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BWW Interview: Lucie Jones On The 20th Anniversary UK Tour Of RENT

Lucie Jones in rehearsal

Lucie Jones rose to fame on The X Factor, and has since built up a strong list of theatre credits, including Les Miserables in the West End, American Psycho at the Almeida and Legally Blonde at Leicester Curve. She's now playing Maureen in the 20th anniversary UK tour of Jonathan Larson's Rent, which begins at Theatr Clywd on 21 October and plays at London's St James Theatre on 8 December-28 January, 2017.

What first sparked your love of performing?

There wasn't one moment in particular, or one clear day or album. I just always remember loving singing, anything and everything, and getting up to perform. I was that annoying kid at family parties who would always put on shows, or do a number on a rainy day in the caravan. I was very encouraged by my family and teachers, and I realise now how lucky I was growing up in Cardiff with so much music and theatre. I was in bands and orchestras at school, and it didn't cost loads of money or require my parents remortgaging the house.

But now more than ever, there's no emphasis on the arts - so many cuts are being made. Our generation, we love music, we appreciate performance. In Cardiff recently there was a huge Roald Dahl celebration with music at its heart - thousands and thousands of people joined the choir just to be part of it. It's a shame to see those grass roots threatened.

What did you take from X Factor?

I owe so much to that. My upbringing and the way music was such a big focus prepared me for it well - I had a singing teacher at school who really gave me a backbone. She had a reputation for being hard and making people cry, but I appreciate now what she did for my confidence and nerve - I never would have got up on stage without her pushing me all the way. X Factor gave me the opportunity to put in practice everything I'd been dreaming about. It's a huge programme, maybe not always fair or producing the outcome people might expect, but it was a massive learning curve and I'm glad I did it.

Are you still in touch with anyone?

Yes, the wonderful Dannii Minogue. I'm still in a position with her where if something comes in and I'm not sure about it, I can call her up and discuss it. Not all the mentors were so involved, but she was amazing - we were definitely in touch with our mentor the most.

Did you do much formal training?

I was actually auditioning for musical theatre schools the same year X Factor came along. I'm glad I went down this route - I've since worked with an acting coach and a singing teacher, and gone to the Actors Centre. The dancing is probably still the bit that needs work. I'm not necessarily the world's best dancer!

Lucie Jones and the Rent cast in rehearsal

Were you always a musical theatre fan?

Definitely, Mum took me as often as she could, and we were lucky to have school trips to the theatre. I went to see Wicked god knows how many times. So when I was offered the chance to audition for Les Miserables, I jumped at it.

Was it intimidating coming into this environment?

I do remember we were rehearsing at Urdang, and I was late, because I'd had a photo shoot. I dashed in with this big suitcase, and Alistair Brammer, who was playing Marius, came running over to help me - that was my first moment of meeting an actor I'd be working with, and he was so friendly and helpful and introduced me to everyone. A lot of it was new to me, like I stood looking at the noticeboard for ages because I didn't know how to read a rehearsal schedule - the company manager came over and explained it all. That cast really nurtured and supported me. I know some people can feel looked down on, that others might think they're not as talented or they've taken a short cut or just been brought in as a "name", but I never felt that way at Les Mis.

What did you learn from the experience?

I went all out! I was so excited by all these opportunities, so I also signed a deal with Wonderbra and I was writing an album - I was getting up at seven, doing a full of work and then doing a show. It was too much and I got sick. Cameron Mackintosh really helped me and gave me the medical care I needed to get back into the show. Since then, I say no to stuff and focus on what needs to be done. You can't learn these things in college - you only figure it out on the job.

We had a gruelling rehearsal schedule on American Psycho, with no understudies or covers, and that became real team bonding, because we had to account for anyone missing. I was really proud when I did Legally Blonde that I made it through the run, eight shows a week - I definitely got into a good rhythm. The Asian tour of Ghost was probably the hardest job I've done. I was allergic to something in the air, and suddenly I had to go to a Chinese hospital right before a two-show day. That was terrifying - I thought "If I've lost my voice, I don't know what I'd do with my life."

Do you think it's a good time to revive Rent?

Its themes, this story of young people and what they go through, it's so relevant, so current - it could have been written yesterday. I'd seen it a number of times, though actually when I came to look at the score some things were different. I was singing "Take Me or Leave Me", probably with Idina Menzel's version in my head, and our musical director said, "Lucie, can you sing what's written?"

I think there's real moments of pureness and clarity and just genius writing that come to the surface in this production - I can't wait for us to deliver those. Even "Seasons of Love", without those traits that have crept in over the years, feels very fresh. We've gone back to Jonathan's writing and melodies. It's a show that means a lot, to people in the industry too - look at Lin-Manuel Miranda. Twenty years down the line, Rent has influenced some of the greatest shows currently being written.

Shanay Holmes and Lucie Jones in rehearsal

What are some of the challenges of playing Maureen?

She really has no inhibitions. I remember seeing Zoe Birkett doing "Over The Moon" at Greenwich Theatre, and it just blew my mind - it was so off the wall. You really have to let loose and accept any physical expression is something she might do. She's a very different person to me. I've struggled with things over the years, worrying about what other people think of me, and I really credit my acting coach Dee Cannon for getting me to this point. If I wasn't giving 100%, she'd send me home until I was ready to commit. Also working with Nikolai Foster on Legally Blonde - he instilled in me a confidence I didn't know I had. Knowing someone has faith in you is really liberating, and you need that for Maureen.

I was going through the script this morning, and I started chatting about her and an hour went past - she's so complex, strong, demanding, such a diva, and yet everyone loves her. It's a fine line to get it right, and I'm having so much fun playing with that.

What's it like to sing?

This score really has everything. There are these crazy big rock songs, "Tango: Maureen", and then lyrics like "Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?" Just singing it and finding that emotion, it's so beautiful and such a clever way to tell a story. It's really interesting thinking about what it means now, too - we're not struggling with AIDS, but we're struggling with many other things. There's so much scepticism about other races and marginalising people.

I think it's a very transferrable show - everyone can relate to it. Jonathan wrote about people in his life, his friends, people he met in support groups, and there's a real humanity to it. Angel has this line about their support group being for people coping with life - we all need help and understanding, whatever we're facing.

Do you have any dream future projects?

We've all got our dream list, haven't we? This one is definitely on it for me. I'm nowhere near the point where I can pick and choose projects - I still go to auditions, fail to get parts, go home, cry, and then get up the next day and try again. The past couple of years I've been so lucky that these brilliant roles have come my way, but I fight to get into the room, and my amazing agents fights tooth and nail as well. Maureen is just the best reward.

Finally, any advice for budding performers?

The thing that's helped me the most is the people who push me to become a more intelligent, well-rounded person - giving me books to read, pointing me towards plays, musicians, artists. I've become a better actress since reading more and understanding people, and also having opinions on the world. I don't think you can fully inhabit someone else's life without that. The more I learn, the more passionate I feel. So, if you really study, you'll be able to make your characters believable. Never stop practising or challenging yourself - versatility makes you stronger.

Rent is at St James Theatre 8 December-28 January, 2017. Find full UK tour dates here

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

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