Dom O'Hanlon interviews Grey Gardens' Jenna Russell

Jenna Russell is one of the UK's most successful and well loved musical theatre stars. Staring her career working with the RSC, she went on to star in musicals such as Les Miserables, Follies and High Society as well as developing a career on screen. Her breakaway roles in the West End include the 2005 revival of Guys and Dolls as well as the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Sunday in the Park With George in which she starred as 'Dot' in the West End and Broadway transfer, where she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical was nominated for a Tony Award in the same category. More recently her roles have included the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, Mary in Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier and West End and Penelope Pennywise in Urinetown at the St. James Theatre and the subsequent West End transfer.

She is currently starring in the European premiere of the 2006 musical Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse, where she is playing the role of both 'Big' Edie and 'Little' Edie, for which she has received universal critical acclaim.

Dom O'Hanlon caught up with the multi-award-winning performer on a day off from the show to talk about the challenges of bringing two iconic characters to life.

DOH: Dom O'Hanlon

JR: Jenna Russell

DOH: Firstly Jenna, I'll start off by saying that I adored the show and thought you gave an incredible performance. For me, this was the first time I've seen the two acts work so coherently together, and I think a lot of that has to do with using the same set.

JR: Thom [Southerland] was intent on putting it in that setting. Financially I guess they had to find a way of making that work, and I think it reminds you constantly of where the show is going to go. When I talked to Thom about doing the show, we had a coffee and one of my first questions was “how are you going to do act one?”. He said, "I think we're going to do it on the crumbling set and the thing is, they just don't see it". It's quite true of them, they don't see what's in front of their eyes. They're imagining they're in this luxurious house and they can't see what's in front of them. That's kind of what they do in act two anyway, it's very clever. He's handled it very well. The way he uses the ghosts of Act One is also very clever, having Sheila at the end of the first act tying it all together.

DOH: I feel it's one of those examples where having less money and being in a smaller space really works. When you don't necessarily have the money or the space you have to make it work artistically, and it does.

JR: Yes – it's so interesting how these big shows just work in smaller spaces. Sunday in the Park for example, think of how grand that show can be, and with the financial constraints you may have you end up finding a way of serving the piece. I don't quite know how it works, but people seem to be much more creative with much less money – you'd think it would be the opposite way. Perhaps when you have too much money you end up overloading stuff, but instead you can let the piece sing.

DOH: I was lucky enough to be there on the night the authors of the show were also there – they must be in awe of how well it works on a smaller scale?

JR: I think they are...Throughout my years of experience I think that's the greatest achievement you can have, if the writers are happy. It's their piece – they dreamt it up, they've written it and spent years crafting it, they are really the people you have to honour and please. I think they were really pleased, and that's the greatest honour you can possibly have.

DOH: Was the show on your radar? How did you come to be involved?

JR: When I was in New York with 'Sunday...' everyone was buzzing about the show because it was the season before, so the show had closed but people were still raving about it and I can see why! It's such an extraordinary show.

DOH: Was it on your bucket list as a performer?

JR: Oh of course. I'm a big fan of the show - I initially had a look at it and listened to the album and thought the music was so beautiful and so character led. How glorious to have music that is so character led? In Act Two it's just so clever – the writing pieces together Edie's mind and puts it into song. Not only do you have the hilarious numbers in the beginning of the act, the tragi-comedy of the women, then you get these beautiful soaring ballads. It's such a stunning piece of writing. “Another Winter in a Summer Town” for example is the only moment when Little Edie is so clear about her life and what she needs to do to attempt to get out, they allow their characters to sing so lyrically but also let them have these odd moments that show their spirit and let them put the jigsaw pieces of their mind together. She's so all over the place, and she starts to put things together that make sense in her odd way. It's a different perspective to how normal people view things and they've captured that so beautifully in the music.

DOH: I always remember reading about how the film makers said they didn't want to villainise either of them – how do you find the truth in the character and not make her a parody of herself?

JR: I think when you watch the documentary you do see a woman trapped. She's trying to make the best of it and she's humorous about her situation, but you do feel that underlying sadness. I never once felt that she was a parody of herself or that she was unrealistic. It's how she copes with her disappointments and her sadness. It made total sense that with the right writers involved a musical would suit them because singing and music was such a feature in their lives. She's an extraordinary mix of things but it's a universal subject and you can't not honour that.

She was a real person, you might think she was ridiculous, but Act Two was basically verbatim what she did and that's for people to judge. I never did – you can't, you can't ever judge your characters you have to find something that makes sense. It did make sense, I totally understood her pathos and her reason for doing things and how sometimes she could be humorous about it and other times she could be angry about it. She had that strong feeling that “I can't leave, I've been brought up to be responsible”. The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility – it was drummed into them through generations, it was their motto and I think weighed heavy. Who knows when she went to New York what happened. Whether she felt the responsibility or her mum just knew she had to come back because she couldn't survive in the real world because she was a fragile creature and an unusual woman especially in those times. Did she need to come back to feel safe or did she come back because she felt a responsibility to look after her mum? I guess we'll never know. It's an ambiguous thing. You're never quite sure why she held down her responsibility.

There's a lovely bit in the documentary where she says “I hope mother doesn't die because we have such a lot of fun” - I think they did enjoy each other immensely. From reading diaries of those who weren't allowed upstairs, they've said there was all sorts of music and dancing going on – they clearly had some wonderful times together.

DOH:How do you compartmentalise the change of tone between the acts, going from a very traditional book musical to the second act where you've got the presence of the camera lens really and you speak to the audience?

JR: We rehearsed like you usually would, you work on act one, then act two, go back then do a run. The run is the first time you're saying everything all together you're not thinking too much about that. It was only in previews that you start thinking about what a big shift and crikey - what a gear change! A lot is helped by putting on the eyes, the costumes – they're real clothes, they're not made. When we do the quick changes, there is a real skirt that we put on upside down and pin them on, they're genuine articles that we try and get the same look. And the voice, her voice is so different. Those twenty minutes in the interval I always have a little look at the first couple of scenes and say to myself “this is the world we're in now...” I'm enjoying it now but in the beginning I was thinking what a big gear change it is.

One has to try and not slip into some form of caricature – it's just so easy to do that. But equally she was such a performer, she showed off for the cameras so much – you have to show that – she does need an audience, she loves an audience and is desperate for them to be on her side. There's this constant battle of trying to be more amusing than each other, but you have to be aware to reign it in as well. You look at people and they're grinning at you as if to say “go on!” and I think I can't go too much, you have to ride that horse very gently through the canyon so you don't end up falling off a cliff.

DOH: It must be very difficult the second you come on in that outfit and the audience reacts - you can't tip too far...

JR: Keeping the taste button firmly pressed down and not being seduced by it. But equally she DID play up to it – she WAS seduced by the camera, so it's finding that balance. What a joy! What a joy to be able to interact with an audience. Virtually all the time you rehearse whatever you rehearse but the main character you haven't met yet is your audience, and they tell you so much and give you so much every night. How lovely that you can be that interactive with them. So often you're not allowed to do that. For want of a better word – it's a gift. Both characters. You're trying to get the audience on your side, but Sheila is also doing the same with her people – it's a great little battle and I'll really miss it. It's not often you get to do that.

DOH: The whole experience must just have been wonderful – there's such a talented team involved.

JR: It's been terrifying! We've only had three and a half weeks rehearsal. So much time is spent worrying if you've got the words in your head, then you're worrying about the performance. But again, it's a bit like having things with a small budget – sometimes magic can happen when you don't have the time to navel gaze. I don't know, all actors could do with more time, however long the rehearsal period is you always want that extra week but you never do have that time. Fingers crossed the amount of work we put in shows!

DOH: Do you think the show will have future life?

You never know – it would be lovely but also we're getting such a lovely response at the Southwark. Our job is done in terms of sales, but for the people who haven't got tickets it would be lovely to have a few more weeks somewhere. You feel embarrassed to say to people "please come and see it", but I actually took my own life in my hands and wrote to people who I wanted to see it. I hope they got tickets and they don't call me up in three weeks time and say I want to come Wednesday...sit in the dressing room and listen through a wall! It's a brilliant show to do and a great cast. Often with these things everyone is in the room for the right reasons, they're not there because they have to be and it often makes for the happiest experiences. It's a lovely job and I'm so glad to have been asked to do it. Onwards and upwards!

The European premiere of Grey Gardens is running at the Southwark Playhouse until 6 February 2016.

Read our 5* review of the show here

- Edited by Dom O'Hanlon

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