Brief Encounter With … Patina Miller

Following in the footsteps of Whoopi Goldberg, 24-year-old American Patina Miller stars as Deloris in the musical stage adaptation of Sister Act, which opens this week at the London Palladium (2 June 2009, previews from 7 May). Goldberg herself is involved as a producer of the show, which features new music by Alan Menken and also stars Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior.

How have you found the audience reaction in previews?
So far what we hoped would happen has happened – it seems that people really like the show and we’re just loving that! It’s always nice to come into a theatre and have people cheering you on, appreciating what you’re doing. The buzz is crazy and I think it’s even stronger because some people may have doubted what we were going to do. And a few groups have chosen to dress up as well. A couple of nights I’ve walked on stage to be confronted by a front row full of nuns!

What major changes are there from the film?
Well, for a start we’ve got a brand new score by Alan Menken, which is heavily grounded in disco because the action now takes place in the 1970s. I was a huge fan of the movie when I was younger – I used to rewind the tapes all the time – but people shouldn’t come expecting to hear “I Will Follow Him” or “My Guy”. The musical has a very funky vibe, and some great new tunes. I love Alan’s music, it’s such an honour to be able to sing his songs.

Has it helped having Whoopi Goldberg as a producer?
Whoopi was always such an inspiration to me growing up; watching her made me realise I wanted to do this. I’ve met her a couple of times now and she’s so great, really down-to-earth and genuine. And as a producer, she’s very willing to help; to offer her opinion and give advice if I need it. She knows what it’s like and she also knows that I’m stepping into her role and some people think they’re going to see her. But all I can be is me! My Deloris is younger and has a lot more drive; she’s feisty and passionate and wants to see the world but then gets stuck in a convent.

How did you land the part?
It was a very long process. After I graduated from college, I auditioned for the first run of Sister Act in the States. I understudied Deloris for six months, which was my first professional job, and then moved on to other things. Then last March the director called me and asked if I’d fly out to London and do a read-through. I wasn’t really the favourite at that point because they thought I was too young and they were still trying to cast someone like Whoopi. But I came to London and really set out to make the role my own. I did two weeks over here and then had to wait another nine months before I did another reading in New York for the writers, but they still took a bit of persuading! I returned for one last read-though and the next day they called me to a restaurant and told me I’d got it. Things like that don’t normally happen. It was just a dream.

Are you enjoying working with Sheila Hancock?
That’s also a dream come true – to have my West End debut and to be alongside this amazing woman who’s had tons of experience and really knows what she’s doing. It’s refreshing and it’s everything that you’d want. I feel really protected and supported on stage. We work very well together. Sheila has been in the business a long time, but she doesn’t look at me like I’m just an amateur. It’s just nice to be on stage with someone who is so giving.

Nuns are a popular subject with Palladium audiences.
Yeah! I laughed when I found out we were going to the Palladium right after The Sound of Music. Nun shows just really work, I guess! Four of the company of Sister Act were in that production, so they were already used to the costumes. That said, though, there’s a lot more movement in this show, we dance round the stage from start to finish. We had to have our habits specially made. Each one is custom-fitted in just the right way. It does get quite hot, but they’re very comfortable.

Talking of habits, what are your bad ones?
I eat late and I shop too much – which, considering the current economic situation, I’m going to have to curtail a bit. I’m sure my friends would mention a few others, but I’m not telling!

What tips do you have for young performers looking to break into the industry?
If you want to do it, you can’t have any doubts about it, you can’t let people tell you that you can’t do it. It’s about having that passion and belief in yourself. In my life, nothing has been handed to me. I grew up in a single parent home in a small town where there wasn’t a lot of art. But I’m here now doing it because I didn’t ever let anyone tell me I couldn’t. So be bold enough to go to auditions and make people see what you have to give. As corny as it sounds, it’s about never giving up.

Patina Miller was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Sister Act opens at the London Palladium on 2 June, and is currently booking to 12 February 2010. An abridged version of this interview appears in the June/July issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is now available exclusively to Club members. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to subscribe to future print editions – and get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club – click here!!