Michaella Russell

Now that she has slipped into the skin of Charlie Holmes for more than six months, novice actress Michaella Russell is confident she is making headway in winning over her biggest detractors. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with her to find out how she is taking in all the attention (good and bad) and about Charlie’s downward spiral with her cocaine addiction…

IT is easy to judge someone when you haven’t spoken to them. And the criticism is even more brutal when it is an actor replacing another popular actor on a soap.

While this act is more prevalent on international soaps like when they brought in a new Thorne Forrester (The Bold and the Beautiful) or Will Horton (Days of Our Lives); in South Africa, it is seldom the case.

That is why when Isidingo aficionados learnt of Jay Anstey’s exit and Michaella Russell’s arrival, they reacted badly. In fact, they were filled with so much anger, the odds were stacked against Russell from day one.

Despite being hurt by the barbed comments in print and on social-networking sites, the model-turned-actress soldiered on. After all, it is one thing to grow a thick skin in the industry – but she is also human and, try as she did, she couldn’t avoid the mass disapproval.

During our chat last week, Russell says she wasn’t aware she was auditioning for Charlie Holmes. That detail was only made clear when she bagged the part.

“Once I had been properly briefed, I realised that I was replacing someone that was loved,” Russell says. “I realised there would be a sense of betrayal among loyal viewers and I anticipated I would have a bit of a rough ride and encounter resistance. I have massive respect for Jay and what she did with the character. Over time, I knew I would win them back and take the character further.

“I made a point of staying away from social media. Everyone has their own opinion. But it was that one good comment that you makes you feel it is all worthwhile.”

With so much baggage to deal with – and all this before she even got her head around the character, Russell reveals: “I was a little bit conflicted (when I started). I wanted the Charlie that people knew, but I also knew I was coming back as a different Charlie. She was a bit more mature, knew what she wanted to do with her life.

“I was given the freedom to bring my own spice, so to speak. And, honestly, I didn’t want to be a carbon copy of what Jay had done. That would also be insulting to the audience.”

In the storyline, Charlie’s addiction to drugs sees her spiralling down a dark path. The situation is acerbated by her losing Slu’s drugs.

The young actress says she had to do a bit of research to play the character with conviction; this included chatting to a psychologist who has worked with drug addicts.

“I had to engage with her previous storyline when she was raped, look at her estranged relationship with her father, Eddie, and her controlling mother. It is a challenge to take everything and walk forward with the character as life experiences mould you into who you are.

“What challenged me was feeling something. As a woman and a person, we build walls to protect ourselves. As an actress, you have to allow emotion to penetrate those walls. And that is how you bring truth to the storyline.”

Shedding light on Charlie’s mindset, Russell notes: “Never once would she admit that what she did was wrong. She has an addictive personality. Cocaine makes her feel euphoric. She is very manic. Charlie doesn’t believe that anyone has picked up on the fact that she is this way.”

Her reliance on drugs is not only fuelled by her strained relationship with her parents; she is gutted by Bradley spurning her.

“Both her parents want what’s best for Charlie. But I think it is tough for her father to show emotion. Her mother is controlling and this fills her with more rage. She is blinded to their best intentions.”

With every day a learning curve on the job, Russell admits it was hard to leave the character and switch off when she went home.

She laughs: “I took the character home with me sometimes. I feel sorry for my parents having to deal with this manic person. It is difficult to separate the character. I have much respect for actors who take on the emotional turmoil, switch off and walk away to their happy family.”

After several months on screen, Tonight asked her if she is getting some love from viewers.

“The tides have changed – thank goodness. I try not to take to heart what a negative review might say, unless it’s constructive. What can I do if they don’t like the shape of my face or the sound of my voice?”

In the meantime, the bubbly, self-confessed “off the wall” actress says she is loving the experience.

She teased: “I got my own version of acting school that I go to every day… and I get paid for it!”

That she can laugh off the negativity and focus on the positives is a marvellous trait. Hopefully, it will turn more foes into fans in the coming months. After all, perceptions are simply opinions in limbo sometimes.

Isidingo airs on SABC3 at 7.30pm on weekdays.