20 Questions With...Scarlett Strallen
Date: 28 November 2005
Actress Scarlett Strallen - who has just taken over the title role in West End musical Mary Poppins - talks about the wonders of Shakespeare, acting in the rain & how she worked her way from ensemble to leading lady.
Prior to succeeding Olivier Award winner Laura Michelle Kelly as the eponymous nanny in the hit West End musical Mary Poppins, actress Scarlett Strallen was seen this summer playing Josephine in the New Shakespeare Companyís production of HMS Pinafore at Regentís Park Open Air Theatre. Her other productions for the New Shakespeare Company in summer 2005 were Cymbeline and Twelfth Night.
In the West End, Strallen is best known for her starring role as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium.
She was an original cast member of Mamma Mia! at the Prince Edward Theatre, The Witches of Eastwick at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Peggy Sue Got Married at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Strallen also appeared as Jenny in Aspects of Love and Jessie in Annie Get Your Gun, both at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Her television and film credits include No Sweat! for the BBC, and the film Beyond the Sea directed by Kevin Spacey. She has also recorded numerous talking books and animations.
Date & place of birth
I was born on 3 July 1982 in Chiswick.
Lives now in
I now live in Crystal Palace, Iíve lived there for the last two years, but I grew up in Twickenham. I live with my partner, heís a musical director.
First big break
I think my biggest break has definitely been playing this part, itís the ultimate role for anyone. I think anyone would want to have a crack at playing Mary because sheís such a great character. Before this, I suppose my break was playing Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was in it for three years. I started in the original cast in the ensemble, and had a big solo section as a dancer and I moved up through the ranks from there. I have been very lucky.
Favourite productions youíve ever worked on
The summer productions at the Open Air Theatre were just amazing, even in the rain! We never cancelled a performance and actually it was quite fun, you know what the English are like they sit there and put their rain macks on and carry on as normal. I did a season of two Shakespeare plays as well as playing Josephine in HMS Pinafore, and that was an amazing experience, and that led straight on to playing Mary. Itís been an unbelievable break for me, itís fantastic. Iím only in my third week, but thereís so much involved with playing the part and Iím kind of getting to grips with it now I hope. Itís a big task.
Iím going to have to say Gavin Lee. I was so pleased he stayed on in the show. Weíve worked together before in Peggy Sue Got Married along with Ruthie Henshall, and we had a great time on that so I was so thrilled that he was staying on. Mary doesnít pass by many people during the show, she has dealings with the family but probably Bert is the other person sheís with all the time.
I loved working with all three directors at the park; Rachel Kavanaugh, Timothy Sheader and Ian Talbot, he was incredibly involved in it and put so much time and energy into the team; and of course Richard Eyre who thankfully came for the cast change of Mary Poppins, and worked with us a lot; he was especially good.
It has to be Shakespeare. I think Iíve always loved the plays but I never imagined that I would get to work on two at the same time, and seeing them come to life this summer has sparked my enthusiasm for them again. I studied Shakespeare at school, and then Iíve been doing musicals for such a long time and it was such an amazing experience to get back into him and itís just so hilariously funny at times and ridiculous and heart-warming and emotional. I went out and bought the whole works! So many people came to the plays and were just so involved with them all the way through. I also really like Tom Stoppard. I donít know what it is about him, but he makes me laugh as well, kind of like Shakespeare.
Favourite musical writers
Sondheim. And Stiles and Drewe are very exciting new, well, I say new, theyíve been around for quite a long time, but theyíre really exciting composers. I met them briefly during the rehearsal period. Itís been Sherman Brothers for me for a few years! Iíve never really tackled Sondheim and Iíd really like to do that eventually.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I would definitely like to do some more Shakespeare roles. Itís hard to say while playing Mary Poppins though, which is the ultimate leading lady part because you just get to do everything. Iím really into Soprano roles, having done Josephine at the Park; Johanna in Sweeny Todd is an obvious choice for me. In terms of going to Broadway, I think every performer has dreams of achieving that; it would be unbelievable, and I never say never now. Having got this part I feel really really lucky, I know so many girls were up for it. I hope I just keep improving as an artist and see where my career leads me.
Do you have any preference between musical or straight theatre?
No I could never choose to do exclusively one or the other, I think theyíre both totally different and provide totally different things for the audience. With musicals thereís this heightened sense of reality where people can just burst into song and that energy is wondefull. But the energy of a play can be totally real and you canít compare them. Having been in both, theyíre both very different experiences as well, which is whatís interesting about acting.
What first made you decide to become an actor?
Iíve got a theatrical background, both my parents were two of the top leading dancers of their time and being around that environment from a very young age I could see how much fun they had really. I suppose it would be the same if you grew up in a medical background. I was not at all pressurised into it, I just saw how much fun they had Ė although I have no illusions about the struggle they went through at times, which every performer has; but being an artist is a wonderful thing.
If you hadnít become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
My first big West End show as an adult when I first joined it over the age of 16 was Mamma Mia!, and we had to record all these backing vocals on all the Abba songs, and lots and lots of time was spent in a booth. I wanted to keep studying for my A-levels and so I was doing that at the same time to keep my options open. But I don't really know what would have done. At that point I was still thinking I would go to university; I might still go! If I did I would study English literature.
What was the last thing you saw on stage and really enjoyed? And the first?
Both my sisters are in Scrooge and it was a fun show for Christmas, a really good show. But really the last thing I loved watching was Mary Poppins. Just as I got the part I though Iíd better go in and watch it to see what I was letting myself in for, and I loved it! The first show I saw was probably my father trying to get me into plays, he took me to see The Cherry Orchard when I was about eight or nine; thatís kind of what I remember sitting through. Musical wise it must have been Cats, both my parents were in that. As a six year old watching it was so wonderful, my mum was The White Cat, Iím so inspired by my Mum. Sheís been twice already to see me in Mary Poppins.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
It would be great if somehow theatre could be more accessible to everyone, ticket prices are very high at the moment which I suppose is unavoidable but it would be great if everyone could see something; even pantomime, kids remember that and it gets them involved at a very young age. People were bringing their kids to the park to watch Twelfth Night and I was so impressed that they would sit through it, and I think thatís got to get them. Kids should be involved with theatre.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be & why?
Hmm, thatís a very difficult one. Does it have to be someone in the industry? I think maybe Tony Blair and see what he was actually thinking about the war, what we were going to get out of Iraq. But I wonít go into that too much, I donít want to start being controversial!
Iíve been so consumed with Mary Poppins the last few months and Shakespeare over the summer I havenít read that much. Iím very into Kate Atkinson, she did Behind the Scenes of the Museum and Human Croquet. Ian McEwan is a fascinating person to me, he is so twisted and his books totally terrify me, Iíve been meaning to see the film version of Enduring Love for ages.
Favourite holiday destination
My partner and I just went to Cornwall for the first time ever, that was totally beautiful. We quite like going to try and find places people donít know about, we went to Prague ages ago and then it became fashionable and much more expensive later on. I go to cold and wintry places usually, Iím not a huge sun worshipper at all.
What was it about Mary Poppins that first made you want to play the role?
Itís an incredible character; sheís in the same kind of family as Peter Pan and those amazing figures that spark off peopleís imaginations. She comes to help this middle class family who seem to have lost touch with each other and she takes the children on a journey and teaches them various lessons through her magic. ďStep in TimeĒ is all about being careful, ďFeed the BirdsĒ is about looking after your young, and ďSupercaliĒ is about seeing people not for how they speak but for what they say, and all these moral lessons which I didnít realise until I came to look into it. I adored the film, and still cry whenever I watch it. The show has the P L Travers stories and the best bits from the film all in one and additional characters that are equally magical so you canít go wrong. When I went to see the show, I was dazzled. I always find it amazing when people do a good job with it. In the auditions I had a few calls with the resident teams and the musical director and then on the last day of auditions I had a meeting with everybody and it was an enormous pile of people, 40 or 50, and I walked on stage and had to do what theyíd given me, one of the new ones, Maryís first song where she does all the magic for the children. Iím so lucky to have got the part as there were millions of other girls up for it too.
Did you know the books or the film before you accepted the role?
I hadnít read the books so I had no idea of this incredible world and they were another eye-opener really when I started the show. And what I think the show does is marry the books with the film so well.
What are the challenges of taking over a role compared with originating the part?
Itís a very different experience, this is my first time, everything else Iíve done has been original cast so Iíve been very lucky with that. Taking over the role of Mary was lovely because nobody expected me to be anything but myself and all the things Mary is to me, and Richard came in and I had lots of interesting chats about it. You get a lot less time taking over because in the creation you have longer obviously in order for it to be shaped into what it becomes, and the show was in Bristol before it came here, so that was quite a big pressure just for the amount that Mary has to do Ė Iím never offstage. I went backstage to watch the operation before I joined the show, and it really is like another operation backstage with all the quick changes. I went out of stage door with my jaw dropping.
Do you have a favourite number or line from the show?
ďAnything can Happen if you let itĒ, not to be cheesy about it but I really believe that!
Mary Poppins is a very popular family show, but small children are not encouraged to attend due to some scary moments (particularly the ďTemper TemperĒ scene). What age group do you think the show appeals to most, and what is it about the show that makes it so popular?
I hadnít realised that, thatís so interesting. My cousin came to see it last week, who is five, and she sat through the entire thing totally mesmerised. But everyone knows their own child, each one is different, I see people in the audience with really young children and it depends on the child. I donít think itís that scary at all. Thereís something wonderful in it for everyone.
What are your plans for the future? Anything else youíd like to add?
Iím doing this so far for a year and then weíll see what happens after that. Itís quite far ahead, but anything that comes along. My career has been so wonderful so far, Iíve just gone with the flow, and I suppose weíll see what happens. Iíve always wanted to work in television and films, so thatís something Iíd look into, but you canít predict in this business, you donít know where youíre going to end up.
Mary Poppins opened at the West End's Prince Edward Theatre on 15 December 2004 (following previews from 6 December and an eight-week tryout at the Bristol Hippodrome). It is currently booking until 29 October 2006.