On the day Eva Noblezada meets me to chat about her new role as Eponine in Les Miserables, she sends out a tweet that reads: “Don’t let anyone give you crap about having a rammed schedule. Work hard and be productive. Do your thing…” It is, I discover, indicative of her approach to performing, and the responsibility she feels to engage with her fans – many of whom are aspiring performers keen to emulate the success she has enjoyed at only 20 years old.
During Miss Saigon she took the time to talk with many of them at stage door after a performance. “Like Les Mis, people know Miss Saigon and they took the time to show their appreciation,” she says. “The fans pushed the show along and are a huge credit to its success, absolutely.”
She adds: “I talk to most people – you want to put yourself in their shoes. If Britney Spears walked down the street you would want a pic with her.” She catches herself, and continues: “It’s in no way the same, but to some theatre students it’s a big deal. If I saw Sutton Foster walking down the street I would be star-stuck. So I get it.”
Just three years ago, Noblezada was an aspiring performer herself. She was plucked straight from a high-school musical theatre competition in New York and flown to London by producer Cameron Mackintosh to play the lead in his revival of Miss Saigon. Since then, the US-born actor – just 18 when she landed the part of Kim – has learnt all about schedules, taking on one of the biggest female musical theatre roles and playing it for two years straight.
Hard work has always featured in Noblezada’s upbringing, and her ambitious nature is palpable. She’s driven and assured without being arrogant. She’s charming, headstrong and remarkably eloquent about theatre and performance for someone beginning their second professional role.
Eponine is a part she has longed to play. When the chance came up to audition, she was on her way to landing the lead in the West End production of Aladdin. Noblezada explains her decision with a clarity and wisdom that belies the short nature of her professional career to date.
“I was auditioning to be in Aladdin and had a big decision to make – do you want to audition for Eponine or do you want to continue to the finals for Aladdin?” she says. “I thought, ‘I really really want to audition for Eponine.’ I auditioned at Cameron’s office and they told me I got it the next day. It happened so quickly but I do not regret anything – in fact, I know I made the most amazing decision by going after her.”
How so? “I had that gut feeling,” she says. “I am excited to see Aladdin, but when I was reading for Jasmine, even in the audition, I was not really excited about doing her. I could not find anything in the script that made her interesting enough.”
She adds: “After playing Kim I wanted to do something that would let me act and be different and be unique in the character. Jasmine is great: different people will play her but they are all going to sound the same and they all have to.” She ponders for a minute, then says: “It’s Disney, what do you expect? I wanted something raw that I could make my own and there is really no making Jasmine your own – you literally have a cartoon as your template.”
Although many have played Eponine before her, Noblezada is making the role her own. She has referred to Victor Hugo’s novel to delve deeper into the character, and has made firm decisions about how she wants to present her to audiences.
“I do not want her to be the ‘Disney’, heartbroken teenage girl as she’s not that,” she says. “She is not shy or a kitten in the corner, and I want to represent that on stage. I don’t want to be the puppy-eyed girl who is disappointed her crush doesn’t like her back. I want her to be a significant character.”
Playing Kim in Miss Saigon, it appears, has set a standard that Noblezada is keen to continue in terms of roles she plays. And next year, after her stint in Les Miserables, she will take Kim to Broadway, where she was first discovered by Mackintosh. Though, as she points out, back then she was only on Broadway geographically speaking.
When casting director Tara Rubin spotted her she was taking part in a musical theatre competition, the Jimmy Awards. She was representing North Carolina, where she had won the regional heats. Spotted by Rubin, she was introduced to Mackintosh. Shortly after, she was in London playing Kim.
“It was difficult at first, because they threw me in and I was a young girl with no experience, still trying to figure out who I was,” she recalls. “I was living by myself – and tackling this huge show and trying to uphold myself as a leading lady even though I was the youngest in the cast. I wanted to have an aura of being responsible and respectable and lead myself with class, but still be myself. It was really difficult to get to know Kim and also what I, as Eva, was doing.”
Noblezada learnt a lot from the role she was playing.
“She helped me learn so much about myself and how you have a much greater responsibility than you think you do,” Noblezada says. “She helped me realise myself – she was thrust into an extraordinary environment, very similar to myself moving to London.”
She adds: “It was interesting finding the similarities and to make connections between my life and hers. It made me, as Eva, go ‘I want to be like that and do that’, and vice versa. We learned a lot from each other.”
Noblezada also worked on a backstory for Kim and was encouraged by director Laurence Connor to write imaginary letters from Kim to other family members, helping her to understand Kim better. Her favourite part in the show was the nightmare scene, where Kim relives the evening Chris leaves her behind in Saigon. And of course it features the famous helicopter.
“We had run a tech a few times without it and the first time we did it full out, they said ‘We are going to show it to you now’, she recalls. “And everyone was like: ‘Oh my gosh.’ When you are on stage you feel the presence of it, you are standing under it, and they have fans that blow wind at you. It’s what you wait for in the show.”
What was your first job? Miss Saigon.
What is your next job? Les Miserables, then Miss Saigon on Broadway.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Comparing yourself with other actors is the quickest way for you to fail. It will kill you in every single way in terms of confidence – in building your acting career. Comparing yourself makes you feel worse and makes you feel you’re not there yet and that you have to be like that person.
What’s your best advice for auditions? An actor is cast from their individuality. If you do it like you, something you know you can do, more of you will shine through than if you try to copy someone. Don’t be a cheater.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? If I didn’t act I would have gone to high school to get a scholarship for basketball or volleyball. I kicked ass at basketball at school.
Just as Miss Saigon has introduced us to Noblezada’s talent, so Noblezada was introduced to musical theatre as a career choice through Miss Saigon. Her aunt was in a production on Broadway, and this started her thinking about performing herself.
She attended Northwest School of the Arts in North Carolina from the age of 11, but had sung in church before that. Her dad, who graduated as a music teacher, helped her realise her talent.
“He is one of the main reasons I am here, and got this far,” she says. “He was always pushing me in a way I never thought I could be pushed. Musically he knew what he was doing – and he would say ‘I need you to do that again, these are the areas you need to work on’.”
Did she not feel a pressure from being pushed at such a young age? “Everyone starting young will feel it’s a pressure if they are insecure from not knowing if this is they want to do,” she says. “But you get pushed by your parents because they love you.”
Although she has trained from the age of 11, she says drama schools can only teach people so much. The rest, she adds, is up to the performer.
“Training does not stop when you leave the studio,” she says. “You are always honing it and perfecting every element of it. I never just want to be a good singer, I want to be an amazing actor, dancer and entertainer, not just one of those things.”
To this end, she gets dismayed by what she perceives is a lack of appreciation for musical theatre performers. She says she doesn’t think most people know “how smart some actors are”.
“They don’t know how much research goes into it and how much knowledge you have to have psychologically,” she says. “As soon as I step on to a stage something takes over my body. Call it adrenalin, call it a sixth sense – it transforms you in the twitches of the body, the way you speak – everything changes to represent a completely different person that is not you. It takes control to do that.”
Noblezada will demonstrate this control in Les Miserables, performing in the musical until December. She’s clearly having the time of her life, and riding a wave. So you’re unlikely to hear her complaining, but there is one element of Les Miserables she has an issue with. It concerns the scene in which Eponine screams to warn Cosette and Jean Valjean of an impending robbery. The scream you hear every night is not Noblezada’s but that of Linzi Hateley, who was in the musical some years ago. The idea is that a recorded scream protects the performer’s voice. Noblezada scoffs at this.
“I screamed for two years in Miss Saigon and I was fine,” she says. “I was disappointed because I wanted to actually scream.”
She reflects on this and then, making a point to acknowledge Hateley’s fine vocal ability, adds: “It’s a great scream though.’
Born: San Diego, 1996
Training: Northwest School of the Arts, North Carolina
Landmark productions: Miss Saigon (2014), Les Miserables (2016)
Awards: WhatsOnStage award for best actress in a musical (2015)
Agent: Curtis Brown