Jenna Russell’s many stage credits include, most recently, Miss Sarah in Michael Grandage’s acclaimed West End production of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award and a Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Prior to that, her theatre appearances include starring as Tracey Lord in High Society at Sheffield Crucible, Cinderella in Into the Woods at the Donmar Warehouse and West End, Young Sally in Follies at the Shaftesbury, Bertrande in Martin Guerre at the West End’s Prince Edward theatre, Felicity in Landslide at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and Three Sisters at the Royal Court.
She has also appeared in Metropolis Kabarett at the National, Les Miserables at the Donmar Warehouse and, for the RSC, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, Misha’s Party, Wildest Dreams and The Beggar’s Opera.
On television, Russell is best known for her role as Deborah Gilder in BBC drama Born and Bred, a part she played for three years from 2001 to 2004. She has also appeared in Men Only, Picking up the Pieces, Peak Practice, On the Up, Home to Roost, Missing Persons, Purple People Eater, Better Class of Person, The Bill, Saracen, Sister Catherine, The Party, Your Place or Mine, QPR Askey is Dead, Coming Out and Doctor Who. Her films include The Fear, P’Tang Yang Kipperbang and Sacred Hearts. She also starred in radio drama Flamingos.
Russell is now appearing in the West End transfer of Sam Buntrock’s revival of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George. Exploring the creative process of French impressionist George Seurat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical begins in 19th-century France, where the impoverished painter battles with his art and his personal life. His engrossment in his work drives his pregnant girlfriend Dot to leave him. The action then shifts to modern America where George’s great-grandson is facing similar problems. Daniel Evans stars as George with Russell as Dot and, in the modern scenes, Dot’s aged daughter Marie, parts played in the original Menier Chocolate Factory run by Anna-Jane Casey.
Date & place of birth
Born in Paddington, London on 5 October 1967.
Lives now in
Whitstable in Kent. We’ve also got a tiny little place in south-east London. It’s like a shoebox and a building site at the moment. Eventually, when we get it together, it will be marvellous, I’m sure!
I went to Sylvia Young theatre school from the ages of 14 to 16. I was never aware of deciding to do acting as a career. My dad, step-dad, was a cab driver and mum is secretary so no one acted – my grandfather was a piano tuner in Dundee but that’s the nearest connection to the arts in my family! My parents moved around a lot when I was a child and I was usually living with one or the other. When mum got somewhere to live - she was without a permanent address for a while - she asked me to move back with her. I really wanted to but it meant going to another part of London and another comprehensive school. I had been to about ten different schools already, and I was at the end of my tether meeting people - I was a very shy 14-year-old. My step-dad had a friend whose son went to Sylvia Young and he suggested I go there. At that time, there were only about 30 students at the school, and half of them were there because they had trouble in bigger schools or they were nervous. I got an audition. My mum was studying Romeo and Juliet for O Level so I found the biggest speech in that and learned it in the front room. Dad always liked the album of West Side Story so I went in with the song “Something’s Coming”. I don’t think I was very good, but Sylvia is extraordinary, she sees something in children. In me, she saw someone who needed help and I’m grateful to her forever. She changed my life. I came out as someone with acting experience and suddenly got some roles.
First big break
I did quite a lot of television work when I was at the school. On my last day, Sylvia was saying “so what are you going to do”, because a lot of people didn’t want to continue being actors, they just went there as an alternative fun way of getting education. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had been up for a Channel 4 film and she told me I got it on that day, so that kind of kicked me into being an adult actor. It was Sacred Hearts with Kathy Burke. It was a very good drama, one of the first films on Channel 4, and it was a break that made me think it might really happen for me.
Career highlights to date
I loved doing Three Sisters at the Royal Court for Max Stafford-Clark. I was very proud of that as a production and the people in it. It was also nice because I’d worked at the RSC before that and a lot of us were reunited in that job. Guys and Dolls more recently was a lovely thing to be part of. It renewed my love of theatre because I’d been away from it for a while. That show inspires that, it has a very happy feeling and is a joy to do, it’s like a good drug. Another highlight would be Born and Bred on TV. I did four series of that, it was a really happy time.
Having a favourite is quite tricky because they’re all so wonderful. But the ones I’ve loved most are all very similar in that they’re not just directors, they’re teachers in a way. Declan Donnellan is an extraordinary man to work for, such a brave director and so risky and he expects so much from his actors. You can be very free with Declan. Max Stafford-Clark is very cerebral. With him, it’s never about you, it’s about the other person you’re speaking to and how you’re affecting them. That’s great for actors, getting them out of thinking “how do I look, what should I be doing?” I’d walk over hot coals to work with Max again. Dominic Cooke is the best of young directors. I’ve worked with him a few times and I’m so thrilled that he’s doing brilliantly now. And Michael Grandage, you’re always in safe hands with him. He knows exactly what he wants and is a fearless director with balls of steel. Sam Buntrock is a very young, very exciting director. I think he has a bright future.
Favourite playwrights or musical writers
David Mamet, I’ve never done his plays but I’ve seen everything and I think he’s an absolute genius, I love how muscular his work is. Arthur Miller, I adore him. I’ve learned to love Tom Stoppard. I used to go and see his plays and not understand, but I love that he’s so brainy. And Alan Ayckbourn, I’ve worked with him and I think people often miss the point but when he directs you doing his work it’s much darker than people think. Often people adopt a particular style with Ayckbourn, and that’s counterproductive because he’s not all light fluff farce at all. Musical-wise, Stephen Sondheim is the best. I have always loved him. And a lot of the new ones, like Jason Robert Brown, are also really good. I had completely gone off musicals. Then someone suggested I listen to Jason Robert Brown and then a friend said "oh if you like that you should listen to Michael John LaChiusa”, who I’m now a huge fan of and I’m thrilled to say we’re now mates. If you like Sondheim, he is practically son of! Adam Guettel is another American who I think is brilliant. He’s the grandson of Richard Rodgers), and he had a huge hit with Light in the Piazza. I’d love to be in that, though I think they’d have to hold off the production so I can play the mother in about 20 years. It’s a really sensitive and beautiful musical.
Obviously, I have to say Ewan McGregor, he was heaven in Guys and Dolls. Everybody who’s lucky enough to come into contact with him adores him - he’s wonderful, he’s a great company leader, he gives of himself honestly and beautifully, he’s a really amazing man and every night you never got less than 100 percent from him. Also Daniel Evans, I’ve been a huge fan of his for years and he’s very committed to the work. I don’t think I could have as much joy in this job if it wasn’t for Danny. Richard Wilson and Maggie Steed are other great people to work with. And in terms of who’s inspirational, Clare Higgins. I worked with her at the RSC. She’s a piece of work and one to watch for stagecraft, she really knows how to pull things out of the bag. And Eartha Kitt, who I did Follies with, she was inspirational too.
What roles would you most like to play still?
It’s not at the top of my list but, doing Sunday in the Park with George, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sondheim. I played Young Sally in Follies all those years ago with Sally Ann Triplett and I played the young girls together. Now that we’re getting older, I would love for Sally and me to play the grown-up characters in that. Passion is another one I’d like to be in. And really what I’d love to do is a new play. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d do a new play at the Royal Court, or take this production to New York. It would be lovely.
If you hadn’t become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
No idea whatsoever, absolutely none. I think because I started at 14, I’ve no idea of what else to do. I’ve always had a kind of obsession about wanting to be a paramedic or a police person, but not walking the street as a police officer because I don’t think I’m brave enough for that, rather an investigator. I did a telly series as a paramedic once and trained for a few weeks and was quiet taken with what they did. It’s enormously stressful but the good bits are wonderful, so perhaps I would think about doing something like that.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Sunday in the Park with George was the last thing I saw that I was overwhelmingly impressed by. I went to the third preview at the Menier with my partner (the actor Raymond Coulthard) and Jane Krakowski and I was completely blown away. The three of us sat there and started crying in a very cathartic way. The show was utterly beautiful and totally moving, and it made me want to go on stage. So I’m thrilled to be doing it myself. I remember seeing Robert Lindsay playing Hamlet when I was in my early teens in Stratford East and remember being really moved by that and amazed that I understood it. I think that’s my earliest proper theatre memory.
Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
I like both. If I did too much on stage I’d be bored, and if I did too much on screen I’d be bored. It’s a great privilege to be able to mix and match, you always feel like you’re doing something fresh. You get an immediate response on stage whereas with TV you think you’ve done something then it gets edited differently or cut so you don’t have that control. Theatre is my favourite I think by a small margin, but there’s no money in it.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don’t know all about that because in my career I never got any funding and I don’t understand how that all works. Some fellow actors have told me youngsters don’t get any funding for drama schools, so only those from wealthy backgrounds can go, which I think is appalling. So definitely give more funding for students to go to drama school. They’re also taking a lot of funding away from the arts because of the Olympics, because any extra money will go to that rather than being spent on theatre. It ends up making the arts available for an elite few and that’s my fear. The arts saved my life as a child, and I know that good drama classes can really help people. It would be a great shame if people didn’t have access to that. It’s an investment that reaps great benefits.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Completely superficial I know, but I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be one of those women who are extraordinarily beautiful and people turn their heads when they walk down the street. The other thing I was thinking is, I’m a huge football fan, and I often sit and wonder what it would be like to score that winning goal in the dying moments of a match. I’m sure there are other extremely worthy people to be, but I think the ultimate would be to score the winning goal in important match. That would be wicked.
Ian McEwan is brilliant, and I like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I went on holiday to Malaysia and I read The Time Traveller’s Wife because there was nothing else to read, and sobbed like a baby having previously thought it was some nonsense girly book.
Favourite holiday destinations
Malaysia. I keep going back. It’s a lovely place, so beautiful and lovely in the heat.
Favourite after-show haunts
I can’t do it. I know it’s really boring but I get too tired when I’m in a musical. I just met up with Janie Dee and she said the same thing. If I have to go out like I did for opening night, I go for 20 minutes and have a glass of water. I have to go home and be quiet and drink tons of water.
Why did you want to accept your role in Sunday in the Park with George?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the show. I saw it at the National Theatre and, with respect to the National, I didn’t get it. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I have always intensely loved the music and can’t listen to the music without crying but that production didn’t move me. When I went to see it at the Chocolate Factory, it was one of the highlights of my life in theatre. Then they came along and said, “how would you feel about doing it”. I thought for two minutes. I thought about the World Cup matches that I’d be missing, then decided “oh sod it” and jumped at the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to work with Daniel Evans and, apart from missing all that football, it is wonderful!
You did the cast recording before you had even started rehearsals. How was that?
It was a challenge. It was a great honour, though, as it’s only the second recording ever made of the show. I think I did the best I could in the circumstances, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to properly investigate the character of Marie, who I play in Act Two and who I am now really very fond of.
What do you particularly like about Sondheim’s music and this production?
What’s not to like? As an actor, who most of my work has been as a straight actress. I love musicals but I can find them annoying in that they can be so slight and trite occasionally. That’s why I love the new young American guys who are out there doing plays to music, which is what Sondheim has always done. The characters are complete - it’s not always pretty, everything doesn’t always turn out right in the end. Guys and Dolls was wonderful but the characters just mean what they say. Once you’ve learned the lines and dances, there’s not much else to do. With Sondheim, you never quite get to the bottom of it. The story is very moving. To have it stripped back – as it is in this production - makes it all the more moving, I think. It’s always been imagined that Sunday in the Park with George is a very expensive show to put on, but we only have a five-piece band and it works a treat. And the projections and computer graphics that make the piece of art work have been used so brilliantly and cleverly. Danny’s performance is a tour de force too, it’s beautiful and so honest.
How do you feel about taking over rather than originating a role?
I honestly don’t feel like I have taken over. I’m not the type of actor that the director can say “move over there and do that”, especially when I have a strong emotional connection with the piece. I didn’t want to be limited in what I could do. I didn’t feel like the new girl at all. It’s a brilliant company and they were 100 percent behind me. I had eight days rehearsal, mostly with Danny and Sam, and the whole company was so supportive and wonderful. Because I was allowed to give the role my interpretation, I wasn’t copying Anna-Jane Casey at all so I didn’t feel like I was trying to fit into her shoes.
What are your future plans?
Nothing at the moment. I’m here until September so we’ll see what happens then. My dream would be to take this to New York, so fingers crossed!
- Jenna Russell was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Following its initial sell-out season at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark Sunday in the Park with George opened, with Russell as Dot, on 23 May 2006 (previews from 13 May) at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre.
** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Sunday in the Park with George - including top-price & a post-show Q&A with the show’s stars! – all for just £27.50! – on Tuesday 6 June 2006. **
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