Jenna Russell is currently starring as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, Jenna stars alongside Kit Harington in the title role. This production marks the London premiere of Colin Teevan’s version of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play.
Jenna most recently starred as Little Edie/Edith opposite Sheila Hancock in Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse. Her recent credits also include: Woman 2 in Songs for a New World (St James), Rose in Di and Viv and Rose (Vaudeville), Pennywise in Urinetown (St James/Apollo), Coleen and Bart in Mr Burns (Almeida) and Mary Flynn in Merrily We Roll Along (Menier/Harold Pinter).
A renowned West End icon, Jenna famously won an Olivier Award for her portrayal of Dot/Marie in the 2007 West End revival of Sunday in the Park with George, later receiving a Tony nomination when she reprised her performance on Broadway.
Just a few of Jenna’s extensive theatre credits feature: Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls (Piccadilly), Cinderella in Into the Woods (Donmar), Marilyn in Soho Cinders (Soho), Enid in Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang (Manchester), Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, Nellie in The Card & Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (all Regent’s Park), Amy in Amy’s View (Garrick), Natasha in Three Sisters (Royal Court), Young Sally in Follies (Shaftesbury) and Les Miserables (Palace). For the RSC she has played Phoebe in As You Like It, Iras in Antony and Cleopatra, Dorcas in The Winter’s Tale, Susan in Misha’s Party, Rick in Wildest Dreams and Lucy Lockit in The Beggar’s Opera.
On screen Jenna has appeared in Call the Midwife, The Paradise, Holby City, Petra in Minder, Doctor Who, Deborah Gilder in Born and Bred, Men Only, Peak Practice, Bernadette in Picking Up the Pieces, Maggie in On the Up, Mortdecai and The Fear.
I recently spoke to Jenna about reuniting with Jamie Lloyd on Doctor Faustus, why she is still hopeful Grey Gardens will transfer to the West End and what song she used to freak out to in her living room whilst growing up…
First of all, I can’t believe this is your first ever West End Frame interview!
I know! I was just thinking that, have I never done one before? Oh my gosh. We’ve broken the back, this is a good day [laughs].
We’re going to have to make up for lost time! So when you found out Jamie Lloyd was directing Doctor Faustus and wanted you to be involved, what was your first reaction?
You know what it’s like; I’d just done Grey Gardens and you finish a job, have nothing lined up and start to think ‘oh crikey, I’ve got to pay the bills… this has all been very nice but I’ve got to think about what else is coming along’. Then out of the blue I just got offered this! That’s always a lovely thing – it makes you think a director possibly trusts you. I was really excited, but didn’t know the role. I asked Sheila Hancock if there are any female roles in Doctor Faustus, and she said “Not really darling, unless they’re messing around with it and have Mephistopheles as a woman”. I waited for the script to come through and realised I was actually playing Mephistopheles which, of course, is a great role. I was thrilled!
Jenna & Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus
You’ve worked with Jamie several times before, haven’t you?
Jamie and I have known each other since Guys and Dolls where he was the resident director. We also worked together on Urinetown and have stayed in touch, I’ve always been thrilled about his career and seen a lot of his plays. It’s always nice when someone who was a resident director finds their way – especially so boldly like Jamie.
You’re performing a new version of Christopher Marlowe’s play by Colin Teevan which hasn’t been seen in London before. What do you think people can expect? It’s a very bold adaptation!
Well… it’s crazy! It’s a crazy production! Faustus is a crazy play anyway and then you’ve got Jamie’s imagination which is so vivid. A play like this allows a director to go to town with lots of ideas. The first thirty minutes and the last twenty minutes are the Marlowe, and the middle section is Colin Teevan’s work. He’s a modern writer. Already you’ve got two crazy worlds living together, and then on top of it you have Soutra Gilmour’s design and Jamie’s ideas, plus the fact that the play is a bit bonkers anyway. What I have to remind myself with Jamie, which is really exciting, is that one of the reasons he’s got the whole Jamie Lloyd Company is to introduce theatre to a younger audience – people who don’t necessarily go to the theatre. You don’t have to be a classic scholar to get it. It’s really exciting to play to such a young audience! You don’t get that much, especially in the West End.
|Jenna in rehearsals for Doctor Faustus|
Have you enjoyed the audience response?
They’ve been great [laughs]! Obviously there are lots of Game of Thrones fans; I would love to be in one of their heads – they’ve probably been to see panto with their parents, love a good box set and here they are dragged into a Christopher Marlowe play. How fantastic?! Audiences have been really responsive. It’s a beautiful theatre and very, very intimate. It’s intriguing – I’m loving it.
Tell me about what it’s like to be inside Jamie Lloyd’s rehearsal room - everybody wants to work with him and he is a master at putting together an incredible ensemble of actors from all different backgrounds.
From what I can gather from how he does his auditions; after getting them to do the text, he’ll ask if they can play an instrument…. Or he’ll ask to try it again with a different accent… he casts his shows with people who can do tons of things. I think it’s very clever. He really loves actors which is probably why people want to work with him again and again. No idea is a bad I idea – I know directors say that all the time, but sometimes they don’t really mean it [laughs]. Jamie will investigate ideas; it’s not a precious rehearsal room. It’s a very collaborative experience. Every time I’ve worked with Jamie we’ve always had a laugh.
He looks after everyone – he’s very aware of his stage management team and everybody involved, he engenders a lot of loyalty for all the right reasons. When he opens a new show, he’s one of the only directors who has a gala night and invites all his previous companies to get together. It’s like a big family get-together which is very unusual but a great experience.
As mentioned, there’s obviously a lot of excitement surrounding Kit Harington’s casting in the title role. What is he like to share the stage with?
Oh he’s lovely! Really lovely. He’s a really nice, decent human being. I mean, I’m a fan of Game Of Thrones but hadn’t quite grasped how popular it is… worldwide! It’s a phenomenon. People have been flying in from Japan especially to see it! I haven’t seen a stage door situation like this since I worked with Ewan McGregor on Guys and Dolls. There are three hundred people who are very polite, but absolutely desperate to see Kit. It must be nice for him because of course when you’re on telly you get a bit of hassle on the street, but you don’t get to meet your fans that often. On the first preview, when he went out to take his bow they screamed! How nice?! He can really feel that love. He’s deserving of it because he’s a sweetheart and a bloody good actor. Faustus is a mammoth role and he’s fantastic in it.
Jenna, Kit & the cast of Doctor Faustus
Before Faustus you were in a small off-West End musical, before that you had done a couple of big musicals and plays in addition to various screen jobs. That kind of variety is something so many actors strive for, how have you managed to avoid being pigeonholed? All the roles you’ve taken on over the past few years couldn’t be more different!
It’s so hard! I really don’t understand – if you’re right for a role then you’re right for a role, does it matter what you’ve done previously? When I was fourteen I started off doing a load of telly, and then kind of went ‘Oh I can sing a little bit, this is fun!’ Then I did a couple of short, sweet little musicals and enjoyed them. I was offered a massive telly job when I was just seventeen. I went in for it thinking it was for a couple of episodes, but I ended up being offered a two year contract. My agent said it was a great job, but I panicked. I didn’t know if I would still want to be an actor in two years! I pulled out. I think I’ve always had a boredom threshold of doing anything too long, and I think the very fact I have that in my nature has helped.
I love and adore a lot of musicals; don’t get me wrong, there are some I really don’t like [laughs]. I think a well written, well directed, well cast, well put together musical can move someone like nothing else can. I don’t care what people say, I think the art form of the good musical is such an underrated thing. However, I would never do anything for a long time. Maybe that has helped? I can understand why people go into a show and sign for a year, you know you’re on a certain amount of money so can save up and book a nice holiday, but I think that’s almost like the actor’s enemy because if you’re in something for a long time that gives a message to casting directors who might ask to see you but be told, “Oh no, they’re doing another year in…”. If you’re lucky enough to do six months on something and then do something else for three months, it means you become available again. Maybe that gives you more options? I don’t know!
|Jenna in Urinetown|
And do you consciously try and look for different things?
I try and mix and match. We’ve all been there where you’re onstage and think ‘Oh no I’m doing the same face again… I can feel it…’ I remember doing that in Into The Woods at the Donmar. I must have just done something where I was playing someone a bit sad and put upon, and then I was playing Cinderella and remember sitting there scrubbing the floor and thinking ‘I’ve got to do something different because my face is annoying me’ [laughs]. Sometimes you can get a bit stuck. For me variety is so important.
I love my job, I mean what a job?! What a lucky life it is if you get the work, and how depressing if you don’t – we’ve all been there. I’ve always said to people, “Do a bit of fringe, do some student films…” because it can’t be about the money. If you’re in it for the money then you’re in the wrong game. That’s the sad thing about it – sometimes you earn a lot of money, sometimes you earn £100 a week like I did on the job I did before this. You do it for a short time if the work is good or if the role is extraordinary and then have to hope something else comes a long that pays well.
And even if you’re doing a small off-West End show you never know, it might end up transferring to the West End! You’ve been in quite a few of those smaller productions which have ended up transferring.
Well this is it, just look at Sunday in the Park with George… and Merrily! These things do happen. For example I had always wanted to do Grey Gardens, so when I knew the producer was after Sheila I thought, ‘That’s great! It’s ambitious, Sheila will be amazing’. I thought it might be one of those which transferred, and I still have hopes that we’ll get a small run in the West End.
It would be great for the show and for everyone involved. I’m so hoping this Ambassadors Theatre that Cameron (Mackintosh) has bought really works out because it’s sad a lot of producers just view musicals as money making machines. I just wish there were more places that would accept that whilst there are big money making musicals, there are also these smaller ones. Everyone loves Sondheim, but there are also other writers that are tackling really interesting subjects and doing it beautifully through the medium of musical theatre, but those shows don’t get seen over here because producers go ‘that won’t run for eight months’. But why should it? Why can’t it have an eight week run in the West End so it can get a good, healthy audience in? Nobody’s going to be a millionaire, but it’s about getting work out there. These shows are out there! It annoys me.
Jenna & Sheila Hancock in Grey Gardens
It would be fantastic if shows like Grey Gardens, Grant Hotel, Carrie could get their eight week run at the Ambassadors and then be eligible for the Oliviers. I think those shows would do very well! I’m hoping and praying that somebody comes out of the woodwork and gives Grey Gardens a short run, and I hope that happens for other brilliant work that is being staged on the fringe.
Jenna, because this is your first West End Frame interview I have to ask you the killer question! What three musical theatre songs would you take with you to a desert island?
Oh lord! With no prep?! What would I take? I can’t believe it’s just one song and not the whole score. I would definitely take ‘Lesson #8’ from Sunday in the Park with George, but it would have to be Dan Evans singing it. I used to watch that in the wings every night and… I can’t even talk about it without choking up. It was so beautiful.
|Jenna in Di and Viv and Rose|
What else? Oooo this is a tricky one. I’m trying to think what I used to dance around in my front room to. In recognition of my childhood, I would take ‘Dance at the Gym’ from West Side Story. I used to freak out in my front room with my big flowy skirt to that [laughs].
There are probably others I could go for too, but this one had a massive impact on me. Julia McKenzie and Daniel Massey singing ‘Too Many Mornings’ from Follies. I was in Les Mis – this is about thirty million years ago because I was in the first company of Les Mis when it went to the West End – and a lot of us went to see a matinee of Follies. The next year I was in it, but I obviously didn’t know that at the time. When ‘Too Many Mornings’ happened at the end of act one I was making animal noises of cry [laughs]. I couldn’t believe something was so beautiful. Ahh, now I’m thinking of Fantasia singing ‘I’m Here’ in The Color Purple on Broadway! Everything she did in that production killed me as well.
Finally, what’s it like to have so much dedicated, passionate support behind you from theatre fans? You’re such an idol in the theatre world!
That’s so sweet – I mean I don’t really feel that. In this age of social media one can be more in touch with people’s opinions. So far, touching a lot of wood, nobody has written anything to me personally and said you’re a t**t and been horrible. I can’t imagine what that must be like. The support I’ve had has been lovely! Really lovely. Some people who have supported me have ended up becoming friends. It’s gorgeous!
Acting can sometimes be quite a lonely thing, but when you’re doing theatre you have an extraordinary experience onstage when people are really appreciative at the end of the performance, and then fifteen minutes later you’re sat on a commuter train going home. I pick up my children from school and life is very normal. It almost feels like two separate worlds. The support is more than lovely, I’m amazed and always touched that people do come and see things that I’m in, and come back again and again. They are the lifeblood of the theatre – it is who we do it for. I can’t say enough thank yous!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Doctor Faustus runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 25th June 2016.
Please visit www.thejamielloydcompany.com for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit 2&4: Marc Brenner
Photo Credit 3: Matt Humphrey
Photo Credit 5&7: Johan Persson
Photo Credit 6: Scott Rylander