Layton Williams had two West End roles under his belt by the age of 14 in Thriller Live and Billy Elliot. Now he is taking on a role created and made famous by one of his best friends. He tells Mark Shenton about growing up on stage, working with Matthew Bourne and finally being cast as Jamie
When Layton Williams missed out on the leading role in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, he could at least take solace that one of his closest friends, John McCrea, landed it instead, in what became a star-making turn.
This week, Williams finally got his chance – with a little help from McCrea – as he took over the role about the Sheffield schoolboy from a council estate who wants to be a drag queen.
Williams met McCrea at Sylvia Young Theatre School, before they both went to Italia Conti and now they share Jamie, the role that McCrea originated in Sheffield, where the musical started, before transferring to the West End last year.
“We’re intertwined and it continues now with Jamie,” Williams says. After missing out on the part originally, “I deleted it from the vision of my life. But, I was always around as a supportive friend – rather than constantly asking him: ‘So when does your contract end, babe?’”
He continued to support McCrea and clearly made an impression on the producers. “I’d been around the show because of John and it turns out they had their eyes on me for a while. John called me and asked if he could pass my number on to the director as he wanted to speak to me.”
Meeting Williams in the stalls bar of the Apollo Theatre, during a break from rehearsals on the show’s set, it’s striking how similar he is to the character of Jamie – naturally ebullient and totally unafraid to be himself – much more so than McCrea, who is more subdued off stage. His mantra for auditions, he tells me, is: “I came to slay, and I’ve got what you need or I wouldn’t be here.”
Despite being just 24 years old, Williams is a West End veteran. Next door to the Apollo is the Lyric Theatre where, a full decade earlier, he played the young Michael Jackson in Thriller Live.
This followed nearly two years in Billy Elliot, one of the longest runs for anyone in the title role. He was also the first mixed-race actor to play the part.
“I left Billy Elliot because my voice was breaking, so when I joined Thriller Live it became apparent quite soon that my voice would go,” Williams says. “I was eager to do it because Michael Jackson was such a huge thing for me growing up – I used to sing I Want You Back and ABC all the time, so to do it in the theatre was crazy.”
He cites Jackson and the Spice Girls as major influences – “I was that kid who used to dance around in my front room” – and says his love of pop music continues to this day: “I’ve no shame, I’m a pop queen till I die.” Though these days he’s hanging out with pop sensations, such as Alice Chater, with whom he attended Italia Conti: “She’s going to be the next Britney.”
• Make sure you know your words when you go in – do your thing and don’t get shook.
• Be a sponge – take in as much information as you can.
• Don’t give up.
Italia Conti came after his big break in Billy Elliot. “They found me untrained, I didn’t do any ballet or tap when I got in,” he says. He had initially fallen into acting after following his cousin into an after-school drama club in Bury at the age of 11. It was there he was introduced to movement, as dancers would come in and show their routines. “I thought: ‘Honey, I got that.’ So I started doing dance classes too because I thought it was cute. Something just happened and I found my love for something, finally.”
He read about open auditions for Billy Elliot in a newspaper – “It said it didn’t matter what race you were or anything” – and he went along to the call in Manchester. Williams says: “I nearly turned back as I was really scared. I saw people who were not the same colour as me and I thought: ‘This is not the place I need to be.’ But I stayed, and roughly two years later, they put me on the stage in London.”
Williams did not follow the traditional path of a child star. “I didn’t discover theatre until I was in it. My family had no money growing up,” he says, adding his only exposure to the stage had been school trips to pantos. It was when he was on stage in a school production of Peter Pan, in which he played Captain Hook, that his teachers saw that he had a bit of a gift for performing: “I was really milking it.” When he saw his first West End musical, however, it was less than auspicious: “It was really slow and I was so bored, I didn’t think I’d want to do them.” He was so bored in fact he can’t even remember what the show was.
That changed with Billy Elliot. “I was in a wild place in my life,” he says. “As well as the show, I was also doing the TV show Beautiful People and I was in this bubble of work. My schooling wasn’t really a thing, it was a bit erratic. It wasn’t until I got to Italia Conti that I got my stuff together and learned some discipline.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish I had been given reassurance that everything would be okay. And I wish I’d been a kid more – I didn’t have much chill time or time for fun things. I was a grafter, always thinking about my next job.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The Spice Girls and Michael Jackson were huge for me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I do a lot of teaching and always say to students: they want you to do well, so know your worth. Before I go in, I tell myself: I came to slay, and I’ve got what you need or I wouldn’t be here.
If you hadn’t been an actor/dancer, what would you have been?
Maybe something to do with fashion or a stylist – I love to pull a look together.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
In Rent, before the ladder dance swung on to the stage for Today 4 U, I used to say: “I’ve come to slay”, and I’d then go on and do that.
Since graduating from child performer to grown-up star, he has worked twice with Matthew Bourne’s company New Adventures, on The Lord of the Flies and The Car Man. “I really cherished my time with them,” he says, “as I would never have seen myself as part of a company like that because I was not a classically trained dancer. But they are about the way you move, not the ballet training you have.”
He also starred as Angel in a touring production of Rent that came to St James Theatre, London (now the Other Palace) in 2016: “That was the job where I thought: ‘Okay, I can do this now.’” Playing a flamboyant gay drag queen, he felt very at home. And that’s also why Everybody’s Talking About Jamie resonates for him now: “It’s telling a queer story – and I grew up on a council estate, just like Jamie did. I was the oddball on the estate who knew I was different from a very early age. To be able to tell that story now is special, and to make it accessible to a whole group of boys who wouldn’t otherwise see themselves represented on stage is just beautiful.”
To take the part he had to turn down another project. “There was a bit of drama as I was supposed to be doing something else, but you can’t say no to a leading role in the West End, can you? So I had to jump ship and rejig my path and career. It was stressful, but it is going to be worth it.”
He is glad to have made it happen. “I couldn’t be more happy. This is going to be such a major moment in my career. Who knows if this might be the last time I get an opportunity like it. Hopefully it won’t be – but I’m going to kill it, I’m going to slay.”
Born: Bury, 1994
Training: Italia Conti
• Billy Elliot, Victoria Palace Theatre, London (2007-08)
• Thriller Live, Lyric Theatre, London (2009)
• The Car Man, Old Vic, London (2015)
• Rent, tour and St James Theatre, London (2016-17)
• Hairspray, tour (2017-18)
• Kiss Me, Kate, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (2018)
• Broadwayworld award for best supporting actor in a new production of a musical for Rent
Agent: Alastair Lindsey-Renton and Helen Clarkson at Curtis Brown
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is booking at the Apollo Theatre, London until September 2019