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20 Questions with ... Piaf star Frances Ruffelle

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Frances Ruffelle plays the title role in Paul Kerryson's revival of Pam Gems' bio-play Piaf, which opens at Leicester Curve this week (26 February 2013, previews from 22 February).

The 1978 play charts the iconic French singer Edith Piaf's turbulent life and career. Piaf was born in Paris in December 1919 and – after a short tragic life, scarred by abandonment, drink and drugs addiction – she died on 10 October 1963, aged just 43.

Ruffelle's extensive credits include creating the role of Eponine in the original London and Broadway casts of Les Miserables (for which she won many awards including a Tony). Her other theatre work includes Pippin (Menier Chocolate Factory), Starlight Express, Chicago and her solo show Beneath the Dress.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Wanstead Flats in East London. I was born in Wanstead Hospital which in those days was regarded as Essex, so you could say I was an Essex girl.

What made you want to become an actress?
Well my Mum used to sing and act in amateur dramatics and I used to watch her all the time. I was fascinated with it and I used to know everything she was doing on stage and sing it from the audience. So I guess it sort of happened naturally, and I always wanted to do it from a young age.

What else might you have done professionally?
I may have been a hairdresser, because I actually can cut hair. I'm also a trained yoga teacher.

Who were your early heroes or heroines?
When I was very young Judy Garland, and Bette Midler was a big heroine of mine.

First big break?
I did a play in the West End when I was 17 called The Sleeping Prince by Terence Rattigan, though most people see my big break as being Les Mis. In fact I did another West End show before that, Starlight Express, which in turn brought me Les Mis. So it was the Rattigan that really started it all.

What were your emotions watching the Les Mis film and being involved in it?
I found it very emotional, knowing that this thing that we started in a little dark rehearsal room has become this massive worldwide epic.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Oliver!. I don't know which production it was, but I just remember loving it and wishing I was a boy.

And what was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact?
The Book of Mormon. I saw it in San Francisco and really enjoyed it, even though I was totally jet lagged. I'd just arrived the day before and I stayed awake - that just proves how mesmerising the show is.

Do you often get recognised?
Not often. I sometimes get recognised. I think my name is mainly known rather than my face, through the Les Mis connection. They always associate me with Les Mis. I can't move on from that.

What advice have you given your daughter (Eliza Doolittle), about dealing with fame?
I just tell her to remember to keep her feet on the ground, not to expect anything and just be herself. But she doesn't really need the advice, she's very very good like that.

Did you encourage her into a performing career?
No, definitely not. It was her own choice and her own direction away from what I've done. She's very different from me and her father.

If you could swap places with one person living or dead for a day, who would it be?
Bette Midler - she seems like she has so much fun. She's got such a great sense of humour and she's so much wittier than me.

What's your favourite website?
BBC iPlayer. When I can't be bothered to think I watch EastEnders, but if that makes me too miserable then I'll watch something funny. I'll watch anything.

Favourite book?
My favourite ever book is Jane Eyre.

Favourite holiday destination?
Anywhere tropical. I love tropical rain and heat.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Yes, depending on what I have in my day. I try not to speak much at all until 4 o'clock, if I'm doing an evening show, and then I sing for 20 minutes to half an hour before my warm up. I don't eat dairy and I don't eat that much before I go on stage either. I'm very very rigorous, but it depends on the role. If it's a heavy role or I've got a one woman show then that's what I do.

Why did you want to get involved with this production of Piaf?
Well first of all, I've never worked with Paul Kerryson even though we've known each other for years and years. I feel like I know him, and I feel like I've worked with him before, but I haven't. And I have to say that any actress who turns down the challenge of Piaf is crazy. It's the most challenging role I have ever come across. Not only am I on stage in every scene but I am also singing many songs in French. And I'm not a French speaker, so for me that's a massive challenge.

What's your favourite Piaf song?
"Padam Padam". What's interesting about this show is that every show is different as each one has different songs in it. There was a list of songs in the original script in the 70s but they're not necessarily the songs people have used over time. The Donmar Warehouse certainly used different songs from the original, and some productions have not had many songs in French. But Paul has decided to give me a big challenge - I have more in French than English.

Can you empathise with Piaf's struggle?
I do understand her, though I can't completely compare myself to her. I understand her and I know people that have been through very similar situations. And as we rehearse more and more I recognise some of my friends in some of the scenes, it's incredible. Not the whole Piaf, but there are parts of Piaf I see in lots of people. Maybe there is a whole Piaf somewhere, Lady Gaga, I don't know. Amy Winehouse may have been our Piaf but she died too young. A modern day young version might be Adele. But I don't actually know her background so I shouldn't put that on her.

Looking ahead, what role is top of your to-do list?
Everyone always asks me that and I can never think of one! Oh go on then - Desiree in A Little Night Music.

Piaf continues at Leicester Curve until 16 March 2013


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