Interview with Jenna Russell

The stage door of the Harold Pinter Theatre tells a hundred stories. A stage door keeper, literally the keeper of the stories, presides over a comfy nook covered in headshots, some yellowing, corners curling. A hundred stories, a hundred once-upon-a-times.

Jenna Russell’s dressing room tells its own story. She shares with Merrily We Roll Alongco-star, Josefina Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s side of the dressing table is covered in make-up, brushes and powder and paints, neatly laid out in readiness for the evening show. On Russell’s side, there are three or four photographs of her baby daughter, Betsy, blu-tacked to the mirror.

She tucks her legs beneath her on her chair and begins to tell stories. Born in London, brought up in Dundee and a performer from a young age, she has plenty of stories to tell. She is delicate-looking, radiant, with huge, open, blue eyes that brim with tears when she talks about the recent hurricane in Oklahoma, “I just want to fly over there and hug everyone,” and then dance with laughter when she re-enacts calling up David Babani [Artistic Director of the Menier Chocolate Factory] to beg to be cast as Mary in the revival of Merrily “I know you’re doing it with old people! I’m old, and I’m a person! See me!”

Russell is the musical theatre actress that has made me cry more than any other. “In a good way, I hope?” she giggles. Her performance as Dot in Sunday in the Park with George (another Menier production) had me sobbing throughout, and her current heart-breaking turn in Merrily is a devastating analysis of lost hope.

“Being a mum is extraordinary,” she explains, “I feel like I have access to emotions a lot easier.” Throughout the interview, Russell’s eyes flash over to the photographs of her daughter. “I’m rabbiting on about Betsy,” she apologises, “I’m always rabbiting on about Betsy. I want to make her proud.” she admits.

Russell chatters gaily away, illustrating her stories by animatedly recounting things that other actors, or friends, have said to her, name-dropping in a most delightfully humble manner – it is a trait which is both endearing and entertaining. “I was talking to Gavin Creel…do you know Gavin? Gavin. Gavin, Gavin, Gavin, my best friend Gavin,” she giggles, “He said ‘there are two kinds of actors, ones that hide behind the character and you can’t see the actor there, and there are others you see come through. I’d like to think of myself as being that type of performer. I can’t escape me, I can’t escape who I am and what I am.”

What she is, is a big sister – warmth pours out of her like a loving mentor. “I feel starting out is the time to take big chances, to do things for nothing, to work with writers, to put yourself out, to keep yourself in shorter, more interesting jobs,” she explains. “Trust your instinct, I think that’s important. Some young people I work with go ‘I don’t really want to go up for that but I feel I should’.

I say ‘If you don’t want to go up for it, don’t go up for it!’ It’s very hard to say ‘no’ and it takes us years and years to form the word. It is your only power. You have no other power. At. All. I’ve said ‘no’ to things, I’ve pulled out of a job, an enormous life-changing job. It’s the best thing.”

Russell has built an extremely versatile career. “I’ve been at it so bloody long!” she laughs. Stage, film, TV, Shakespeare, comedy, serious drama, but it seems to be her work in musical theatre that has brought her most acclaim. “I was obsessed with musicals,” she recalls, “but I never thought I’d be in them, and then somebody introduced me to Sondheim. I noticed though, that if you did a musical people didn’t see you for telly. So I’d put the musicals aside and spend three or four years doing tellys and plays and then I’d dip my foot back into musicals. Then, about six years ago, after doing Sunday in the Park, I did Amy’s View and I had a really miserable time on it – nothing to do with the cast and nothing to do with the writing, I just found the whole thing really sterile. I just thought ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need to do things that bring me joy and make me smile.’ And I love a musical theatre company. I’m not gonna waste my time doing things that make me unhappy, so I fully embraced the musical theatre form with open arms.” And she laughs again, that all-encompassing laugh that makes you pull your chair in closer, makes you want to be in a company with her.

“I’m used to there being nine of us,” she says of the Merrily company, “and at the Chocolate Factory there are two dressing rooms…” she pauses and then roars, “Dressing rooms? That’s a laugh! There’s an area, with a piece of plywood with a gap at the bottom and a gap at the top. So the women are on one side and the men on the other, talking, shouting, throwing stuff over. That’s the one sadness about coming here, you just don’t get to see each other as much as you would like. I hear Sheridan said, Sheridan Smith, with Little Shop of Horrors – when they went into the West End – between their dressing rooms there was a wall, which they tapped and they went ‘this isn’t a proper wall’ and they had it knocked through! I loved that!”

A sudden low buzz invades the dressing room, “Sorry that’s the toilet!” she laughs, “Oh the glamour!”

Russell was in the first cast change of Les Misérables when it transferred from the RSC to the West End. She’s played, among others, Sarah Brown in Michael Grandage’s production of Guys & Dolls, and Bertrande in Martin Guerre, and tells characteristically self-deprecating stories about them.

“Thank God Michael Grandage cast me,” she reveals, “because it changed things for me. They got in touch with me for Guys & Dolls; they said ‘come in’ and I said ‘I’m not going in, I’m not ready!’ – I don’t have audition songs, I don’t, it’s terrible! I had no idea what to sing! I remember auditioning for Martin Guerre. One of my favourite songs is ‘I Remember’, it’s a Stephen Sondheim song.

It’s beautiful, just beautiful. And Claude Michel Schönberg said “What are you going to sing?’ I said ‘I’ve got I Remember’ and he said ‘OK, who wrote it?’ and I said ‘Stephen Sondheim’ and he said [puts on a thick French accent] ‘Non! Eet ‘urtz ma eey-ars!’ and I thought ‘well there we are, then!’” and Russell tucks her hair behind her ear and shakes with laughter.

Does she take care of her voice, steer clear of alcohol and cigarettes? What’s her daily routine when she’s in a show? “God, I don’t have one! I stopped smoking because I thought Betsy didn’t like me smoking. I don’t drink as I’m too knackered. I don’t have a routine. I should have a routine! I went to Mark Meylon – you ever been to Mark Meylon? Fearless singing teacher. When we were going to New York with Sunday I thought ‘you know what? I don’t really want to be off. I wanna make sure I’m fighting fit’. I went to Mark, he gave me a tape. I put it on my ipod. I used that every night before the show, but I can’t find it! I don’t know where it is! If I had that I would use it,” she says, but the glint in her eyes doesn’t entirely convince me she would. “I try and sleep as much as I can, I try and drink water. I’m a bit rubbish at it.”

But despite her louche, laissez-faire insouciance, Russell does offer an invaluable insight into her process, although I doubt that would be the word she uses. “I remember Meryl Streep saying she never looked at the script. She would learn her lines in the trailer just before she went on, to keep them fresh. I think there’s something in that. I don’t worry what the lines are, I just trust that they’re there. I always leave about 10% of the performance open to what happens on the stage. I like to know kind of what I’m doing, I stick to it mostly – for lighting – but I give myself room to change and sometimes those choices are better and sometimes they’re worse. I let how I’m feeling that day, or what’s happened that day come with me onto the stage.”

There’s a little knock on the door and a chap pops his head in. “I was just checking to see if I left a hat in here?” he asks. “A whattie?” smiles Russell. ‘Martin’s hat”, “I haven’t seen it, sorry love,” Russell replies. There’s something about the exchange that makes me imagine Russell hosting a mad-hatters tea-party in her dressing room the night before.

“I don’t like being on my own,” she confides, suddenly quieter. “I like the banter. That’s half the reason I love the job, the banter. When we were altogether, you’re all sharing experiences. That’s part of theatre, isn’t it? What other job do you have a friend who’s in her 80’s and next job a 16 year- old? It’s brilliant! I miss us all mucking in together.”

There’s something wonderfully Fairy Godmother-y about Russell. It could be the ash- blonde hair, the glow that comes from her smile, the sense of humour – “Let me make sure me cleavage isn’t hanging out!” she quips to the photographer. But after an hour with her you feel like you could ask her anything, and that she’d not only answer you honestly, but would share something with you, take you under her wing, and help you on the road. The best teachers in life are those who help you understand.

“If I could look back,” she says, “I would say ‘trust who you are’. That’s the only thing you’ve got. You are your unique thing. It’s going to fit somethings and not fit others. Be at peace with that. Trust in saying ‘this is who I am.’ When you’re young you feel like you have to conform to that high-belt singing, skinny, dancing, false-eyelash wearing, fierce thing. If that suits you, go for it. But if it doesn’t feel comfortable for you – don’t put it on. If you’re five-foot with a bit of weight, you still will work. You’re more interesting. Somebody will bite, somebody will bite eventually. And say ‘no’. Go work in the more interesting places, Southwark, the Gate, the Bush. Turn down long contracts. While you have the opportunity to be free, be free. Go work in Spain! Join the circus! It makes you more interesting. If you can find other little avenues, diversify. Do a play if you can, it makes a difference in terms of your casting for musicals. It’s bizarre but that’s how it is. It’s the best job in the world. I love it, I’m still in love with it. It can break your heart; I had a couple of years of jobs being taken away from me, not being able to get auditions. It happens to us all. My agent said ‘you’ll get a job, and you’ll be so happy because of the disappointment’.”

Russell hugs us all goodbye, and kisses my cheek, and I’ll admit – I’m smitten. I hope she’s always this happy, and if she has to be disappointed first in order to get there, then I hope it’s a very, very short story.

(This interview first appeared in the print edition of Fourthwall & the Drama Student and then later on BritishTheatre.com. Photograph: Phil Matthews)

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