It's a shame that Sylvester Stallone didn't consider including a female for the forthcoming sequel to his retro action movie The Expendables. If he had, he could've done worse than cast Michelle Ryan. We might know her as ex-Albert Square resident Zoe Slater. But the Americans associate the former EastEnders star with The Bionic Woman, the 2007 reboot of the 1970s show that deserved to send Ryan's career A-list. Instead, with a Hollywood writers' strike blighting it just when it needed the most nurturing, it was nipped in the bud after just eight episodes.
Still, the short-lived show proved the Enfield-born actress more than capable of lining up alongside Arnie, Van Damme and Sly Stallone. "I love doing action, I love doing martial arts," she says when we meet. "There's almost something balletic about it." Having trained in the Israeli fighting style Krav Maga, it's quite disconcerting to think that this seemingly sweet-natured 28-year-old could probably twist my arm from its socket without even blinking.
She says such techniques are now ingrained in her brain. "Something got switched, some wire, after the training. Even when I walk around now, there is a spatial awareness which I didn't have before… just being aware of somebody behind you. Obviously I'm not a violent person, I don't like violence, but I would definitely go into defending myself if the situation arose. It's just in me now." Men, apparently, find this intimidating – not least when she demonstrates her self-defence moves at parties. "By the end of it, they do look a bit scared in their eyes!"
Like Kate Beckinsale, who has forged her name in Hollywood thanks to the Underworld action franchise, Ryan is not one of those British actresses building her career in petticoat-and-bonnet roles – something Noel Clarke tapped into for his film 188.8.131.52, when she played a ruthless diamond thief with enough moves to put down Jason Bourne. Never mind the glamorous appearance – long dark locks, piercing blue eyes, bright red lips – the athletic-looking Ryan has all the physicality of a young Sigourney Weaver.
As if to prove it, this year sees her go from two new Brit films, boxing drama The Man Inside and horror-comedy Cockneys vs Zombies, to a West End production of Cabaret in the autumn. She'll play Sally Bowles, the role made famous by Liza Minnelli, who won an Oscar for the 1972 film version. It's undoubtedly her biggest challenge to date, but she sounds anything but fearful. "People keep saying that Cabaret is going to be so tough," she says. "We'll see. By the end I might be hobbling around, but I'm excited to be singing and dancing every night."
Classy, sexy, provocative – it's just what Ryan needs, given that her current film slate look set to bolster that ballsy screen persona of hers. For all its silliness, Cockneys vs Zombies sees her play an "aggressive" bank robber named Katy, who sets about cleaning up a plague of the living dead with a samurai sword. Brandishing her blade like Uma Thurman's Bride from Kill Bill, it'll come as no surprise to learn that Ryan requested her character carry such a weapon. "They look great on screen," she says bluntly.
Written and directed by Dan Turner, The Man Inside is a different, more serious proposition. Her face smeared with Goth make-up, she plays Alexia, a recovering heroin addict who gets involved with a young boxer (Ashley "Bashy" Thomas) being trained by her father (Peter Mullan). "She's very complex – that's why I liked her," says Ryan. "She's very damaged: she's coming off heroin, and she's in quite a dark place. But she still manages to have the space and compassion for other people."
While she may not get in the ring, The Man Inside shows just how capable Ryan is of sparring in a very male-dominated environment. "Most of my cousins are boys, so I'm used to being around boys," she says. Something of a tomboy, as a teenager she wasn't into playing dress-up – unless it was on stage. "I think I was too outdoorsy. I was like, 'Can't be bothered to brush the hair. Just put it up, with no make-up…'" Her mother, who works for the cosmetics giant Clinique, must have cringed.
After a West End production of Grease fired her imagination, Ryan enrolled in a local drama group when she was 10. "I was there every moment I could be. I didn't really like school! I had friends, but I didn't really fit in, so I loved going to my drama." At 15, she won her role on EastEnders. After five years, she got out of soap jail, but not without difficulties. "I remember I was in the US doing pictures for Bionic Woman at this hotel, and I heard someone go, 'Zoe! Zoe!' I don't think I'll ever get away from it completely."
That said, from soap to sci-fi to stage, Ryan is determined to prove her diversity – even if The Bionic Woman disappointment caused her to return to the UK for "a re-evaluation". "I had ticked so many boxes. You go off and do the big production, and then you go 'Oh that's it. I've done it now. Where do I go from here?'" Does she feel she has unfinished business in Hollywood? She seems thrown, momentarily. "Erm, well, I think, I think… do I think there's unfinished business? Possibly. I think that's a really interesting question you've asked. And if I'm going to be honest, I think… possibly."
While a Broadway transfer for Cabaret could yet show the Americans what they're missing, you sense that Ryan is unsettled by thoughts of a Hollywood career. "If you get stuck in that system, in LA, I don't know how you would stay amongst everything that's real," she says. "I think it's so important as an actor that you hang on to your own inner compass, because so many people want to guide you – 'This is what you should you be doing'. But I want to do different things." Maybe they're just going to have to come and get her. Sly, are you listening?
'The Man Inside' opens on 27 July. 'Cockneys vs. Zombies' opens in September. 'Cabaret' plays at London's Savoy Theatre from 3 October
This story appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar: The Indispensable Guide to Arts & Culture.