Katherine Kingsley: ‘Dusty went through very, very difficult times. I want to go there’
With a string of stellar performances already illuminating her CV, the actor tackles her most challenging role yet as Dusty Springfield. Nick Smurthwaite hears how deep she will go to portray a beloved and complex singer
You wait 20 years for a Dusty Springfield musical and then two come along at once. In the touring show Son of a Preacher Man, her greatest hits serve a love story that has nothing to do with Dusty herself. Yet Jonathan Harvey’s Dusty, opening this week at the Theatre Royal Bath, charts the life – warts and all – of the star Rolling Stone Magazine called: “Britain’s best ever pop singer”.
It is the most challenging role to date for Katherine Kingsley, who hasn’t exactly shied away from challenging roles and whose onstage talents have led to three Olivier nominations. The first came in 2008 for her turn as Marlene Dietrich in Piaf, followed four years later for her performance as the squeaky-voiced movie siren Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.
Her most recent nomination was as an excitable Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014. The same year, she gave a stand-out performance as the crafty hustler in the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, taking conmen Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound on at their own game.
The difference with Dusty is that she is playing a real person who struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction and her sexual identity, but also someone who was a star remembered with great affection by millions. That includes Kingsley’s own family. “I grew up with Dusty,” says Kingsley in a break from rehearsals. “My mother was a big fan so I heard the music from an early age. I’ve always loved Motown and the kind of soul music Dusty was known for.”
Dusty Springfield started out as Mary O’Brien, daughter of Irish Catholics living in London. She found a degree of fame with the pop-folk group The Springfields, with her brother Dion, aka Tom Springfield. They had a modest hit in 1963 with Island of Dreams. In the same year, she created Dusty Springfield, all blonde beehive and mascara, went solo and soared to the top of the charts with I Only Want to Be With You. A string of hits followed, along with TV success and massive album sales. However, her success only seemed to accentuate her personal problems.
“Dusty was an amazingly complex character,” says Kingsley. “She was really two different people – auburn-haired Mary and platinum-haired Dusty. She believed the public only wanted to see her as glamorous Dusty, not as plain old Mary. I think it was difficult for her to navigate between the two identities because they were so different. Mary was actually a very shy person, and she overcame that by putting on the Dusty mask. It gave her the confidence to go out there and perform.”
It has to be my version of Dusty. You can do an amazing impression of someone for 10 minutes, but we’ll go deeper and longer
While Kingsley says she is not doing an impersonation of Springfield, she aims to “capture her essence,” and has spent hours listening to the singer’s greatest hits.
“At the end of the day, it has to be my version of Dusty. You can do an amazing impression of someone for 10 minutes, but we’re going deeper and longer than that. It is a complex life story we’re telling and I have to own it.” Helping Kingsley find the essence of Springfield is her director Maria Friedman, herself an outstanding vocal artist. “I honestly cannot imagine doing this with anyone other than Maria,” she says. “She understands the performer’s life in a very particular way, and she is forensic and scrupulous in her direction. She pushes me all the time and I love that. I didn’t choose acting to be safe and pretty. If I’m playing a woman who had very, very difficult times in her life, I want to go there.”
Q&A: Katherine Kingsley
What was your first non-theatre job?
Running a champagne bar in the City of London.
What was your first professional theatre job?
An Agatha Christie season at Westcliff-on-Sea. I learnt a lot from that experience, primarily not to drink too much gin.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To know your own voice.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Prepare as thoroughly as you can, then listen carefully to what you’re asked to do.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
An architect or designer of some kind.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always take a shower before I go on stage.
So what exactly was the nature of Springfield’s difficulties? “She came from an Irish Catholic family with parents who couldn’t stand each other, so it wasn’t a very loving home life. Dusty was very private and I think she struggled with the media exposure that came with her success. She didn’t want people to know who she really was. There was a lot of self-loathing going on in the form of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as self-harming, because she found it so hard to embrace her true identity. She wasn’t good at looking after herself.”
Does Kingsley worry that die-hard Springfield fans might take offence at the warts-and-all nature of the show? “I’m prepared for people to be unimpressed,” she says. “We are not bringing Dusty back to life. What I hope people will take away is an honest account of an inspirational performer and a life worth living. When you think of all the people who were influenced by her – Amy Winehouse, Adele, Lady Gaga, Madonna, the list goes on.”
Unlike Springfield, Kingsley seems adept at looking after herself, both in terms of her well-being and career path. “I’ve never felt like a victim. In terms of the whole #MeToo movement, I don’t think anyone would dare take me on. I’ve had the odd situation with powerful men outside the industry, but I’ve always found the rehearsal room a safe environment where people are respectful of each other.”
Looking at Kingsley’s CV, it appears she has rarely been out of work over the past two decades and yet, like all actors, there have been times when she wondered where the next job was coming from. “As soon as you stop working, you tend to lose your identity,” she says. “I’m terrible at being out of work because I don’t have anything to fall back on. I’ve kept a toe in different pools – plays, musicals, TV, radio, voice work – but I’ve noticed that a lot of young actors coming out of drama school now are much more proactive than I was about writing, producing and creating their own work, which is a really good idea. It keeps you sane and empowers you.”
She continues: “You can’t be too precious about your ego. I’ve come out of very successful stage shows and gone up for TV jobs and you find the stage success counts for nothing.”
Her advice to young people in the business is to “try to find out who they are, and why they are doing what they do”.
She continues: “It’s really important to be confident in your own voice and to create a life outside the business. There is something about being an actor that infantilises you. You’re always waiting for someone to give you a job, tell you if you’re doing it right and if you’re any good. When I started out, I didn’t give myself enough credit for my own intelligence.”
Kingsley’s long-term partner is the actor Dominic Tighe who recently set up his own production company. “Being two actors living together works well for us because we’re supportive of each other and we’re not competitive. I imagine it could be difficult if one of you goes off to do a filming job for three months, leaving your partner at home, out of work, but that hasn’t happened to us so far.”
Having played, convincingly, so many Americans on stage in the UK, she must have considered trying her luck across the Atlantic?
“Going to Los Angeles and doing the TV pilot season could be fun but it might also cost me a lot of money because you’re not actually working. Ideally I’d like to go to the US with a hit stage show. I’m no spring chicken and there are other things in my life I want to do. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine too. I have to say, I’m not massively hungry for it.”
CV: Katherine Kingsley
Born: 1981, Cambridge
Training: English National Opera’s The Knack; Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 2002-05
• High Society, Shaftesbury Theatre (2005)
• The 39 Steps, UK tour (2007)
• Piaf, Donmar Warehouse, London (2009)
• Singin’ in the Rain, Chichester Festival Theatre and West End (2012)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Noel Coward Theatre, London (2014)
• She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (2016)
• Aspects of Love, Menier, London (2016)
• Present Laughter, Chichester Festival Theatre (2018)
Agent: Nicky Van Gelder at Van Gelder Conway Grant