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Call The Midwife’s Jennifer Kirby talks about her acting career

“I was a very shy kid, almost painfully so,” she recalls.

“I wouldn’t talk to people in shops, I was very nervous and wanted to be in the background. I definitely wasn’t the sort of ‘look at me’ child whose family have videos of them performing at the dining table at three years old. Then I suddenly had a huge change of heart.”

Having embarked on a music GCSE and found she was “catastrophically rubbish” at it, the 29 year old, who recently finished filming her second series as ex-Army nurse Valerie Dyer, discovered her options were limited.

“Drama was the only other choice, so I had to sign up for that but very quickly I realised I loved it. I was surprised to find I didn’t have any anxiety about it at all and could really indulge in it.”

When, in the car home from school one day, she announced her plan to make performing a career, her mother tried to stall for time.

“She said, ‘It’s a hard job and you have to have a thick skin, so let’s think about it.’ I don’t think she thought for a second I was serious.

“Not long after I took a practical exam which involved doing a scene with some other students. Parents were invited along and my mother still tells the story of how Dad turned to her mid-performance and said, ‘Oh, that.’ I think it was a huge shock for them both. They still tell people, ‘It was a big turnaround for Jen.’”

Any worries they might have had must have been eased by their daughter’s smooth career trajectory. Having read English and drama at the University of East Anglia, Jennifer took a year out – which she spent selling “really expensive baby clothes, perfume and handbags on the second floor of Fortnum & Mason” – before taking up a place at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).

“I loved every second of my two years there,” she reveals. Her big break came when a casting director spotted her at a showcase early in her second year.

“She signed me up to play Elizabeth Bennet in Pride And Prejudice at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, so in my final term, before I had even graduated, I was in that. David Oakes and Jane Asher were in it, so that was a really nice starting point.”

Jennifer is underplaying things when she says this – her performance won a nomination for outstanding newcomer at the 2013 Evening Standard Theatre Awards and she has been in almost continual employment with the Royal Shakespeare Company since.

Midwife, however, is her first ongoing screen role, her only other television experience to date having been a one-off episode of Holby City.

The excitement of receiving the call to say she had won the part is still evident in her voice when she recalls the details of that moment.

“I hadn’t long got back from New York where I’d been doing a show with the RSC,” she says.

“I was staying with my parents and was very jet-lagged so had got up late and missed a call from my agent.

“I didn’t think much of it so I had a bath and by the time I’d finished I’d had another two missed calls and an email saying, ‘Phone us right away.’ When they broke the news I was in shock but there wasn’t anyone at home to tell, so I rang my sister at work. It was pretty comedy because she was so excited for me but was having to whisper from under her desk.”

Jennifer didn’t wait for company to pop a cork and celebrate, though.

“I had some champagne straight away, paced around the house for about an hour and a half then went online shopping big time,” she laughs.

Preparing for the role meant quite a drastic image change and chopping her long locks into a 1960s gamine crop.

“My agent said, ‘They wondered if you would mind cutting your hair for the role’ and I said, ‘They can do anything. They can shave my head – whatever they want.’”

Any butterflies about making the move from theatre to screen were short-lived.

“At first it felt equal parts really exciting, unbelievable and daunting,” Jennifer says.

“I was thinking, ‘I really hope I don’t mess up’ but everyone is so welcoming and kind on the show and immediately treated me like their colleague so I didn’t feel nervous for long.”

Playing Valerie also meant performing alongside one of her favourite actresses.

“Linda Bassett [who plays nurse Phyllis Crane] has always been one of my heroes,” says Jennifer.

“The idea that I would be doing scenes with her was amazing. I wanted to go back to 16-year-old me and tell her what was going to happen.”

Despite the strong subject matter of some plots (Jennifer featured in one of the most controversial of the last series, which tackled female genital mutilation), she doesn’t find filming stomach-churning.

“Mostly it’s about getting the minute details right so you’re very aware that the blood is fake,” she explains.

“It goes quite slowly and we take a lot of time to make sure it’s factually and medically accurate, so I don’t find it too gory. It certainly hasn’t put me off having kids – not that I’m thinking about that any time soon.”

Having spent six months filming, Jennifer is currently trying to make the most of some free time. “I’m enjoying the break but I’m not very good at downtime,” she says.

“I try to relax and then realise I’m just bored so I try to fill it as much as I can. I go to museums, read books and listen to audiobooks just to keep my mind busy. I’m not good with an idle mind.”

She’s also been trying out for new parts.

“I had practically forgotten that auditions exist,” she confesses.

“I’ve always liked doing them, though, as it’s an excuse to do a bit of script for a different character. As soon as I get an audition for something I make it into my dream role. Once I start to read about a character I get easily attached and create them in my head very quickly.

Waiting for news is something Jennifer seems to remain impressively cool about.

“Obviously you dare to dream but as an actor you have to tell yourself to just do the audition and then forget about it,” she says.

“So many things don’t work out.”

Jennifer is only just starting to experience a gentle ripple of “fame” in her everyday life.

“I’m from a tiny village, Longdon in Gloucestershire, which is near Tewkesbury, where my parents still live and I’m kind of a celeb there now,” she jokes.

“They put little bits about me in the parish magazine – pictures and stuff – which is really cute. Suddenly, neighbours are asking my parents when I’ll be back and telling Mum that they’ve been watching me.”

While she hasn’t yet needed the “thick skin” her mother worried she was lacking as a teenager, Jennifer isn’t too worried about the possibility of negative reviews.

“Actors put themselves out there but we aren’t playing ourselves, so if the public don’t take to a character it doesn’t really matter,” she says.

“It’s not like reality shows where people are being themselves and baking cakes and then get attacked on social media. I’d find that really tough.”

Understandably, she’s protective of her private life and while there have long been rumours Jennifer is dating Robert Gilbert, the actor she appeared alongside in the RSC’s 2015 production of Henry V, she sidesteps questions about her love life with a breezy, “I’d rather steer clear of that.”

If they are indeed an item, the two aren’t living together. Jennifer currently shares a flat in west London with her sister, Eleanor, who is four years her junior and works for a talent agency.

“We never really got along when we were growing up but now she’s my best friend,” she says.

The sisters live in Hammersmith where they are “very much renting. I admire anyone who can buy in London. It’s a hard thing to do.”

That said, Jennifer couldn’t be tempted to move further out of the city or even hop across the pond to try her hand in Hollywood just yet.

“I’ve never been a person who feels like they have roots from a place but I feel like myself when I’m in London,” she says.

“It’s the most at home I’ve ever felt in my life. Things might change and I might want to give the States a go at some point, but at the moment I’m happy here. I’m where I want to be.”

Call The Midwife returns to our screens tonight

at 8pm on BBC1.