Thursday, 4 February 2016

Big Interview: Janie Dee, starring in Hand To God

Janie Dee is starring as Margery in the West End premiere of Hand To God. 

Following three off-Broadway seasons, Robert Askins’ play transferred to Broadway in 2015 where it enjoyed a nine month run. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Hand To God opens at the Vaudeville Theatre on 15th February (previews from 5th February) and runs until 11th June 2016.

Janie is one of theatre’s biggest stars, with her most recent credits including: Irina Arkadina in The Seagull (Open Air Theatre), Essie Miller in Ah Wilderness! (Young Vic), Kings Of Broadway & Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music In Concert (both Palace Theatre), Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Asian/Russian tours), Ruth opposite Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit (Gielgud Theatre), Putting It Together (St James Theatre) and Miranda in NSFW (Royal Court).

She famously won the Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress in a Play, as well as the Obie and Theatre World Best Newcomer Award in New York, for her performance as Jacie Triplethree in Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential which was written especially for her.

Janie has also won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner's production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel at the National Theatre and won a UK Theatre Award for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! at the Leicester Curve. Just a few of Janie’s other theatre credits include: Noises Off, Calendar Girls, Shadowlands, Donkeys Years, The King and I, South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, Cats, Cabaret, Twelfth Night and Private Lives.

During a break from rehearsals, I recently caught up with Janie to discuss why she’s so excited to be throwing herself into Hand To God, her initial reaction after first reading the piece and why it’s so thrilling to be performing a new American play in the West End. We also discussed her diverse career, The Seagull, her recent experience in Russia, why she withdrew from Mrs Henderson Presents, working with Angela Lansbury and lots more…

How did you first hear about Hand To God?
I literally got a call to say “Could you read this? If you fancy it they would like to meet you.” Being asked ‘if you fancy it’ doesn’t happen very often! They didn’t want me to come and read for it if I wasn’t interested, and I realise now why they did that [laughs]. I don’t want to talk about the play too much because one of the exciting things about a new play is not knowing. When I read the script not knowing anything, the journey was so completely unexpected – it got inside me and after reading it I was sat on my bed and couldn’t speak. 

So did you have to think about it before saying yes?
Well after a bit I asked my husband (Rupert Wickham) to read it which isn’t something I usually do. I was in a place of vulnerability because I felt the play was completely brave and fresh like nothing I’ve ever come across before. I thought I should let Rupert know what I was maybe about to say yes to. When I asked him what he thought he said “wow … yes”. He’s now a barrister but used to be an actor; he knows when you have to just jump out of the airplane without the parachute.

Janie and the cast of Hand To God

How have rehearsals been going?
I’m very tired because it’s so physical. I really like the people I’m working with, they’re incredibly intelligent and incredibly new – I’ve never met people like them. I think the play is slightly different now to how it was on Broadway, I think it’s got to be different. Because of what it is, it demands a personal investment at a certain level. It’s a brave and dangerous piece so if you jump in you’ve got to do it wholeheartedly.

I guess the process started when I began looking at it and learning it in December. They wanted us to come into rehearsals knowing it all; I’m not great at doing that because sometimes I make the wrong decisions – one makes decisions without other actors, so I think it’s nice to have some really good ideas and a really good knowledge of the play, but to wait to work together before learning it fully. I hope I know Moritz (von Stuelpnagel, director) all my life, he’s a wonderful person. I’ve never worked with anyone like this and I’m really excited to be involved. 

Janie & Harry Melling
How do you feel about going from rehearsals to putting it in front of an audience?
Oh gosh… I am terrified! Right now I am so terrified! I think we all feel like we’re being looked after very well and we’ve all agreed to jump in together with intelligence and qualities which are totally human. It feels worth doing and it feels worth having this conversation out there… and that’s why I’m excited! This play will spark some great conversations that we need to have. Nica Burns (producer) is really, really brave… I mean, this might not work. 

So what frame of mind do you think people should come and watch the show in?
I didn’t know anything when I read it and I don’t think anybody should come with any expectations or thoughts at all… just come and see what you think! Of course people will tell their friends about the show and the reviews will say things, it’s very hard to tell people to come and see a play without knowing anything… but I think that’s what everybody should do. I have actually said to some people not to come, particularly people at church who are lovely but some are slightly older and I’ve guessed for them that they might not be able to cope. I’ve had to say “I don’t think this one is for you”… but they’ve all booked their tickets anyway! I think it’s going to be really interesting [laughs]! When I read it I knew I could cope with what I had read because I think about things a lot and I believe I’m not necessarily clever, but intelligent. I really feel that Rob (Robert Askins, writer) has something worth talking about here. It has forced me to talk about certain things… we’ll see!

Is it important to you to keep pushing yourself out there and to take risks?
You have to be ready to fail, it’s horrible but sometimes it’s totally worth it. I’m already happy to take the risk of anything. Also I am working which is very nice! I am grateful to be working, let’s not forget that. It’s wonderful to be asked to be in the West End and it’s wonderful to be asked to be in a new play… which is from America! I get to work with Americans which doesn’t happen that much! It’s all a treat.

And you’re working alongside an amazing cast!
I get to work with Jemima Rooper again who I have a really lovely friendship with! Harry Melling is lovely and I did Old Times with Neil Pearson years ago; we stayed in touch and have a shorthand which is very nice. There’s definitely no stepping on anybody else’s toes, we all want to get this right. It’s also very exciting to be working with Kevin Mains who has come from Scotland… he’s amazing. I’m constantly excited and overwhelmed by young actors – not just the talent, but the lovely attitude. They’re always up for it and want to have a go. That combined with immense talent is a real lift of inspiration. I can’t wait to get to work each day! One makes the most of these moments because it could go up on the stage and just not work. It’s been such a big hit in America so there are expectations before we’ve even put the play out there which of course they didn’t have when it premiered off-Broadway.

Janie with Neil Pearson & Kevin Mains 

I think it sounds very exciting, and it’s good that the team opted for a British cast!
Well I think it’s good too because I’m in it [laughs]! When I did Comic Potential in New York there was something really refreshing about doing it with people who were from that city who understood English in their way. Having said that, I think this play probably would stand being done in any accent or language. 

The last time I saw you onstage was in Kings Of Broadway at the Palace Theatre in December. How did it feel to stand on that stage with such a glorious orchestra and perform those iconic numbers?
To be on the Palace Theatre stage with that orchestra doing that music in that way with such passion was a dream come true. I have to say that rehearsals were only a week so when we were there on the day we wondered whether we were going to be able to do it, but I knew from times before that some miracle happens when Alex Parker (musical director) and Alastair Knights (director) are involved and we managed to do it. Oh my gosh – I’m so glad Alex Parker and Alastair Knights are part of my life. They are great friends, they’re just so full of fun and life and passion and, again, intelligence. They both care so much about what they are doing. Alex is a master, and Alastair is too. I feel very honoured to be a part of their world because I’m not their age anymore but I still get to be one of their chums. To be given a punch of youth feels very nice!

If I’m leaving my children to go to work then I always want to be really loving it. For me it’s not just a job, it’s a passion.”

And last summer you gave the most incredible performance in The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre. It was a magnificent adaptation but a very heavy role, were you able to enjoy the process?
It was so exciting! The director Matthew Dunster is this little football guy with a f**k off attitude who is really muscular. When I met him I thought ‘wow, this is not that you think of to go with The Seagull!’ What was so wonderful is that he really brought out the b******s of it – it needs that. It was heartbreaking! He pushed us and pushed us to get the last scene, where Konstantin is found, right and on the last day he came up to me and gave me a kiss on the lips and said “well done”. That was the last time I saw him until three previews in… I didn’t see him much after that at all because he knew we were ready. He really did work it – he was intelligent and muscular and true to himself which made us all be true to ourselves. Plus we had the exceptional design of Jon Bausor!

It was one of those shows which just worked so perfectly at the Open Air Theatre!
It did, didn’t it? I just felt we were there! I had been to Russia the year before and had performed Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream on the stage where Chekhov premiered The Seagull. I had no idea I would be doing The Seagull in London the following year! It was so potent and atmospheric. The night we opened at that theatre in Russia we were so nervous because it was so terrifying to be performing in a different country where they know so much. We wanted it to be good but for some reason were all suffering from low esteem. We went out and I felt every word was gold… it was brilliant… at the end we finished and they started to clap and then started to shout and they all stood up sobbing! We couldn’t believe it – that is what you live for in this business. It connected and after the show the translator came backstage and said “That’s the first time they’ve had a standing ovation in this theatre for eight years”. We were all flying! 

Janie & director Matthew Dunster
Following that experience, when I went to see Matthew about doing The Seagull as I read Irina’s lines I felt like I was her. I wasn’t sure what he thought, but two hours later I was asked to do it. But then everything was back to back; rehearsing and then performing and then rehearsing something else during the days whilst performing in the evenings… and unfortunately all of that had repercussions last year. In July I had to stop, not at all premeditated because I thought ‘I can do this’. 

After we opened The Seagull I was supposed to start rehearsing Mrs Henderson Presents but something went off at home which was kind of the result of me just not being around at all. I felt really guilty for forgetting my role as mother. I had already been on tour for god knows how long – I was blessed by my family to have been allowed to. I really loved and drank up the experience, but last year I was greedy and said yes to everything. I can’t go into what happened, but I had to stop because something serious went wrong. Real life came back and that’s good. At the end of the day I am more a mother than anything else. 

That’s your most important role!
And funnily enough that comes up in Hand To God. It makes sense in a way. I’m constantly having to relearn the same things, I despair at myself sometimes because I always think ‘I’ve learnt my lesson and will never do that again’, and then I do. I keep making the same mistakes and I really want to learn… don’t we all? It’s funny how my life has always been mirrored; either what I’m doing onstage starts to happen in real life or what’s happening in real life comes up in a play. That’s obviously just the way it is for me!

Janie, we have to discuss that low profile show you did in 2014 with Angela Lansbury..! What’s it like to now look back at your time in Blithe Spirit?
It was mostly about Angela, but I was happy about that because I felt it too [laughs]! For me to do a show with Angela Lansbury was… heaven. Just the thought of it was heaven so to actually experience it and for it to be funny, lovely, heavenly, interesting and another learning curve was amazing. I was really thrilled that we were allowed to bring ourselves and our thoughts to it. Because it had been done with Angela on Broadway we were worried we would have to be cardboard cut-outs which wouldn’t have sat well with me or anybody I was working with. Michael Blakemore, our director, realised that, but he just wanted us to get it right for Angela first because it would help her if certain parts felt familiar. And that was absolutely fine! 

Janie in Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury

The audience applauded Angela each time she entered and exited, but what I loved is that when your character Ruth returned from the dead at the end of the piece the audience went crazy for you!
[laughs] It’s beautifully written. Celia Imrie told me that Noel Coward had written that part for a woman he considered to be a really great actress, and she said “just remember that, Janie”. I really wanted to do the role justice, I said yes straight away when it was offered to me. People recognise themselves in her and the final joke was set up for me – all I had to do was appear [laughs]. I felt like we did a good job and what I really loved was that the atmosphere was perfect. Everything was beautiful! 

Throughout your career you have done so many things – there’s aren’t many actors who can do plays, musicals, new work and revivals in the West End, in the regions and on Broadway. How have you avoided becoming pigeonholed?
Firstly I love it all! I used to be really scared of being pigeonholed. Sometimes I get asked “Why haven’t you done more telly?” but I’ve just filmed ‘Crashing’ for Channel 4. I’m not in it for very long, but nevertheless it was so great to be a part of something so naughty and so new. I don’t want to be pigeonholed and I don’t want to be recognised because I love being whoever I’m playing; for me the excitement of being an actor is being able to change and be whoever you are required to be. I consequently have been lucky to be asked to be all sorts of different things. Therefore I’m always excited to find new things and work out how to be a new person. 

Janie in Hello, Dolly!
I was asked to do a long-running soap or something over here about ten or fifteen years ago which they wanted me to do for about three years and I was also asked to go over to America to do a long-running series which would have lasted a number of years. I said no to both, partly because the writing didn’t really excite me; I’ve always tried to look at the writing first. Having said that, I know some people who write for things which are broadcast every week and they’re absolutely brilliant. Anybody who writes is better than me for a start. It’s really hard to sit on your bottom and write! 

Also, years ago I was asked to stop singing and dancing to prove I was a serious actress and I said, “But I have sweated blood and tears!” – back in my dancing days I literally sweated blood. I thought about it and realised I had worked so hard and love singing and dancing and one day won’t be able to do it anymore. I always knew I wanted to be in the business forever which is why I became an actress because then I could be in the theatre for longer. My plan was never to be ashamed of what someone had taught me, and it seemed stupid to be ashamed of being able to do something. Anyway, at the time I was doing the musical My One and Only and the director Peter Hall came to see it. He sent me a lovely note after saying he would love to work with me some time. I rang my agent and said “By the way, I know you haven’t brought anyone to see the show because you don’t rate it, but Sir Peter Hall has just written me a note” and then that’s what took me into the Pinter! It was Peter! 

That taught me to stay true to my heart and soul, and by god I hope I continue to do that. I’ve got to really care about the character I’m being asked to play, I feel like I owe that to myself and to whoever is paying me. If I’m leaving my children to go to work then I always want to be really loving it. It has to be worth it! For me it’s not just a job, it’s a passion.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Hand To God opens at the Vaudeville Theatre on 15th February (previews from 5th February) and runs until 11th June 2016. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1: Robert Workman
Photo Credit 5&6: Johan Persson

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