Former EastEnders star and Hertfordshire-born Charlie Brooks talks to Absolutely

charlie brooks headshot

Charlie Brooks tells Absolutely how her latest National Theatre role echoes her own soul-searching life journey

A soap star’s existence might seem cushty – a well-paid job, regular work, and fame.
But after more than 20 years playing villain Janine Butcher on soap drama EastEnders, a job she truly relished, Charlie Brooks is embracing a new phase and proving that there is life after a soap. 

“Janine was such a big part of my life and so was EastEnders – it was an extraordinary platform. I never realised where Janine would go and who she would become. But now I am looking to be seen as something other than Janine,” reveals Charlie. “Do I regret anything? There are things I’d do differently. I compromised who I was, and I made career choices that I wouldn’t make now.”

Charlie joined the cast of EastEnders in 1999 playing out several dark storylines as the scheming husband-murdering Janine. She temporarily departed over the years with her final exit in 2022.

Charlie is now taking centre stage in the National Theatre’s production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the first major stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel. It blends magic with memory, taking audiences on an epic journey to a childhood once forgotten. Currently on tour, I chat to Charlie hours before her next performance in Southend. The show has visited 29 towns and cities across the UK and Ireland, finally transferring to London’s West End this month. 

laurie ogden sis charlie brooks ursula and trevor fox dad in the ocean at the end of the lane. credit pamela raith

“It’s been such a fantastic gig. I was walking with one of the cast members, Daniel Cornish, and although we haven’t finished our run of this play, we are aware of the end. There is always a period of mourning after you finish a role where you’ve formed tight relationships and friendships,” says the 42-year-old mum to Kiki. “The creative experience has been amazing; I’ve never done a theatre show for this long, so it’s a real opportunity to gain confidence on the stage.”

Charlie has appeared in theatre productions including All in a Row at Southwark Playhouse, A Streetcar Named Desire at Leicester Curve and The Play I Wrote for Bill Kenwright. Palpably fizzing with enthusiasm for her current role as people-pleasing Ursula Monkton, Charlie believes there are some parallels with her own personal journey of self-discovery. She describes herself as a ‘work in progress’. “I’ve always been curious and seeking in some way. When I hit my late 30s, I was even more curious about spirituality, my potential and eager to know who I am as a human being and understand my behaviours without escaping or numbing out.

“I gave up alcohol, which was a massive turning point for me, not that I was drinking every day, but I liked to party,” she says. “I finally was available to discover myself, what I want and my purpose in life. I love acting and I’ve been lucky to have enjoyed many jobs, but I abandoned myself. So, I became still and quiet, did some coaching and focused on where I want to be. Life is about staying versatile. 

“The play has been transformative in so many ways, it’s timely that it came with these people at this exact time in my life. This play gets deeper and deeper, where does reality end and imagination begin – it’s so intriguing. It couldn’t have timed itself better,” gushes the 2012 winner of ITV’s survival show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. 

charlie brooks ursula and laurie ogden sis inthe ocean at the end of the lane. credit pamela raith

A happy childhood and supportive parents served Charlie well. Born in Ware, where her father owned a shop, the family later moved to North Wales, but she still recalls fond memories of driving past the Galleria down the A1 and visiting friends in Hertfordshire.

At the tender age of 13 she moved to London to begin her drama training at Ravenscourt Theatre School in Hammersmith and aged 17 was cast as Janine. She admits that leaving home at such an early age held some trauma without her “realising at the time”.

“I grew up in a small town where there weren’t acting opportunities. My drama teacher encouraged me to go to drama school. It’s incredible how one person can change the trajectory of your whole life,” she smiles. “My parents were supportive and mustered the money to get me to London.”

After experiencing first-hand the difficulties of breaking into the industry and the financial commitment needed, Charlie has built a learning platform dedicated to making the arts accessible working in partnership with her brother Ben and sister-in law Emma.

“Iampro started organically on Instagram, and we received investment to build a platform,” Charlie explains. “It’s grown and grown! I wanted to create something that people can easily access from high-quality coaching and create opportunities for those who can’t afford to go to drama school. Our mission is to create a pathway into the industry.”

When she isn’t acting or working on Iampro, Charlie spends time with her 19-year-old daughter Kiki, who is following the acting path. “Kiki is moving to New York in September to study experimental theatre at NYU, so she’ll be acting, directing and producing,” Charlie delightfully announces.

charlie brooks ursula and keir ogilvy boy in the ocean at the end of the lane. c. brinkhoff moegenburg

“I am in awe of her and equally terrified. She has always rejected any help from me until she came to see Ocean at the End of the Lane. ‘Wow, you’re really good’ were her words and for the first time ever she asked me for some support with her A-levels. I burst into tears and thought ‘finally’. She is obsessed with the play; she’s seen it four times.”

As if Charlie didn’t have enough on her plate, she has teamed up with Ann Summers to design a sex toy, the U, to benefit women and their bodies. She describes the endeavour as “a wild idea, but an educational piece which led me on a journey of exploration and self-belief”.

An avid reader, Charlie is also studying for a degree in Arts and Languages at the Open University – deferring her studies until she finishes her current role. “I had insecurities about not being clever enough because I went straight to drama school. I wanted to learn how to learn. I am not an academic thinker or a great student, but I’ve learned to trust in myself more and think more academically.”

With EastEnders playing such an integral part of her life, I ask whether she is keeping that door open. “I don’t know what the future holds, so I can’t say about returning to EastEnders,” she teases. “I’m in the process of creating something from the other side of the stage, I don’t know where it will lead. I am in talks about some TV work, and I’d love to do more theatre, collaborating with new writers and getting outside of my comfort zone. Right now, I feel like a bull in a gate.”

Charlie Brooks is starring in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, playing at the Noël Coward Theatre from 11 October-25 November. Tickets and more information can be found at oceanonstage.com

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