As she prepares to play the late great Judy Garland in a new play in the West End, chip-loving Northern lass Tracie Bennett tells Caroline Bishop why she is no star herself.
Tracie Bennett has no qualms about laughing at herself. “The brief was,” she says of her casting in the play End Of The Rainbow, “she had to look kind of tired and haggard.” She lets out a loud, husky cackle of mirth. “‘Get Tracie in, she doesn’t mind what she looks like’, which made me howl!”
“That’s happened a few times now,” adds Bennett in her Lancashire accent. “I did a Casualty, and my sister rang me up and she said, ‘oh my God Trace, your make-up’s brilliant, you look horrendous’ and I went, ‘I don’t have any on actually’.”
There is a down-to-earth humility to Bennett that is instantly appealing when I meet her prior to the West End run of End Of The Rainbow. She may be playing a diva, but she certainly isn’t one herself.
Peter Quilter’s drama, which opens at Trafalgar Studios this week, details the last few months in the life of Judy Garland, the erstwhile child star of The Wizard Of Oz and Meet Me In St Louis who achieved worldwide fame before her premature death, aged 47, from an accidental overdose caused by her constant use of prescription drugs.
The play focuses on a five-week period in 1968 when Garland performed a series of concerts in London at cabaret venue The Talk Of The Town. They were to be her last hurrah in a tumultuous life filled with come-backs and disasters, marriages and divorces, suicide attempts and illnesses, financial lows and filmic highs.
"I have no clue what it will ever be like to be a legend, worldwide"
Bennett is returning to the role of Garland after playing the legendary singer in Northampton some six months previously and, when we meet, is panicking about only having one week to re-rehearse. “I’ve just tried to learn it all again on my own. There’s only so much you can do. Because a lot of it’s loud and screaming and stuff, you can’t really do it on your own in your flat. My neighbour used to ring down and say ‘you alright?’ ‘Yeah, I’m just rehearsing with myself!’ They just leave me to it now.”
It may be a short rehearsal period, but Bennett has had years to get under the skin of Frances Gumm, the girl born to vaudevillian parents in 1922 who was propelled onto the stage as a toddler and, taking the name Judy Garland, would become one of MGM’s most bankable movie stars. Bennett’s involvement in the play began 10 years ago when she was originally asked to appear in a very different version of it, a version that wasn’t even directly about Garland, though the lead character was clearly, says Bennett, based on her. After performances on the London fringe and in Edinburgh, the project lay fallow until a couple of years ago when Lee Dean, a producer Bennett had worked with previously, bought the rights and asked if she would return to it. “So I’ve actually been researching for 10 years and cross-sectioning everything, just in case the play [came] back. It was like a little hobby.”
So extensive is her knowledge of the singer’s life, in fact, that at times it has been a hindrance during rehearsals rather than a help. Director Terry Johnson, she says, has often had to tell her to stop embellishing a scene based on her extra-curricular knowledge of the events in Garland’s life. As an example, Bennett describes the opening scene in which the singer, newly arrived in London, is in a particularly testy mood. The audience, however, is not told why. But Bennett knows: the singer had just been served a writ by her ex-husband. “So she’s really pissed off and nervous and she’s been crying in the cab. I know all that, but that’s not in the play, so I can’t play that.” Her job, says Bennett as though reminding herself, is to serve the piece as Quilter has written it. But I get the feeling that the actress also feels an obligation to serve Garland’s memory. Luckily, the two are not mutually exclusive. “I think it’s a very balanced piece, not just slagging Judy off. You feel a lot of compassion for her by the end of act two.”
"I don’t think I’m that gifted. I really have to try hard at everything"
As well as offering insight into Garland’s extraordinary life, the play deals with a subject that remains pertinent to a world which still, 40 years after Garland’s death, makes stars of people who are too young to cope and offers methods of coping that come with disastrous consequences.
“This play is about the price of fame really,” says Bennett. “Like the Michael Jackson prescription drugs thing… That whole culture in America. I had an American boyfriend once, and he used to take four Neurofen before he went to bed, in case he woke up with a headache. I was like, ‘what? In case?’”
One reason often cited for Garland’s dependency on prescription drugs is insecurities about her appearance at a young age, fuelled by pressure from MGM bosses; Louis B Meyer reportedly called her ‘my little hunchback’. Though this pressure is not something Bennett says she has experienced herself – certainly, given her ability to laugh at herself, I would think she could stand up to it anyway – she has certainly seen performers put pressure on themselves to look a certain way. When training, she lived with two girls suffering from anorexia. At one point, she recalls, there was a fad among the dance students for only eating Edam cheese and an apple for lunch, and little else for the rest of the day. “You think, ‘oh dancers do this, I’d better do that then’. And I swear after 10 days I’m like ‘what the f**k am I doing?’ We’d be doing pointe work and the girls were fainting.” Some of them took it too far. “I watched one of my flatmates die; she was three and a half stone. I used to talk to her and go ‘what are you doing?’”
For Bennett this unhealthy attitude to food didn’t stick because “I didn’t have that thing in my head,” she says. “I was just lucky because I was a northerner going ‘where’s my bloody chips? I want me chips and me fish?’ I love food. But having said that, I learnt about fuel and what suits my body. Negative energy is the same as positive energy, so I flipped it and went, ‘food’s my mate, it stands me up in the morning’. I hate that feeling of being hungry. Whether it’s because of [my] working class background and sometimes we didn’t have that much, I don’t know. I like a full cupboard.”
Born in Lancashire, Bennett moved to London as a teenager to attend Italia Conti in Clapham. Though intending a stage career, she got her first big break in TV soap Coronation Street in 1982 playing troublesome teen Sharon Gaskell. That period was perhaps the closest Bennett has come to living in the public eye: “It was a big shop window, 30 million viewers.”
Since then her career has followed the route of a jobbing actress; her screen CV is peppered with guest parts in television dramas such as Dalziel And Pascoe, Doctors and Casualty, along with a return to Coronation Street in 1999 and, coincidentally, an appearance on Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes as Judy Garland in 2000 (she won). In theatre she has built a reputation as a solid, dependable all-round performer, starting in repertory where she appeared in everything from Shakespeare to musicals: “You’re all equal and you’re all together, and you all screw-drive the set in, literally.” She followed that with supporting roles in West End productions of Honk!, She Loves Me and High Society, winning her first Laurence Olivier Award award for She Loves Me and a second nomination for High Society. In the last couple of years she has played evil television station manager Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray – for which she won a second Olivier – and French restaurateur Jacqueline in Johnson’s La Cage Aux Folles. All in all it has been a career that, while giving her a notable reputation within the industry, has not made her a household name. As she says, “I’m not Catherine Zeta-Jones.”
"I was just lucky because I was a northerner going ‘where’s my b***dy chips?' I love food"
“I never thought, ‘I’m a lead or I’m a support lead or a chorus girl’. I’m all of it,” she says. “I just do what gig comes in and I try and learn off the gig, whatever it is. For years I’ve done fringe and pubs and all of that. So I don’t see myself as a lead. I’m just an actor with maybe more choices to make.”
It is for that reason that she says of producer Dean’s decision to invite her to play Garland in the West End: “I get a bit teary, because, I mean – I’m not being funny or faux-modest at all – I’m just nobody, and to risk a lot of money to buy the rights for me… remarkable faith and trust.”
So she is taking the responsibility seriously; she will be living more like a nun than the singing superstar she is playing. “I’m aware that I have to be more of an athlete in terms of sleeping more, I won’t be able to go out. I really have to look after myself,” she says, before adding with characteristic humility: “Maybe that’s just me, because I don’t think I’m that gifted. I really have to try hard at everything. And I like trying hard at everything… but I don’t want to be tired. I want to be on it.”
Maybe she is selling herself short, but certainly Bennett comes across as someone whose career is rooted in a strong work ethic and a commitment to the task in hand rather than the sort of popular appeal and natural genius that made MGM pick the youngest Gumm sister as their poster girl.
The fact she isn’t a big name herself has meant Bennett has found it hard to get into the head of a star of Garland’s magnitude. “I have no clue what it will ever be like to be a legend, worldwide, and that’s what I’ve found difficult. Even performing like a diva… Terry [Johnson]’s like, ‘Trace, you have to know that they love themselves, even though they might be insecure’.”
Hasn’t she encountered people like that during her career? “I’ve watched stars. I’ve watched them embrace their stardom and their celebrity, as them. But I’d rather be somebody else. I get tongue-tied on stage if it’s Tracie.”
From what we know about Garland’s much loved but sadly traumatic life, I think Bennett has got things the right way round: by night she can pretend to be a world-famous singing sensation while by day she remains her down-to-earth self, someone whose life is happily far too normal to see her behaving like a diva. “God! I don’t know what that is!” she says. “My mum would hit me anyway.”