Following the news that EastEnders’ shocking domestic abuse storyline featuring Gray and Chantelle Atkins is to reach a devastating climax next week, actor Toby-Alexander Smith tells us more about what’s in store and how we dealt with the storyline.
You must have done a lot of research, especially with domestic abuse figures sadly rising during lockdown, what did you learn and how did that inform your acting?
When I was speaking to Woman’s Aid, they were telling me how many women are contacting their Live Chat service to say their partners are using the pandemic as a tool to their advantage. I was shocked. It was awful before, no doubt about it, but no one could have predicted how devastating Covid-19 would be to those in abusive relationships. To even comprehend that something as devastating as this virus and people have actually used it to cause more harm is just awful. And that’s one of the things that I really discussed long and hard with Woman’s Aid. Since lockdown, there has been a staggering increase in deaths, a staggering increase in people reaching out, so for Gray I think lockdown just catapulted his behaviour and his psyche into becoming as bad as it could possibly be.
Even though the scenes are hard to watch, tell us why you think they’re important to show?
Especially when it ends so tragically with Chantelle’s death. It’s certainly going to be a shock for the audience and I think that it is important that it concludes in such a tragic way. So we’re encouraging women to speak out before that does happen because sadly it is happening. And it’s happening more and more frequently. And the importance of this storyline is to give the women courage to speak out and to know that people are listening and to know that there are services out there to help. As shocking as it is to watch hopefully it will give the survivors out there the courage to reach out and get help.
Working on this storyline has made you very passionate about raising awareness of domestic
violence and abuse. Tell us about your work with Woman’s Aid?
I started working with Woman’s Aid as soon as I knew we were doing the storyline. Having them
there was invaluable, it was such a complex character to get my head around and I really wanted to delve into the human aspect of how a person could even behave in this way. Woman’s Aid have been fantastic in highlighting the statistics as a reminder of how awful it is and how important it is to really raise awareness. We all know about domestic abuse but when you sit down and look at the facts, it’s a bit of a shock as to how severe it really is.
How do you hope this storyline will help victims of domestic abuse?
I think the biggest thing is for it to spark conversation. We’ve all heard stories during lockdown of statistics rising, and I hope this storyline will spark a lot of conversation. It’s not just the fact that Gray kills Chantelle, it’s all the other little incidents along the way, I think we’ve covered the whole of that spectrum, that not one single bit of his behaviour has been acceptable. I just hope that anyone experiencing any sort of behaviour like that will talk about it and relate to it. I’ve already been told by Woman’s Aid that people have contacted them and said I think my friend is in a similar situation to the Gray and Chantelle situation in EastEnders.
How do you get into the head space of a character like Gray? It must be hard as the character gets so dark.
A lot of research and understanding why it is such an issue if he doesn’t get what he wants by the end of that scene, how that’s going to affect him. If he doesn’t get his way, why has he got these triggers and why do they send him to that place. In terms of getting into that mindset, there’s various things you can do as an actor. I use music a lot, that’s been a massive tool for me.
How did filming the scenes with social distancing go?
When I read the scripts I thought they were very ambitious, I really didn’t have a clue how they were going to film it . We were very lucky that we had a director called Toby Frow and a fantastic crew. Their imagination and ambition to try new things and be risky with different tools like Perspex screens. They would put it on the table and we had to just trust that the end result was going to pay off. They had planned it so well and it was so well organised that it just didn’t affect the performance. We came in for a few rehearsals to mark out a lot of the social distancing. It became a bit like a dance, a lot of the scenes especially the longer ones we really had to choreograph because myself, Jess, the crew, we’d all have to be two meters apart.
The scenes between you and Jessica are so tense, you both give incredible performances. How was working with Jess?
She’s brilliant. The thing with playing both characters is that you have to get into the gritty stuff and she is not afraid to do that. It’s so important in playing these kind of roles that you have to be completely exposed, and be vulnerable and show every side to the audience and she’s thrown
herself into that, she’s tough. When she’s had to literally throw herself on the floor, she obviously has back-pads on and things like that, but she’s thrown herself down which makes the scene believable. She’s been brilliant in that sense. Then coming straight into this storyline after lockdown, we were lucky that we’ve had so long to build that trust and that relationship and that chemistry. We both went for it and I think she’s absolutely fantastic in it.
How has been the public reaction to you and Gray and how do you deal with that?
The comments on social media were initially a shock. No one wants to wake up to a stream of
tweets tagging you in things when they absolutely despise the character. You have to absolutely
detach yourself from that. I’ve certainly got my head around that now and actually I encourage it. I hope that over the next few weeks, people will be really loud on social media. I hope Gray gets mentioned in every tweet imaginable about domestic abuse and how wrong it is. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s more important that this is helping survivors of domestic abuse, at the end of the day I can just turn my phone off.
If you have been affected by the issues associated with this storyline, visit https://www.womensaid.org.uk/
EastEnders airs Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Stream EastEnders via BBC iPlayer.