Jonathan Bailey: ‘I’m more in awe of musical theatre actors now than ever’
There’s a fan blog devoted to the oeuvre and appreciation of all things Jonathan Bailey with the memorable URL, fuckyeahjonnybailey. But the unstintingly polite, clean-cut and genuine young man who meets me in his lunch break from rehearsals for his return to the theatrical stage isn’t sweary at all. Neither is he wary, as some actors can be, about the press, but considers each question with careful deference rather than defensiveness. He has an easy confidence about him, but not a swagger.
Now 28, he’s been acting professionally for more than 21 years, since he made his stage debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was just seven, as one of a trio of young boys playing Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, which transferred from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Barbican in 1995.
He wasn’t born into a theatrical family, but remembers having his interest piqued on a visit to the theatre in London. “My nana took us to see Jonathan Pryce in Oliver! as a Christmas treat. I apparently grabbed her arm and said, ‘I’m going to do that next year!’, though I didn’t know how. One of my sisters was doing dance, and I’d watch from the back of the classroom in my trainers. Slowly, I started integrating myself into the fraught south Oxford ballet culture.”
He insists, though, that most of his exposure to theatre was purely home-made: “As a family, we were far too busy making mud pies and going to swimming galas, and mum was always working. But all the theatre we needed was in my sister’s bedroom.”
His three sisters were, he says, “my first captive audience – and my idols. Being the youngest, I absorbed things from them.” One was the dance school, through which he acquired an agent looking for kids to represent. He quickly ended up with the RSC. “My parents claim never to have gone to the theatre until the first night I appeared as Tiny Tim, yet they were so supportive of getting me to rehearsals in Clapham. My mum was working two or three jobs, and would have to drop me off.”
He went on to become a Gavroche in Les Miserables in the West End. “I peaked really early as far as my nana is concerned,” he quips. While he was part of the ensemble of the Almeida’s production of American Psycho, he has seldom sung again on stage – until now. “I always thought I would like to give it a go at some point,” he says. But now he’s thrown himself into the deep end with one of the most demanding and exposing roles in all of musical theatre, appearing in Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander musical The Last Five Years, opposite Samantha Barks.
We meet during the second week of rehearsals. “My vocal flaps are a bit swollen and I’m finding it hard to sleep,” he tells me. It’s a show he’s known for a while: his actor friend Maggie Service gave him the original Off-Broadway cast recording about eight years ago “to cheer me up”. He explains: “We were doing a play called Girl with a Pearl Earring at [Theatre Royal] Haymarket, and having a bit of a hard time. Paul Spicer and Julie Atherton were doing it [The Last Five Years] on Sundays there while we were on, so I saw it. And I remember going, ‘Bloody hell, what is this?’ It’s so tasty – is that the right word? – and well realised.”
The musical charts the birth and death of a relationship between a writer and his actor girlfriend, in a series of sung monologues that criss-cross and overlap. For this new London production, composer Brown is himself directing: “There’s obviously a massive wealth of experience that Jason has with it, as the writer, orchestrator and now director. I really don’t think we’ll ever have an experience like this again. We’re in really safe and challenging hands.”
Q&A: Jonathan Bailey
What was your first non-theatre job? My dad worked in a honey factory – we used to call him ‘the honey monster’ – and I worked there.
What was your first professional theatre job? A Christmas Carol for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Never fall victim to the voice in your head that says you should be more like someone else. Be yourself.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My three sisters. I feel happiest when I am with them.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t try to be like anyone else, or think about who has played it before.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I’d like to have been a pilot.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I say three Hail Marys. I don’t like to be unprepared for anything. Regarding rituals, I always have a character aftershave that I wear, which is different to one I usually use, so that when I spray that on I am in character.
Bailey plays an aspiring writer called Jamie, a fictionalised version of Brown himself, who also first married an actress (he’s now married to a fellow composer). It’s a less than flattering portrait: “We keep talking about that thing in which he makes someone feel like he’s not good enough for them, as well as more than lucky to be with him. It’s a real contradiction.”
During the summer, Bailey went to see the Broadway actor Jeremy Jordan, who starred in the film version of The Last Five Years opposite Anna Kendrick, in cabaret at the Hippodrome. The audience was invited to submit written questions for Jordan to answer. Bailey went with his actor friend Hugh Skinner, with whom he co-starred in TV’s W1A. Skinner submitted the following question: ‘I’m a nervous starlet, wanting to make it big in musical theatre, but I get so scared that my voice cracks. Do you have any titbits of wisdom for an aspirational star?’ “That somehow got pushed through as if I were asking it,” recalls Bailey. “Jeremy announced it as my question, and answered it earnestly for about seven minutes!”
But in fact he is quite nervous. “I’ve always been in awe of musical theatre actors and now I’m even more so. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk more water in my life – I feel like I’m a water feature. Someone said I should be eating turmeric every morning, so I’ve been doing that. The other day I woke up and thought I smelt like balti. You have to be an athlete. There’s a level of awareness you need to have about looking after yourself. My Dr Nelson’s steamers have never seen so much action. I have to force myself to take vocal rests – I find it impossible not to talk, as you probably realise. I saw my mum and dad last weekend and had to write stuff down in a notebook.”
The show is full of drama but also big songs. It’s a double challenge, both for the acting and singing chops required. “It really celebrates neurosis and reveals thought processes. They sing of passion, love, loss and grief, and the unhealthy thought patterns spiral. Sam [Barks] told me that you could use any one of the songs to close a concert, which made me in equal measure terrified and relieved. But the secret I’ve not wanted anyone to know is that I’ve always wanted to do musicals again.”
Jonathan Bailey’s top tips for an aspiring actor
• Be sure to have really good friends. It’s so important for anyone that’s freelance. In a creative industry where you can get polluted with people’s versions of what they think is right, it’s especially brilliant to have people you really get on with, you can always touch base with and know you’ve got something else other than work. That comes within friendship.
• Don’t panic.
• Always brush your teeth
So he’s both delighted and terrified of the prospect now. “Every time you get a job it feels completely lucky and like you’re seven again and saying, ‘God bless us every one’ [as he did as Tiny Tim].”
But his career does feel blessed. He deferred going to university for a year, and jobs started happening: “On the day after my last A levels, I started rehearsing for a production of Beautiful Thing in London, taking over from Andrew Garfield.” He never took up his university place, nor did he go to drama school, and says today he welcomes the fact it has kept him grounded in the industry: “I’ve never gone in as the overdog, and that’s liberating and I don’t want that to ever change. I just want to allow my own experiences to come through.”
It certainly doesn’t seem to have held him back. “In my early 20s, aware that I hadn’t trained, I thought [the National Theatre’s] Olivier might not be my space and that I might be able to carry a spear in the Lyttelton. Otherwise I would be welcome to the Dorfman.” Yet in 2013 he went in for an audition at the NT to appear with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello on the Olivier stage; director Nicholas Hytner offered him the part of Cassio there and then. “I’ve never come out of an audition with a greater sense of affirmation,” Bailey reveals.
He’d just finished filming TV’s Broadchurch, in which he played Olly Stevens, when he got the part. “No one knew what [Broadchurch] was yet. But it gave me confidence, and enabled me to have levels of relaxed conversations I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
He notes the importance of being able to approach things neutrally. “Pedestalling people doesn’t help. Of course when you meet people like Nick Hytner or Jason Robert Brown you can completely see why they’re successful, though.”
Today he’s disarmingly frank about the nature of his own achievements. “How do you quantify success? I think it’s being in a position where you get to choose who you spend time with, creatively and personally, and having a good work-life balance.”
We return to The Last Five Years. One of his actor friends is Katie Brayben, who was also in American Psycho with him and has gone on to the Olivier-winning success of Beautiful. She gave him some good advice for starring in it: “She told me you’ve got to learn to congratulate yourself on the things you do well. But it’s not easy, it’s a massive challenge and you do feel like you’re out of your depth sometimes.”
CV: Jonathan Bailey
Born: 1988, Oxfordshire
Landmark productions: A Christmas Carol (Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican, 1995), Les Miserables (Palace Theatre, 1997), Beautiful Thing (London’s Sound Theatre, 2006), South Downs (Chichester’s Minerva then West End, 2011/12), Othello (National Theatre, 2013)
Agent: Nicola van Gelder at Conway van Gelder Grant
The Last Five Years runs at St James Theatre, London, from October 28-November 26
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