BWW Interview: Bill Ward Discusses EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE
Everybody's Talking About Jamie came into being after a BBC Three documentary, Drag Queen at 16, aired the real-life story of Jamie Campbell, who wanted to wear a dress to his school prom. The rights have recently been picked up for a film adaptation starring Max Hardwell, Richard E Grant, Sharon Horgan and Sarah Lancashire.
This month, Bill Ward joins the West End cast of Jamie. Known in soap-land for his roles as villain Charlie Stubbs in Coronation Street and farmer James Barton in Emmerdale, Bill talks to us about walking a mile in four-inch stilettos as he takes over the role of Hugo/Loco Chanelle from RuPaul's Drag Race star Bianca Del Rio.
It's so exciting that you're joining Jamie! Were you already a fan?
I knew of it, but I don't live in London and I've been touring [as Callahan in the UK tour of Legally Blonde] for the past couple of years, so hadn't seen it. But I'd heard about it. When I talked to friends about what shows are new and good in London, this show kept coming up.
I got sent the script to audition for a part, and I thought I'd never seen anything like it. I went to London to see the show and just loved it. It's so fresh and has such energy. It's modern, and it's a heart-warming and uplifting tale.
It was one of those things... as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to do whatever I could to get the part.
For anyone who's missed the hype, could you explain a little about the show?
It's about a 16-year-old boy who wants to wear a dress to his school prom. It's about his struggle, and quest, to do that. He must overcome all sorts of obstacles that are put in his way from his teacher, for example, and from the class bully.
Jamie overcomes an awful lot of social norms and prejudices. On his side, he has an extraordinary mother, who believes in him and backs him to the hilt so he can be who he wants to be.
It's the most magnificently uplifting tale of somebody who wants to do something because it is who he is, or who he would like to be. And it also shows the various people who help him to do that, like my character!
Who do you play?
I play Hugo, whose alter ego is Loco Chanelle. He is an ageing ex-drag queen who runs a drag shop in Sheffield. He hasn't done drag for quite a long time... maybe 10 or 15 years. He is used to people coming into his shop who are buying for fancy dress, then suddenly Jamie walks into his shop, and he wants help specifically to be a drag queen.
Hugo takes him under his wing. I think he sees a little piece of himself in Jamie and recognises his own spirit in him, so he helps him to be the person that he would like to be.
Is wearing drag new to you?
Yes! It's completely new. Which is one of the reasons I really wanted to play this part. It's a stretch for me, and I knew it would be a big challenge. The most important this to me about this was the story, so I did a lot of research.
Who inspired your portrayal of the character?
I went to see a friend of mine in Funny Girls in Blackpool. I spoke to Betty Legs Diamond, who in many ways is the inspiration behind Hugo in the musical. Jamie Campbell, the real-life inspiration for the show, was mentored by Betty. I got lots of tips and lots of on how to access my 'inner drag queen'.
I've watched so many films, too, and Ru Paul's Drag Race, Pose, and the documentary that the latter is based on, Paris is Burning.
I also looked into a lot of older drag, as Hugo would have been performing in the 1980s: people like Regina Fong and Maisie Trollette, who were doyennes of drag then, and are probably closer to what Hugo would have been doing when creating Loco Chanelle.
Loco is proud of what she's got. In the process of creating the character, we talked a lot about Mae West, who was very proud, and had a lot of self-confidence. Loco has a very strong sense of sexuality, whereas Hugo doesn't at all. I watched Body Heat, with Kathleen Turner, as she has a strong, still sense of sexuality.
I even looked at Jessica Rabbit, voiced by Turner, as she has such an exaggerated sense of sexuality. The character is a combination of lots of different things. It's also just about what comes from your own imagination: how I connected with the character.
You're taking over from Bianca Del Rio, who creates a tangible link to the drag world. How is it to come into the part as someone well-known for commercial television roles?
I hadn't really thought about that. I just thought about it from an acting point of view. I try not to think about things from the outside in. For me, it is an acting challenge. And drag, like anything else of this nature, is performance.
Loco Chanelle is very high status, and I've played a lot of high-status men, but this is way above any of that. It was surprising that as soon as I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time in drag, as soon as I saw her, I knew she was not a shrinking violet. That's so liberating, to reach for something that big. Learning to walk in high heels was extraordinary.
How long did it take you?
I first tried them in a costume fitting. They're proper four-inch stiletto heels... Then I had them for about four weeks, just tottering around in my kitchen. It paid off. It's definitely difficult. I would not wear them as a choice! I'm happy walking around in my walking boots. It's been a massive learning curve and I've loved it.
What's your favourite song from the musical?
That's difficult. "My Man, Your Boy", where Jamie and his mum sing together, is beautiful, as it shows them bonding. There are some great tunes; the score is brilliant. It's by Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling, so there are some very 'poppy', non-traditional musical theatre songs that you can hum along to.
I'm going to sit on the fence a bit because I do just love the whole soundtrack. The song carries plot, but so effortlessly.
What's it like working on a show with a large fanbase like Jamie has?
I always try to speak to everybody I can in the line at the stage door. I've been struck by the number of people who are coming back time and time again, which is generally a sign of a show that is chiming with its audience. I enjoy that: you realise how the show speaks to people on a personal level.
Why do you think people should see the show?
It's just great, great fun. I laughed my head off when I saw it. Also, it's about something that's terribly important, particularly at the moment. It's about diversity, acceptance and tolerance: there's a place for all of us in this world.
It's good fun and a fabulous night out, but it also happens to be very quietly talking about something that's important for all of us to think about. That is valuable and rare. It feels socially important, but it wears that very lightly. It's one story about the quest of one individual to be himself. To be who you want to be, and that is a very universal story. It's a human story.
Photo credit: Johan Persson, Matt Crockett