17 April 2024
  • 17 April 2024

Erin Armstrong: the Houston-born actor talks to Mill Magazine

on 3 July 2023 0

After maturing before the world’s eyes on Shetland, Erin Armstrong talks about her breakout role, staying grounded and stepping into a real person’s shoes in Lena

One of the first things that strikes you about Houston-born actor Erin Armstrong is her apparent aversion to free time. In addition to her acting work, Erin has always kept an oar in another arena, whether that be her stint as a teacher or the present day in which she’s working for a charity while simultaneously studying to obtain her masters.

Armed with an industrious work ethic, Erin insists that she’s always been this way and in all likelihood, there’s every chance that it’s contributed to her success in entertainment.

“People who know me always say that I don’t like to sit down really,” she joked, “that’s just me.” 

A performer who has been appearing on our screens for over a decade now, Erin owes the early break of her career to one of Renfrewshire’s own, PACE Youth Theatre. 

“I think I started maybe when I was about nine or 10 and was there all through my teens,” she warmly reflected. “I was obsessed, I’d usually be there five or six times a week. Basically if I wasn’t at school or sleeping, I was at PACE. Some of my really close friends to this day were people I met in PACE and I just loved it. 

“They had a wee casting directory and they’d put you up for things like Waterloo Road, River City, all the Scottish programmes. So, it was an open audition for Shetland and I went along with it with no expectations as I didn’t think growing up that I would be an actor. I just really enjoyed going to PACE and seeing my pals, as well as dancing and singing outside of it.

“There were a lot of moments where I just had to think ‘right, how would I speak to my dad in this situation?’”

“So, I went to the audition when I was like 15 or 16 and I got a call back,” Erin revealed. “From there, I got the part and I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. I had imagined that it’d be fun and I could say that I’d been on the TV then go off to uni and that’d kinda be it! 

“When it came out, my mum said ‘let’s ask around a few agents to see what happens’. Neither of us were expecting anything and that’s when my agent that we phoned said ‘I watched that last night, who represents you?’ That’s how it all started.” 

“I love doing it, but I’ve always got this other side of me who wants to feel secure and have a life,” Erin said of her decision to retain dual professions. “I’m a planner and I like to know what I’m doing, so acting isn’t really very compatible with that (laughs). It meant that I never really wanted to be reliant on it or wondering when the next job was coming in. 

“I also just saw every job as a cool experience where I’d think ‘I might never get to do this again’ and I still do. I think that mindset keeps me enjoying it when it happens. 

“In a way, I often didn’t feel like I had to do much acting,” she said when discussing how she grew up alongside the character of Cassie Perez in Shetland.

“There were a lot of moments where I just had to think ‘right, how would I speak to my dad in this situation?’ We were roughly a year apart in terms of age. It was a really great first role to have.

“I went from doing youth theatre to being on set, so it was a nice way to be introduced to the industry and everyone that I worked with was so lovely and welcoming. 

Erin Armstrong

Photo by Andrew Cawley

“It’s funny, in the last season that I did, Dougie [Henshall] and I were having a conversation and he said ‘I still view you as a 16-year-old, but you’re actually a full-on adult now! I really was a child at the beginning, so they really watched me find my way. Well, there’s actually a lot of moments where I’m still like ‘what am I actually doing?’” (laughs). 

As Shetland emerged at the dawn of the box set era, Erin Armstrong has been a part of the continued evolution of Scottish TV and to her mind, this has meant that there’s more room for stories of all kinds to be told by actors from all walks of life. 

“There’s so much talent out there that deserves to have that recognition. Even with the dynamic on the show between me, Dougie and Mark [Bonnar] who played my two dads, it felt at the time like things beyond the nuclear family hadn’t really been done before.

“It opens doors where people can watch the TV and say ‘aw, that’s a lot like my life’. There’s so many more productions being made up here. It’s the place to be.” 

Although she’s best known for her role as Cassie, Erin recently found herself on the ground floor of a new production which has the makings of a staple for the nation.

Taking on the role of the late child star turned pop singer Lena Zavaroni in a show which charts her life, Erin felt an immense weight of responsibility in emulating a tragic Scottish icon, particularly when many of its themes are as pertinent to our social media age as they were back in Lena’s time period. 

“It was amazing,” Erin enthused. “That was my first professional theatre role, so it kinda felt like it came full circle. The theatre is what I love and I just love being onstage, so I just relished it. We’re performing at the Fringe in August and that’s really exciting.

“Her story is so important and it needed to be authentic, so I spoke to as many people as I could that knew her from Rothesay and spent hours watching YouTube clips from when I was 10 all the way through.

“Hopefully, I did it justice as there was a real sense that we had to do it the right way. The family was happy with it, so that was the most important thing for us. 

“For anyone growing up in this day and age, there’s a lot of pressure and we’re seeing the effects of it, as well as more people in the public eye speaking out about their mental health.

“What we want to get across about this show is that we want young people to see it as even though it’s about someone they might not have heard of, there’s so many crossovers to this age.

“There’s super relevant themes, so we’re hoping to capture as many people with it as possible.”

As “nerve-racking” as she found it to be singing on stage again and the learning curve that she’s experienced in terms of the tricks required to safeguard her voice, Erin is thrilled to be back in the theatre.

Erin is relishing the lack of safety net that she’s experiencing from returning to live performance. Now, as she embarks upon this exciting new journey, she has simple but effective words of encouragement for those who’d like to follow in her footsteps. 

“Be proactive and seize opportunities” she declared. “If you do get your foot in the door then go for it! Ultimately, just be yourself and don’t try to be someone you’re not, as people see that and like it.” 

Q&A with Erin Armstrong

Favourite Film? Forrest Gump

Favourite Album? Robbie Williams – Swing When You’re Winning, it’s childhood nostalgia

If you could play any theatrical role, what would it be? Eponine in Les Mis 

This interview with Erin Armstrong appeared in the July/August 2023 of Mill Magazine, you can read all our previous issues online here. Catch up with Shetland on BBC iPlayer.

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