“In what other job do you get those opportunities to meet all these wonderful people and hear their stories and life experiences?” Jenna Russell asks me, her face lit up with genuine adoration for a 33 year long career, which has seen her win Olivier and Tony Awards, and play a covetable list of musical theatre’s most iconic leading ladies.
As I sit with Russell and her Merrily We Roll Along co-star Josefina Gabrielle in their cosy shared dressing room at the Harold Pinter theatre, I’d have to disagree with Russell; it certainly feels like my job more than fulfils that privileged brief. But, as I found out when we met during rehearsals for the critically acclaimed production’s West End transfer, when you get two old friends working together for the first time in a show about youthful optimism and friendship, an interview will almost definitely turn into what would be more commonly known as a chat and mutual admiration leads to many a self-deprecating anecdote.
Tell me about your characters.
Russell: I play Mary Flynn. The protagonist is a guy called Frank Shepard who was initially a composer and had two best friends, Charlie and Mary, and he loses his way. The story’s told in reverse order so in the first scene you see all the principles at their worst and then each scene is a rewind and you see how he’s messed up his friendships and the choices he’s made.
Gabrielle: Each scene is a sort of pinpoint of those decisions. I play Gussie Carnegie who is a Broadway actress who along our backward story at some point rises to the top of her game. She’s a very driven, hungry character who is quite focused and ruthless about what she wants.
What kind of a relationship do your characters have on stage?
Gabrielle: A hostile one [laughs]!
Russell: They tolerate each other because they have to. At the beginning of the play – which is the end of the story – if they bumped into each other on the street, because Frank isn’t in the picture anymore, they would probably attempt to kill each other!
So you have to hate each other on stage and then come backstage and share a dressing room!
Gabrielle: Well we’ve known each other for years!
Russell: We’ve never worked together, but we’ve known each other for years. I’ve seen you do everything.
Gabrielle: And I’ve seen her do everything. She’s one of my guiding lights.
The show is about old friends. Are there people you’ve been friends with throughout your career?
Gabrielle: You make a whole new group of friends with every show you do and some of you just bond that bit extra and you take those friends with you all the way through.
Russell: It’s ridiculous because if I hadn’t have had a child, I think I would still be on the phone all day. My boyfriend, who I’ve been with for 15 years, always jokes with me, ‘You know everyone! You cannot leave a bar, a party…’ and I say ‘It’s only because I’ve been doing it – which I worked out the other day – for 33 years!’ So I’ve got 33 years’ worth of friends. Actors are nice people, they’re good, fun people and they’re very easy to get on with.
Gabrielle: I think you’re a particularly warm person. [Jenna laughs] No seriously, because you engage very comfortably and you’re able to pick up where you left off. It’s quite lovely, you’re particularly special.
Russell: [Looks soppy for a bit]. Julie Jupp, who has joined our show, I’ve known since I was 15. We’ve worked together a few times and we are very similar… it’s the Juppster!
Gabrielle: She’s joined us in this cast because Samantha Mercer, who was with us at the Chocolate Factory, gave birth two weeks after we closed.
Russell: I was the pregnant one in the fat suit [which Russell wears for the show]! Apparently there have been all these tweety things – I don’t do the tweet thing – saying ‘I’ve bought my ticket for Merrily at the Harold Pinter theatre but I’m terribly worried because Jenna Russell looks fit to burst! How is she going to work this out?’
Gabrielle: Remove her fat suit is actually how we’re going to work that out…
Russell: Please God let it still look like I’m not pregnant when I do remove the fat suit!
What’s it like wearing a fat suit?
Russell: It’s lovely because you can eat Mars bars. I’ve had to have words with myself because I do actually wear a fat suit, I don’t have to be fat. I’m trying to cut out all that nonsense. But it’s great to wear a fat suit and it was warm at the Chocolate Factory because it’s cold in that place in the winter.
Do you feel like you’ve come up in the world now you’re in the West End?
Russell: Oh yes, look we’ve got sparkly lights, a fridge! But the Chocolate Factory is wonderful, the intimacy there is unmatchable.
Gabrielle: We will miss each other, because we were all in the same dressing room with just a partition between the girls and the boys and so it’s a different dynamic backstage. We’re more spread out and have more comfort I suppose, but there was something quite wonderful about being chucked in together.
Russell: We laughed a lot.
Gabrielle: An awful lot. And held each other’s hands as well, it was lovely.
The show’s also about youthful optimism. Have you held on to that feeling?
Russell: I still have it. I think you’d be buggered if you didn’t, it’s a tough business.
Gabrielle: You have to love it. It’s too demanding if you don’t love it, it’s too painful. You have to have a passion for it.
Russell: I still get butterflies in my tummy if I get an audition for something good or something you go ‘Oh I loved to do that’. I went to see The Book Of Mormon the other night and I sat there going ‘Look at these brilliant people being glorious and wonderful, theatre is brilliant! And I’m in a show in the theatre too!’ So yes, I’m still filled with youthful optimism definitely.
Gabrielle: Going back to our show, the three friends are successful; they all get success. So it’s how they all handle success as well as much as anything else, and what toil it can take.
Do you think that working in theatre keeps you grounded?
Russell: I’ve been doing this 33 years and I think I’ve met four or five pain in the arse people. Theatre people and actors are generally really easy.
Gabrielle: The wonderful thing about the Chocolate Factory and [working in] rep and things is you just all get chucked in, you’re just all actors so you can say all that and just be an actor.
You just want to be learning all the time, that’s the one thing about our job, every job is a new lesson. Lovely Ian McKellen said it the other day in an interview. He said ‘I’m still learning and I look at the confidence of these young actors and it’s so wonderful’. And he was so wide-eyed, it was wonderful.
Russell: The wonderful thing about musicals is you don’t have the time to do the sitting round the table, chatting about the play, about your character; you have to just get on with it. Day two of Guys And Dolls rehearsals [in 2005 in the West End], somebody’s lifting you up into the air – and I’m not a dancer! – with their hand up your crotch. I remember Ewan McGregor going ‘I cannot believe this is happening, this is amazing, this is just a different world!’. You just have to make quick decisions, be instinctive, hope that the person who is directing it has a good, strong vision and isn’t going to steer you down a dark alley, and just enjoy yourself.
Gabrielle: You just have to trust. This is a lovely company, really dynamic and supportive and lovely.
Russell: She [Merrily We Roll Along’s director Maria Friedman] cast very well. I think not only has she got the right cast in terms of what happens on stage, but she got the right cast of people in terms of who they are as human beings. It’s a very happy job.
If you could go backwards in your career, like the format of Merrily, is there anything you’d do differently?
Gabrielle: I don’t think I would change anything, but there was always such a worry about what happens next. I’d love to learn to absolutely relish the moment every single time, because there is a glorious feeling when you’re absolutely in the moment. One that I remember is I did Oklahoma! at the National Theatre with a phenomenal group of people. There was a moment when we were doing the Dream Ballet and it had all been set and then Susan Stroman [the choreographer] said to me ‘What are your favourite steps’ and I said [miming movements] ‘Well I like these, I like those’ and she said ‘Okay, well try this, try that. Don’t listen to David [Crane, the composer], he’ll just follow you’. And there I was dancing away, my favourite steps that she’d put together in a solo. David followed me, watching me as I was dancing and I remember going [adopts disbelieving voice] ‘This is the most amazing jam session I’ve ever had in my life, it doesn’t get better than this!’. If I could feel that with every single moment of every single thing I’ve done, I’d be over the moon.
Russell: How beautiful! What a privilege. It’s hard isn’t it because you make so many choices and at the time they’ve felt like maybe they were the wrong choices but then something else comes along. The thing is you can’t regret anything. I’ve turned down some big money jobs that could have made my career very different, but then I go I wouldn’t maybe have had those other opportunities that were lovely. I’ve never really earned any money, that’s sad. But I have to say, I’ve loved every minute of it and I am – it drives my boyfriend mad – in love with my job. I feel honoured every day and I get very emotional about the fact that for some jobs your best friend is a 17-year-old and the next job you do it’s an 85-year-old woman. In what other job do you get those opportunities to meet all these wonderful people and their stories and life experiences and tricks that they teach you?
The Olivier Awards with MasterCard are on Sunday. You’ve both been nominated in the past, what was that experience like?
Gabrielle: My ego was very happy [laughs]!
Russell: It’s a very nice thing. I’ve been nominated twice and I won once and I couldn’t believe it. My first nomination, I just kept smiling.
Do you have any advice for Sunday’s nominees?
Russell: I think Imelda Staunton gave some very good advice last year. She said ‘Make a speech’. If you do go up, have something to say.
Gabrielle: I know that I went dry mouthed just thinking ‘What would I say?’. But it is quite lovely if you can find something to say. Prepare as if you’re going to win, even if you don’t think you are.
Russell: It’s hard though. I didn’t prepare at all and then all I did was get up and swear! I was so embarrassed. I didn’t thank Sondheim and I won for a Sondheim show. I didn’t thank anyone, I just swore and talked about my holiday. Then when I was nominated for a Tony, I refused to have anything up my sleeve because I was just convinced Patti LuPone was going to win – which she did – but I did sit there in my frock thinking ‘This is silly because if some weird thing has happened or they’ve counted it wrong and you do say my name, you’re going to be on American television talking rubbish’.
Gabrielle: I think, don’t drink too much! And make it a celebration because that’s what it is.
Merrily was Maria Friedman’s directorial debut. What’s it like being directed by a performer?
Gabrielle: It is lovely when an actor turns to directing and takes to it because actor/directors are just glorious because they know your process, so they can get involved in your journey as well as just the production. I know when I’ve seen her in concert how she really goes into the words and everybody knows what she’s communicated, so you get that from her as a director, which is great to have a piece of that guidance.
Russell: And she’s not afraid to tell you when she doesn’t like a choice you’re making, which is actually rather lovely because I think a lot of directors get frightened because they don’t want to insult you or upset you, but we’d all rather be told ‘that isn’t working’ and you go ‘okay thank you, there might have been a more interesting choice’. It’s been great and she’s bloody good at it.
Do you think there’ll be more?
Gabrielle: I hope she does.
Russell: Oh yes. She’s unstoppable. Just watch.