SHE only joined Coronation Street 18 months ago, but Natalie Gumede has already made a huge impact in an explosive storyline involving male domestic abuse.
“I'm still relatively new and to be part of that, and be trusted with that gift of a storyline, I feel very lucky,” says the 28-year-old actress who was nominated for Best Newcomer for her role as Kirsty Soames at the recent National Television Awards.
“It was really lovely people took the time to vote. I had no idea people would help me get to the shortlist because Kirsty's not a very likeable character. It's amazing that people see past that.”
The Colne actress made her debut as a policewoman in September 2011 and soon became romantically involved with car mechanic Tyrone Dobbs, played by Alan Halsall. But their relationship has been far from smooth.
Kirsty was seen to be manipulative and controlling but, after a brief split, they reunited when she discovered she was pregnant.
The pair set up home together and it was then that the psychological abuse escalated to violent attacks, with Tyrone frequently left battered and bruised.
“I knew she was going to be a bit of a sparring partner for Tina (played by Michelle Keegan), but they obviously saw something sinister in me. I'm not quite sure what that says about me, but anyway,” adds Natalie, laugh-ing.
Unsur-prisingly, her dark portrayal has garnered her status as one of the soap’s most memorable villains, but former Park High School student Natalie doesn't consider Kirsty to be a ‘baddie’ in the stereotypical sense.
“She's just someone who's really troubled. I don’t think it comes from moustache swirling,” says the actress. “It’s inevitable she’ll be called a villain for her awful behaviour but I don’t think the motivation is to hurt people. It's that she’s a very, very damaged individual.
“She's talked with Tyrone at length about the abuse she suffered (from her dad) and she had the opportunity to make it right, but I think pride and denial, and the fact she can't face that she's so like her father, means she's not learning from it and really on a downward spiral."
Terrified he'd no longer be able to see his daughter Ruby if he walked out, Tyrone decided to marry Kirsty. All was going to plan — until Kirsty discovered his romance with Fiz (Jennie McAlpine) and called off the wedding in a showdown at the altar.
"We filmed the church scenes over the course of two days," says Natalie, recalling her untraditional bright purple attire. "It was very Kirsty appropriate," she adds, chuckling.
"At one point I said I wanted black but they drew a line and said, 'No, you're going too far now.' So we went for purple. They made it [the dress] in three days and I thought they did an incredible job — although it's not what I'd personally choose."
Despite the drama of the wedding, Natalie says that, ironically, it was less stressful to film than the more intimate moments between herself and Halsall.
"Some of the pressure's off in a way, because there's so many cast members and they have to get a lot of shots, so they don't film as much as they do of you in the studio."
Indeed, a busy day on set can involve up to 15 scenes, and many more takes.
"We usually have so many scenes to do there's not enough time to indulge in distress. It's straight on to the next one," says Natalie, who's loved the recent turn of events.
In a dramatic twist, Kirsty is now accusing Tyrone of domestic abuse after she accidentally fell down the stairs during an argument.
"She's a very intelligent woman and she knows how to manipulate people. It's just another way of having power over Tyrone," Natalie explains. "Tyrone's the love of her life. I think that's the one piece of happiness she has and, throughout their relationship, despite all of her mistakes, he has at least appeared to have forgiven her.
"I think she thought she had a new start. Now her world's fallen apart. And if she can't have him then no one will. She's not willing to just walk away and let him be happy, no way."
To prepare for the storyline, Natalie and Alan Halsall both worked with the ManKind Initiative, which supports male victims of domestic abuse. Since the storyline began, calls to the charity's phone line have rocketed by 300 per cent.
"For the most part people have been really supportive and just really intrigued to see what happens next," says Natalie. "I certainly expected a lot of negative feedback, because she's not the most likeable character. But Coronation Street as a whole has told a really important story."
And ultimately she thinks the storyline's been tackled with the appropriate sensitivity. "Because it's made people reach out," says Natalie, a former member of Pendle Hippodrome Youth Theatre, who was 11 when she was chosen by the BBC to help present the North West segment of Children In Need.
She later attended the Italia Conti theatrical school before winning small parts in Emmerdale and Doctors, eventually landing her Corrie role.
"It's my first experience of something so huge and it's hard to take that in," says Natalie. "I had no idea how meaty the role was going to be, and how much I was going to be able to get my teeth into."
Natalie has admitted that her character has a shelf life, but viewers can be assured that it's not the end of Kirsty just yet.
"I think people will want to see a consequence for how she's behaved towards Tyrone, but I think all she's doing now is in aid of a reunion," says Gumede. "In her ideal world she thinks they've both made mistakes and there may be a way back."