followed very different paths, and faced contrasting problems in trying to build their acting careers while continuing with their education.

The producers of Pete Townshend's celebrated rock opera auditioned 7,000 young Tommy wannabees in America, Canada, Germany and the UK, in their quest for someone with charisma and a good rock tenor voice. "I didn't think I had either, but I went along anyway," Paul says with beguiling modesty, as we chat in his dressing room before the show. "So when I got the part I was absolutely blown over."

Dark, slight, polite and unpretentious, he doesn't seem an obvious choice for such a demanding, outgoing role. But on stage he's impressively adept, amidst the show's extravagant pyrotechnics, at conveying both Tommy's innocence and vulnerability and his later hardness and aggression.

His career has been an erratic one, and until Tommy he had no real thoughts of making acting his profession. Moving to Romford at the age of four, he joined the church choir, and was talent spotted by a children's agent after singing in a local production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.

At 12 he spent nearly a year as Gavroche in Les Miserables while a pupil at St Edward's School, the local comprehensive. There he tried hard to keep his theatre and school lives separate. "I didn't want the school to say that the show was affecting my work, so I was always in the next morning, however tired," he remembers. "I think the adrenalin kept me going."

The theatre world seems to have become something of a refuge for him. "It was good to be in an environment where you were popular," he recalls. "I didn't enjoy school at all, I wasn't a typical teenage boy, I wasn't into football, my interests were very different. So I got the mick taken out of me quite a lot, and that used to really get me down."

His difficulties intensified after he had three months off to play a leading role in the television series Troublemakers. "When I got back to school it was worse, I didn't fit in at all. I think you grow up fast when you do that sort of thing, and people saw me as a bit odd. I tried to keep the series low key, but the ads started appearing, and most people didn't want to know."

Things changed at 17 when he moved on to Havering Further Education College. There were new friends, A-levels including theatre studies ("Hard work, but I loved it"), a part-time job at Tesco, and no problem fitting in the occasional piece of radio work. "But I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "I was praying something would turn up."

Then came the ad in The Stage, the dozen auditions over four months, and the unexpected phone call. He admits that Tommy has changed his life radically. His working hours make it difficult to keep up with his friends at college or university. His relationship with his girlfriend has fizzled out ("We're just good friends") and he's mixing with very different people.

But he's had useful advice from several quarters since landing the coveted role. Pete Townshend helped with a particular problem. "I was finding the second act more difficult, because the character becomes less like me," he says. "Pete was helpful, he encouraged me to go for it, to have the confidence to take over the stage. What he said made sense."

His co-star Kim Wilde who as we talk can be heard warming up next door has been a good source of advice on handling the media. "Kim says it's so important to answer honestly, to be yourself rather than something you're not," he explains. "So that's what I try to do."

There's no trace of showbiz in his background: his father's a policeman, his mother a supervisor at MORI. Both have clearly helped him with his career. "They were never pushy, they didn't expect me to live out their childhood dreams or anything," he says. "They neither encouraged or discouraged me, they just supported me, which was what I needed."

Milly Gregory received similar advice from her parents, but with a difference. Though they're now separated, her father an actor and musician living in Australia and her mother actress and dancer Norma Cohen were able to give her the benefit of inside knowledge.

"They told me not to do it if I didn't want to, but just to go ahead with whatever I was happy with," she says. "But they also made me realise what a difficult business it is to be in. My mum has been wonderful, I wouldn't be where I am now if it hadn't been for her."

We're talking in the Holborn College of Performing Arts in Camden, where she's in her first year studying for the BTEC national diploma. With her mother away on tour, it's a fairly fraught time for this small, bright and cheerful 17-year-old even though she's been in the business for six years.

Right now she's having to juggle rehearsals for a college production of Aristophanes' The Archanians with publicity demands for the new Channel Television series, while trying at the same time to fit in auditions to keep her career on track.

"I'm feeling very stressed and pulled in different directions," she confesses. "It's all happening at the same time, and I don't think people understand. My agent is very supportive, but she thinks work should come before college. The college are worried about me going off for auditions. It's a problem, because I'm strongly committed to both of them."

Life was much simpler back at the start of her career, when she was a pupil at Kingsland School in Hackney. At 11 she was chosen to play in a BBC schools drama production, and realised then that she'd found her vocation "doing something you really enjoyed and getting paid for it".

Other work soon came: The Bill, Casualty, May to December, a walk-on part in Chaplin, and the controversial drugs drama Loved Up. All the time her teachers were understanding. "They were great, they realised I wanted to make a career of it, and so they made loads of allowances," she recalls.

The film and TV work didn't prevent her getting through GCSE with quite good grades, but there were other, more internal pressures. "I didn't want to come across as a bighead, so I didn't talk to the other kids about what I was doing," she explains. "I wanted to keep that part of my life separate."

Curiously, she was never in any school productions. A brief stint aged six at the Anna Scher School seems to have turned her off the stage. "I was too scared, and I still don't have much confidence in the theatre," she admits this despite having had a part in Adrian Noble's Henry IV with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Her small size and young features give her an advantage on television: companies can cast her as 13 or 14 without having to worry about licences or tutors. "But even though I'm quite extrovert and comical, I prefer to play characters who are the opposite. I often play abused, secretive children. "

She's quite realistic about the pitfalls of her chosen profession. "You have to keep your head on your shoulders, know what you want, what you can do, and what your rights are, and then people won't give you flak," she says firmly. "I've been lucky, but people do get messed about and treated badly."

She's critical of some attitudes in the business. "I've met people who are just doing it for fame and fortune. You do get money, but you're out of work an awful lot of the time. It can also be a very pretentious business, where people look down on others. It shouldn't be about that."

But even level-headed young actors such as these two can find a touch of magic in the profession. "I'm not in it for stardom, but there is glamour in it," Milly says. "When people recognise me, I'm flattered by the attention I get. I'm very happy with my life."

Paul too enjoys his moment in the spotlight. "The applause can make you feel very powerful, and that's brilliant," he says. Glancing in the direction of his co-star's dressing-room, he adds: "It must be every boy's dream who grew up listening to Kim Wilde's music to be on stage with her every night."

Tommy is playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London; Island is showing on ITV on Tuesdays at 4.4Opm until 23 April

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