Ashley Russell On ... We Will Rock You
Date: 9 October 2009
We Will Rock You - the Queen mega-musical - is coming to Scotland for a 10-week Christmas run at Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre. Scotland Editor Joseph Pike catches up with cast-member and Falkirk girl Ashley Russell to talk Nancy, positive attitudes and the workshops for Love Never Dies.
So it all began in Scotland?
I started dancing when I was really young under the direction of Caroline Newlands
and then the McKechnie School of Dance and through that danced as a child with Scottish Ballet and Rambert Dance Company. It slowly started to change: I enjoyed dancing but it wasn’t what I was going to do. I was in the Scottish Youth Theatre, the Falkirk Childrens’ Theatre and then was going to be a dentist. I got all the results for that but never went. Instead I went to drama school at The Gateway – part of Queen Margaret - when it was on Leith Walk.
How was your time at Queen Margaret?
It was great. I learned so much there. It was such a great team. And it’s closed down now. They’re still doing the course but it’s not accredited by the NCDT (National Council for Drama Training) any more. It wasn’t given enough funding unfortunately: the university changed from being a University College to a University. But I’ve got nothing but fond memories and high regard for the people like Lynn Baines who taught me there.
Then you went to seek your fortune in London.
I got a Masters in Musical Theatre at Mountview in London. You can actually get a Masters in musical theatre, can you believe it? That was 12 months. It was £15,000 for the year but a got a full scholarship. The Dame Judi Dench Scholarship in fact, which was fantastic. That helped me with the singing side and brush up on the dancing.
Next: BBC 1 and I’d Do Anything. What was your first audition like?
I didn’t really have any expectations of getting anywhere. I’d been offered another job in another show at this point, so I had nothing to lose. Because I entered it with that mentality - give it a bash, give it your best, don’t change yourself, go for it, see what happens - I just kept getting further and further through. ‘Oh I’m in the live shows!’ I’ve been waiting a year and been in final auditions for everything. Finally I get my first job and then I get I’d Do Anything. It’s like buses: they all come at once.
That must have been terrifying?
Well in retrospect I don’t know how I managed it. I met up with Jodie Prenger (the show’s winner) last Saturday and the two of us were saying ‘how did we do that?’ But because it was such a long process and you’ve waited so long to be the final twelve, the natural thing to do next is the live shows. So it was fine when you were in it. I’m a stronger person than I thought I was.
Being backstage when the programme is live on TV must be scary?
Yeah that was. They always do a little video clip of what happened last week with the back-story. I used to put my hands in my ears and hum. I never wanted to hear what they said - good or bad - because I had to focus on what I was doing next. But although there were cameras, there was a live audience and therefore an element of live theatre. That’s what I clasped on to. Plus my crazy Scottish friends and family were shouting over everyone else and dominating the audience.
Who’s your best friend from the process?
I’m very close with Rachel Tucker whose wedding I was at 2 weeks ago. She was in We Will Rock You in London. She just got married in Belfast: so Jessie Buckley, Niamh Jennings, Samantha Barks and I went over on some ridiculously early flight and had a great night. I’m very close with Jessie and very close with Jodie.
How did you cope with competitive element of the show: being friends with the other contestants whilst pitted against each other?
The only other people in the world at that time who knew how you felt were these girls. They’d also picked people who were so unbelievably different there was no comparison. You didn’t get to choose any of your songs which was a bit rubbish. I can sound amazing doing one song but if you pick one that’s not right for me, it can sound crap. So if somebody got their song, in their perfect genre every week, and you were getting the one that wasn’t, it wasn’t your fault. You just play the game. We all bought into that and all made a pact that we were a team.
It was clear from the beginning of the show that the producers edit footage to highlight some contestants and the outcome is partly pre-decided. How hard is it to deal with that?
You just need to do your best, and do as much as you can for you: keep focussed on achieving that. I’ve come out of the other side, I enjoyed it, had a great time, met so many people, had different experiences, met some friends who will be my best friends for ever. And I’ve worked every since I left. So it’s pretty good going.
More recently we hear you were involved in the workshops for Phantom 2?
Yeah! That was fantastic. Jessie Buckley did that as well. We were doing the workshop for Phantom 2: Love Never Dies. We had [Jack O’Brien], the Tony-award winning director of Hairspray who is the campest guy you will ever meet: he’s amazing, I love him. Working with Andrew Lloyd Webber while he’s still composing, and watching him is great. You’re sitting in the room thinking ‘not many people would be privy to this in their lifetime’.
What’s the show like?
I’ve only done the workshops. There was never a part for me in the show: I’m a bit young for the parts I’d be suitable for. I think it’ll be good. If it’s anything like the workshops I did, I think it could be pretty special.
But it’ll be difficult to top the first Phantom?
It’s very different. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say because it’s all secret. He’s not lost his touch when it comes to composing. Ben Elton is doing part of the libretto and Glenn Slater – who did The Little Mermaid - is working on it as well.
How long did that last?
We did two 3-week sessions. After the first one we went to Sydmonton (Lloyd Webber’s country estate) and performed it as his private festival. The audience was filled with famous people: the Pet Shop Boys were there, Arlene Phillips, Bill Kenwright, Don Black, Tim Rice. People you really want to know if you want to be in a show.
More pressure then?
You just take it for what it is and go for it. What was more nerve-wracking was after the Phantom stuff, Andrew invited some of us to do an evening cabaret. So there were four singers and he’d asked me to do that. That was nerve-wracking. The other stuff was him, was Andrew’s baby. This was purely entertainment value. He has this old church in his grounds which is a small theatre. I think I had a wee glass of wine when that was over!
What were you singing?
‘Big Spender’. He wanted me to sing that.
Tell us about We Will Rock You.
It’s a Queen extravaganza with all the songs you know and love and all the songs you’ve forgotten about and think ‘oh that’s a goodie’. It’s set in the future in a time where musical instruments have been banished.
You’re playing the teacher?
And also Lily Allen – which will make sense when you see it. I’m also the first cover for the role of Killer Queen. But Brenda Edwards who plays that part for the tour, is off at Christmas week so I’m playing it then. I’ve probably done about thirty shows as Killer Queen now, but the teacher’s such a great track: she’s slightly Jean Brodie-esque.
What are the cast/crew like?
I’ve been spoilt rotten with this job. Ben Elton, Roger Taylor and Brian May come to most press nights because we’re their baby for the tour. Everyone’s so supportive. You’re not on stage being judged; you’ve got all these hands on your back.
Support must be important?
I think the times when you don’t work are when you learn more about yourself. I know that sounds a bit arty-farty but I do believe it’s true. Because if you don’t know how to keep going as an actor when your unemployed, you won’t get very far.
So you’ll be living back in Falkirk?
No: I’m going to live in Edinburgh, close to the theatre. I don’t want to be trekking home to Falkirk. I won’t be able to have a night out. The last train’s something ridiculous like 11.15pm and we don’t get out of the theatre until 11 O’Clock!
If you hadn’t been an actor you’d be…
Are you reading anything at the moment?
I read 'The Secret' almost every day. It’s a book about positive mental attitudes and I believe in that. The other book I read most days I keep in my make-up bag in the dressing room is 'Chicken Soup For The Soul'. It’s another book that redeems your faith in humankind and life and I think we need that.
Carlton Hill, but not in the bushes! At the top when the Sun rises and you’re sat up there with your coat on.
Ben Elton! I do like a bit of Frankie Boyle.
What songs are on your iPod?
The Script, a band from Dublin. Plus Daniel Merryweather.
Should one kiss on a first date?
A cheeky wee one. No tongues.
Who’s you’re most admired actor?
Dame Judi Dench. I love her work: she's a great theatre actress, film actress and also I’ll always have a lot of admiration at the fact that she sponsored me at Mountview as well.
Last film you saw?
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'. I’m a sucker for an 80s film.
Favourite holiday destination?
My mum lived in Dubai for years. I’d love to live there.
Who’s your best friend in the industry?
George Ure who plays Boq in Wicked in the West End. I know him from my Mountview, days. He’s an Airdrie boy.
We Will Rock You! Or Wicked.
What makes you laugh?
Most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
Small things are more romantic than big gestures. Postcards from holidays and wee daft things that they remember once and though you’ve forgotten about.
Madame Morrible in Wicked. There’s something very interesting in the way that character is so two faced and comes across as the smiling assassin. That’s the part I’ve got my wee heart set on. Also, Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables. Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers. I’m a bit young for them all at the moment but my time will come.
'We Will Rock You' is at the Edinburgh Playhouse from 4 November 2009 to 9 January 2010. Booking available online via: www.edinburghplayhouse.org.uk
- by Joseph Pike
Related ContentBack to Scotland Homepage