Steve McFadden talks about celebrating 20 years as the EastEnders hard nut with his most challenging storyline to date…

So you have some big storylines coming up. How has that been?

“I am really tired. Doing a storyline like this does absolutely drain the life out of you. My eyes are sore and after my first day of shooting the crack story, I went and ate two ice creams and drank some fizzy drinks – food that real addicts crave. Then I fell asleep in my dressing room for two hours. You do have to live it to some extent.”

So what happens next week?

“Ben’s inside and that’s really scaring Phil. He sees that Ben’s been beaten up and he knows Ben can’t defend himself because he’s such a soft and sensitive child.”

So after 20 years it is still challenging you as an actor?

“I can honestly say that this has been my most exciting and challenging year in EastEnders. To be able to say that after 20 years is quite something, don’t you think?”

What was your first day like?

“I had this really difficult line. It was ‘This place is ripe for the picking’ which is an awkward bit of phrasing. I was really nervous. EastEnders started when I was at RADA aged 25 and each day I was coming home and watching it as I was learning to act. And then, after two years as a jobbing actor, doing stuff like The Bill and Minder, there I was with all these famous people. I was only supposed to be there for three months with an option to stay three more, but they liked Phil and Grant and that was quickly extended to two years and it’s just rolled on.”

What do you feel when you look back over your time on the show?

“I feel great about what I’ve achieved in the past 20 years on the show. I’m most proud of storylines that have captured the public’s imagination like ‘Sharongate’ and ‘Who Shot Phil?’ When you are doing a story like that, it feels a bit like being a world title fighter. I’m really proud of the alcoholism storyline, too, as I got a lot of letters from people who’d been through similar which means I got it right. It’s easy to make an egg sandwich, but a souffle is more difficult. Acting is an art form. It’s about making something seem real.”

What has kept you going through the years?

“My driving force has always been the idea of being bad at my job. I don’t want to do bad acting. I don’t want to be bad in front of millions and a large-scale performance is so exposing if you get it wrong.”

You did have a break though a few years ago?

“I left because I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was travel and eat curry and ice cream, which I did for two years and put on quite a bit of weight. Then the phone call came…”

And you are happy to carry on for a few more years?

“I thought it might be time to move on with Barbara going, but then I realised that it’s a chance to do something different with Phil. The umbilical cord will be cut. We’ve had Phil and Grant, Phil and Peggy and this will be Phil on his own. I’ve stayed with the show because they’ve kept it interesting, but another important factor has been that it’s allowed me to have a family life. I haven’t spent months away from home touring like some actors do. Although I’m not in a relationship at the moment, family life is very important to me and I’m very close to my children.”

How do you stay in condition?

“I swim a mile and cycle 10 miles every day. I stick to the regime rigidly. I’ve been doing it for two and a half years. I’ve also lost quite a bit of weight for this drugs storyline. I’m the slimmest I’ve been for ages. I did it with a crash diet, which I wouldn’t advocate. I felt it was important to lose weight as I don’t think food is very high on Phil’s list of priorities.”

How do you relax off screen?

“I am really into my work and it takes a lot of brain power, so it’s important to relax. I fish quite a lot. I have a boat on the Thames and one in Cornwall. Being near water has helped me keep my sanity.”