Interview: 'Why Can't I Be a Cowboy?': Actor Emily Benjamin on Sexism, Silliness and Sword Fights in BRONCO BILLY - THE MUSICAL

'It's an absolute privilege to be part of something where your creative voice is listened to and where your opinion counts'

By: Jan. 26, 2024
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Interview: 'Why Can't I Be a Cowboy?': Actor Emily Benjamin on Sexism, Silliness and Sword Fights in BRONCO BILLY - THE MUSICAL

Bronco Billy, the adaptation of the 1980 Clint Eastwood film, has arrived at the Charing Cross Theatre. The show tells the story of Bronco Billy and his Wild West travelling show following their dreams. Hijinxs ensue when they meet Antoinette Lilly, an heiress escaping a dastardly murder plot!

Recently, we had the chance to chat with Emily Benjamin, who plays New York socialite Antoinette Lily. We discussed what made her want to be a part of the show, her own love for country music and what she hopes audiences take away from the show.

What made you want to be a part of Bronco Billy?

I've always loved country music! Since I was a very young girl, my mother and I had this big thing where we'd - my mother, myself and my grandmother - go line dancing on a Wednesday night at the Rugby Club.

Ever since then, [I] had like a real affinity for Shania Twain . . . “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus was one of my tunes when I was a kid. And then we had gone to a country festival earlier this year, C2C [Country 2 Country], and I got this self-tape through for Bronco Billy and it said, “Sing a country western song,” and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is my jam! It's not the kind of thing that you get to sing much in musical theatre, and I'd been doing Cabaret for two years - very specific style of singing, so it was really nice to stretch those different muscles. And I just found the script really funny! Hunter [Bird], who's the director has used this as a reference a lot - there's something quite Muppets-esque about the whole script and the wacky, off-the-wall escapade of the whole show. And I felt it from the original audition source material. Then I was lucky enough to do the workshops, and every single song wormed its way into my head! It was only a week, but I remember so much from that because it was such an exciting, wonderful time. So it was not even a question of if I wanted to do it or not. Of course, I want to do this wacky, crazy show! Hunter Bird, his vision we're creating is part of what makes it such a brilliant show. 

Had you seen the movie before joining the show?

I hadn't. I have now seen bits of the movie. I haven't watched the whole thing all the way through.

Obviously, Clint Eastwood films, when you watch them back now, have this very underlying current of misogyny. There's some really not pleasant things in those films. And I think that's really important to acknowledge - the fact that the source material isn't perfect. But by the same token, it had this overarching message of being what you wanted to be, and it was written at a different time for a different audience.

So I spoke to Hunter about it when I began the journey. I was like, “Do I need to watch the film?” And he was like, “I don't think so. I think you've got a handle on what this is. If you want to watch it, watch it!” But my character in the film isn't who she is in the musical at all. There's much more agency to her now. She has an overarching story, she has her own voice, she's not just the woman that's there to be falling in love with the Clint Eastwood-esque character. She has her own ambitions, her own wants. And she's complicated and a bit wacky and weird!

For those unfamiliar with the movie, can you tell us a bit about the show?

Sure! Bronco Billy's Wild West Show is a traveling troupe of society’s castoffs. A lot of what they set out to do is [to] live by their own rules, and not necessarily the standard set in the late 70s. The culture seems to not want Bronco Billy’s Wild West show to be in existence. As Antoinette says, “Isn’t the Old West a little old-fashioned?” And Bronco Billy's whole thing is that he believes everyone should live out their dream, and his dream is being a cowboy. So he's got this group and they all travel around, but the show isn't going well. It’s seen better days, they're running out of money.

Where my character comes in is that she's this heiress who has recently inherited a lot of money, which her stepmother wants to get off her. And there's this whole underlying murder plot to kill me to get the money. I go on the run, and so the traveling Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show and my world suddenly intertwine, and high jinks and hilarity ensue!

Can you go into a little more detail about your character, Antoinette Lily?

She's a New York socialite, an heiress. She hasn't ever really had a purpose in life or a dream because she's lived this very privileged existence. She got married young to a guy that she doesn't really like, or even want to be around anymore! He's a high-society Englishman, so she got married to him because she felt she should. She's very listless.

We join her at the start of the journey as her dad has passed away, who she was close to when she was younger, but since he married her stepmom, they've grown apart - she hasn't seen him as much. And my first number is called “I Miss You,” which is this gorgeously simple take on grief. It's a beautiful comment on [how] the regrets are the first things that come to us when we first lose someone. There's a line in it, “I know I should have called you more,” and it's so relatable and human. We really drop into that moment with her. 

Bronco Billy

So she's shifting her life - you can tell that she's not comfortable in what she's doing. She doesn't have a purpose, she doesn't have any drive. And she gets forced into this completely wacky journey from a very extreme circumstance of her stepmother and husband and lawyer plotting this murder of her to get money. It's an interesting thing to play because, as a character, she's never considered what it is to not have money. And then she suddenly finds herself in a living in a truck with this traveling troupe who eat beans and soup every day. One of the first scenes she's like, “So where's our hotel? Do we have an ensuite? Can I get a shower?” And they all just laugh. So it's really fun to play that journey from privileged princess.

And she falls in love! She meets Bronco Billy and thinks that he's quite ridiculous and mean, and they have this Kiss Me Kate-esque, Calamity Jane, bitey relationship, where they both think they know better than the other. And so that's interesting to play as well. And Tarinn, who plays Billy, is great. We had lots of fun with those scenes. So she just learns how to be a human being. She learns how to have a purpose. Having a dream is a huge theme throughout the show, as well as following your dreams. Being unafraid to try, even if you fail - the bravery to gun for the things that you want. And she learns all of that from these people that she never would have met if she hadn't left the privileged, boring life that she was living.

What has it been like to be a part of Bronco Billy since the workshops?

It's so fun! It's an absolute privilege to be part of something where your creative voice is listened to and where your opinion counts. That speaks to the maturity and the joyfulness of these writers, these creatives, our director . . . There is no stupid suggestion in our rehearsal room, and there wasn't in the workshops. That's often the case for a workshop when you start putting a musical together. You get used to sort of, “Oh, no, this line is this.” And those discussions, those doors have been open, and it's been glorious! That's how I know how to talk about the show so well because I feel like I'm part of the DNA of it.

It doesn't feel like something that's been handed to me and, “Okay, now perform this.” It feels like it's something that I've had a say in. And also, the cast are incredible! Everyone always says that, but genuinely a room full of incredible performers who can all hold the show completely on their own. Everyone has their moment as well! That's what's really nice about the show. It's quite a small cast, it's contained, and everyone gets their chance to show what they can do, and everyone can do incredible things! It's been really, really fun.

Have you learned any cowboy tricks since joining the show?

So Antoinette doesn't do any specific cowboy tricks, but there are so many exciting ones to watch! Josh [Buter], who's playing Lasso Leonard James, he's learning to lasso, and he's been obsessed with this YouTube cowboy he’s found. And Tarinn does gun twirling as Bronco. Obviously, when the guns came out, I was like, “Give me a go! I want a go!” It looks like it's going to be easy, and you try and you get it once, but it's getting it every single time. I do a bit of “cowboy hat-ography,” if that makes sense. I do get to swordfight, which is super fun!

There's a big chase scene that happens at the end in a Hollywood studio because they're all heading towards Hollywood for this big audition that they're trying to achieve. And we run through a soundstage with lots of different sets, and at one point there's a Musketeers set, and I grab a sword. My stepmother, who's trying to kill me, grabs a sword. We have this epic duel, which was incredible! I get to sword fight with Victoria Hamilton-Barritt. That's the coolest thing I’ve ever texted my mother at the end of a rehearsal day like, “You will not believe what I got to do today! It was mental!” Who [Hamilton-Barritt] I should also mention, is utterly incredible and such a professional. I have been obsessed with her since I was fifteen. Me and my mother came to London on a weekend and we went to see Flashdance, and I watched her play Alex, and she's just iconic. And I get to work with her! It’s like a full circle.

What do you hope audiences take away from Bronco Billy?

I hope that audiences come and that they indulge in uninhibited joy and silliness. And they come away thinking, “Why can't I be a cowboy? Why can't I go and live that dream? Maybe I should go and learn to horseride. Maybe I should go . . .” This idea of these things we've always had in the back of our head, whispering at us, going, “Maybe you should do this! You love to do this thing!” No time is too late to start. And that it's always worth going for a dream. You shouldn't give up on those things because life hits you down or tells you no. I'd love people to come away going, “I want to do that! I want to do these things.”

And finally, how would you describe Bronco Billy in one word? 


Bronco Billy runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 7 April.

Rehearsal photos credit: The Other Richard