Jenna Russell

Reporter: , first published Tue 21 Feb 2006 17:50

The Best Actress in a Musical category at the 2006 Laurence Olivier Awards looks set to be one of the most hotly contested on the night. Acorn Antiques’ Julie Walters, who seems to collect awards for a living, faces off against Billy Elliot’s Haydn Gwynne and the Guys And Dolls duo of Jane Krakowski and Jenna Russell. For Russell, whose musical CV also includes High Society, Into The Woods and Martin Guerre, it is her first nomination at London theatre’s answer to the Oscars. Matthew Amer went to see how she is coping with the excitement…

“It put a smile on my face and made my Mum feel really nice… and I get to wear a nice frock.” Winning acclaim and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for her performance in Guys And Dolls has clearly not gone to the head of actress Jenna Russell. Sitting in her Piccadilly theatre dressing room, drying a used glass before moving a bucket underneath water dripping through a light fitting, Russell is anything but a prima donna following one of the most lauded roles of her career. In fact, she quickly turns her attention to one of the other seven nominations that the production garnered, saying “I’m so glad for Rob [Ashford, choreographer of Guys And Dolls] that he got nominated, because I think his choreography on this is something else”.

"It put a smile on my face and made my Mum feel really nice"

All four of the original leads of Guys And Dolls have received nominations for their all-singing, all-dancing performances; all the more impressive when you know that Douglas Hodge, Ewan McGregor and Jenna Russell are not trained dancers. Russell, in a way that seems typical of her, was thrilled that they all received nominations, “because we can all share in it”. On the day that the nominations were announced, after being given the good news by her agent, Russell spoke to each of the other leads, so that they could share their joy. “Ewan [McGregor] rang me at eight o’clock in the morning,” she says, “screaming because he was so excited.”

Russell was particularly pleased with her nomination as, after a career in which people have touted her for nominations that have not materialised, she thought she may have “missed the boat” on the awards front.

Sadly for Russell, she has not had a chance to check out her fellow nominees. Although she has been starring in Guys And Dolls since last May, Russell stayed at her home in Whitstable the whole time, making a four hour commute every day. The thought of getting in early to catch a midweek matinee is not as appealing as a few more hours relaxing at home. “I didn’t see Julie Walters, who’s my top tip to win, but everyone I know who saw [Acorn Antiques] thought she was brilliant,” she says, talking up the opposition. “Obviously I admired Jane Krakowski’s performance every night, eight shows a week for six months” she adds with a cheeky grin.

It is very comfortable chatting to Russell, laid back on her dressing room sofa. She strikes me as eternally happy; not in a sickly, bubblegum kind of way, but more hot chocolate on a cold winter night. After she’s rifled through my bag to see what I may or may not have bought in the sales, and we’ve discussed the slight worry of water leaking into electrically powered equipment, talk turns to passing the time on a four hour commute. The trains to Whitstable, it turns out, are not great late at night – trouble with buses and Gillingham apparently – so Russell chooses to drive each day. “I quite like it; you get the music on, get yourself a coffee and a packet of Revels… at the moment I’m singing very loudly at the top of my voice!” Possibly so she doesn’t have to warm up at the theatre and can leave home a little later.

Sarah Brown, the role Russell plays in Guys And Dolls, is a straight-laced Salvation Army Captain who is swept off her feet by chancer Sky Masterson. At the start of the show, just thinking about the possibility of letting her hair down would bring Sarah out in a rash. The dourness of the character did not originally thrill Russell as a prospect, in fact she wanted to play the nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide – the part for which Krakowski is nominated – instead. Director Michael Grandage had other ideas and, though Russell auditioned for both roles – “I was going to wow him with my Adelaide” – he stuck to his guns and cast her as Brown… which is lucky, as having played the part for a while now, Russell has changed her mind.

"He has a quality about him as a man that is golden"

“I had no idea what an extraordinarily fabulous part it is.” This is Russell’s new take on the role. The prudish beginnings of the character, Russell explains, allow her to develop and give Russell the chance to bring out the comedy in the role. She also has the joy of dancing the Havana sequence, lately with former Eastender Nigel Harman and formerly with international mega-star Ewan McGregor.

The arrival of McGregor in the West End was met with a swell of interest of mountainous proportions. The stage door at the Piccadilly, protected by gargantuan metal gates, was surrounded by a plethora of adoring fans after each show, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Scottish heart-throb. “I’ve never experienced that before,” Russell says of the phenomenal flock of theatregoers that congregated in the area her dressing room looks out onto, “We had to have the police.” Russell herself, however, was not immune to the lures of McGregor: “He has a quality about him as a man that is golden, and you go ‘oooh!’” she says. Russell, as fair as ever, also has kind words for Harman, who has “a rare quality as an actor, of great sensitivity coupled with real blokiness that people like.”

However charming both leads may be, it is clear from the door of Russell’s dressing room that there is actually only one man in her life; one object of her affections. Sitting proudly beneath a picture of the Guys And Dolls press launch, resides a picture of a semi-clad pop prince: “Justin Timberlake is my new boyfriend; that’s an exclusive!” You heard it here first, just don’t mention it to Russell’s ‘other’ boyfriend.

Russell finishes her Guys And Dolls experience in a matter of weeks, making way for a new cast, which includes Adam Cooper, Neil Morrissey, Kelly Price and Sally Ann Triplett, to take over on 6 March. Though she jokes about where she might be seen next – “Probably at the dole office or at Somerfield doing my Saturday job with my ‘I had an Olivier nomination T-shirt’” – in actual fact she will not be away from the West End for long, as it was recently revealed that she will be joining the cast of Sunday In The Park With George when it transfers from the Menier Chocolate Factory to Wyndham’s.

Russell, who is best known for musicals and for her role as Deborah Gilder in television’s Born And Bred, is itching to get her teeth into some new writing. It’s not like she doesn’t know the right people to help her out in that respect. Personal friend Dominic Cooke has recently been named Ian Rickson’s successor as Artistic Director of new writing hotbed the Royal Court, while Born And Bred co-star Richard Wilson is also a leading director of new writing. So, by way of a handy plug… “I’d love to do something, so hopefully, Richard and Dominic…”

"Justin Timberlake is my new boyfriend"

Life could have been very different for Russell had she altered a career choice made when she was just 17. She was offered a part in Eastenders, playing unmarried mother Mary. Though under a certain amount of pressure to take the part, which would have guaranteed work for 18 months, Russell “just had a bad feeling about it”. It was the advice of a cameraman that swayed her decision: “Unless you really feel it in your heart that it is something you want to do,” he told her, “it is a long time to commit yourself to something if you’re not going to be happy."

Though Eastenders was a big success, and many people thought she was crazy to turn it down, Russell is still sure she made the correct decision and insists that as an actor “the only power I think you have is to say ‘no’”. It is a rule of life which Russell has stuck to throughout her career, making moves which may have surprised others, but sticking to her guns and getting as much variety into her work as she can. The actress who once wandered over to her to say “Whatever happened to you, you were doing so well in musicals? I always get sad that you’re not doing more musicals and it never happened for you”, got entirely the wrong end of the stick. Though Russell is undoubtedly a talented musical actress, there is much more she wants to achieve in a profession that spans a whole host of media.

Russell’s career is deliberately varied. Her CV boasts long-running television drama Born And Bred, a host of musicals, being killed by a Dalek in Doctor Who, singing the theme tune to Red Dwarf, a handful of films and some very serious theatre. She is driven, not by a notion of celebrity – an idea she riles against – but by the art and the enjoyment she takes from it: “I’ve had a good time and I’ve been very lucky. I’m very aware that it’s a very hard profession, but I love it. I’ve had nothing but joy given to me from this job. It’s the best job in the world.”