IN any actors' career there’s always that role which can make or break you.
In Louisa Clein’s case that came when she landed the part of Emmerdale’s paedophile teacher, Maya Stepney.
Any avid fans of the soap will know Maya’s currently in the middle of a huge story line that explores the emotional complexities of an older woman grooming her teenage student, Jacob.
Tonight, we’ll see whether or not Maya’s been murdered in the wood by Jacob’s mum Layla, after she discovered the illicit affair with her young son.
But as a married mum-of-three, it’s hard to grasp how Louisa, 39, can spend her day doing take after take of kissing scenes with 17-year-old Joe-Warren Plant (he's playing a 16-year-old in the soap) and then go home to be a wife and mum.
“Of course it’s awkward,” she says to Fabulous Digital.
“But it’s awkward kissing someone who isn’t your partner, regardless of his age," Louisa continues.
"Maya’s relationship with Jacob is not sexual and titillating, it should be awkward and uncomfortable.”
Jacob Gallagher is played by Joe-Warren Plant, who’s been in the soap since 2010 and, according to Louisa, feels just as awkward as she does.
It’s awkward kissing someone who isn’t your partner
“Joe would say the same," she adds.
"We’ve both been very respectful of each other and the script has been very respectful of the fact I am nearly forty and he’s only 17.
“There have been times when we’ve both said something is inappropriate when we’re filming, be it about the clothes or a sexy scene, and the crew have been very considerate about our feelings as actors and we tried something different.”
As for her husband – Jeremy Brier, a barrister, who she married in 2011 and has three kids age six, five and two with – she says he’s got used to her being the ‘paedo teacher’.
“He’s very happy to see my career pick up and is very proud of me. He realises it’s all part of the job,” Louisa adds.
“People tease him because of my role but those who do are our close friends, they know me as his wife, a mother and know my ‘normal life’ is very much ‘at the school gates’.
“It’s quite ironic really, I often get a few double takes,” she laughs.
People tease my husband because of my role as paedo Maya
Surprisingly, despite the stares, Louisa – who lives in London's posh Hampstead – says she’s yet to be yelled at in the street for being a ‘kiddy fiddler’ but admits she’s had hundreds of messages from young girls who have sadly found themselves in the same situation as Jacob.
“They tell me how, like Jacob, they thought they were in a loving relationship but actually, from seeing this story, they are realising that they were being groomed,” she explains.
“I reply when I can but I know I’m not a therapist and they need to know that this is not real life, so at the same time I'm wary about becoming a crutch for viewers.
“I am not Maya and I think it’s important to create some distance or a barrier in my real life as it’s not fair on the fans or on me.”
On the flipside, she also says she’s inundated with proposals too.
“I get messages from people asking me to be their girlfriend, wife and how they want me to be their teacher too – you just have to laugh it off.”
Despite having landed this huge role which has divided Emmerdale fans Louisa is the first to admit it was a character she didn't take on lightly.
“It’s been a very tough year of striking the balance,” she tells Fabulous Digital.
“When I was first offered the role I went so hot and cold about it. I’d just had my third child, I’m approaching 40 and spent many hours talking it over with my husband.”
She explains it was the daunting aspect of balancing her mum and wife role that made her question whether or not to take on Maya’s character, not the fact she’d be playing a paedophile.
“It’s one of those jobs where I felt, ‘If I say yes to this am I crazy? But if I say no to this am I crazy too?’ I had to just take the plunge,” she explains.
I get messages asking me to be their girlfriend, wife and how they want me to be their teacher too – you just have to laugh it off
“My husband is a self-employed barrister so he can choose his hours, like us actors, but he has a high-powered job that comes with a lot of responsibilities too.
“We’ve had terrible moments where the kids are sick and he’s in court and I’m on set in Leeds and we just had to call in favours with friends and family.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child and it’s so true.
“I would never have turned it down because of the storyline it was more a question as to whether I could make it work logistically as a mum.”
As part of research for the shocking storyline, Louisa and Joe-Warren joined a Barnado’s workshop where they met boys who had been victims of grooming and their social workers.
“It was a very emotional day,” Louisa says.
“The boys were so strong as they’d come out the other side but I looked at them with such admiration.
“They have so much courage and the social workers also just blew me away. They had gone above and beyond their role and you could see that they were the life lines, the saviours for these boys.
I met boys who were victims of grooming – it was a very emotional day
“Seeing it first hand and as a mum too, was very tough. I went home and held my kids so tight because it makes you think about your parenting styles.
“Look at David’s character for example, he’s an incredible father to Jacob yet he hasn’t noticed anything's going on.
"We all go ‘Well, it won’t happen to me’ but actually the parents are often the last to know."
Despite the challenges that have come with the role of Maya, Louisa says she has no regrets.
“I have no doubts about taking the role because Maya's exciting and challenging at the same time,” Louisa continues.
“Exciting, because it’s rare for a woman like me who’s nearly 40 to be offered a part where I’m not just playing a wife, or a girlfriend, or a mother, or the support for a leading man.
"Maya is a protagonist who is a complex, emotional, and a deeply psychologically character.
“It’s a challenge for those reasons too, but also because of the story line,” she adds.
“The grooming story has been told before but normally it’s with an older man and a younger child and so to have an older woman be the groomer is unusual.
I absolutely feel sorry for Maya
“From the outside Maya is a successful, professional, intelligent woman but, scratch the surface, and she is emotionally vulnerable and a psychologically damaged person who is a slow predator of this boy.
“We wanted to show that this is wrong. She is an abuser and he is abused. It’s not romantic. It’s not happily ever after.”
How to spot the signs your child is being sexually explioted
Sexual exploitation affects thousands of children and young people every year. By knowing the tell-tale signs, we can all play an important role in reducing that number.
Children's charity Barnardo's explains what to look out for:
- unexplained gifts
- changes in mood
- going missing
- staying out late
- being secretive about where they are going
- lack of interest in activities and hobbies
- missing school.
But, despite the fact that Maya is a groomer and abuser, Louisa says she does have some sympathy for her too.
“I absolutely feel sorry for Maya,” she explains.
“She’s emotionally invested in this relationship and genuinely believes she loves him and he loves her and they could live happily ever after. That is heart breaking because it’s so warped, misjudged and misguided.
“It’s not just as simple as saying ‘she’s a paedophile’. She is, in one sense, but it’s so much more complicated and complex than just putting a label on her.”
Tune in to see Maya’s fate tonight on Emmerdale, ITV, 7pm
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