BWW Interview: Emma Williams Talks AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
Emma Williams's past work includes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Half a Sixpence, Mrs Henderson Presents and Love Story. She's currently starring in a new musical version of the iconic Richard Gere film An Officer and a Gentleman, which opens at Leicester Curve on 6 April.
What was the first musical you saw that really inspired you?
My parents always took me to the theatre as a child, but the first show I remember leaving and feeling that emotional connection staying with me for months afterwards was Hot Shoe Shuffle.
I loved to dance, but tap was my forte, and there on the stage was this incredible leading lady who lit the place up. She was funny, fabulous and tapped like a demon - the incredible and iconic late Louise Plowright.
Did you go to the theatre a lot growing up?
Absolutely. We saw a lot of amateur dramatic shows locally and professional touring productions when we could afford to. I didn't see a West End show until I was 16 though. It was a long way to travel and very expensive for us, so an absolute luxury.
When did you realise it was what you wanted to do professionally?
I don't recall there ever being an epiphany as such. It was always within me somewhere - it's part of who I am. But I think the moment I realised I might have a chance of doing it as a career was probably not until I was 17 and making my first movie, The Parole Officer with Steve Coogan. That film opened a lot of doors to me.
Where did you train?
I went to local dance (Sandra Whiteley), performing arts (Stage 84) and singing coaching (Michael Hampshire), but I didn't train post-18 at a college or university. I was on my gap year with a place to study languages when opportunities arose, and I ended up playing Truly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang aged 18.
What was your first professional acting job?
I always say it was an episode of Heartbeat when I was 14, but truthfully...I was part of a rap film about hazards in the home when I was 11!
You've done some film-to-stage musicals before - what did you learn from that experience?
The great thing about working on any adaptation, whether it's film, TV or book, is that you have a base to start from. You have to be aware of how fond audience might be of the original piece and be sensitive to that, whilst still creating your own interpretation as it's a different medium and what might work on film won't necessarily work on stage.
Did you know An Officer and a Gentleman beforehand?
I'm an Eighties baby, so while I didn't see it when it was released, it's a film I've always known and been aware of. Rewatching it before my audition, I'd forgotten how brutal and gritty it is. You just don't expect that with a film that's got an iconically romantic association. Exploring that darkness is a lot of fun.
Tell us about your character Paula
Paula is a local Pensacola girl who works in the paper factory, like most of the town's residents. It's small town living, but she has aspirations and dreams of giving herself a better future by becoming a nurse. She's feisty, determined and driven... and not at all expecting a man to come along to challenge her ideas of what she wants and needs in her life.
Have you found it easy to connect to her?
I'm exploring her at the moment. It's early in rehearsals so things are very fluid, but I think it's important to put yourself contextually in the character's life. You need to understand the social, political and economic constraints these people live with in order to figure out why they do the things they do. But I love her passion, her strength - I can connect with that very easily.
Does her journey differ much from the film?
The addition of her trying to become a nurse gives her a little more drive and I like that. It makes her choices stronger and juxtaposes her nicely with Lynette's ambitions and the expectations of and for women in that time.
The story involves overcoming some tough challenges. What's the biggest challenge you've overcome in your career?
The biggest challenge is probably generally just keeping working. It's a difficult industry for everyone and at one point I had nearly three years of not really working. At that moment I got a new agent, Stuart, and he transformed my career, approaching it with fresh eyes. It's very important to have the right team to support you.
Have you worked with any of this current cast before?
How do you approach creating a believable romance in a musical?
Jonny Fines, who plays Zack, and I have discussed this. We're having to get to know one other well enough to feel comfortable physically with one another. You have to be prepared to be open with each other.
Tell us a bit about the music - lots of great Eighties hits?
Absolutely! And re-orchestrated versions, so they're not all what you're expecting. It's like the soundtrack of my youth, and the band are rocking.
What's your favourite number?
Forty-two. Hehe sorry! I think it has to be "Toy Soldiers". It's really dark and grimy.
Everyone loves the iconic ending of the film - might that make an appearance in the show?
I couldn't possibly tell you that! You'll have to come along and see for yourself...
Are you excited about touring, and what's the one thing on tour you can't do without?
I love touring and I haven't done much of it, so it still excites me. As someone who grew up on the theatre that visited the town, it feels really right to be touring myself.
What can't I live without? My picture of my very-soon-to-be husband, good Tupperware and my running kit.
Looking forward, what are some of the roles left on your wish list?
There are so many! Roles like Anna Leonowens in The King and I, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Jenna in Waitress, anything Shakespearean, Nora in A Doll's House... I could go on. The truly amazing thing about theatre though is that the role I may one day be defined by might not have even been written yet.
Finally, why should people come see An Officer and a Gentleman?
There's something for everyone: it's dark and gritty, but heartfelt and truthful. The score of familiar Eighties songs will have you rocking, and I really think that it will introduce the original story to a whole new audience.
An Officer and a Gentleman: The Musical begins previews at Leicester Curve on 6 April. Find full tour dates and venues here
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan