Facing the music – and Brendan – on Strictly was scary enough but nothing prepared Casualty's Sunetra Sarker for her most dramatic storyline yet

She’s been centre stage in one of Casualty‘s most dramatic storylines for a special double episode to celebrate 30 years of the Beeb’s best loved medical drama. Sunetra Sarker, 42, chats to Now about playing a character watched by five million people every Saturday for the best part of seven years, the future of ‘Zax’ (Zoe and Max) and filming underwater with sexy firemen…

Zoe’s having a dramatic time on Casualty, to say the least…
She’s been thrown out of her safe mode – she’s a blinking fiancée and getting married! It’s great to get storylines out of the ordinary.

Why is it such a shock for Zoe to be getting married?
Zoe
‘s a hardcore single girl, so I don’t know when she decided she wasn’t! Nick Jordan was the first man she ever loved and it didn’t work out, so she’s very surprised about having feelings for Max. They’re from different worlds.

Fans love Zax!
They do! It’s unbelievable. There’s a minute-by-minute dissection on Twitter while the show’s on and then they talk about it for hours after. They say things like: ‘Did you see the look Max gave Zoe at the end?’ and I think: ‘I didn’t and I was there!’ They’re pushing for a happy ending.

Why does Zoe resonate so much with viewers?
I’m representing a working, single older woman who might’ve missed out on marriage and kids because she’s career orientated. It’s really important to show these women in a successful light. Zoe’s so forthright and she’s got to 40 without marriage and without kids because she’s infertile. She has baggage.

What do you think of Zoe after playing her for so long?
My underlying feeling is she’s scared of being happy. She’s looked after herself so well that now she’s on self-destruct mode.

How was it filming the scenes where Zoe nearly drowns?
They came up to me five weeks ago and said: ‘Can you swim?’ I was like: ‘What’s this about?’ It was about holding my breath and holding the wedding dress underwater – and of course cameras and music. I was held down by firemen to keep me wet, with my head out of the water obviously!

What was the filming schedule like for the wedding storyline?
We were doing silly hours – 5pm until 5am. Who wants to do that shift on and off for two or three weeks? It had to be by water, with the boat exploding – all in the dead of night when there weren’t people passing by. My body clock was all over the place. It was a hell of a lot of work. It was mentally and physically exhausting but really left me appreciating the character I’ve played for all these years. She’s part of my family now – I don’t agree with everything she does but I left that episode feeling she might be dead. That was a huge deal for me.

How do you switch off from that?
I like a good massage and some yoga. Friends will always keep me grounded. Spending time with my son Noah helps me switch off – I’m a football mum. He’s a goalie but oh my word, it truly is one of the worst positions. The injuries he’s had as a 10-year-old! I play a pretend doctor but I don’t half have to use some of my knowledge to treat his cuts and bruises. He’s in a goalkeeping academy and going for trials. You get football homework now – written theory. But it’s great.

Sounds like you’ve got your hands full!
My calendar’s crazy – you can imagine what it was like with Strictly, too, last year – but I have a childminder, my parents come down from Liverpool at the drop of a hat, Noah‘s dad [Nick Corfield] helps out and my partner Scott [Carey, 43], who also has kids, helps too.

What do you find most difficult?
You have to be very organised, especially filming night shifts. You get used to it and just before you go to bed you learn lines. I’m dipping in and out of work mode all the time. It’s not just turning up and performing – you’ve got to know everything at home’s OK.

Are you still dancing after Strictly?
I wish! I only enjoyed the ballroom, which was a massive surprise because I thought I was a disco diva. Turns out I’m an old-school traditional dancer. I can’t wait to see who’s on this year! The celebs are in for a shock, let me tell you.

What was the best thing about the show?
The sisterhood. The girls are in touch every day. Judy Murray‘s becoming a grandma and we got to watch her boys at Wimbledon, while Jenny Gibney‘s become such a good friend – we went to Florida to see her and her husband Brendan O’Carroll at Christmas.

Was your partner Scott worried about you foxtrotting off with someone else, given Strictly’s reputation for affairs?
I don’t think there’s space for a romance – you’re up against the clock. Brendan [Cole] was like a headmaster! I walked straight into the strictest regime.

Did you ever meet your fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black?
Yes, once. She was so iconic in Liverpool. I was in the city when the news broke that she’d died and it was a really big deal. We lost a national treasure. For me she was at the forefront of TV – the first woman who had her own empire.

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