Zizi Strallen interview - 'I thought I was going to be known as the rubbish Strallen'
Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom waltzes its way from the big screen to the stage this month, as Drew McOnie’s production of the musical – widely known as the first film in Luhrmann’s Red Carpet trilogy – opens at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Set in the bubble that is competitive ballroom dancing, it stars Jonny Labey, Will Young and, fresh from appearing in the National Theatre’s Follies, Zizi Strallen. We spoke to Strallen about playing a character she related to growing up, working with McOnie, who is directing and choreographing the show, and the Strallen sisters in the West End.
You’re playing Fran in Strictly Ballroom, what’s her role in the show?
It is set in Australia during the '80s, and it follows the world of amateur ballroom dancing which is quite a bubble. There’s one guy, Scott Hastings, who is set to be the best ballroom dancer, but he keeps going against the rules. There’s a strict way of dancing, but he makes up his own steps. My character, Fran, is a beginner who can’t really dance but has a lot of passion. Scott says he’ll dance with her and they end up performing at a big competition together, changing the world of dance with a lot of drama and comedy in between.
Were you a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film?
Massively. I watched it over and over again growing up. I really related to Fran in the film. With me and my three sisters, I’d always be the quirky one who stuck out. It’s really lovely that I’m playing this part that I’ve always related to. When I first heard they were doing it as a musical, I was gutted I couldn’t audition for it.
That was for the production that ran at West Yorkshire Playhouse, did you get to see the show then?
No, I was doing Poppins in Bradford at that time. We were very close, but the schedules just didn’t match up. It’s kind of a good thing because this is a completely different version.
What’s changed then? We know that Will Young is playing a new character…
All the music has been changed - it’s all massive 80s hits which is incredible. My character doesn’t sing anymore either. The characters who tell the story act within the play, and we dance when our characters dance. Will is also like the commentator in the ballroom competitions, he announces the winners, but he’s also the narrator who tells the story to the audience. He keeps the story flowing.
How involved has Baz been with the show so far?
We film every single day of rehearsals and that gets sent to him, then he gives feedback. We did a live reading for him on Skype. So he’s always there virtually.
What’s it been like in the room with Drew McOnie?
He’s probably one of the most intelligent, eloquent, diplomatic people I’ve ever worked with. It’s an extremely hard job to be director and choreographer, but he has these incredible instincts for comedy, line delivery and intention, and then on the dancefloor this incredible mind of a dancer comes out. It’s a real honour and I feel privileged to be working with him.
You mentioned you empathise with Fran in the film, how do you go about playing that character?
I’m making it my own. I think my Fran is slightly clumsier than the Fran in the film. Our progression in time is slightly different to the film, so it's easy to find my own feet with it. I go through a bit of a transformation from a very low-confidence, bullied beginner to a happy, confident person who feels like she can dance. It’s nice to make my own way through that.
You starred in the National’s massive production of Follies last year, what was that like for you?
It was an amazing experience. I’d just come off from Mary Poppins which was a massive role, but then going into a studio with these massive names was like, “woah”. The amount people I loved on the show was overwhelming. It was very special to be a part of.
It’s been confirmed to be returning next year, are you thinking about reprising your role?
I haven’t really thought about it because we’re hoping this show will run and run and run. Sometimes I do think that it’s good to do something once, remember it fondly and let it go.
I think it has happened before. I think I was doing Rock of Ages when Summer was doing Top Hat. But it will be the first time we’re both playing lead roles.
You came through the ranks of musical theatre after your older sisters Summer and Scarlett, did that put any pressure on you as you started out?
When I was a lot younger, I used to struggle with it a bit from putting a lot of pressure on myself. I’d stand outside auditions thinking “I’m going to be rubbish and I’ll be known as the rubbish Strallen”. It was ridiculous. Around the time I was doing Cats at the Palladium I said to myself “I’m my own person on my own journey”.
Why should someone come and see Strictly Ballroom?
From the very beginning you’re going to get the most insane choreography, it leaves my jaw on the floor every time I watch it. You have this story with so much heart with people breaking though and being accepted for who they are. It makes people feel brilliant about themselves when they watch a show like that.
Strictly Ballroom Tickets are available now.