Interview: Sharon Rooney on 'My Mad Fat Diary'

The star of E4's comedy drama tells Gabriel Tate about bringing a confessional journal to life

Every few years, E4 launches a series bringing a new generation of acting talent to the fore. ‘Skins’ had Jack O’Connell, Kaya Scodelario and a grown-up Nicholas Hoult. ‘Misfits’ featured Robert Sheehan, Lauren Socha and a pre-‘Downton’Jessica Brown Findlay.  And 2013 gives us ‘My Mad Fat Diary’, with another cast of up-and-comers led by its star, Sharon Rooney. Prior to winning the role, Rooney was interspersing stand-up with tours of Scottish schools, teaching kids about water safety as part of a Theatre in Education show. ‘I was auditioning for things without ever thinking I’d get them,’ she recalls. ‘A part like this wasn’t something I was even thinking of.’

‘Mad Fat Diary’ is a six-part adaptation of Rae Earl’s real-life journals published in 2007. It tells the story of troubled, overweight 16-year-old recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown into a provincial Lincolnshire town swirling with Britpop, booze and boys. Her swift acceptance into a new circle of friends oblivious to her past is at once reassuring and unsettling, her insecurities never far from the surface.

Sharon Rooney ponders life as Rae Earl in 'My Mad Fat Diary' Sharon Rooney ponders life as Rae Earl in 'My Mad Fat Diary'

Rooney is charming and utterly convincing, both in person and as Rae: sharp and funny in both guises, but on screen always suggesting she may be teetering on the edge of an abyss. The script from Tom Bidwell (himself an alumnus of C4’s showcase for young writers and directors, ‘Coming Up’) strikes an intelligent balance between comedy and potential tragedy, while a soundtrack boasting Pulp, Beastie Boys and Eels will likely prove irresistible to viewers of a certain age. It’s neither as smugly aspirational as ‘Skins’ could sometimes be, nor as flashy as ‘Misfits’. ‘It had to be honest,’ asserts Rooney. ‘There’s no sugar-coating – people watching have to believe it.’

It’s in no small part down to Rooney’s performance that Rae’s issues feel so familiar, even while the consequences are extreme. But she’s keenly aware of her responsibilities in the part. ‘I’d love for someone to watch it and think: tonight I’m not going to hurt myself, I’m going to give myself a break because I am quite a good person.’

Now 24, she describes herself as ‘a boring teenager’, but one who had as few doubts about her future as those around her. ‘When I was three, I went to a pantomime with my aunt and was dancing up and down on the seat. My aunt said: “She looks like she’s in her element’, and that was it. I decided my new name would be Ella Ment and I’d entertain the world!’

The world may have to wait a little longer, but an E4 audience receptive to ambitious, relatable drama is a decent start. Rooney doesn’t keep a diary, but 2013 might be the year for her to begin.

Time Out's tips for 2013

Ami Metcalf ('The Mimic')

A British Soap Award in 2010 for 'Doctors' was only the beginning – she was brilliant in Christmas's 'Call the Midwife' and as a young Kathy Burke in Sky comedy 'Walking and  Talking'.  Next up, a C4 sitcom.

Kevin Eldon ('It's Kevin!')

Not exactly a nbew face, but only TV commissioners can explain whay it's taken this long for the comedy cameo veteran par excellence to get his own sketch show on TV. Bravo BBC2 for taking the plunge.

Jenna-Louise Coleman ('Doctor Who')

As the franchise hits 50, the Doctor's new assistant follows Karen Gillan into the Tardis under greater scrutiny than ever. The Christmas special was a good start – the series comes in spring.

Sean Durkin ('Southcliffe')

The writer-director of cult hit 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' steps back behind the camnera for Tony 'Red Riding' Grissoni's upcoming C4 thriller about the aftermath of a shooting in an English market town.

Chloe Pirrie ('Black Mirror')

Nominated for Best Newcomer at the LFF for 'Shell', and soon to lead the third instalmaent of Charlie B rooker's bleak anthology satirising society's supine response to the march of technology.

‘My Mad Fat Diary' starts on Monday January 14, 10pm, E4