She’s tried her hand at most forms of performing art but her first love is theatre, particularly that of Stephen Sondheim. She’s sung the theme song for Red Dwarf and battled Daleks with Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor, but always returns to the stage. Paul Couch spoke to West End star Jenna Russell.
Earlier this year, you played Mary Flynn in Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter, having transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory. Two very different venues – what sort of adjustments did the cast have to make?
Not too many really, in the Chocolate Factory the stage was much wider so we just had to readjust some staging for sight lines and then lighting accordingly, I think the West End transfer was slightly more focused as a result. But we maintained the intimacy as it was a small theatre we transferred to.
That production was filmed for cinema and digital release. Yet another change of technique?
We really didn’t change too much, there were a couple of notes from Stephen Sondheim that were incorporated, but we felt that we had to just do our show and ignore the cameras. The audience in the cinemas were aware that they were watching a theatrical production so we kept it as that.
Mary was a tough-talking theatre critic. Did you base her on anyone in the real world? How do you, as an actress, view critics?
I guess Mary changes quite dramatically, she is a very witty woman and extremely forthright with her views, and is covered with barbs by the end of her journey ( the beginning if the show ) so I went for an Elaine Stritch/ Mary Rodgers feel to her, it’s funny and really quite hard for the audience because when we meet these people the are not likeable…they don’t like themselves and life has dealt them ( Mary in particular ) a tough hand. I think this show speaks to people of all different ages, older viewers get the whole picture and younger ones find the early scenes odd, they can’t relate…why should they? For lots of them life hasn’t bitten them in the ass…yet! She has become a critic but was an amazing novelist in her youth, but it seems she only had 1 book in her and ends up doing something she despises, one of the reasons for her bitterness. As for me in regards to critics…it’s tricky, we all want them to like our work, obviously, but then if they dislike it it can be crushing… It is you up there after all, it’s hard not to take it personally, I used to read them all… now I don’t, both good and bad reviews can alter what happens onstage so I now resist and read them well and truly after the show is finished.
You’ve worked on several Stephen Sondheim shows in your career. Much of his work is notoriously complex. How have you coped with the vocal gymnastics?
I feel very lucky to have been in so many of Sondheim’s shows. I have grown up with his music and lyrics and think I know all of his scores inside out…ha ha ha! So have I fact been working my voice into his scores since I was 14…a loooong time now! In fact I think my range has been dictated by his work as that’s all I ever listened to. It’s other composers I find tricky.
Stage, television, or film?
I like to do all of them really, although I work mostly in theatre and television, all require different skills. My other half said rather succinctly the other day that film is a director’s medium, television is a producer’s medium and theatre is an actor’s medium. Very true!
When did you get the performing bug?
I honestly don’t know, it kind of grew on me…like a slow, developing mold.
Do you remember your first time on a stage?
I think it was a school assembly,where we did a little play about Louis Pasteur, I was his nurse and passed him a syringe on a metal kidney shaped plate. I remember looking at the plate a lot.
It’s said that Young Jenna had a somewhat Bohemian childhood. How do you think that affected the adult Jenna?
Of course, our childhood and parents shape us utterly. My childhood was full of highs and lows, the highs were fantastic and full of joy, the lows were tricky but these things make us who we are and I can honestly say I wouldn’t change any of it. My love for music comes from both my parents – they exposed me to so much live music and our house always encouraged creativity.
If youhadn’tbecome an actor, what do you think you’d be doing now?
Lord knows…I dread to think! I did a TV series playing a paramedic about 10 years ago and went training for a few weeks with a crew in Nottingham, they blew me away, and I remember thinking it was something I would love to do. They don’t do it for the pay, that’s for sure. They loved their job and were very proud to be part of the service so, I guess if I had to do something else, it would be in the care industry, a paramedic, midwife or nurse, if I got past the interview!
Maria Friedman directed the last outing of Merrily. A tough director?
Maria was amazing, truly. Yes she could be tough but all her notes were brilliant..not one bad ‘un, she knew the piece inside out and pushed for her vision endlessly. Just wonderful,some directors handle you like china, it can drive you crazy, it’s a collaborative thing, we all want to be better and Maria was fantastic about telling you when something was crap and when it worked, and she always tried to get more out of you. I would love to work with her again and think she has an amazing future in directing should she wish to pursue it.
And what does 2014 hold for Jenna Russell?
I’m doing a thing at the Charing Cross theatre called Singular Sensations on Sunday, 26th Jan where I’m talking about my career and singing…argh! Then in February, I open in the Tony Award winning Urinetown the Musical at St James Theatre directed by Jamie Lloyd, can’t wait!