Cara Theobold:
Downton and the undead

Wakefield actor Cara Theobold is going from Downton Abbey to battling zombies in new ITV comedy Zomboat

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Like so many actors, the performance bug bit Cara Theobold at a very early age, while at primary school in Wakefield. It was a calling that would soon lead her to serve time below stairs at Downton Abbey, and now to a very different role on ITV horror comedy Zomboat, in which four survivors of a zombie apocalypse try to make their way from Birmingham to London on a canal narrowboat.

“I’d always been interested in acting and my dad got me into a youth theatre when I was about eight or nine, doing plays that were performed at the variety theatre in Leeds,” Theobold explains. “Getting to do big shows when I was very little kind of gave me the bug. I did a lot in school and then, when I was 18, I moved to London to go to drama school.”

Unlike most actors who emerge from drama school and spend years searching for that elusive big break, Theobold’s came before she’d even sat her final exams when she was offered the role of Downton kitchen maid Ivy Stuart. Surely such a lucky break must have come as a relief, with so many jobbing actors desperately seeking work?

“Well, you’d be surprised!” she laughs. “It took the pressure off, I suppose, getting my first job, but then I had the pressure of being on one of the biggest TV shows in the country and all over the world really. That was definitely an exciting but sometimes daunting experience, but I’m very grateful to have had that.”

Although she’s also appeared in serious dramas such as The Syndicate and Kiri, a very different career path has emerged since Downton finished, with Theobold co-starring with Susan Wokoma in Channel 4’s demon-busting comedy Crazyhead, and taking a supporting role in the British movie Ibiza Undead, in which a group of youngsters’ wild holiday gets wilder with the arrival of zombies.

“It does seem like a theme, doesn’t it?” muses the 29 year old. “I think it’s the comedy that gets me excited first, but I love all things superhero and adventure – saving the world-type stuff. It’s always fun to find a little bit of a superhero in every character in you play. Of course, it’s slightly easier if you’re playing characters who are trying to save the world or escape some kind of apocalypse. It is funny that I keep doing this kind of genre comedy. I love it, the extremes of what you get to do. It’s really fun pushing those boundaries.”

In terms of extremes, the first episode of Zomboat sees her battering her first zombie to death with a rolling pin, and the mayhem only gets more absurd from there. “Zombies are quite messy to kill so that is definitely something that you can look forward to. Also in the first episode, I expertly use a plant pot to do a netball throw at another one’s head, which I definitely did. I just want you to put that in print – that I absolutely nailed that shot right in the head! There’s lots of very creative ways that they end up having to kill zombies.”

It all sounds rather bloodthirsty, especially for viewers who are more used to seeing her make Hugh Bonneville’s dinner, but Theobold insists it’s all in the best possible taste. “That’s the thing about zombies,” she laughs. “A lot of zombies are going to die but then they are already dead, so… it’s fine!”

In the show Cara’s character Jo is a
self-centred hedonist, while her nerdy sister Kat is the one who has seen every horror movie, memorised every episode of The Walking Dead, and thinks she knows what to do now that it’s happening for real.

“She’s very feisty, very quick, and she’s got a very dry wit and she’s not afraid to tear other people down,” says Theobold of her character. “Jo’s world completely revolves around Jo. She’s not even being mean to other people on purpose – she just sees things very much from her point of view. She takes no prisoners when she’s trying to get what she wants, which is very fun to play. I say she’s kind of like the Hulk, in that she’s always angry underneath. She’s got a very fiery temper, very quick to explode, which is actually a very useful skill whilst in a zombie apocalypse!”

She also has a Birmingham accent – a new challenge for Theobold. “I had to pull that out of the bag and work on that. Leah Brotherhead, who plays my sister Kat, is from Hull so we’re two Yorkshire girls playing Brummies!”

Also along for the ride are Hamza Jeetooa and Ryan McKen as bickering best mates Sunny and Amar, who stow away on the girls’ stolen canal boat. Four people on a canal boat besieged by the undead is certainly a change in scale from the sprawling ensemble of Downton, but it’s a change that Theobold found refreshing.

“It’s nice because we got to explore the tiny details of the relationships within the gang, whether it’s between me and my sister or me and the boys. There are lots of different, very amusing double acts within the foursome that have their own very specific personalities. It’s not just about running away from zombies.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Theobold’s career is that she’s also playing one of the most popular characters in the world right now – it’s just not a role that you’ll be familiar with unless you’re an avid gamer. In the blockbuster online game Overwatch, she voices the character of Tracer, who is not only the game’s cover star but also appeared as a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.

“It’s one of those things that I don’t necessarily get recognised for but when someone knows, then it obviously really means a lot to them. It’s such an amazing thing. I guess I started working on Overwatch maybe five years ago now, or maybe even five and a half years. She is one of the coolest characters I’ve ever played, even though it’s just my voice.”

This also means there are thousands of devoted fans dressing up as her character, an experience that seems to have made Theobold’s head spin a little. “The first time I went to a convention was Blizzcon [the annual convention held by Overwatch developer Blizzard]. It was the year that it had just come out and that was an overwhelming experience in the best way possible.

“There were so many Tracers and I got my picture taken with them and the friend I was with was like: ‘Tell her, tell her who you are!’ I’m like: ‘No, I’m shy!’ Since then I’ve been to quite a few comic cons and things like that – what a fun world to be part of.”

The adventures of Tracer continue in Overwatch, but is there a chance that Zomboat might embark on a second series and beyond? “Fingers crossed. We would all like that very much. It’s been one of the funnest jobs I think I’ve ever done with the combination of the script, the team, the rest of the cast. Just the whole thing is a joy to be part of, so yes, I would love to do more. Everybody watch it and then we can!”

But with the real world taking an increasingly apocalyptic hue, would Theobold’s monster-battling experience on screen make her an essential squad member in the event of a real zombie uprising?

“I’d like to think I’m quite resourceful,” she ponders, taking the question worryingly seriously. “Quite practical. I’m good in a crisis but I also think I’d be very scared. I just think no one knows what it’s like until you’ve got a zombie in your face, and I’ve had fake zombies in my face and they are quite scary even when they’re not real, so who knows?”

Zomboat is on ITV 2

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