20 Questions With...Tracie Bennett
Date: 13 February 2006
Actress Tracie Bennett - currently playing the money-grabbing Madame Thenardier in Londonís longest-running musical, Les Miserables - compares drama school to boot camp, appreciates Northern grittiness & would like Alan Bennett as a father.
Tracie Bennettís West End credits include her Olivier Award-winning performance as Ilona Ritter in She Loves Me at the Savoy, and Linda in Cash on Delivery at the Whitehall Theatre. She was also nominated for an Olivier for her performance as Liz in Regentís Park Open Air Theatreís production of High Society. Her other London credits include Celeste in Saturday Night and Rita La Porta in Lucky Stiff at the Bridewell, The Last Song of the Nightingale in Hampstead and Greenwich, as well as at the Edinburgh Festival, and Cinderella in Lewisham.
Bennettís regional theatre work includes extensive productions in Manchester. She has starred as Irma in Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll, (for which she won the TMA Award for Best Performance in a Musical), Merrily We Roll Along and Carousel (for which she won the Manchester Evening News Drama Award for Best Actress) at Manchesterís Royal Exchange. At Forum in Manchester, Bennett has appeared as Sandra in Breezeblock Park; Linda in Blood Brothers; Katalin Hunyak in Chicago and Marty in Grease. And at Manchesterís Library Theatre, Bennett has appeared as Mima in Working Class Hero, Orderly in Ten Tiny Fingers and Mary in Merrily We Roll Along.
At Sheffieldís Crucible Theatre, Bennett has starred as Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls, the title role in Educating Rita, Wendy in Spring Awakening, Florence Bravo in Bedevilled and Aladdin. At the Haymarket, Leicester, she has been seen as Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer and Angie in Putting on the Ritz.
Bennett has also appeared as Pauline in One for the Road at the Palace, Watford; Amid the Standing Corn for Joint Stock Theatre Co; as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers (Olympia, Dublin); and as Polly Perkins in Robinson Crusoe (Lincoln). On tour, she has taken leading roles in Billy Liar, Dead Funny and Honk!, as well as TIE school tours of Shakespeareís The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Nightís Dream.
On television, Bennettís extensive list of credits include, most recently, Northern Lights, Vincent, The Royal, Doctors, The Court, The Long Firm, Casualty, MIT, The Bill, Heroes & Villains, Keen Eddie, Burn It, Mersey Beat and Where The Heart Is. She has also appeared in Heartbeat, Next of Kin and Making Out, and is best known for her role as Sharon Gaskell Coronation Street. She presented OK! TV for Carlton, Tracie Goes to Hollywood, Soap Fever and The Bombing of Manchester. Bennett also won Celebrity Stars in their Eyes playing Judy Garland.
Bennettís film credits include Shirley Valentine, Knights and Emeralds, Deep Red Instant Love, Lofty Life and F2.8. She also produced a short film, French Fries on the Golden Front, which won at the Miami Film Festival. She can be heard on the audio cassette readings of Bridget Jonesí Diary and the sequel The Edge of Reason; People Like Us and The Snowfield.
Her concerts include An Evening with Cy Coleman, An Evening with Tommy Steele and An Evening of Gershwin at the Royal Albert Hall. Bennett also features on cast recordings of She Loves Me and Saturday Night.
She is now starring in Londonís longest-running musical, Les Miserables, as Madame Thenardier.
Date & place of birth
Born 17 June 1961 in Lancashire.
Lives now in
I first trained at the Royal Northern College of Music because I used to play the piano, and then the drama school I went to was Italia Conti. I loved it, but it was so hard. I was 17 when I went there. It was like an army boot camp. I hate this image of drama schools as all fun and jazz hands - itís a hard graft!
What made you first decide to become an actor?
I think it was when a company called M6 came into school to do a play. It was so powerful I just stayed and watched the whole thing, even though it meant I missed my biology O-Level Ė which I paid to re-take later, and still failed! I was enthralled by the performances and the way people can capture an audience and hold the attention of all different types of people, not just those who are really into theatre. And also the skill of story-telling, getting across a story is a real skill. I think I was watching something like a Shirley Maclaine Special on TV and just thought ďI want to performĒ.
First big break
Television-wise, it was definitely Coronation Street. I was 19 or 20 at the time and they wanted Sharon to be played by a 14-year-old but couldnít find someone that young who could take on all those issues the character had. So in the end they gave it to me and I had to play it down in age. In the theatre, I think An Evening with Tommy Steele was amazing because he demanded perfection. We spent several days just working on specific hand movements. It was so polished, and that's such a good discipline to get into.
Career highlights to date
Theyíve all been really good actually. It would be easier to say things I didnít like as much! But really, I think I have learned something from all the work Iíve done so all of them have contributed to my career in some way. The only thing I really donít get is panto. I just feel as though Iím making a complete fool of myself, which is sort of the point, but I like to hide behind a character and use that mask. I donít like to be "Tracie Bennett in Aladdin".
If you hadnít become involved with theatre, what might you have done professionally?
I really wanted to be a forensic detective for a long time. I think itís an in-built thing about justice. All my family are really into justice and finding the truth, which I suppose links in with acting when you want to play a part truthfully. It is all about finding the story behind why someone died by piecing together their life. I would have needed my biology O-Level for that, though!
Favourite productions youíve worked on
They have all been really joyous. I couldnít pick any particular production out. All of them have been great fun, but I also take my work very seriously. I think if people are paying £50 per ticket to come and see you in a show, you have to take it seriously. I always want to get it just right, I'm very tough on myself and a perfectionist. I try to put my all into every production.
Robert Bathurst from Cold Feet; Ray Winstone; Penelope Keith; Barbara Knox. Patricia Hodge is fantastic Ö. A lot of people, all of whom are very generous actors.
Steven Pimlott is very good. He is hard, but good. Howard Lloyd Lewis started me off in rep at Manchester Library. And when I was doing Saturday Night at the Bridewell, Stephen Sondheim came in to oversee. He wasnít exactly the director, but obviously he had some creative input! Also, Scott Ellis and Rob Marshall were fantastic.
Favourite playwrights or musical writers
Stephen Sondheim, Willy Russell, and Terry Johnson are all fabulous. I also like David Mamet, Arthur Miller and Alan Bennett. Actually, I wish Alan Bennett was my dad... though that's a bit unfair to my dad, isn't it? Maybe Alan Bennett could be an uncle?!
What roles would you most like to play still?
Iíd like to play a good girlfriend in real life! No, I don't really have any particular roles in mind. Iím not a dreamer at all. Maybe itís part of that Northern grittiness, but I never really think about what parts Iíd like to play, I just go with the flow. I suppose on a wet Wednesday afternoon I have a fantasy about starring in a film with Al Pacino. That would be nice! Iíd also like to work with Albert Finney.
What was the first thing you saw on stage that made a big impact on you? And the last?
That M6 company doing a play at school was the first major thing, I think. I also saw brilliant productions of Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hedda Gabler when I was younger. The last thing I saw on stage was Les Miserables. The only other time I have seen it was when it opened nearly 21 years ago, but it remains a really fresh show and is just as exciting as it was when I first saw it.
What would you advise the government Ė or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Give us more dosh! MPs seem to go to the theatre all the time - where would they be without it? They all say they support the arts, but they need to translate that into actual funding.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would like to be a fly so that I could fly in and out of tons of interesting conversations throughout history, and not just be stuck as one person for the day! The Ancient Egyptians really fascinate me, I love all that stuff about Cleopatra. I donít think the medieval times would have been so nice, though.
I generally like factual books. I think I get enough of imaginary worlds in my career. There is a book Iím reading at the moment: Watching the English by Kate Fox. Itís fantastic, all about how the English behave.
Favourite holiday destinations
Iím very lucky because I have travelled quite extensively in my career. Iíve never been to India, though, so Iíd really like to go there and explore that part of Asia.
Favourite after-show haunts
Little Italy, PJís Bar and Grill, and Jerryís in the West End, and the Mac Bar near where I live in north London. But I donít go out so much when Iím doing a big show like this. I donít like to burn the candle at both ends. Believe me, I have been known to! But I think I owe it to the audience not to be too exhausted!
Why did you want to accept your part in Les Miserables?
I didnít! I thought they were kidding when they offered it to me, because itís one of those really iconic shows and Madame Thenardier is a real A-list musical theatre role, in my opinion. I told them I canít sing. My voice sounds like a cross between a cheese grater and a pneumatic drillÖ but they said thatís what they wanted! They said ďTracie, we donít want you to sing, we want you to act.Ē I am acting my socks off and enjoying it.
How would you describe the role of Madame Thenardier?
Sheís very simple, but she also gets things done. Sheís a dreamer in a way because she had aspirations of marrying a prince. Sheís quite clever in some ways. I mean, it's really her who runs that inn Ė but sheís also a bit scared of her husband.
Les Miserables is the longest-running musical in the West End. Why do you think it has been so successful?
Itís just such a great team, and itís excellent writing, so it just works.
Whatís it like to take over a role in such a long-running production, particularly as youíre the only new addition to the cast at the moment?
Very scary! The rehearsals were pretty full-on, but I am quite excited about being in the show.
Whatís the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals of Les Miserables?
I couldnít do it, thatís what! Itís such hard work, but the company is fantastic. I think we just get on with it, really! It was very intensive, but thatís a good way to learn and to prepare for eight shows a week.
What are your plans for the future?
I donít really make plans, I just see what comes up. Maybe theyíll want me to extend in this and maybe they wonít, but something always turns up. I go with the flow.
- Tracie Bennett was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Les Miserables opened on 8 October 1985 and is still running at its third London home, the West Endís Queen's Theatre.