She created the role of Meat in the original London cast of the We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre and took part in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace. In 2001, Ellis understudied the role of Eliza Doolittle in Trevor Nunn’s production of My Fair Lady at the National Theatre and Drury Lane, playing the role opposite Jonathan Pryce on many occasions.
Ellis’ other credits include the national tour of Magic of the Musicals and Mary in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. Her recent workshops include Way Beyond Blue, written by Imogen Stubbs and directed by Trevor Nunn, and the title role in Helen of Troy, directed by Gary Griffin. She also released a single, “No One But You” with music by Queen’s Brian May.
Now back in the West End, Ellis this week faces the press as she steps into the pointy boots of Tony Award winner and Whatsonstage.com nominee Idina Menzel as the green-skinned Wicked Witch of West, Elphaba, in Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holtzman’s Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel charting “the untold story of the witches of Oz”.
Date & place of birth
Born 6 May 1979 in Suffolk.
Lives now in
Brockley, London. I’ve been there for six years.
What made you want to become an actor?
I think I was an over-active hyper child! I’ve been performing all my life. I sang and danced as a young kid. It was always something I wanted to do.
Career highlights to date
We Will Rock You because I got to create the role and work with Queen; and it was just a great experience! My dad always used to listen to Queen so I was brought up on their music. I think everyone loves it - you don’t find many people who don’t know it. I had a really great time in that show.
I’ve enjoyed everything. I’ve been able to play a range of parts from rock to classical to period, from Les Mis and Miss Saigon to We Will Rock You. Lots of actors get pigeonholed. I’ve been lucky not to have that. I have just enjoyed the variety and all the different challenges.
Trevor Nunn, he’s got to be, he is fantastic. And Joe Mantello who I’m working with now, he’s also great. I think when they get the best out of you without you noticing it, that’s when you realise what a great director is. They make you do something without you questioning what you’re doing and make you feel comfortable with what you’re doing as well.
Favourite playwrights or musical writers
Well, I would have to say all of the ones whose shows I’ve been in! I did a play that Imogen Stubbs wrote as a workshop that Trevor directed, and I thought that was brilliant. I played Eva Cassidy in it, and I’d love to do it in the West End. It’s in talks to be happening, so I hope it will, but nothing is certain.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I haven’t seen that many shows recently because of being so busy working, but I loved Avenue Q. I’m going to see Spamalot very soon and I’m sure that’ll be great too.
I read Alex Garland’s The Beach, which I enjoyed. I don’t really read that much to be honest. If I’m ever to read something, it’s usually something completely escapist to unwind.
Favourite holiday destinations
I just went with my boyfriend to New York and I absolutely loved it. My dad lives in Spain so I might be going there sometime. I love travelling. Whenever I get a chance to go away, I do.
Favourite after-show haunts
I don’t have any at the moment, I’m too tired. But I like to go out to dinner sometimes with friends after a show.
Why did you want to accept your role in Wicked?
I think everybody in the West End wanted to do it - every female that could sing was up for it! I had a few auditions and I was very lucky to get the part. And what a great thing to move into, something new and big that had so much hype about it!
What’s it like stepping into Idina Menzel’s shoes?
It’s tough. There’s a lot of expectation from other people and Idina’s such a veteran at it. I’m starting at the point she was at four or five years ago. To step into that when someone’s had so much experience doing it has been a hard but an interesting journey. I’m looking forward to when I’ll be as comfortable in the role as Idina! Being the understudy I didn’t really see her all that much because, when she was on, I was either waiting in the wings or out of the building, which is good in a way because it gave me a chance to make the role my own. It was a strange job for me in the first place - watching someone else do the role you’re going to do is very odd!
How familiar were you with the story before you joined the cast?
I read Gregory Maguire’s book. I knew The Wizard of Oz very well and I was as intrigued as everyone else to find out more about the story behind the characters in it. I had also heard the Broadway cast recording of Wicked.
What do you think appeals most to audiences about Wicked?
So many people have seen The Wizard of Oz and they are want to find out more about the green witch and the good witch. It’s part of people’s childhood memories. And the score’s great and the cast’s great so people keep coming back for more.
How long does it take to “green up” every night?
It takes about 20 minutes. I’ve got a lovely guy named Chris who comes in and does it for me.
What do you find most challenging about the role of Elphaba?
Elphaba is a huge role, and it’s both vocally and emotionally very demanding. I don’t really go off the stage and the show’s a good three hours long. I’ve done big roles in the past but this is so demanding. Everyone’s so lovely to work with, though, and it’s just so rewarding.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened during your run to date?
Though I’ve already done a number of performances, I’ve not flown yet because the machinery keeps breaking down, which is kind of not so good. It’s very amusing, though, and adds a bit more interest. I have to run to the front of the stage to sing “Defying Gravity” without actually flying!
What are your future plans?
I might be recording some tracks with Brian May if I get some time. When I get a minute off, I’ll try to plan that.
- Kerry Ellis was speaking to Caroline Ansdell