Actress Emma Williams shot to theatrical fame when, as an 18-year-old newcomer, she was cast opposite Michael Ball in the world premiere stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For her role as Truly Scrumptious at the London Palladium, she was nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award and won the Most Promising Newcomer in a Musical 2002 Arts Correspondents Group Award.
Her other stage musical credits have included Bat Boy, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and in the West End, for which she was nominated for a second Whatsonstage.com Award, and Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll at Manchester’s Royal Exchange as well as Edinburgh Festival productions of Oliver!, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady.
On screen, she has appeared in the films The Parole Officer and The Hazard Dome and, on television, in Miss Marple, Heartbeat, Where the Heart Is, Fourfathers and, currently, the BBC drama adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
Williams is currently starring in one of the first major UK revivals of 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises at Sheffield Crucible. Based on Billy Wilder and Neil Simon’s Oscar-winning 1960 film The Apartment, in which a man tries to climb the corporate ladder by letting bosses use his apartment for their romantic trysts, it’s the only musical ever written by Burt Bacharach, the ultimate songwriter of 1960s and 70s cool, and his long-time lyricist Hal David. Their score for the musical includes “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”.
Date & place of birth
Born 20 May 1983 in Halifax, Yorkshire.
Lives now in
When I’m working in London, I stay in London, but at the moment I’m in digs in Sheffield. I just go wherever work takes me really.
What made you want to become an actor?
In all honesty, part of it was I wanted to be a dancer and I realised I wasn’t going to be good enough. I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dance but I didn’t get in. I can dance, but I’m not amazing. When I was a child, I always wanted to be a ballerina, but I know I’m never going to be a high-kicking chorus girl. I played Peggy in 42nd Street when I was about 13 in an amateur production, and they needed someone who could dance and sing and the acting just fell in with it really. I used to always want to play pretend and dressing up when I was little, so I suppose it was always there really. But at first, the acting just came along as part of the package with dancing and singing.
First big break
Most people would associate me with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang so that was my big break into theatre I think. But The Parole Officer, which I filmed when was 17, was amazing. If it wasn’t for that movie, I probably wouldn’t have been signed to ICM and would never have got the part in Chitty.
Career highlights to date
The huge shock of doing Chitty at 18 was just incredible. Going straight into a leading role in a West End show was phenomenal, it was like a dream. Every actor has that bit where they have to struggle, and most people get that when they first try to get into the industry - but I had that after my first break as opposed to before! Working with such amazing people as well throughout my career so far has also been fantastic.
Chitty was a very fun production and that made it very enjoyable. But then Bat Boy tested me more as an actor. We had a very tight cast in Bat Boy and it’s good to work on a show that in some respects fails. We called it the Marmite of Musicals, people either loved it or hated it and there were not many people in between. So far Promises, Promises has been amazing as well, and it is also very challenging.
I loved working with Michael Ball. He is an absolute gentleman and a very close friend. He is truly wonderful. Richard Frame on Promises, Promises is wonderful, too, he is so giving and very relaxed. We only met the day before rehearsals started and have become best friends.
I’ve not had the chance to work with that many yet, but Justin Chadwick on Bleak House was fantastic. He knew exactly how to get what he wanted from you without confusing you. He explained what he was looking for so that it was easy to understand, which is particularly important when you’ve got a very tight schedule to stick to. He is wonderful and very easygoing.
Neil Simon. I saw Come Blow Your Horn in Manchester, and it was brilliant. I love my comedy, I like to be entertained at the theatre, and Neil is just stunning. I also love Jim Cartwright. He’s a wonderful Northern playwright and that’s very important to me, being a Northerner myself. Two is fantastic, and of course The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is just beautiful.
Do you prefer working on stage or screen?
I can’t compare the two, they are so different. The nice thing with screen acting is you have more chances to get the exact interpretation of the character you want to make a lasting impression, and you also get the chance to see the finished product. But on stage, it is different every night and you can get a wonderful instant gratification from an audience reaction. So far I’ve not had much of a chance to sing on screen - if I got to do a movie musical, I’d be so happy. I grew up watching Fred and Ginger. That’s what made me want to be a musical performer. Back then it was just a dream, it wasn’t something I never considered feasible until Chitty.
What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I saw a lot of amateur productions as a kid. I don’t think I saw a production in London until I was 16 or 17 and I saw Chicago. I had won tickets and I went with my mum. I also remember going to see The King and I for my 18th birthday. At the time, I told my mum I’m going to be on that stage one day… and less than a year later I was on that stage! It’s just so bizarre!
What would you advise the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I think we have to encourage new talent and feed the industry. It’s amazing for me that at 18 I managed to land a role. But I know so many young performers who can’t get started. If they can’t in ten years’ time, we will have nobody to follow on. I didn’t go to drama school, it is just so expensive. I was going to go and study a normal degree. I talked about drama school at the time with my parents, but £10,000 is a lot of money and there isn’t a lot of funding available in the arts. I have friends from underprivileged backgrounds who are very talented but just couldn’t consider going to drama school because there is no money provided to help them. That’s not fair. And casting directors should have more faith on young people getting started. Working your way through the ranks is great, but there has to be a point when they’re given the opportunity to grow. A lot of the time we cast a lot older than the character age is, which is fine because you need to have that experience, but I do think younger actors should be given a chance.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I was actually going to study as a linguist. I speak four languages - English, French, German and Latin - and I understand roughly about ten or 12. I speak a little bit of Russian, Italian, Spanish, even some Welsh. It’s a passion of mine. It was going to be my “proper job” if acting didn’t work out; fortunately for me, it did, but I haven’t ruled out the possibility of studying languages more at a later date. I think I would like to translate children’s books because kids need good literature. We have some amazing literature in this country, but some of the poorer European countries don’t seem to have very much, so I think we should share.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Most of the roles I’ve done have all been creating or recreating roles. I love that because I like to be original and not have to copy what someone else has done. I’ve always wanted to play Maria in The Sound of Music. It’s one of those roles that sticks in your mind, it’s just been something that I’ve always wanted to do. I played Liesl when I was younger. I’m not a fan of reality TV, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s idea of casting for the new production through that is great if it’s leading to the outcome of finding new talent – and, believe me, I’ll be queuing up! Young people who haven’t got agents are getting that opportunity, which is fantastic if it means a new generation of good West End performers is found.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would have loved to see what it was like working on the old black-and-white films. They worked ridiculously long hours and so hard before unions had put a stamp on them, so maybe I’d like to be Ginger Rogers. To wear the dresses and dance with Fred Astaire would be amazing. Tap has got real passion for me and I would love to do a proper American soft-shoe shuffle with Fred!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Never step on people on the way up because those are the ones you’ll meet on the way back down. Steve Coogan told me that when I was working on The Parole Officer and it’s true, you have to respect those around you. A good friend of mine once said, when you’re on a date, look how they treat the waiter because that’s you in three months!
I read an awful lot. I’d be happy to be a book reviewer, I just love reading. I think in terms of fiction, my favourite is The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. It’s absolutely stunning, so beautiful. It’s about a prostitute called Sugar, and if I could play that role in the movie version of it I would be delighted! Non fiction-wise, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey about his drug and alcohol addiction has to be the most humbling story I’ve ever read. At 22, he had been a drink and drug addict. He never once takes the stance of being a victim, he just gets himself sorted out. I read the follow-up, My Friend Leonard, last year. I cried my way though the first 50 pages and sobbed through the last 100.
Favourite holiday destinations
I haven’t had a holiday in years. I take the occasional trip to Ireland or France to get some fresh air. Living in the city is hard because I’m a country girl. Normally if I’m in London, I’ll go to Hyde Park to relax. I would love to go trekking in Thailand, I would love to see it. And Goa and Australia would be fabulous. I went to France very often when I was a child. That’s where my love of French came from.
Favourite after-show haunts
I don’t really have any specific ones. Working on Chitty it wasn’t a very social cast so we didn’t go out that much. Up here in Sheffield we’re fans of the Old Monk and Ruskin pubs. I did a lot of clubbing when I was 18, but I don’t really have a very close social circle in London so I’m a bit unnerved by it. I don’t like to go out that much – which is probably why I’m still single!
Actually, Whatsonstage.com is my home page. I always use it to get gossip and news, I love it. I also tend to get stuck on book review sites and find new authors that way. And MSN is a big part of my life now. Most of my friends are all around the place so I get in touch with all my friends using messaging, particularly people like Deven May (her American co-star in Bat Boy) - don’t have to worry about time delays and it’s cheaper than a phone call.
Why did you want to accept your part in Promises, Promises?
I was finishing Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll, which was a very intense, brand new show in which I only left the stage for about five or ten minutes. It was a huge challenge and brilliant to do. Then Promises, Promises was coming up and I thought, it’s not been done for so long and being a Neil Simon fan, I love the film The Apartment which it’s based on. The movie is fabulous, he made it dark and comedic in exactly the right amounts. He knows exactly how many times to lower it and make it darker and darker and sinister before a great big laugh is thrown back in there - it really toys with your emotions. I was the first member of cast on board, which was fantastic. And being told we were getting Adam Cooper - who’s been a hero of mine for years - to choreograph and getting to work with him was amazing. And it’s recreating a role which is hardly ever seen, so I get to be creative. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than being told you have to do it exactly the same as so-and-so each time. This is a creative industry and actors need to have a chance to play a role their way.
How would you describe your character Fran?
She’s a very complex person. She’s not stupid. She knows what she’s doing - having an affair with a married man - is wrong. But head and heart don’t always say the same thing, and when you’re that far in love with someone, you’ll justify it somehow. She also never had the stabilising influence of a mother so she was brought up in a very masculine environment, and I think that made her understand having an affair more easily. She is so in love that she’s blind to the affections of the wonderful guy in front of her. I always try and examine a character. I was trying to understand what attracted her to this man who is 25 years her senior and married with children, and we really discussed it in great psychological detail. I also want to know what a character looks like so I had my hair cut and we worked on the Sixties style make-up and outfit, particularly the shoes, which completely change how you hold yourself. My look was based on Audrey Hepburn. All the make-up is very glamorous - Fran sort of became a mix of Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy!
What’s your number from Promises, Promises?
I’m very fortunate that Fran gets two of the most amazing songs in the show. I think my favourite is “Whoever You Are”. It’s just a stunning song and very sad. It’s the most intensely depressing song. This is a girl who realises the man she loves is never going to leave his wife for her and it is so tragic. I sang that song in my audition actually because I had the music with me – I wouldn’t normally do that! But all the music in the show is fantastic. It’s not very well known so people don’t automatically get it in their heads, but once you have heard it a few times you just can’t help humming the tunes. It filters into your subconscious by osmosis!
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing happened during rehearsals for Promises, Promises?
I’m a terrible person for corpsing in rehearsals - I’m fine on stage, but in rehearsals I can be terrible! There’s a scene when I’m supposed to be unconscious, but I kept giggling all the way through. That was quite amusing. Also the theatre has two sloped entrances and it’s a big old hike to get up there. We were all dancing around checking it, and I slid and just fell all the way down. One of the dancers caught me luckily!
What are your plans for the future?
I haven’t got anything planned for after this yet. I’ve been very fortunate for the last two years. Something has always come up just as the show I’ve been working on finishes. I’d love Promises, Promises to have a life after the Crucible - it would be nice for the people of London to see it, but who knows whether that will happen. I love the fact at the moment I’m swapping between TV and theatre quite consistently. I haven’t got a Shakespeare on my CV. I’d love to do one and get a really good straight dramatic play, I would love to do a show where I don’t sing at all and see how I fare! I love this industry. It’s always changing and I enjoy that challenge. But my main future plan at the moment is looking forward to Christmas with the family.
- Emma Williams was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Promises, Promises opened on 1 December 2005 at the Sheffield Crucible, where it runs until 21 January 2006.