Kara Tointon, best known as Dawn Swann in EastEnders and for winning the eighth season of Strictly Come Dancing, is the first to admit that she’s a worrier. And there are, she says, many worrying aspects to her latest role as Maria in The Sound of Music Live. ‘Singing is my Achilles heel. It’s unbelievably scary for me,’ she says. ‘It’s the first song, The Hills Are Alive, that I’m most worried about. Once I get through that, I’ll be all right.’
The real-life story of Maria, the novice nun from Salzburg, Austria, who became a governess to Captain von Trapp’s seven children and, eventually, his wife, has been adapted before, of course. The Sound of Music with original songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein debuted on Broadway in 1959. The film of The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews as Maria, premiered in 1965. There has even been a Sing-along-a Sound-of Music, where audience members sing to subtitles, karaoke-style, dressed up as nuns.
Kara as Maria Von Trapp Photo: ITV
Now the musical is to be broadcast live as a Christmas special for ITV, featuring five purpose-built sets that include 80 living trees and a sweeping staircase based on the von Trapp original. ‘It’s a celebration of something very heartfelt, very heart-warming,’ says Kara. She has rarely sung professionally before – yet now she is to sing some of musical history’s most iconic songs live on TV. ‘It’s important to push yourself into the unknown and do things that scare you,’ she says.
It’s that attitude that led her to win Strictly Come Dancing in 2010 with her handsome Russian dance partner Artem Chigvintsev, despite a torn ligament in her lower arm (she’d been practising back flips). She was rushed to hospital within hours of celebrating their win with a passionate kiss. The pair confirmed the romance their fans had been hoping for and went on to have a four-year relationship. ‘We’re still good friends,’ she says now.
Hard work and determination have marked her career. She debuted as a soap star in EastEnders at 21. Her roles since have extended to stage and film, including a highly acclaimed Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, alongside Rupert Everett and Dame Diana Rigg, in the West End in 2011; the bride of a Russian prince in TV series Mr Selfridge; and a Hitchcockian blonde in the film Last Passenger. She’s also acted alongside Felicity Kendal (Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking) and Ray Winstone (The Sweeney).
But perhaps her greatest achievement has been overcoming dyslexia. She was diagnosed aged seven and has the reading age of a 12-year-old. At school, she felt out of step. ‘I did feel quite down about it a lot of the time,’ she says.
With dance partner and ex-boyfriend Artem Chigvintsev Photo: BBC
We meet in a church hall in central London, where The Sound of Music Live cast are rehearsing. When Kara breaks for lunch, we talk over a bowl of soup in a nearby restaurant. At 32, she has the grace and athleticism you’d expect from someone who won a Glitterball Trophy for her salsa, and looks elegant in black jeans (Topshop) and heeled ankle boots (Dune). ‘I like mixing high street with designer labels – Stella McCartney and Isabel Marant are my favourites,’ she says.
She has small, neat features and is warm with an easy smile. But what comes as a surprise is the crying. Over and over again her eyes fill with tears. She breaks down in rehearsals after duetting Something Good with Julian Ovenden (Captain Georg von Trapp). ‘It’s one of my favourite songs,’ she explains. And again when she starts talking about her parents. ‘I owe everything to them – they made sure the dyslexia has never been a problem.’ I ask if they cry easily too. ‘They don’t cry! They don’t know where I get it from.’
"Someone once told me, if it’s only fear that’s holding you back, then do it"