WhatsOnStage Logo

Brief Encounter with... Dirty Dancing's Jill Winternitz

RADA-trained Jill Winternitz plays Frances 'Baby' Houseman in Dirty Dancing, which has returned to the West End after an extensive UK tour

WhatsOnStage logo
Jill Winternitz and Paul-Michael Jones in Dirty Dancing

You're an American who trained at RADA - how did that come about?
Through a lifelong love of classical theatre. There aren't many drama schools in the States where you can get that sort of text-based training. RADA obviously stood out as a really excellent place to go for that sort of thing, so when I got offered a place I couldn't really turn it down.

So is your passion classical theatre as opposed to musical theatre?
Yes, it certainly was whilst growing up. But this job has opened my eyes to musical theatre. I'm not a trained singer or anything like that, but I get a real buzz out of musicals.

Are you excited to be making your West End debut?
I'm absolutely thrilled. When I got cast in the tour I never imagined that it would come to the West End and when there a murmur about it I tried not to get my hopes up, because that's often a carrot the producers will dangle. So I tried not to think about it until it was real, but now that I'm in a West End dressing room for the first time I can say I'm over the moon!

Were you a fan of Dirty Dancing before you did the show?
No - I hadn't actually seen the film, so I had to do my research during the audition process. I guess that shows where my priorities were before I got involved! I was more often found at the National or the Donmar or the Royal Court, and those are still places I dream of working.

What is the most challenging thing about playing Baby?
For me it's the structure of the show, because it's very cinematic and all the scenes are really short; one goes into the next very quickly, so as an actor it's about coming into each scene at full pelt, making sure I enter with the right energy. So it's a huge exercise in concentration, to be able to switch between all these different scenes quickly and often with a costume change in between. I'm not the most sociable person backstage because there's often only 20 seconds to a minute before I'm back on.

It must be nice to be based in one place after touring for so long
Oh my gosh. I cannot even tell you how happy I am to have moved back home! I live in Putney with my partner, who is British, and it's just incredible to be home and not living out of a suitcase.

Did you get rowdy audiences on tour?
[Laughs] Yes. Especially in the North; I'd say Liverpool takes the cake. Liverpool was out of control to the point where I actually dried; there was so much kerfuffle going on in the audience that I got really, really distracted and forgot a line.

What happened?
It was a scene just after my co-star [Paul-Michael Jones] had his top off so I think the excitement carried on into the next scene, which is actually pretty serious - it's about the civil rights movement, which actually isn't in the film. I just completely blanked on my final line and I actually said, "and then they don't know what to do". Then I just walked off as I normally do. I was very upset with myself for a while until I realised it actually wasn't a very big deal. I'm one of those 'type A' personalities, really meticulous. Even though I've done close to 350 shows I still go over my lines twice a week, minimum. So it really did throw me.

Hopefully West End audiences will be a bit quieter
Paul-Michael Jones is from Manchester, and he said to me one night when they were really rowdy, "make sure you enjoy this because they won't be like this in town." And he was right. I think it's probably because more audiences are visitors here. But also we used to do late night shows on tour, so people had usually had a lot to drink, which obviously changed the atmosphere.

What does Paul-Michael bring to the role?
A lot of experience, which has been invaluable. We had a rehearsal a few days ago and I was polishing some steps in "Time of My Life". I don't come from a dance background whereas he does, so I was asking him for help on the Latin technique. Life was very much imitating art! His parents own a latin ballroom dance studio in Manchester, so he's a brilliant dancer.

Did the famous lift take a long time to perfect?
Actually it didn't. We were pretty lucky with that as we only had about three and a half weeks to learn it. I don't find it - knock on wood - very difficult, because it's just about responding to someone else and finding a balance. It's kind of a 50/50 thing, so he gets me up there and has the strength to balance me with his hands, then I make adjustments with my torso and my legs. I have a long history with yoga and I think that served me very well because the lift is actually full locust pose, which is a yoga position. So if you can do that on the ground, that's the lift. I actually love it. It's really fun. Sometimes I get a bit emotional up there, it's nice. It's so surreal, I just think 'when else in my life will I get to do this?'

Meet Jill Winternitz and the Dirty Dancing cast on our WhatsOnStage Outing on 13 August 2013! Click here for more information.