20 Questions With...Janie Dee
Date: 25 February 2002
Multi award-winning actress Janie Dee, who opens this week in the West End with Gershwin musical My One and Only, wouldn't mind swapping places briefly with Ginger Rogers if she could dance with Fred Astaire.
Actress Janie Dee runs the entire gamut in her stage work - excelling in everything from comedy to Shakespeare, contemporary drama and, of course, musicals.
It was the last that first made her a name to watch on the London stage - perhaps most notably, with Nicholas Hytner's production of Carousel for the National Theatre. Dee played Carrie Pipperidge, a part that won her the 1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical.
Her other musical theatre credits have included Paradise Moscow, Enter the Guardsman, Cabaret, Cats, Showboat, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, They're Playing Our Song and South Pacific. Amongst her non-musical credits are The Three Sisters, House and Garden, Romeo and Juliet, The Woman of Troy and A Connecticut Yankee.
Dee has performed outside the M25 as frequently as inside it and has developed particular strong affinities with Chichester Festival Theatre and with Leeds' Stephen Joseph Theatre, under the directorship of Alan Ayckbourn. It was Ayckbourn's sci-fi comedy Comic Potential, in which Dee played amorous acting android Jacie, that the actress had her greatest critical and commercial success to date.
Following its premiere in Leeds in 1999, Comic Potential transferred to the West End and then to New York, earning Dee a slew of accolades along the way, including a hat-trick of UK Best Actress awards in a single year - the Evening Standard, Critics Circle and Laurence Olivier - an achievement matched only by Dames Diana Rigg and Judi Dench.
This week, Dee opens in the West End opposite Tim Flavin in the Gershwin musical, My One and Only, which premiered last summer in Chichester.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Old Windsor, Berkshire. But because I'm playing such a young character - she's meant to be 25 - and completely getting away with it I'm told, I don't want to blow it for anyone. It's lovely if people just believe it!
With my husband and daughter, Matilda (who is five) in Holland Park, west London.
First big break
It was Gillian Lynne giving me my first job in the West End in her production of Cabaret, where I met Wayne Sleep for the first time. He gave me my next breaks, too - I was in a couple of his shows, Sleep with Friends and Bits and Pieces.
Career highlights to date
I've loved every single job I've ever done. You're in a better position to say which shows were best, but the experiences I've enjoyed most include working with Wayne Sleep, working with Gillian Lynne, working with Nicholas Hytner on Carousel, and going to Scarborough and working three times with Alan Ayckbourn, including of course Comic Potential. Nothing has put me on the map commercially more than Comic Potential. I've not been in a soap or major film, so it's only the theatre public who might know who I am if at all. And now My One and Only , of course, is another highlight. I've turned down a lot to do this.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Comic Potential with Ayckbourn is a definite favourite, but it was also so wonderful doing They're Playing Our Song for him in Scarborough - the script is by Neil Simon, and Alan's sense of humour is the English version of that. They're not the same, but they both look at people with a dark reality that makes you laugh as well.
Carousel at the National is another favourite: a very sophisticated, classically done musical, an awful lot of pre-thought went into it. It was done with an idea and an angle, so it wasn't like it was just another musical, but was a piece of art. My status as an actor went up because of that art, and I responded to it. I thought afterwards, I never want to work in any other way again. Of course, you can't always have it as good as that.
Last year I loved doing Paradise Moscow at Opera North in Leeds, which we then brought to Sadler's Wells - I wanted it to go on and on. I also did My One and Only at Chichester, and I'm loving doing it again. There is something about it that makes me fill up with joy. It could well be down to dancing with Tim Flavin, but it's also the piece itself. It strikes such a chord about how fame itself doesn't give you happiness - if there's no one to share your accomplishments with, what does it mean? And as with Carousel with the gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein material we had to work with, I've got it again here with the Gershwins. They are just excellence and genius and spirit and joy! They provide everything you want as an actor, let alone as a dancer or singer.
I love working with Tim Flavin, not just because we work well together, but because it gets even better when we're on stage together. Something just happens: I don't want to say what it is - I'm not sure I know what it is - but it's something that happens only when we're on stage, and that's theatre magic, and that's what I live for. It's where you feel your spirit is floating somewhere you haven't felt it float before. It's what you always wish for, and it just doesn't get better than that. Others I've loved working with include Matthew Cottle, Nic Haverson, Bill Champion, Alexander Hanson, Joanna Riding, Clive Rowe, Lauren Geeting, Wayne Sleep and David Soul.
Alan Ayckbourn, Nicholas Hytner, Richard Eyre, Annie Castledine, Loveday Ingram, Ian Judge and Jeremy Sams. Jeremy's a genius: he's a Gershwin of whatever he decides to do.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber most of the time: I'm not particularly quirky in my likes and dislikes! I've also come to love Shostakovich now that I know him thanks to Paradise Moscow, as well as Puccini and Verdi. I should also mention a couple of up-and-coming writers you won't have heard of, but I've loved singing their songs for the Mercury Workshop - Eric Angus and James McConnell.
What role would you most like to play still?
I never know what I want to play next, and that's the way it should stay. I really like being taken by surprise, and I also like to take people by surprise. I don't like doing what people think I'm going to do. That was the lovely thing about Comic Potential: I'm this cheeky, funny, blonde musical theatre girl, but that showed off other stuff. One role that is being spoken about and I'd love to do one day is Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
In your opinion, what's the best thing currently on stage?
I had a great night at The Play What I Wrote - I was completely knocked out by the direction of Kenneth Branagh, what he did with it was fantastic. I also love Kiss Me, Kate.
How do you think the many awards you've won have helped you as an actress?
I'd had some big breaks before I was an award-winner, so I'm not sure if my Olivier Award for Carousel gave me more opportunities afterwards. But what happens is that your name goes into people's heads more thoroughly so you're possibly kept in mind for more jobs. I'm not sure, though, if it changes your life or whether it should do. It's for the moment, and then should be forgotten about. Your work makes your career, not awards - though it's the biggest thrill to receive them, people who are really brilliant move on afterwards.
If you hadn't become an actress, what would you have done for a living?
I gave up acting for about a year and a half and I became a secretary, but my dream job was to become a nurse. So I became a helper in an old people's home. But both of those jobs convinced me I didn't want to do anything except theatre! I think I'd go completely mad if I had to do a 9 to 5 job again, sitting behind a typewriter with bosses asking me if I fancied a bit of 'dick' - their joke for dictation. Sometimes I think I would like to do the jobs that the characters I'm playing do, like the nurse in Comic Potential, the museum guide in Paradise Moscow or a swimmer right now in My One and Only.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I wouldn't swap my life for anyone else's overall, though I might like aspects of other people's lives: to be able to play the piano and write songs like George Gerswhin for example, but then I wouldn't want to die at 38, either. Maybe it would be nice to be Ginger Rodgers so I could dance with Fred Astaire, but then I get to dance with Tim Flavin, so I don't need to be her!
The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck puts life into perspective. I also loved reading Anna Karenina.
Favourite holiday destination
Sardinia, with its white sands and beautiful sea, is gorgeous.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
If only government figures would come to the theatre more themselves. I know they've got a lot to deal with, but if only they could come and relax at the theatre like others do, looking at themselves on stage and laughing and thinking about the world, perhaps they could get some inspiration for humanity. That's what the theatre is here for. But they need not only to go to the theatre, but also to look after it. It's our heritage. It's what people come from all over the world to see.
Despite your tremendous West End successes, your frequent appearances at Scarborough, Sheffield, Chichester and elsewhere demonstrate your commitment to regional theatre as well. What is it that you enjoy about playing outside London?
Being in a quieter place is lovely - you can take a real moment to seriously think about everything that you're doing, so it's a great learning place. It's like a mini-holiday when you go away from home. Outside London, you get to meet your audiences more, too, in the bar afterwards, and get real feedback and develop a following. A coachload came down from Scarborough last week to see My One and Only in previews, and that was great.
Do London audiences react differently to regional audiences?
They're different only at the beginning, and only if you let them. Otherwise, they're as sentimental and needy as anyone else. We're all the same really. We all have our insecurities and needs and fantasies, and theatre does feed all those things.
What attracted you to your part in My One and Only?
The character I'm playing is wonderful. So is Tim Flavin. And of course the Gershwin songs.
What's your favourite line from My One and Only?
"It's not what other people think of you, Billy, it's what you think".
What's your favourite number from My One and Only?
"How Long Has This Been Going On". It's funny and touching at the same time, and I love the tune.
- Janie Dee was speaking to Mark Shenton
My One and Only opens at the West End's Piccadilly Theatre on 25 February 2002, following previews from 9 February.