KettleMag speaks to Holli Dempsey

When she left school at 18 with dreams of becoming an actress, Holli couldn’t afford the £30 fee to audition for drama school. Now, in addition to roles on Derek, and ITV’s Breathless, she’s finished shooting the feature-length remake of Dad’s Army, alongside the likes of Alison Steadman, Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon!

I just had to ask her how she did it…

You’ve achieved a fantastic amount in your career so far; from Derek and Doctor Who to Dad’s Army– what has been a particular highlight?

Thank you.  I think those three jobs are my most high profile jobs and were incredible to work on, But it’s nearly impossible for me to choose a particular highlight. I have done so many other jobs, big and small. From filming in an old war fort on the side of a cliff for a small independent feature film, to filming in the lingerie section of a department store at 4am for Doctor Who. I must say though, being surrounded by the legendary cast of Dad’s Army was a constant reminder of my dreams becoming a reality.

You didn’t take the traditional ‘drama school’ route into acting. What was the greatest challenge in breaking into the industry whilst waitressing?

Since the age of about 16 I had decided 100% that I wanted to make a living off acting when I was older. This ‘single-mindedness’ if you like, was what I needed to make sure everything I did was acting related! I literally couldn’t afford to visit each drama school, let alone pay at least £30 for each audition, so when I left college with my A-Levels I managed to get a job in a wonderful family run restaurant. The restaurant was inside a theatre which meant I could meet the right people whilst waitressing, and at the same time, stay in touch with the theatre-family I had built up there over the years. I was very lucky as my boss Wills would let me have time off for auditions or shows at a moment’s notice. He didn’t act happy about it but knew what my first love was and that I needed to pursue it. This was a rare gift that allowed me the time to audition, rehearse or go away and film, and still have a job to come back to. Meanwhile, I got involved in every short film or play that I could. I also made my own mini movie in my bedroom, written by myself and starring myself. I needed something that would make me stand out from the crowd. The next step was to find an agent. 

And how did that happen?

“After auditioning and getting a small role in the final ever episode of the Bill, I managed to make some really strong contacts. One of these people had spoken to Piers (Nimmo) about me and showed him my homemade showreel. He seemed impressed and asked if he could meet with me to talk about representing me. We met and I realised his vision was exactly the same as mine. We have such a great working relationship and he has helped open doors for me that I have always dreamt of.

How do you think you benefitted from not going to drama school?

Drama school prefers to take students with some ‘life experience’ so, after college my initial intention was to make as much money as I could from waitressing in case I wanted to apply for drama school the following year. However, I was always aware that I could do A LOT in three years if I plugged away enough. And in fact, in three years I became a professional actress with lots of stage experience, a few short films under my belt and my first TV job (in the last ever episode of The Bill!) 

I don’t like to tell people “I haven’t trained” as I believe learning on the job is some of the richest experiences you can have.  Even the car-crash moments will make you a stronger and better performer – in fact, they are essential! I have been told that casting directors love the fact I am untrained and ‘raw’ when I act. I guess it comes from a very real place, or it doesn’t come at all! There are a lot of technical things you need to learn as an actor, but you don’t necessarily need to go to drama school for that. I’m not knocking drama schools at all, I have friends who have been and it gave them exactly the training and boost they needed for this industry. But to expect an agent or career to be waiting for you at the end of three years in drama school is sadly not the case. You still need to work hard to stand out from the crowd.

Many of us will be seeing you in the re-make of Dad’s Army- did you watch the original sitcom and how does the film compare?

Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan as a youngster, it didn’t really seem aimed at us kids! However, since getting the part in the film I have watched countless hours of the series as it is just genius and timeless! My uncle bought me the box set for Christmas and with over 39 hours worth of footage, it’s a good job I am a fan! I am really excited for audiences to enjoy our version as I believe we have completely honoured the themes and feel of the original series’. It’s a whole new cast, of course, but we have the two remaining original cast members in it too. It’s just a real celebration of the original series’, which I hope will bring in a whole new, younger audience too.

You’re on the cast list alongside stars such as Michael Gambon and Catherine Zeta-Jones, did you get star struck at all?

It is a bizarre thing to find yourself having a chat on a cliff edge with Dumbledore or being invited out to dinner by the lovely Mrs. Zeta Jones. Also, I have grown up watching every single person in the cast. You literally couldn’t move for legendary faces. I like to think I played it pretty cool around them all! We’d have lunch and dinners together so I got to learn so much from them as they have been doing it (acting) so much longer than I have. A few of the cast really took the time to find out about my life, which was lovely. I think everyone can learn from anyone else, if you make the effort. 

You shot Derek and Dad’s Army simultaneously- how did you cope with such a packed work schedule?

I was blessed with two incredible production teams on both jobs who managed to sort the logistics of such a mental schedule. So, for at least two weeks I would be wrapped on Dad’s Army at about 7pm, whisked and dumped in the nearest Scarborough(ish) train station, travel through the night, with no sleep as I can’t sleep on trains! I would arrive in Kings Cross about 1am, roll into a car that would drop me home. I would close my eyes for what felt like 10 minutes before my alarm would go off and my first thought would be “who am I playing today!?” Luckily Derek never films past 4pm so it was never a problem getting back up north!

No matter how knackered I was I would never complain as I was always so aware how lucky I was to have one, let alone two such cracking jobs.

Your career so far is an inspiration to young actors, can you tell me who inspired and influenced you?

Wow, thank you. I’ve always had a wonderfully supportive family, which makes all the difference. It has to come from YOU first though, nobody can help you find your passion. I think I have always wanted to act, even as a little girl. When I watched wonderful films like ‘The Secret Garden’ and I saw little girls acting in it, it made me SO determined to do what she was doing! It’s hard to pin point someONE who has inspired me. Everyday is an opportunity to find inspiration around you, from the smallest things, like a new song, or a walk in the park. 

Lastly, do you have any advice for our readers who want to perform?


You have to want it more than anything.

 It really can be a game of perseverance.  If you can be dissuaded from doing it by all the people saying “it’s unlikely you’ll ever make a decent living from it or likewise, if you’re looking for the “end-product” of fortune and fame, don’t bother!!

It’s a long and winding road full of rejection, lack of money and emotional highs and lows. But for the true artists, the highs on stage or after completing a good project, will always outweigh the numerous lows.  I’ve had some incredible jobs in recent years that have enjoyed global recognition, but if you don’t get the buzz from performing in a church hall to 20 parents for years and years, maybe acting isn’t for you!

Dad’s Army willl be in cinemas on February 6th, 2016.