Fay Ripley: Cold Feet, hot property

The success of a certain thirtysomething drama propelled Fay Ripley to fame. Now she's one of Britain's most sought-after actresses. But can a talent for accents and bang-on comic timing prepare her for her new role as a star and mother-to-be?
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Over the years, I must have interviewed at least 6,789 actresses, all of whom seemed perfectly pleasant, but either had very little to say, or very little they would say. What's your favourite vegetable? "I think that is rather an intrusive question, and I'm not sure I like your tone. I wish only to discuss my oeuvre and massively acclaimed performances in both Casualty and The Bill." She may or may not be accompanied by her scary PR (Tiffany? Prunella? Or both, if they are Tiffanella Inc) who will interrupt at this point. "I thought I made it clear that favourite vegetables were not on the agenda. Now, unless you would like to ask my client about her recent, stunning appearance on Blankety Blank, I think your time is up."

And so, here I am, outside the little Lux cinema in Hoxton, east London, waiting for my 6,790th actress. Hoxton is meant to be achingly trendy, although, as far as I can see, it's pretty much just a building site interspersed with the odd startlingly chi-chi art gallery. I pace up and down, trying to keep awake, stifling yawns. This is all wholly unprofessional, I know. And, certainly, if I had the authority I would sack myself, pronto. I would ask myself who the hell I think I am. I would further ask myself: Have you ever been invited on to Blankety Blank? Quite. And I'm not sure I'd mind hearing any of this. I'm rubbish at this job. I should have been a vet.

Ah, here comes Miss Ripley, my 6,790th actress. At least, I think it's Fay. She was dark as the brilliant, deadpanning Mancunian housewife Jenny ("Shurrup, Payte") in Cold Feet, the smash-hit ITV thirtysomething drama series, but now she is very, very blonde. Her hair is beautiful, as sleek as glass. She is rather beautiful, too, with her sharp angles and almost glacial, blue-green eyes. And she can, I note instantly, do this fascinating thing where she looks all soft one minute, and tough as old boots the next.

We make for the bar next to the cinema. In here, I nudge her towards the big leather sofa at the back. (If I'm going to nap throughout, I might as well be comfy.) People clock Fay as we thread our way through. I ask if it bothers her, being recognised? "I love it!" she says. You love it? "I love it!" she repeats. You don't feel that the public's off-screen interest in you denigrates your work as an actress? You don't fear that, ultimately, it'll undermine your ability to perform convincingly should you ever be invited on to Blankety Blank? "All actors like to be recognised and any who say they don't are probably lying. People say, 'I saw you on telly last night.' So? I mean, what do you expect? You were on telly last night."

She has been invited on to Blankety Blank, as it happens. And? "I was very tempted." She's already done The Bill. "I played a woman whose nanny is accused of nicking things from her." Was it fun? "All I can remember is too much make-up and the absolutely terrible Bill lighting." I ask her if she can recall the first time she was recognised? Absolutely, she says. It was just after Cold Feet started to take off. "I was in Marks & Spencer, when a sales assistant came over and said: 'I saw you on telly last night, and thought you were great.' " Fay says she went quite bonkers with excitement. "I was so thrilled. I said: 'Why did you think I was great? Which scene, in particular, did you think I was great in? Did you think, when I did such-and-such, that was great? Or should I have done it another way?' In the end, I even asked her to dinner." You didn't! "I did!" Did she come? "No. She thought I was totally mental, and quickly directed me to the frozen prawns. Hah!"

Fay is warm, chatty and funny. Fay has yet to employ the cold-blooded services of Tiffanella Inc. I no longer fear a wholly unprofessional snooze coming on. Anyway, Fay is famous now. Very famous. Jenny did that for her. Fay was marvellous as Jenny ("Shurrup Payte") in Cold Feet. Fay's a terrifically watchable actress, with bang-on comic timing. It's good that she's made it because, for a long time, it looked as if she wouldn't. It took her three goes just to get into drama school. "I just kept trying. I was the Darius of drama college."

And then came a lot of jobs she never got. Your most humiliating audition, Fay? It was for Les Misérables, she thinks. "It was on the main stage, and I'm not a proper singer. I chose a Barbra Streisand song, which was rather inappropriate. I got three lines in then I heard this tapping sound and a 'Thank you very much. Next, please.' I burst into tears. The company manager then put his arm around me and told me I'd been terribly good, which only made me sob harder."

Poor Fay. Still, she went on to act with Robert De Niro in Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein. Well, not "act with" exactly. It's more that she got to play a corpse on a slab while he acted round her. He was very sweet, she says. Afterwards, he asked her how she thought he'd done. "And I think I said: 'Very good, Mr De Niro, although you could have spoken up a bit.' Aghhhh!" The scene was later cut from the film.

Whatever, throughout most of her twenties (she's now 36) she got along by performing as a clown at children's parties. She was... wait for it... Miss Chief. "And I was good. Bloody good. I was crap at tricks but, apart from that, I was bloody good. Three- to five-year-olds were my catchment. I couldn't do eight-year-olds, especially boys, who just wanted to hurt me." What did you wear? "A really crappy pair of big dungarees and shiny red shoes." Did you paint on a clown face? "For the first year, but then Miss Chief got lazy and stopped." I bet some of the parents were awful. Yes, she says, some were. "You had those who wanted everything focused on their child. They'd say: 'It's Jemima's birthday, so why didn't she win pass-the-parcel?' "

Fay, actually, is about to become a parent herself. Fay is three months pregnant. Fay's husband is Daniel Lapaine, an Australian actor who co-stars with Fay in I Saw You. This is the romance/comedy/drama currently going out on ITV on Tuesday nights. It's not, as Fay says, "going to change lives", but it is charming viewing nevertheless. I tell her I've seen I Saw You and I've seen Daniel in it and he is dazzlingly gorgeous. Fay is ecstatic about landing him. When she first met him, "I thought that he was gay because he was really good-looking and talking to me." Daniel is quite into opera and, last year, directed one at the Sydney Opera House. Fay is not into opera but went to support him, obviously. "I saw his opera and The Marriage of Figaro." What was his opera called? "Oh, God, I can't remember. He's going to kill me. I thought it was incredibly beautiful and dramatic, but all the singing doesn't half get in the sodding way."

Fay and Daniel have been thinking about baby names, but have only decided on what they're going to rule out. These include Wayne and Elaine, "as Wayne Lapaine or Elaine Lapaine would be a bit much, don't you think?" Fay herself was nearly called Marbella because that is where she was conceived. She's glad she was not called Marbella. I say it could have been worse. It could nearly have been Torremolinos, say. Or Rhyl. "Rhyl Ripley," she says, trying it on for size. We agree that, in fact, it has quite a nice ring about it.

I ask if Fay is thinking about leaving her Hoxton flat, now a baby is on the way. She says that she and Daniel have been looking at houses in Islington. They're amazing houses, she says. But? "Nurseries, kitchens with Agas. A bloody Aga!" They've stopped looking now. "We just bottled out."

She thinks that they'll stay in Hoxton and expand their flat. She adds that someone has said to her that she should get the baby's name down for a good school now. Is this true? I say it seems a weeny bit premature to me. She says that there is a school opposite their flat. Well, I say, there you go then. "I keep looking at the kids in the playground, wondering if they'll be suitable playmates for my child. And they do look very sweet. But then I see them coming out of school, peering into my car, and then they don't look so sweet. The buggers want to nick my radio cassette..."

I wonder if, come the baby, she'll do Hello!, like so many other celeb mums. She thinks not. She's amazed at the people who do Hello!. "They have such foul homes, awful, but they're not the least embarrassed about inviting people in. It's extraordinary." I say that I like seeing the nurseries of newborn babies, my theory being that the more overdecorated it is, the more that child will grow up to hate its parents. Do newborns really require hand-painted Alice in Wonderland murals with themed rabbit-hole cot and Mad Hatter wardrobe? Who is that for?

Fay says that she knows what I mean, and will have to watch herself. She is spectacularly houseproud, likes things spick and span, is well into home-improvements. In the Eighties, between clowning appointments, she even took paint-effect courses, and was probably responsible for rag-rolling half of London. She wonders if she'll be able to put up with a young child's mess. "I'm determined not to keep ushering toys back into their boxes," she says. I say, look at it this way. Leave Lego all over the floor because, at some point, you're guaranteed to stand on a piece in bare feet and when that happens, you'll find yourself hopping about madly for at least 20 minutes. It saves going to the gym. Also, while we're about it, do your post-birth pelvic-floor exercise because, if you don't, you really will wet yourself whenever you sneeze. She says she knows about the pelvic-floor business, thank you very much. "I'm actually doing them right NOW!" she adds.

Most people think she's from up north, because of Jenny and that Manchester accent. In fact, she was born into a well-to-do London family. Her father is a businessman, while her mother now sells antiques in Lewes, East Sussex. Fay says that she decided to become an actress because she had an excellent drama teacher at school. "She made me feel good about myself, and I just didn't excel in anything else." Your worst subjects? Science, she thinks. And sport. "I pretended to have my period from the age of seven."

At 16, her father wanted to send her to a Swiss finishing school, but she wouldn't have it. In a way, she regrets this – "I still can't set a proper table." She went to the local technical college instead, where she did A-levels in drama, art and communication studies. Communication studies? "You're taught how to write a letter." Then it was the three goes at trying to get into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She says that she couldn't believe it when, finally, she did get in. "The head of the school phoned to tell me, and I said: 'Are you sure it's me. Are you sure you haven't mixed me up with someone else? My name is Fay Ripley. That's F-A-Y...'." She still thinks that they might have mixed her up with someone else. "I had a No1 haircut back then and wore a suit. On my first day, the head of year called me 'Alan'. I think I got one of the men's places. I made sure to grow my hair and wear an uplifting bra after that."

Now, though, she's arrived, thanks to Cold Feet and what she brought to Jenny. She left midway through the last series, yes, but this was as much a lifestyle decision as anything. She just didn't want to live out of a suitcase in Manchester any more. She wanted to be in Hoxton with her husband. I say that I'd heard that the main characters are now being offered bag-loads of money to make a fifth series. Tempted? She says she thinks she might do the one episode, "if they write my pregnancy in". But then again, she might not. She is looking forward to taking time off, lolling about, watching daytime telly. She loves Ricki and Lorraine, but not Kilroy, who, we agree, has gone one sunbed too far.

"Shall I tell you something really sad?" she confides. Go on, then. "I missed Tricia the other day, so I phoned them up to ask if they could send me the tape." Fay? "Yes." That's actually one of the saddest things I've heard in my life. Now, cheer us all up and recount that Les Misérables business again.

She has to rush now, to another appointment. She's yet to do Casualty, by the way, "although I expect I will. Everyone does Casualty at some point". I hope my 6,791st actress is as warm and chatty and real as Fay. Still, there is always vet school.

'I Saw You' is on ITV 1 on Tuesday at 9pm