Julie LeGrand first burst into my universe when she appeared as that extremely creepy Nurse in Footballer’s Wives! Once I got past the fact that what she was up to was cringe-worthy and plain gross(!) I sat back and realised I was watching a skilled actress and I have kept her on my radar ever since. I’ve watched her as Madame Morrible in Wicked, I’ve seen her semi-nude at the Savoy Theatre playing the hilarious stripper, Electra in Gypsy (she was also notably brilliant as Miss Cratchitt in the show). This year I watched her at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester where she starred opposite Julie Hesmondhalgh in Wit. I think she’s an incredibly talented actress and I’m proud to present my exclusive interview with the lady herself.
I’m going to kick off with Gypsy if I may, as it was an outstanding show and you played two superb roles, what was that experience like for you and do you miss it?
Gypsy will deﬁnitely go down as one of my career highlights! It was one of those extraordinary moments when the planets aligned and every element came together gloriously. We did a read trough at the end of the ﬁrst week of rehearsals for Chichester, and when we ﬁnished, a frisson ran round the table as we all sensed, even at that really early stage, that this was going to be something very special. It’s a beautifully structured and ﬁnely honed piece, and of course we had the creative team to die for with Jonathan Kent, Stephen Mear, Nick Skilbeck and Antony Ward – so much talent and such fab people. Then leading us every step of the way was the incomparable Imelda Staunton. She’s the most extraordinary, pint-sized power house of energy, focus, self-discipline and talent and it was thrilling to see her scale the heights of Rose every night, never for a second giving less than 100%. She was truly magnificent and so deserves all the awards she’s won for her portrayal. I think it’s fair to say that Jonathan cast every other part in the show incredibly well too, there were a lot of very talented actors in the company.
I really enjoyed taking on two very contrasting parts First crabby, cynical Miss Cratchitt, the gorgon at the gate, determined to keep everyone, especially Momma Rose, away from her beloved boss, Mr Grantzigger. Imelda and I used to have a grand time sparring with each other. Then I’d pursue her offstage and we’d both keep running, exchanging fragments of news as we went, her to the next entrance and me to the dressing room, to transform into the deliciously decadent and louche Electra. The change took a bit of an age to achieve, with a ton of dark eye makeup, lashes and lip liner, but I’ve always found it very satisfying doing my own stage makeup, gradually painting in a new character. The wild red wig was of course, the piece de resistance. I just had to be sure that my gait was sufficiently off kilter, to replicate the numerous vodkas Electra would have knocked back and I was set to go. The characters were polar opposites, but they were both fundamentally funny and while I love getting my teeth into a meaty, dramatic role, it’s also a fantastic feeling to make an audience laugh.
Is there a particularly poignant or funny moment from the show that you can share with me?
Not so much one moment, as an enduring connection that developed between myself and my fellow strippers – Anita Louise Coombe and Louise Gold. We became hugely attached to each other and used to go around like a shoal of ﬁsh! They’re great fun to be with anyway, but I think what glued us together, was the shared vulnerability of knowing we were going to have to get quite a lot of our kit off. Before starting, I’d looked at several production photos of other Electras in their costumes and thought, “oh it’ll be ﬁne, they all seem to be swathed in feathers and ﬂounces”. So my jaw dropped when I saw Anthony’s drawing, in which it appeared I was going to be naked – except for a ﬁsh net sheath and a couple of strategically places light bulbs! I clearly remember the ﬁrst time we rehearsed ‘Gimmick’, when it hit us fully in the face that – yes, we were actually going to have to go out on stage wearing next to nothing, in front of 1200 people, 8 times a week! We all had a bit of a wobble and then collectively went – “oh sod it!” and stripped down to our bras and leggings then and there in the rehearsal room and never looked back.
One episode that will stay with me, was the day we performed ‘Gotta Get A Gimmick’ for West End Live in Trafalgar Square. Because our slot was immediately after the Saturday matinee they decided, due to trafﬁc jams, that the only way to guarantee our getting there in time, was for us to walk down the Strand in full costume! So we had the surreal experience of strutting down the road in the rain (of course it would be raining, being Britain!), carrying umbrellas and with coats slung over our shoulders, but in full stripper regalia. Then without breaking stride, we found ourselves literally walking straight off the street and onto the stage, to perform to thousands of people. We’d been led to believe that we’d have about 10 mins to gather ourselves backstage, but their timings had gone out – so on we went and once we’d ﬁnished, we just turned around, no hanging about and marched straight back up the Strand again! People kept saying “Oh it must have been so exciting singing in Trafalgar Square“, but it was all so unreal, it didn’t really sink in for a couple of days, when I suddenly found myself saying “Blimey, I’ve sung in Trafalgar Square – how mad!”
I have to ask what your personal choice would be if you were a stripper in real life, would it be trumpet, electricity, ballet or something else?
Well, judging from the reaction I used to get in Gypsy, I’d be very happy to stick with Electra’s light bulb moments, providing that they always work. I did have a few occasions when they failed me during the run – nothing worse than singing about a gimmick when you ain’t got one!
Moving on to Wit which I had the pleasure of watching you in earlier in the year, what was your favourite moment from the piece and what was it like to work with Julie Hesmondhalgh in that fantastic space?
Wit was another special experience It’s a beautifully written, very moving piece about a cancer sufferer who sadly dies in the end, but it’s also a surprisingly funny play. We had a brilliant time working on it, I’ve rarely laughed so much in rehearsals, which is weird given the seriousness of the subject matter. I think Raz Shaw, the director, had a lot to do with this. He’s sensitive and insightful, but also wonderfully irreverent by nature.
Plus he drew together a great cast, led by the divine Julie Hesmondhalgh. I don’t think there’s anyone more warm hearted and generous spirited in the business than Julie, she was fabulous to work with – a total sweetheart. In fact our ﬁrst meeting was one of those weird coincidences that sometimes occur in life and it convinced me to do the job. That Saturday, before the matinee, I realised I had enough time to pop out and get a coffee. There are two exits from the Stage Door and for once I chose the one that took me up the stairs to the Box Ofﬁce area. As I reached the top, I saw someone with a Gypsy programme. At ﬁrst I just thought – oh they’re coming to see the show – then I looked closer and realised it was Julie H! Ordinarily I wouldn’t approach a complete stranger, especially a celeb’, but this seemed like too big a serendipity to pass up. So I introduced myself, saying I was in Gypsy and that I understood she was going to be in ‘Wit’ at the Manchester Royal Exchange in the New Year. She looked slightly taken aback that I knew and then of course I explained that I’d just been offered a part in it and was currently deciding whether to accept or not. We fell into conversation and after ﬁve minutes I was so taken by her that I said “well I’m going to have to say yes now aren’t I”!
I loved your performance as Madame Morrible in Wicked, is that a role you’d be keen to return to in the future and are there any other musicals that you’d like to appear in or roles that you’d like to play?
I’ve come to musicals pretty late in my career and have been hugely fortunate in that the ones I’ve been in, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy and Wicked have all been really exciting, knockout shows. I spent two and a half years in Wicked – the longest time I’ve ever played a part, but I loved every minute of it and would certainly consider returning one day. Madame Morrible is probably the most wicked person in Wicked, being totally motivated by her own greed for wealth and status. I think she was best summed up by a startlingly astute 7 year old boy, who I met at the stage door, after the show one night. As he asked for my autograph he said: “I started out liking Madame Morrible, then I wasn’t so sure and then I thought – well, she’s just gone to bad!” And he was quite right, she does “just go to bad” and it’s such fun playing someone who does just that! On top of which she has the most exquisite costumes and wigs and one of the best dressing rooms in town – what’s not to like?! Wicked has an unusually wide appeal and elicits a very special affection from a huge number of fans, who come back to see the show again and again.
Naturally over time I got to know quite a few of them. When I left, a group of them presented me with a handmade book of photos and recollections they’d gathered about myself and Madame Morrible. I was so touched by all the effort and care they’d gone to. It has pride of place on my bookshelf – a memento of a very happy time. As for other musicals I would like to be in/roles I’d like to play I don’t actually have a ‘top ten’ list, perhaps I should, but in my experience casting can be so unpredictable – something you think you’re dead right for, passes you by and then something you think you wouldn’t have a hope of getting – drops in your lap! So I just enjoy the surprise of what comes next.
What led you to a performing career?
As a child I used to love devising little shows with my mates, and soon started going in for drama competitions. When I was 10 I was sent to a Convent school and was often asked to read the lessons in church on a Sunday. It may seem a bit irreverent, but I think it was then that I ﬁrst experienced the buzz you get from an audience, – oops I mean ‘congregation’ and that was it, I was hooked! I did see if I could be deterred from such a perilous career choice though. On leaving school I deliberately didn’t study drama, but read History of Art and European Studies at Sussex University instead. However I spent all my free time doing plays with the university drama group, and soon decided to make acting my life, going on to do a postgraduate drama course at The Webber Douglas Academy, to hone my skills before entering the profession.
Can you imagine yourself doing anything else other than performing?
No, I very much hope to carry on performing until I drop off the perch. I love acting and all the challenges it brings – the idea of ever retiring is anathema to me! I wouldn’t rule out adding other strings to my bow though. Some more directing – I’m one of the Directors of The Artists Theatre School, founded by one of my best mates Amanda Redman and I’ve co-directed several of our shows with her.
Have you a preferred medium between theatre, television and ﬁlm? What’s the reason for your choice?
No, I don’t have a favourite and love them for their differences. Theatre demands a different style of acting from TV and ﬁlm, and also dictates a different lifestyle – late ﬁnishes for theatre and very early starts for TV and ﬁlm. It’s fun to shift from one to the other. For example when I’ve just ﬁnished a long theatre job, to begin with it feels a bit bad to go out socialising in the evening – like skipping off school! Are there any projects coming up for you that you can tell me about? I’m about to do a wonderfully quirky short ﬁlm about greed called ‘Cupidity’, which most likely will be premiered at the London ﬁlm festival this year and I’m also waiting to hear about a TV series, so who knows, maybe I’ll be having supper with my husband for a while.
Just for fun, here are some quick-fire questions, give me your immediate reaction, please:
Chocolate – what else?!
Tie between: Apollo Victoria/Savoy/National Theatre
Favourite song from a musical?
Gotta Get A Gimmick.
Favourite time of year?
Favourite to spend your time off?
With my husband – especially pursuing the new hobbies we’ve just started together – learning to play the piano and singing in an a cappella group.
I’d like to thank Julie for being so kind about this website, positive comments from such a wonderful actress were so incredible to receive. More importantly, I’d like to thank Julie for her time and such fantastic answers!