Phoebe Waller-Bridge will make her West End debut in a star-studded production of Noël Coward’s comedy Hay Fever next week, but the young actress already boasts an impressive CV which includes roles at the Almeida and Bush theatre and, in her words, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the award-winning biopic The Iron Lady.
Charlotte Marshall talks, between many breaks for laughter, to the up-and-coming actress to find out just how terrifying it is to share the stage with Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam, whether deep sea diving would have been a viable alternative career option and how she feels about always playing ‘poshys’.
CV in brief
2009 Makes London stage debut in Roaring Trade at Soho theatre
2009 Appears in 2nd May 1997 at Bush theatre
2009 Appears alongside Bertie Carvel in Rope at Almeida theatre
2010 Stars in Like A Fishbone at the Bush theatre
2010 Appears in Nina Raine’s Olivier Award-nominated play Tribes at the Royal Court
2011 Stars as Chloe Astill in Sky’s comedy The Café
2011 Appears in award-winning film The Iron Lady
2011 Makes West End debut in Hay Fever
Where did you grow up?
In lovely leafy Ealing in West London, where it’s all very idyllic and all the kids played on the streets in the evening.
What first got you interested in acting?
I think it was the same cliché of just being a real show off as a kid and then realising there were actually opportunities to do that full time [laughs].
When I was little I was just really interested in being looked at by lots of people when I was dancing around doing silly things. I was always obsessed with stories and reading, then when I went to my sixth form college I met an extraordinary teacher who really focused me and said: ‘You know you really can do this’ and the rest is history really.
How are rehearsals for Hay Fever going?
They’re a scream. We’re all sort of terribly smug and terrified at the same time. It’s just an incredible environment, everyone’s very friendly and hard-working and utterly silly at the same time so it’s sort of felt like playtime most of the time, but obviously the third week creeps in and we all become paralysed with fear. It’s sort of a frantic giggle now rather than a relaxed enjoyment, but we’re having a great time.
How do you feel about making your West End debut?
I can’t really think about it for too long to be honest because I get the shakes [laughs]. It’s funny because it suddenly feels like you’re part of another part of the industry when you take that step. There’s something quite safe about the fringe with its loyal audiences and then suddenly you go into this world where it’s much more exposing, in a really exciting way I think, but also it’s scarier because you feel like you’re on a bigger stage in the bigger sense of the word. Often people who don’t go to the theatre often go to the West End and make a special trip to go and see that one play. They might go twice a year so it has to be damn good for them!
You’re starring alongside Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Northam, Kevin McNally and Olivia Colman in the play. Was it nerve-wracking meeting them?
It’s so nerve-wracking because you know that most of the people have been stars of the stage and screen. Also, you have a relationship with these people before you’ve met them from things you’ve seen them in and you never think you’ll ever be in a scene with one of them calling them mother. So it’s completely terrifying, but people always say about Howard [Davies, the director] that he creates an incredible atmosphere and environment in the room and he always casts really nice people, and the moment I walked in that room I just went ‘Thank God’. You could just see immediately everyone had huge grins on their faces and everyone had a really naughty twinkle in their eye and we suddenly became a gang within about three hours. We felt like we’d known each other for ages.
Tell me about your character.
She’s a 19-year-old daughter of two very bohemian parents in the 1920s, so she’s been brought up with absolutely no boundaries at all and no concept of consideration of other people. At the wise old age of 19, she’s decided she’s going to be the one member of the family who tries to change herself. However much she tries she can’t really help but fall back into her old petulant patterns of being antisocial and rude, but she does try! She’s the only one who does.
Is she quite a hard character to relate to then?
Yes. It’s quite fun in one way because it’s sort of the fantasy version of yourself, you feel you can throw everything out the window, you don’t care, you can lie around and kick about and be completely inconsiderate. Playing drunk and playing petulant comes to me quite easy [laughs].
The near impossible thing, which I’m especially battling with, is getting rid of that Noël Coward voice and mannerisms that we’ve become so used to; Howard’s beating it out of us and encouraging us, as you’d imagine, to speak like normal people. But of course a lot of posh-isms come out when you’re doing Noël Coward, so that’s a whole level of new training.
You were in last year’s Olivier Award-nominated production, Tribes. How was that experience?
That was wonderful to be at the [Royal] Court in the first place and I thought Nina’s play was really extraordinary. There was just something ‘other’ about it and it seemed to tap in to everybody emotionally on some level. We could feel that it was special when we were rehearsing it, but the impact on the audience was overwhelming. I hope it has another life, I think it’s going to New York, I’d love to see that.
How was working with Tribes star Michelle Terry again in her comedy The Café?
I fell madly in love with Michelle Terry; I don’t think I’m ever going to let her leave me alone [laughs]. It was a complete surprise really, she turned around and said ‘Would you do this reading for a TV show’ and obviously I said yes, it’s the immediate answer when Michelle Terry asks you to do anything. It turned out that my summer holidays was just this job in Weston Super Mare and the part was of a sort of tarty hairdresser; never in a million years would I have been seen for that part if it wasn’t for Michelle.
How did it feel playing such a different role?
For so long I’ve been saying ‘Why doesn’t anyone want to see me for these parts?’ I’m thrilled to be playing these ‘poshys’, and they’ve all been brilliant characters, but I felt like I wanted to play someone else. Of course, when it came up I was like ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do it. Give it to someone else, give it to someone from Weston. What am I doing?’ I felt like a complete fraud. But once we got that down it felt like a free ride, this character was outrageous! I got to wear horrific and wonderful clothes, I had hair extensions, so much make-up; it’s another little fantasy side of my personality I’d never let escape.
Last year you appeared in two films [The Iron Lady and Albert Nobbs]. Would you like to do more?
Yes, I definitely want to do more of it. Theatre is definitely where I wanted to act and I feel most at home there, but I’ve definitely got the film bug now. I’d love to do more, especially because the ones that I’ve been doing so far, I’ve had a really nice, gentle ease into it because they’ve been in really exciting films with really amazing actors, but I’ve only been in it for three blinks. Now I am beginning to wonder what it’s like to go on and not only be in it for three blinks and have a character that’s sustained throughout the film. Again, terrifying to the point of paralysis.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actress?
I’d like to think I’d be doing something exotic and extraordinary, like a deep sea diver explorer or something, but if I’m honest I wouldn’t be doing that. I’d like to write, which I’m starting to play around with now. I think my Dad would like me to say a lawyer which may have been the path I’d have gone down, I don’t know. It was so early on I made the decision, I’ve never really considered anything else, it seems like an impossibility.
What drives you?
I think when I was younger the idea of being famous was quite exciting but now having seen what it does and knowing people that it’s happened to, it’s completely changed my opinion of how that experience would be. I think being well known enough so you get offered work is fantastic. I’d love to be in the position one day when I could choose my own work rather than having to run around begging for it.
The comradery of acting and theatre really keeps me in it because you’re never alone, you’re never bored and the job’s never over, even if it’s the last night of the play, it’s never ever over. You always feel like you’re constantly digging for something, this quest for something, whether it’s a moment of understanding or trying to express something about human nature. But awards are fun and parties are great, and that comes into it of course a lot [laughs].
Whose career would you like to have?
The kind of slow burn career that you know was actually founded in something very solid. I think it would have really thrown me if I’d have left drama school and I’d suddenly got a massive film or something. I mean, it would have been fabulous, but I can imagine that that would be so fleeting and almost so unreal that I wouldn’t really know how to grasp it. Just feeling the little steps that I’ve been taking, I’d be really happy for it to stay at this pace and just to keep on going.
The people who you sort of go, ‘Oh my God, where have they come from they’re amazing’, and you Google them and you go ‘My God, they’ve been around forever.’
I’d like someone to Google me some day and go ‘Oh My God, she’s been around forever’ [laughs].