Emma Williams: ‘I still go home and train with my schoolteacher whenever I can’
Emma Williams is just 32, but she is already a veteran. “I did my first job when I was 14, so I’ve now been acting longer than I’ve not been,” she tells me, as she eats a salad lunch in a chilly north London church rehearsal room. It’s not exactly glamorous, but then she has been ever the pragmatist since she entered the profession.
In her Twitter biography, she used to define herself as “Olivier-nominated temp”, and it’s true: she has temped far and wide. I remember once going to the Bedford Square offices of producer Cameron Mackintosh to interview him, and she was manning the reception desk. “I’ve never finished a theatre job and not had a job to go to the next Monday – whether a temp job, a bar job or a waitressing job. I was brought up to understand the value of money and to have to work, and I always like to pay my own way.”
She’s also more than earned her dues onstage, with Olivier nominations twice (for Zorro and Love Story) among the five West End shows in which she originated leading roles. These range from Truly Scrumptious in the 2002 production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, when she was just 18, to her latest role in Mrs Henderson Presents. This is a new stage musical version of the 2005 film set in London’s Windmill Theatre during wartime. Williams plays one of the leading girls who strikes poses as a nude statue.
She has appeared in many original musicals. “This is my 12th original lead,” she says, also citing fringe appearances in shows such as Tomorrow Morning and A Model Girl (about the Stephen Ward/Mandy Rice-Davies/Christine Keeler scandal, and which pre-dated Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical on the same subject) and regional shows such as Sex, Chips and Rock n’ Roll at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
“It was never a conscious decision to specialise in new musicals, but I suppose working on them has always excited me. Maybe it’s because I started in film and TV so I didn’t have formal musical theatre training, and going into a show that was already long-running was not something that my first agent put me up for.”
She performed in several TV roles before she was 18. The first, when she was just 14, was Heartbeat, appearing with Tracie Bennett, with whom she is now reunited in Mrs Henderson Presents. She later appeared in Where the Heart Is, the four-part drama series Forefathers and feature film The Parole Officer.
“That got an agent interested in me,” she says. “The film came out in August 2001, and by September I was signed to an agent. I then did my first stage auditions for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in October, and by November I was signed to do it. It was meant to be my gap year before university. I planned to spend six months in France and Germany to perfect my languages before studying them. It meant there was no chance to do that, and I put university on hold.”
It’s not something she gave up entirely, though. In 2012, she graduated with a languages degree from the Open University, which she gained while acting and earning a living. “It was 24 hours a week of study, the same amount I’m running at the minute,” she adds, revealing that she’s training for the London Marathon in April. “I’m going home tonight to run 12 miles.”
She never does anything by halves. If she wants to do something, she does it: “There are still so many things I’ve not done that I desperately want to do.” A few years ago that included making her straight acting theatre debut in The Recruiting Officer at Salisbury Playhouse.
“It can be difficult to be seen as an actor when you’re a singer in musicals. When you audition for musicals, the pool is in some respects smaller for principal roles. You’re vying for far fewer roles, as far fewer musicals than plays are produced. The Recruiting Officer [producers] were looking for someone to do ridiculous and flamboyant, with a bit of actor-muso throw in for good measure, so I dusted off my old flute. But I relished the opportunity to do a job where I didn’t sing for a change.”
But singing has always come naturally to Williams. She went to a local dance school in her native Halifax as a child: “I wanted to be a ballerina, but I failed my Royal Ballet audition twice. I’m not physically built for it.” Instead, she joined Stage 84, a company of which she is now a patron, taking evening classes there to learn routines and do shows.
At secondary school, she performed in musicals such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. An inspiring teacher set her on her path.
“The musical director was Michael Hampshire, who saw something in me. He approached my parents saying he’d like to train me. I’ve never been trained by anyone since. I still go home and train with him whenever I get a chance. He’s the one who found my voice for me and allowed me to push it and progress it and move it through different genres.
Q&A: Emma Williams
What was your first non-theatre job? When I was 12 I worked on Saturdays as an assistant in a dance-wear shop in Halifax. Then from 14-18 I was a Saturday girl in a bridal shop.
What was your first professional acting job? I was paid £100 to play a character called Tom in a 10-minute safety film about hazards in the home. It was shown at the Eureka! National Children’s Museum in Halifax for years.
What’s your next job? I’m singing with the Halle Orchestra next February.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? A revelation hit me in the last six months: no one, no matter how confident they seem, is ever fully confident in their abilities. Everybody thinks they’re faking it and will be found out. The moment you realise it’s not just you that feels that way is the moment it become easier.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My parents. They’ve always supported me, and knowing I have that is the most important and powerful thing
What’s your best advice for auditions? You’ve got to be the best version of you, not what you think they want. You’re the only version of you there is. You’re only there to provide a body and a mouthpiece, and if you’re what they’re looking for, they’ll know it.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A translator probably, given my interest in languages. But I’d also love to be a zookeeper for big cats, otters or penguins. When I was struggling in between jobs, and wondering if this was all the industry intended for me, I looked into doing a zoology degree. But I’d probably get distracted by playing with the otters too much.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Yes. I don’t whistle backstage or say the Scottish play, but I’m also superstitious about saying hello to people before a show. I like to connect with people if I can and say hello to the band.
“I started doing opera competitions at 14 and was moved into the adult categories when I was 15 or 16. If you’d have asked me at 17, I would have seen myself heading towards that. It’s where my voice naturally sits. I have an old-fashioned voice, and that’s not particularly helpful for the way musical theatre has moved. I’ve had to learn to adapt it to fit other shows I do.”
In 2014, Williams performed in a big tour of classic Broadway show Annie Get Your Gun, which showed her voice off: “I’d never had to use my alto range before, so it was a challenge. It is now richer and deeper than it was.” She was also in a run of White Christmas at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds the Christmas before last. Her co-stars in each show were Jason Donovan and Darren Day respectively. She has enormous respect for both. “They have had parallel paths. Darren was a revelation to me. Not only is he a genuinely lovely guy and so obviously committed, he’s also a bloody good actor and has a great voice. I was really pleased that he’s just done Celebrity Big Brother. When they announced it, there were headlines again about ‘celebrity love rat actor’, but that isn’t him now. I hope it gives his career the resurgence he deserves. We’ve all got pasts.”
Her warmth radiates offstage as well as on. She is palpably enthused by her work, and speaks of the excitement of working on new musicals, in particular: “You get to work directly with the writers, composer, director, choreographer and musical team. You may get to work with an original director or choreographer on a cast change, but rarely directly with the composer, who will sometimes build something around you and your voice.”
She’s forged a particularly productive relationship with Howard Goodall. She first worked with him during the development and workshops of Love Story before originating it on stage at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and its subsequent transfer to the West End. “We did lot of demos for it that were cut later. It’s only when you do that process that you can figure out if a song works. I also helped him demo about half of Bend It Like Beckham, which is hilarious because I’m possibly the most inappropriate casting. But when someone knows your voice, they know how material will sound so they can test things out.”
She’s duly undertaken plenty of workshops, some of which – such as Desperately Seeking Susan – succeeded massively in that phase, only to fail in production. She says now: “There’s no telling sometimes that what works in a workshop will necessarily translate to the stage when you put it into a full production. You can never assume anything about whether they’ll go anywhere.”
Emma Williams’ top tips for aspiring actors
• You can never stop learning. Watch other people you’re working with and absorb the way they handle things and tackle scripts. You can’t beat on-the-job training.
• Challenge yourself. Push yourself outside your comfort zones. See theatre you don’t think you would like and don’t want to see, and watch actors you don’t think you’d enjoy. I try to find the positives in everything and see what I can take away. And see multiple productions of the same piece — it’s only from doing that that you can see how a different director will approach the same show.
• Talk to people and always be looking to learn something new from people around you. You’re never too old to learn.
Williams was also part of the original workshops for Mrs Henderson Presents. She remembers being on tour with Annie Get Your Gun, sitting beside a fountain in Birmingham, when she took the call from director Terry Johnson to ask her to do the show itself. It was successfully tried out for a three-week summer run at Bath’s Theatre Royal last year, but even then there were no guarantees for a future life.
“After the run we didn’t hear anything for a while and I went back to auditioning, and waiting for the phone to ring. There are so many other things that have to be put in place before they can ever start talking to you.” She ended up spending some of the time working for Mackintosh, this time not as a temp in his office but helping to record demos for Half a Sixpence, which Mackintosh is involved in reviving at Chichester this summer.
Now she is finally working inside another Mackintosh building, this time the Noel Coward Theatre.
“It’s one of the most beautiful theatres in London, and it is especially right for a show where so much of it revolves around a theatre and backstage.”
And she’s revealing all as she does so, which doesn’t faze her apart from one small anxiety: “I’m a nervous pee-er – I always pee at beginners before I go out. But if I drink too much water, I’m stuffed and naked, which is even worse. There’s nothing like holding a naked pose and thinking, ‘I really hope that is sweat trickling down my leg and I’m not wetting myself in fear because there are 800 people out there and I’m naked!’. You’ll never know what that feels like till you’re in that circumstance.”
CV: Emma Williams
Born: 1983, Halifax, West Yorkshire
Training: Stage 84 – The Yorkshire School of Performing Arts, Halifax, with teacher Michael Hampshire
Awards: Arts Correspondent award for best newcomer for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 2002
Landmark productions: West End: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2002); Bat Boy (2004); Desperately Seeking Susan (2007); Zorro (2008); Love Story (2010), Concert performances: Sweeney Todd, Royal Festival Hall (with Bryn Terfel, 2014), Regional: Promises, Promises at Sheffield’s Crucible (2005); Annie Get Your Gun on tour (2014)
Agent: Stuart Piper at Cole Kitchenn
Mrs Henderson Presents runs at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, booking to June 18