When I sat down opposite Rob Kazinsky to interview him over scenes he had just finished filming for Sean Slater, which see the troubled EastEnders character plan his own suicide as part of an impactful mental health storyline, he was both eloquent and excitable, clearly thrilled to be back on his home turf and passionate about telling the story in the right way.
Admitting that he was sure that viewers would have been expecting a much more carnage and action filled set of episodes for Sean, Rob told me how he sat down with show boss Kate Oates and they discussed a much more meaningful, haunting and believable story for him.
He told me openly that his own experiences around mental health, including more than one friend who has been impacted directly by suicide, were the driving forces behind him truly wanting to get this story right.
He explained: ‘Over the last 10 years of my life, suicide has become a really prevalent part of it. I have lost close friends. I have seen it up close from the degradation to the completion.
‘I have struggled with depression in my life – 40% of people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime and those are only the people who go and actually get help. Mental health doesn’t just affect the person but also the people around them.
‘We don’t talk about it. 27 men a day take their own lives in the UK every day, many of them are under 35. Suicide is the second largest killer in America – this is a pandemic. We’re too afraid to talk about it.’Kate and I talked about that. What I wanted to do is talk about it and the one place you have always been able to do that because it is socially responsible is EastEnders.’
Sitting quite closely to Rob, it was clear from the truthful and ever so haunted look in his eyes that he had been affected by filming the scenes.
But he told me that EastEnders remains his proudest work – and that this week of drama for Sean could be his most powerful yet.
He said: ‘I watched Louisa Lytton’s rape story and was reminded of how responsible and how important EastEnders has been throughout the last 34 years. This is where I wanted to do this story. We reach millions of people a week – if 1% of people are helped by what we’re doing with Sean then think how many might reach out.
‘What I wanted to say more than anything is that when you are in that place when you feel there is no way out, you have to ask for help. I have lost too many friends who didn’t and it was such a shock – they seemed so fine and that’s always the way.
‘What I wanted to show was even someone like Sean Slater – someone with so many barriers and guards and such broad shoulders – he needs help and he can ask for it. Him asking for help is the one thing I wanted to show people.
‘The inherent responsibility of making this kind of stuff is constantly underestimated. I have always said you can change the world quicker with a film than you can as a politician. While this might not have the same global reach, it might have incredible reach for the individual and that’s absolutely worth doing.’
Like many of us until we encounter it, Rob admitted that he used to be so unaware of mental health and the damage that mental illness can do.
He sighed: ‘I was very dismissive of mental health – the classic line of diet and exercise. But that’s not how it works – wouldn’t that be nice? Just this year, a male friend of mine was texting me, he was asking for help. I could see the signs enough to drop everything and go to him where I found him in a very dark place.
‘If you have problems, there is help and you can ask for help. If you don’t – you have to see the signs and be willing to go when the call comes. This is literally an illness – suicide is the final symptom of a disease. Depression is everywhere. It’s more present in the world today than ever so we need to have the tools ready to help the people we love.’
And there are certainly people who love Sean – none more so than his beloved mum Jean Slater (Gillian Wright). Blessed to be able to work with her again, Rob confidently deemed her one of the strongest performers he has ever been honoured to work with and he assured me of powerful scenes between mother and son before the week is out.
While the storyline and trailers up until now have strongly hinted at Jean’s life being the one in critical danger, it is now evident that the dark place Sean has found himself in could mean that he will be on the precipice of taking very final action and devastating his mum with the consequences.
On the Sean that we find a decade on, Rob explained: ‘Sean was always carrying a weight that he never fully appreciated was bowing his back so much. That weight of what he was carrying – it informed every action he took. He would challenge every male authority figure on the Square – he was always searching for someone to beat him.
‘He was desperately looking for a father figure. He has been gone for 10 years after having his one real chance at happiness destroyed and where he’s been – he didn’t leave any of this behind. He’s never been able to build a life as there has been this giant block in front of him.
‘He has reached a point where he feels he doesn’t want to do it anymore – he’s just tired. There are lines in the script I have heard people so often say.
‘Sean has reached that point. When he comes to Walford, it’s because he needs to clean his slate. He comes to make amends with the family he loves and then find what he believes is his way out. That’s where we meet Sean, with that intention.’
As the week continues, Sean’s feelings of despair will become clear – particularly to his mum Jean who has more knowledge of mental health than many.
But can Sean be brought back from the brink? Or will the mistakes and damage he has caused – and has had done to him – over the years lead to this being his final chapter?
My interview with Rob will continue on Metro Soaps all week, keep checking back for much more as the storyline progresses.
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