On Kierston Wareing’s inner wrist, she has a beautifully drawn, intricate tattoo – of a gun. “My mum hates it,” admits the actresses, mischievously. “But I do like guns. I don’t have one, obviously, and I wouldn’t mess with one, but there’s just something about them. And I seem to keep shooting men in scenes.”
Wareing has made a habit of playing women who are at once fierce and fragile, and sometimes armed and dangerous – notably in BBC2’s The Shadow Line, in which she played the enigmatic and ultimately treacherous police officer Lia Honey.
Even when her characters are trapped by dreadful circumstance – in Channel 4’s Top Boy, Sky1’s The Take or Ken Loach’s 2007 film It’s a Free World… which earned her a Bafta best actress nomination – there’s a fire in her eyes that could, unchecked, incinerate you.
It’s this spirit and energy that got her cast in BBC1’s new heist thriller Inside Men and in person, she’s as captivating as she is on screen, playing the fierce wife of a hapless criminal. Bluntly, she looks like she’d seduce you and then shoot you.
With such an electrifying presence, you can’t help but be surprised (rightly or wrongly) when Wareing explains that she’s spent a lot of her life being bullied and abused. At school, she had her nose broken and was once almost pushed under a car. Her first boyfriend – she was 14, he was 16 – would beat her black and blue, while her second boyfriend knocked one of her teeth out.
“But the last boyfriend was the worst. He was a public schoolboy, very charming and from a good background. I thought he was too good to be true – and he was.
“Two months into a relationship that ended up lasting a year and a bit, he started with controlling behaviour and then I was getting hit every weekend. He would smash me up, and then say I couldn’t go out. He would say, ‘I’m not taking you out – look at you, you’re an embarrassment.’”
As the relationship went on, Wareing says, the violence got worse and the abuse more relentless. After a rare night out, Wareing says, her boyfriend humiliated her in front of his friends and then attacked her with a plank of wood.
“My whole eye was closed, I had great bumps like eggs on my head, bruises black and blue. You wouldn’t have recognised me. He tried to hit me with a crowbar once but missed.”
This disturbing period in her life happened when Wareing was 26 – she’s 33 now – and she describes herself then as “a nervous wreck, down to seven stone, and shaking when I did go out. You stay because you lose your confidence. When someone tells you often enough that you’re worthless, you start to believe it.”
Eventually though, Wareing did leave and her boyfriend was arrested and prosecuted for assaulting her. But like many women in her situation, she says she couldn’t go through with the court case. “Looking back, I was a bit stupid.”
Wareing relays her shocking story with resilient candour and a total absence of self-pity. “I see myself as a survivor. I don’t want to come across as a victim with a sob story, but actually I’ve got a fantastic life. I’m not a victim.”
In fact, Wareing goes further. “I thank the bullies out there for making me who I am. Some people can become weaker but they made me stronger.”
When I suggest that success is the best revenge and, in the Hollywood star Carrie Fisher’s words, resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, Wareing is enthused, her eyes twinkling. “Exactly! About those horrible people, I think ‘Look at you and look at me.’”
Inside Men starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 January 2012.