BWW Interviews: Leah Hocking, Billy Elliot's Mrs. Wilkinson
Have you ever had a dream? To be an astronaut? A painter? A singer? For Billy Elliot, the title character of the hit Elton John musical that plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre March 13 – 18, his dream is to dance, which creates plenty of tension for his blue-collar, northern England family. Based on the movie of the same name, Billy Elliot shows us that sometimes your passions are something you never imagined yourself doing and once you discover them nothing should stop you from pursuing those goals. Helping Billy achieve his dream is his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, who pushes him to be his best. Playing the role in this production is veteran Broadway actress Leah Hocking who sat down with me to talk about her experience with following her own dreams of being an actor.
BWW: Hi, Leah! How are you?
Leah Hocking: Great!
Great, thanks! We're looking forward to the show coming to Atlanta!
And I am really looking forward to seeing the Fox Theatre; I have never been there before.
Can we start by hearing a little bit about how you got started in the theatre?
I was four years old when I did my first show. It was what I always wanted to do growing up and there was never any question in my mind that I would be an actor. I went to Northern Michigan University and Ohio State and I interned at Milwaukee Rep. and then moved to New York. When I got there it took me awhile to get steady work. After about 5 years, after I had done some Off-Broadway and some summer stock, I had about twenty dollars to my name and was going to restaurants, applying for jobs and not getting any bites because I had such a bad attitude about the whole thing. I just did not want to do the job. No one was hiring me! Then, I got a phone call from Forbidden Broadway and they asked if I wanted to be the understudy. That was 1990 and I have worked ever since.
If you met someone who's never seen or heard of Billy Elliot, how would you describe this show?
It's a story about a little boy finding and following his passion. It's also about the relationship between him and his dance teacher, the way that relationship develops, and the way his relationship changes and develops with his father. It's really a coming of age story.
I understand you were part of the show on Broadway as well. What are the biggest differences for you from doing Billy Elliot there and on the road?
I played the dead mom in the original Broadway company and understudied Mrs. Wilkinson. We took a long time to rehearse the show because we were rehearsing three Billys. It was an arduous process because you basically had to rehearse everything three times. Also, in the Broadway production the original creative team was there the whole time. This was the third production they put up, always tweaking and refining. The tour was directed by one of their associates, Justin Martin, who came at it with a fresh perspective, but he was still trained by the original team.
Did you ever have the chance to work with Elton John?
No, he only came to the opening. After he finished writing the show, his work was done and he moved on to other projects.
How has it been working with such a large cast of children? I imagine in a role like Ms. Wilkinson you may take on the teacher/mother role offstage too?
You know, it's interesting. My daughter is on tour with me, she is 10. She is actually training to be in the show. So, I am a mother and most of these kids have a mother or a parent or a guardian with them. So, they don't need that from me. It is an interesting dynamic. You develop all these relationships offstage. It's like I have 20 little friends.
That has to be great for you to have your daughter on tour with you.
This whole thing was sort of born of tragedy. I was doing the show on Broadway and my husband got very ill, he had ALS, so I took a leave of absence in April 2010 and he died at the end of May 2010. I was supposed to go back to the show but decided to stay home because I thought it was better for me to be home with my daughter. About a year and a half later they called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to do this tour. I decided it was time to move forward, for both of us. But I had never toured, and she was enrolled in school so we had to figure it out. Because she is training to do the show she tutors with the company so it all has worked out really well. We have the dog and the nanny, our own little entourage. But it's hard. This touring thing is not for the faint of heart.