Interview: Janie Dee Talks Inspiration, Co-Stars, and Working With A Particularly Irreverent Puppet In Hand To God
| By Jacob Porteous
Janie Dee is one of Britain's most celebrated actresses. She most recently starred in THE SEAGULL at Open Air, Regent's Park Theatre following AH, WILDERNESS! at the Young Vic – and received rave reviews from national critics for both.
Janie is the winner of multiple awards including Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics' Circle, Obie, Theatre World Best Newcomer and TMA Theatre and was Olivier Award nominated for NSFW at the Royal Court, and NOISES OFF at the Old Vic. She has had long associations with Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter and Sir Peter Hall.
London Theatre Direct bloggers caught up with her to talk about Hand To God, currently showing at London's Vaudeville Theatre:
1. This play is very different to your previous roles. Were you nervous to take on a role in such an irreverent and racy play? What is it about the role that attracted you?
The play attracted me because it is 'released' in that every situation has amazing ability to get out of hand in a very surprising and sometimes shocking but. And this is the best but a very human way. Nobody will be able to say...that could never happen. Even though it is 'out there'!
2. Have there been any tweaks to the Broadway script to accommodate the British sense of humour?
Everything is exactly as it was on Broadway except the performers and a small sketch that Jason/ Harry Melling does with Tyrone.
3. Are writers taking more risks in humour or do you think that there is a fear of being politically incorrect - does it make it easier to take risks when using a puppet?
That's again a better question for Harry - 'to take risks when using a puppet'. I don't know I only use a puppet for a little bit. The previous part of that question about writers taking risks: I think we're really healthy in this country with new writers. We've got the Royal Court and the Almeida and lots of fringe places like St James' that will put on a new play or a new musical or an old musical. The Finborough is a small fringe venue that will put on something unusual either that's old that hasn't really had its airing or something brand new that is speaking to us in a new way. I do think that Hand to God is exceptional in its bravery and its release and its poignant perception of the way we are. It relentlessly goes to the edge of what we will do and - again on first reading - I was thrilled by it. I couldn't think of how much further Rob Askins could go because it was making sense - it wasn't just sensational, it felt good to have it out on the table. He was putting our human cards on the table. This is what we're like and at the same time having a wonderful laugh with it. He's written it in such a great way.
I think writers are taking risks. I don't always think producers are. Or audiences are. But they'll learn. And because we've got these great places that will push it - and the National Theatre has gone into a new age - the West End is probably going to be the last one to do so because it caters for the masses, in that I mean the general 'happy family thing' which is necessary. I think it's necessary. I think we have to keep opening the door to new ideas and new thoughts.
4. Is the role physically and emotionally demanding? If so how do you keep your body and mind in shape during a long run?
Yes the role is demanding, both physically and emotionally. I deal with that in two separate ways.
My body first: I am trying - she says with a box of maltesers in front of her, the first time in a long time I might add - I am trying to eat really very well and up to the end of lent I was doing very well with my no alcohol, no milk and everything. I think the vitamins I've just bought are really good - I'd forgotten about that. It is a drain on my system and I think on everyone's systems. We're doing a lot of physical work on the stage and with it comes an energy which Moritz (our Director) demanded from us. He was almost immoveable in that. He was moveable in many other things and on the whole he was very very relaxed, but in the energy it requires he was immoveable he kept pushing it up, up, up! And now we're at this level of energy, which we realise we have to play at, but it does take its toll. I am in pain. I have a physio once a week to iron out some very nasty knots that would otherwise cause me an injury and I don't want that to happen because I don't want to miss a moment of this play.
Going to bed early is tough and that's what I wish I could do. I just haven't been able to do it. I don't know what's wrong with me - I just think I've got too much happening elsewhere. Having said that - I meditate every day. I'm not drinking very much alcohol if any. A malteser is a treat and constantly embracing proper meals.
The head next: what is interesting is how life with me slightly mirrors art and art mirrors life. So I'm actually in a good place to do this play I think. I relate to it. I understand the deeper resonances which I think is helpful whilst we're doing a comedy in that it can stay rooted in the truth. I meditate and I do yoga and I think that is both body and mind. They do go together. If you're keeping the body well the mind is happy. If you're keeping the mind happy the body is. It's just about keeping that balance.
6. Is there any other genre of theatre that you'd like to try?
Circue Du Soleil. I love them so much and I would do anything with them. I'd walk across the stage laughing for them. Anything. I just want to be with them. I love their joy at what they do and their collaboration with each other. I love the strange things they think up to expose to us. Oh it's wonderful. You've got to see it. It's amazing.
7. Is there a role you'd like to play but haven't yet?
Well I'm sort of doing it now. The last time somebody asked me that - I said I'd like to play a brand new role that nobody's ever done, and Geneva Carr did it in America, but nobody's done it here. And I feel I really poses this wonderful journey to explore every night. I love that. I'd quite like to do Cleopatra. In fact, I'd really like to do it. I'd like to explore more Aykbourne. I worked with him a lot sort of mid career - midlife and I'd love to back to his work. I particularly love Way that Upstream is set on water. I would like to do it on water. He flooded his theatre with water. I'd love to do that.
8. Of all the roles you've done - what has been your favourite character to play?
No I can't pick just one as I love them all. Each time I play a new character I invest in that person: that's the best thing I've ever done: so Margery right now.
9. Who has been your favourite co-star and equally who would be your dream co-star?
That's the same as 'part' - you're in love with everyone you're working with. Hopefully - that's always the best-case scenario. I love Neil Pearson. I love Harry Melling. I love Jemima Rooper and I love Kevin Mains. I really really love being onstage with them all so much. And then if I go back to The Seagull I could go yeah I love Alex Robertson, who played Trigorin opposite me. You see this is the problem - I'd name everybody when I look at the list again. Everyone in the Seagull was wonderful; everybody who I worked with in Our Wilderness was amazing. George Mackay - he's over in The Caretaker. Over the years - Charles Dance, David Seoul, Angela Lansbury, Patricia Routledge, lesser known Bill Champion is amazing to be on stage with. Aiden Gillet is now like one of my closest friends. I love working with him onstage. We have a sort of onstage marriage - I's kind of interesting. We're married onstage - not offstage. But we're good friends. He's very special. Alex Hanson I adore. There's a lot - I could just keep going. Nick Haverson... He just makes me laugh so much.
And saying that I'd really like to work with Robert Downy Junior. He'd better be nice because he looks nice. I'd love to work with him.
10. What inspires you to continue doing what you do?
I was talking about it today actually - it's sort of a trap. Because sometimes as a mum I go 'right I've got to stop - I've got to stop for a bit and just be at home' and it always looks very attractive to me. And I do love being at home I've got a lovely home. I love it. And I did stop recently - I had to be at home for family reasons, with my children. And I'm glad I did it I don't regret that at all but what I noticed was my energy levels sunk to a place that was very hard to then get back to where we have to be in this for example. And now they're up again. And what I find is they're up so high, I'm getting so much done - somehow I'm like a superwoman I'm can do so many things in a day - although at the moment I'm a bit knackered - and because my energy is generally up at this level it means I'm very happy. I'm very nice to people because I'm happy, so without that and the energy dropping and the kind of not meeting many people because you're at home doing things there - the world gets smaller...
It's a difficult reason to admit but it's the best-case scenario to do what I do. Because I'm a nicer person when I do it. But of course I am looking at that because that's a problem if you don't get picked up and you're stuck at home - what are you going to do? So I studied Reflexology for seven years and then whilst I was doing Blithe Spirit I took my exams and I passed, so I do treat people now. I treat their feet, but just not when I'm working because as I've said there's just not enough time. The business suddenly crowds you if you're working all the time - like now. This is rest time but we've got to do this. I do what I do because I love it of course and because I seem to be successful at it. I'm very lucky to be asked to do things. That makes me feel so good. To be asked to do something. To be trusted, to have free rein of how I interpret something. It's so creative, it's wonderful. This is a nice interview. I'm enjoying it.
11. What are the best or more memorable moments of your career?
Well... Judy Dench asked me if I would play Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet when I was doing the Nation Theatre's production of Carousel. I was really pleased because I was still a 'musical theatre girl', even though I'd done some acting, and it's a bit funny in this country because if you're 'musical theatre' you don't get taken seriously as an actress which is just ridiculous. So Judy asking me to do this was really special. I said yes obviously - we started rehearsals and the girl who was playing Juliet, Rebecca Callard, was very funny. She just made me laugh - she still makes me laugh. She's got something about her that make me laugh and I make her laugh. And then we're in trouble. Anyway when we started rehearsing and getting the giggles a bit, Judy - who was no help at all - would just cover her face with the script and hide behind while she giggled behind the script. We'd be trying to control ourselves out there when very serious things were happening. So this obviously not my dream Shakespeare moment because it was dissolving into laughs. We were OK, we held ourselves together and we found a way round it and then something happened onstage that was just too funny. So to cut a long story short: I tripped over, and my big hat - which was as tall as a gatepost -flapped back and forth so much that I couldn't get off the stage. It was so embarrassing and all the children in the matinee at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre laughed their heads off - so I was laughing too. It was awful, so embarrassing and silly. But I think if I'm really honest the whole comic potential was amazing. It was written for me, it was a new part, it won all these awards - I got three - and I went to America and it was endlessly rewarded. I met everybody you could think of. I was at DreamWorks talking to them about things - it didn't come to anything in the end because again my family was here. I wouldn't have worked with Pinter which was another highlight let me tell you - as a human being as well as an artist - to meet and work with him. Anything I've done with Aykbourn has been fantastic too.
12. Is it difficult to change your performance style quickly when you go from being in an opera straight to a musical?
No because of my actress side. Which believes every character that I play. I mean sometimes there's a range of how straight you'll play something. Sometimes musical comedy works better if it's two-dimensional - Stephen Sondheim told me that - sometimes it's better to just think two dimensional than to get too deep. But actually - they're all rooted in truth. They all come from the world we're looking at the world either through opera, through musical or through a play so I don't find it that different a process to be honest.
Janie Dee plays Margery in Hand To God at the Vaudeville Theatre in London until 30 April.