20 Questions With...Toyah Willcox
Date: 23 July 2001
Toyah Willcox, opening this week in The Shagaround at the Soho Theatre, talks about dismantling toilets & her desire to be a man for a day.
Actress and singer Toyah Willcox has built a varied career in films, television, on the stage and within the music industry. Hit singles such as I Wanna Be Free, It's a Mystery and the successful Anthem album, established her musical style as an intriguing combination of punk and new wave.
Her cinematic work includes The Tempest and Jubilee (both with Derek Jarman) and Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia. On television, she has been a presenter on Holiday and Fasten Your Seatbelts, and has also made appearances in drama series such as Quatermass and Cluedo.
Willcox’s theatrical career has encompassed A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Birmingham Rep and Regent's Park Open Air Theatres, The Taming of the Shrew for Cambridge Theatre Company, and the National's Olivier Award-winning production of Cabaret.
Date & place of birth
Born 18 May 1958 in Birmingham.
Now lives in...
Wherever my work takes me. I tend to lead a fairly nomadic lifestyle at times.
Birmingham Old Rep Drama School from the age of 14.
First big break
That came with a BBC2 Pebble Mill drama series entitled Second City Firsts. The piece was called Glitter and I played a girl appearing on Top of the Pops. It also gave Noel Edmonds his first and only acting role!
Everything I've done has had a different quality to it, although Therese Raquin at Nottingham Playhouse was very satisfying. I also received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Birmingham Arts & Media Department. This was a major highlight because I could tell that they really meant it.
Favourite production that you've worked on
I've been very lucky in that, of all the stage plays I've worked on, only one or two have fallen below full points. Cabaret in the West End was great, and I also loved doing A Midsummer Night's Dream in Regent's Park. I don't think my feet touched the ground in that production - I was always either riding on a pennyfarthing bicycle or going around on a skateboard.
I've adored them all, but Tim Piggott-Smith stands out from when we were doing Amadeus. He was rock solid both as an actor and a co-producer. It was interesting to observe how he combined playing the role of Salieri whilst also wearing a director's hat.
It has to be film director Derek Jarman. He was a great man and a great human being. He didn't just direct; he created everyone into an equal team as a whole ensemble.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I would like to play Lady M in “the Scottish play”. I have been approached to do it next year in two separate productions so that may well be realised. Also, I love the role of Medea and the way it expresses repulsion at the whole family structure. I saw a version at the Edinburgh Festival once which had been slightly rewritten to incorporate a comical twist. And their Greek chorus was sensational.
How have various directors you've worked with, on stage and screen, influenced your theatre work?
The two styles are radically different. In theatre, you have a slightly heightened sense of expressing emotions more physically. No film director has influenced me theatrically in that respect. I can also be affected as much by a casting woman's opinion in terms of how I view approaching a role as I can be by a director's.
What's the best thing currently on stage?
I've been working in theatre all year so there hasn't been much time to see things. The last production I saw was Daryl Hannah in Seven Year Itch. Some critics said unkind things about the performance but I thought it was great.
What advice would you give to the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give up or go home, basically. They should re-elect a younger team for one thing. I'm not impressed with any of the current cabinet or government in general. We need to save our culture as a whole and not just the theatre. I don't think anyone in politics appreciates the struggle involved with creativity and getting work. There should be leaner and hungrier people involved with addressing these issues and also people who feel passionately about England. Theatre is, after all, almost exclusively about close communities.
How has the experience you've gained on stage influenced your approach to working as a TV presenter?
Screen presenting demands different aspects of the physical technique, and you can learn a lot by watching other presenters. There's also an incredible amount of vanity floating around in the role, with people obsessed with their looks, posture and everything. However, by comparison, many great actresses show no sense of vanity with regards to the ageing process. If anything, they allow it to enhance their work. I've become quite dispassionate about how the world perceives me. I need to stay in work both emotionally and mentally, and I actually have separate agents to deal with my stage and television affairs.
If you could swap places with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
There's no one really although it might be fascinating to be Madonna for a while. Otherwise, I'd like to try and be a bloke to see what it's like having a willy!
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It's bizarre and yet so strong as a story to still interest me.
“Q: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? A: What the f*** are you looking at Mister?” Hmm, it's probably best told by a man!
What attracted you to The Shagaround as a play and also to your own role?
For a start, it's a very new play and one that makes a lot of clever observations. It deals with women of all ages and classes, with dialogue that can surprise the audience with its honesty. You hear gasps of recognition along the “Oh my God, I've said that” lines coming from people watching. The play also touches on certain conscious and subconscious comments that we're all prone to make. My character is Beth, who's a nurse, and I was attracted to her role as she is nothing whatsoever like me as a person.
What's your favourite line from The Shagaround?
Another actress says to Beth, "OK, what happens when you first sleep with someone?" and she replies, "You itch!"
You've talked before about loving the language in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Is the contemporary speech in a play like The Shagaround more, or less, of a challenge to deliver authentically?
They certainly are two extremes. With some plays, the language just falls out easily. But The Shagaround is written in quite dense rhythms that reflect the writer's (Maggie Nevill) southern England background. So having to learn those particular rhythms was in itself as challenging as presenting Shakespearean texts.
What was the funniest, or oddest, moment during rehearsals for The Shagaround?
In one scene, we have to dismantle a toilet to build a prison around a man. There was subsequently a lot of falling off toilets, or into them, and we've all picked up some interesting bruises around our private parts. There's been odd handprints appearing on buttocks and it looks rather like we've all gone around being unfaithful to our partners!
What is your view of the Soho Theatre and its commitment to promoting new writers?
Brilliant. We must have theatres like this, especially in the commercial heart of theatreland. People forget that every play, great or small, started out as a new work once. The Soho is a great venue all round and it sits like an embryonic nucleus in London.
- Toyah Willcox was speaking to Gareth Thompson
The Shagaround plays at the Soho Theatre in London from 24 July to 18 August 2001. To win one of five pairs of tickets for the evening performance on Friday, 3 August 2001, click here.