Her Emmerdale character’s life might be spiralling out of control but Scots soap star Natalie J Robb is starting a new decade feeling happier, healthier and more grounded than ever.
During a dramatic decade in the Yorkshire Dales, Natalie’s character Moira Barton has been at the centre of hard-hitting storylines involving drugs, deaths, affairs and murder.
The drama has only intensified in recent months, as Moira’s affair with farm-hand Nate – revealed as her husband Cain’s long-lost son – has thrown her world into chaos.
Abandoned by her husband, sons and her deceitful lover, Moira has once again turned to drink to drown her sorrows.
In complete contrast, Natalie has been alcohol-free for over a year and says banning booze has had a huge impact on her lifestyle.
“I challenged myself to Dry January last year as a health kick and it felt so good I just kept going with it,” she told P.S. “The first few months were the hardest, socially, but after that, I was surprised by how easy it was.
“There’s a pressure in society to drink. I’m not saying that I won’t ever have a drink again but I won’t have the same relationship with it.
“I used to drink every weekend but when you think about how long it takes your liver and kidneys to process alcohol, all you’re doing is topping up. That scared me.
“Now I’ve got so much more energy and I’m more productive. And I don’t miss the two-day hangovers.”
Natalie, 45, says ditching drink has also made her demanding schedule on set more bearable.
“It’s weird playing a drunk again. They always say the best way to play drunk is to try to act sober!
“Because Moira is an upset and nasty drunk, those scenes have been draining.
“She’s using drink as a crutch and goes on a real downward spiral.
“We were doing around 12 scenes every day and it wasn’t light dialogue. These were tough scenes, so the extra energy I had from not drinking helped.”
Despite Moira’s ups and downs, the Bellshill-born actress relishes the opportunity to play a strong, complex and sexually confident woman in her 40s.
“I certainly don’t see myself as a sex symbol…I’d need longer legs for a start! But it’s flattering,” said Natalie, regarding the attention she still receives from fans.
“When you’re in your 40s, I think that’s when a lot of people feel really sexy because they know what they want.
“This age is when you flourish. You have a greater sense of who you are. You’re more grounded. That means you can be pickier and suffer no fools…in theory.”
Right now, Natalie only has room for one man in her life – her Japanese Akita and Rottweiler cross rescue dog, Bronson.
Her hectic work schedule and daily 45-minute commute from her home in North Yorkshire to the Emmerdale studios in Leeds leaves little time for anything else but for now, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s a beauty to being on your own,” added Natalie. “It sounds clichéd but you do get to know yourself better and discover what you like and what you don’t. When I was younger, I was guilty of not liking my own company. Now I’m the opposite. I’m single and happy.”
Natalie has been a familiar face on TV for three decades. Her big break came at 14 when she was cast as Take The High Road’s rebel teen Trish McDonald in 1990.
She moved to London in her early 20s and went on to land a string of roles, in The Bill, Taggart, Holby City and EastEnders, before joining Emmerdale in 2009.
“Going down to London was daunting because I felt like a small fish in a very big pond,” said Natalie. “But when you’re young you have no fear. That creeps in more as we get older.
“My motto is ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’. It’s the title of a book by Susan Jeffers, which I discovered years ago and still have on my bedside table.
“It’s about going for what you want, not putting things off, getting out of your comfort zone. That has always stayed with me and it’s all worked out for me so far.”
Natalie attended drama classes at the RSAMD in Glasgow from the age of nine.
“I was painfully shy as a child. I think I ended up being an actress to help express myself,” she said. “That shyness is still in me, it doesn’t go away. I loved Doris Day and grew up watching old movies like High Society. I fell in love with the colour and fantasy of it all.
“With acting, you’re trying to find the truth in something and make people believe it. When audiences believe it, it’s the best thing.”
While her recent storylines have been a little grim, prankster Natalie is keen to keep the mood on set light.
“I’m a massive child. I’m always playing jokes on my co-stars and crew and I’m always having a laugh. That’s the thing about not drinking, I’ve got far too much energy. I work out with my trainer three times a week doing weight training and then I do what other cardio I can.”
Natalie’s fitness goals were temporarily put on hold when she was injured on set.
“I broke my toe doing a love scene with Jurell Carter (Nate) in a caravan!” she laughed. “You couldn’t swing a cat in there, never mind a 6ft 3 Adonis. I just moved my foot up and I stubbed it.
“It hurt so much I couldn’t speak and my eyes were watering. Then it turned black and I had to go to hospital. It was fractured.
“I couldn’t train for a while after that so I had more energy than normal and was driving everybody mad!”
Natalie still finds the work rewarding and challenging after a decade in The Dales.
“The schedule is so fast. Sometimes I don’t know how we do it. It’s a real challenge but it helps keep your craft polished.
“Working on soaps is the most challenging job you’ll ever do as an actor. You have to come up with the goods very quickly and make it convincing. We work incredibly hard.
“Yesterday I was filming with a gun and a rifle, I’ve done underwater shoots, and other stunt work, which keeps it interesting.
“Soaps like Emmerdale are still getting the viewing figures and that’s incredible considering all the choice there is now.
“It tackles important issues and subjects but is still a kind of escapism people can relate to. Maybe it’s just comforting…apart from when you follow Moira’s story.”
But Natalie is convinced Moira will overcome her demons.
“Deep down she has that survival instinct all strong women have, so I think she’ll pull herself out of this.
“Emmerdale has a lot of strong female characters and I’m really lucky to keep getting these challenging storylines. I’m excited to see what they have in store for me this year.”
High Road was my soap school
Working on Take the High Road helped Natalie hone her craft and paved the way for her life in soaps.
She joined the show in 1990 as wild child Trish McDonald at 14.
“It was very important to me and gave me all the training I have now,” said Natalie.
“A big thing was learning how to shoot scenes in multi-cam, where you do an entire take with several cameras filming at once from different angles.
“You can’t get that training elsewhere. We do it on Emmerdale. It’s something a lot of actors struggle with initially, so it was a really good grounding.”
The 40th anniversary of the fondly-recalled Scottish soap falls next month. It entertained viewers from 1980 until 2003 as they followed the love lives and antics of Glendarroch folk.
Game of Thrones star James Cosmo, River City favourite Eileen McCallum and Holby City’s Joe McFadden also appeared on the show.
“The cast and crew were like an extended family,” added Natalie.
“Sadly I’m only still in touch with Joe, who played my brother Gary. We see each other occasionally in London.”
Natalie has fond memories of filming in the scenic village of Luss on the shores of Loch Lomond.
“When I come back to Scotland, I often go to Luss because I’m very fond of it. It’s such a beautiful place.”
Emmerdale, ITV, Mon-Fri, 7pm
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