Spotlight On… Actress, Julie LeGrand

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!

Julie Legrand as E.M. Ashford in rehearsal for WIT
Julie rehearsing for Wit

 

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”!

Julie Legrand as Mme Morrible in Wicked
Julie as Madame Morrible in Wicked

 

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:

Favourite food?

Chocolate – what else?!

Favourite Theatre?

Tie between: Apollo Victoria/Savoy/National Theatre

Favourite song from a musical?

Gotta Get A Gimmick.

Favourite time of year?

Summer.

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!

 

 

 

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Spotlight On… Julie Hesmondhalgh

She played Roy Cropper’s wife, Hayley in Coronation Street for 15 years and departed in 2014. Since leaving, Julie Hesmondhalgh has moved on to play a multitude of joyous roles and I had the great pleasure of watching her in her latest project, playing terminal Cancer patient, Vivian in ‘Wit’ at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.  I caught up with Julie to find out what ever happened to Hayley’s famous anorak and all sorts of other gossip!

The most important things I want to know first is, did you get to keep Hayley’s famous coat from Corrie?
Yes. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to auction it for charity, but till then I have it.
How does it feel now that you’ve left Hayley behind, do you miss The Street, at all?
I’ve honestly not looked back!  It’s been 25 months now and 30 jobs.  I loved Hayley, I loved the cobbles, I loved all my mates there (I still do) but it’s been such a lovely rich time for me, work wise, I’ve loved it.
You’ve taken a step into theatre work, now and speaking from experience, you’re doing an amazing job – what was your opinion of your latest character in Wit?
I was very nervous about playing someone so tough and isolated, so in her head and not her heart.  I was nervous of the accent (American), the last moment of nudity, of shaving my hair off, of being on stage for the whole 100 minutes…it was probably the most challenging role of my life, but I loved every minute. Vivian in Wit is such an interesting woman, and a female protagonist you see very rarely in culture: a lone wolf, in love only with her work (and even then in quite a dry and joyless way)…I loved playing her. And the ending was incredibly exciting and redemptive and joyful, after all my worrying.
Did you find the role challenging and draining or have you found that playing a character with terminal Cancer comes as second nature having played the storyline in Corrie?
Vivian literally could not have been more different from Hayley, in her relationships, her priorities and her approach to life and death, so it was really different. A lot of people asked me if I found it draining but not at all… as I say, the ending left me high as a kite!
Did you do any research for your role of Vivian in Wit?
Loads.  Medically, academically, in every way. I had to study the life and poetry of John Donne and the anatomy of Ovarian cancer, and I had a lot of lines to learn.  I started in April last year.
What are the main differences you’re experiencing between working on in front of the camera and working on stage?
I love both. I love the immediacy and seat-of-the-pants terror of theatre, as well as the world of going in to rehearsals and collaborating, and meeting the audience in the bar after the show. I love the world of theatre. But telly is always such a great experience. Always brilliant crews, make up, runners, extras, catering, drivers…it’s a little gang.  It always breaks my heart when a job ends. They practically had to carry me off the Cucumber set on the last day. I love radio as well.  I’ve done loads this last year and it’s a real joy. I’ve not had a job I’ve not loved.  I’ve been so lucky.
Is there a role that you have an ambition to play?
No, I love new writing the best, so I don’t know what the next one is.
Staying with the theatre related questions, is there a particular Director you’d like to work with or a specific theatre you’d like to play?
I’d love to work with Katie Mitchell.  I’d love to do something at the Everyman…and The National of course.  I did a play upstairs at the Royal Court last year with Vicky Featherstone and that was a dream come true.  I loved it there.  The people I met in that bar!  But I love Manchester the best.
I’m loving your performance in Happy Valley, what was that like to film and how did you enjoy working with Kevin Doyle from Downton Abbey?
Oh, I hardly do anything in Happy Valley but it was such an honour to be offered a part in it and to work with Sally Wainwright and with lovely Kevin. We have some great rows coming up and had a right laugh. Our screen kids were wonderful too.
Would you take a part in another soap opera in the future or do you feel you’ve done your ‘bit’?
I think so! I think I’d be hard pressed to find a part like Hayley again.
What drew you to an acting career in the first place?
A series of fortunate events.  A primary school teacher, Mrs Mulderigg, who saw something in me and encouraged me to do English Speaking Board exams, which set me on the path. Then some great teachers at secondary school, then the most inspirational teacher at FE College who made us feel like it was possible to be from Accrington and to be an actor.  He opened up a whole world of possibility for us and scores of us from that course went on to Drama schools (there were 5 of us at LAMDA at the same time!) and loads of us are still acting. Seeing loads of theatre with school and college made me fall in love with it all, particularly seeing stuff at the Royal Exchange.
What projects have you got coming up now that you’ve finished your run in Wit?
I’m running an Intergenerational Masterclass at the Exchange next week, I have some radio in the pipeline and a BIG telly in the summer that I can’t tell you about yet! Watch this space.
Favourite Things (give me your first reaction to these questions, please):
Favourite memory from Corrie?
Probably Amsterdam at the start of it all, or Blackpool towards the end, when it felt so precious and special.
Favourite co-star?
David Neilson of course!
Favourite childhood memory?
Big walks with my Mum and Dad on a Sunday in the Lancashire countryside.
Favourite song?
Reach by S Club 7 (a family classic)
Favourite way to spend your time off?
On a windy beach with my family and my dog, walking towards a cafe where they sell big mugs of tea.
I’d like to thank Julie for sparing the time to chat with me, she really is an inspirational lady!

Royal Exchange Theatre ~ Wit

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The naked ambition and witticism of this incredibly moving, informative and real play is to be commended. Written by Margaret Edson and produced by Raz Shaw, Wit brings a missing jigsaw puzzle piece to the line up of productions which are showing across the UK at the moment.

I think if a play forces you to sit back in your seat because its drawing you in so much that your own memories are triggered to such an extent as mine were – then someone’s doing something right! Any play dealing with Cancer may evoke emotions in members of the audience, sadly it’s too common an occurrence in people’s lives. That’s why this production carries such an important message.

Julie Hesmondhalgh takes the lead role of Vivian Bearing, a professor of metaphysical poetry who is arguably obsessed with poet John Donne and indeed her very existence seems to be fuelled by etymology. She’s isolated and diagnosed with stage four ovarian Cancer for which she is taking a particularly potent dose of Chemotherapy, eight doses to be exact and the full dose each cycle. Hesmondhalgh embodies the character, she has her own head shaved and looks every inch the part. The set creates the perfect clinical environment with the space that The Royal Exchange Theatre provides also playing its part in this element.

There is much hub-bub around the staff to-ing and fro-ing, while Bearing comes to terms with the illness that will take her life and reflects back on her life as an academic. I particularly noted that while Harvey Kelekian M.D. (played by Tom Hodgkins) delivered the diagnosis, his voice faded into the background and became a blur as Bearing took in the devastating information. An interesting turn of events develops when Jason Posner M.D. (played by Esh Alladi) who is conducting research into Cancer, reveals that he took Bearing’s course at University because it was such a difficult course. Posner has no bedside manner whatsoever, and indeed shares characteristics with Bearing, as she later considers. In contrast, Jenny Platt’s portrayal of Susie Monahan R.N. B.S.N is ditzy and bubbly, she is not motivated by the highfalutin. Julie Legrand took a superb part as Bearing’s Literature Professor and her latter appearance provides one of the most moving moments when she is the sole visitor to the hospital bed.

Kudos to Georgina Lamb for the movement in this piece, as this goes a long way towards setting each scene and brings the cast together as a team in excellent symmetry.

Wit is on award winning Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 13th February, Julie Hesmondhalgh gives the performance of her career, in my opinion – don’t miss it!

Link to purchase tickets is here: http://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/wit

 

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