Interview with Laura Michelle Kelly
Very few of us are lucky enough to end up doing what we dreamt of as kids. Whether it was an astronaut, a vet or – like me – a Princess Ballerina Fairy (what do you mean, that’s not a real thing?!), by the time we’re all grown up, most of us will be doing something that bears little resemblance to our childhood career aspirations. But, for a few of us, perseverance, hard work, and crazy levels of talent can help make those dreams a reality.
In the case of musical actress, Laura Michelle Kelly, that meant kicking off a career in a middle school production of Bugsy Malone, which would see her travel the world, perform in front of packed audiences and alongside big names, dabble in film, and even win an Olivier award for her appearance in the West End’s Mary Poppins. We sat down with her this week to find out how she made it.
1) How did you get into performing? And what is it about performing which has made you want to stick with it and turn it into a career?
I've always sung since very little for fun. I didn't mean for it to become a career until I saw an audition in the stage newspaper when I was 16. It was an open call for Beauty and the Beast in the West End. I'd been a part of local theatre for a few years by then, just because I loved it so much then, when I got the part in Beauty and the Beast, it was a natural progression one show to the next I accidently started my career by just going towards what I loved.
2) Who is your favourite character you've played, on stage or screen?
All the parts I've played have had a huge impact on me, but I have a soft spot for Galadriel in Lord of the Rings: The Musical, and for Silvia in Finding Neverland. I have to say, though, being able to enact the role of Mary Poppins for stage really transformed my life and career .
3) Performing the same role on stage for as much as a year and a half must have moments when it feels repetitive – how do you keep up your enthusiasm? Do you feel as excited on the 80th night as on the 1st?
Usually, yes! I think I did over 1000 performances as Mary Poppins and I looked forward to it every night. The trick really is to try to pretend it hasn't ever happened before, to look for something new. If you are present and focusing on that new moment, I think you could go on forever – if it weren’t for your body! It wears down more than the mind... you really need rest. It's also ok to say when it's time to leave a show, as you know you need to keep growing as an actor. However, I always stay longer than expected because I fall in love with the people I’m working with.
4) Do you have any traditions or rituals before you go on stage?
I stretch! And I really love that time when I can chat with the person making my hair lovely. There can be a really special bond between the actors on stage and the backstage dream team that make it all happen. I love the time before a show where we chat through our daily ups and downs.
5) You have performed in front of huge audiences, often with incredibly important people in them, such as Barack and Michelle Obama – do you ever get nervous? And what advice would you give to young performers who struggle with stage fright?
There came a time, after around ten years of performing, when suddenly I was aware of how lucky I was to do what I did for a living. The pressure to perform suddenly gave me terrible stage fright, as I realised the enormity of that responsibility. I don't know why I suddenly started getting stage fright after doing thousands of shows, but it made me shake. I had to learn to say to myself "I have been created to perform and to bring life and joy to people. May they walk out feeling different than the way they walked in." Making my desire to be of use to someone else's journey greater than my fear of failing helped me so much. It was just a phase of anxiety I went through I guess, but I'm grateful for it now and all humans are the same no matter who or what they do in life. If I start to feel anxious or the weight of pressure for a night to go well, I try to nip it in the bud and say that sentence to myself.
6) You have graced our screens a few times now, including in Goddess with Ronan Keating, and Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd – how different is it being on a set rather than a stage? How did you adjust and what was the experience like?
I haven't done as many on-screen parts as on-stage, but I found that I really missed the through-line of the story beginning to end. I also didn't get to spend half as much fun time chatting to people. I didn't like being stuck in my trailer very much, especially when I was a hag in Sweeney Todd. No one wanted to see my crazy beggar woman face at lunch because I looked pretty gross! There's a lot I can learn from filming though. I hope I can do another movie musical soon. I'm just starting to get the hang of it and I'm excited that live action musicals are becoming more popular.
7) In a time when funding for the arts is consistently being cut, do you think it is important that children and young people get a taste of theatre and performing? And, if so, why?
I grew up on the local stage. Being a part of a community of arts is as important to a town or city as having good doctors - theatre can be a doctor to someone's soul. It can make you see life and others in a different light, to help you see from someone else's perspective. Stories can lighten the load. There should be more being spent on creativity, especially locally. It nurtures your children if they can be involved by helping them develop confidence and learn team work and communication. It's a true handicap to a city not to have a theatre. Since we all began, we used stories to connect with each other and help each generation by passing down knowledge and history. To help each other grieve and celebrate. I'm devastated when I hear a local community theatre has been made into a block of apartments or a mini golf course. It's truly sad it isn't given the importance it really has on society. That's why more than ever we need those with money supporting the arts. If the government won't, we have to find a way. Fundraising, showing up to buy a ticket, bothering our politicians. Community theatre also helps tackle elitism in theatre by nurturing new talent. It doesn't matter how much money you have - ideally everyone can be a part of the theatre community if there's a local arts centre in every city.
8) What is the most unexpectedly useful piece of advice you've ever been given?
I don't know about unexpectedly, but the best piece of advice I was ever given was: don't let anyone box you in, if there's something you enjoy doing. Being in the army and also acting, for instance: you can do both. My brother started a role-playing company to help people in the army better their communication skills. He had a passion for both types of work, so he put them together. I'm hugely proud of him for being an example to me that you can have several dream jobs and pursue them all in this lifetime. More than ever with social media in your hands and the encouragement for freelancers you have the power to go after anything you love to do!
9) Is there anything unexpected you have learnt on your own, which you would pass on to new performers entering the scene?
I loved the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. The questions it posed made me see that there can only be one you on Earth for a reason. No one has ever walked in your shoes, so no one can compare to you. It took a billion different moments for you to get where you are on your journey. Equally I cannot compare myself with someone else's journey of success as they had their own path to that role or that job. It set me free from feeling like I didn't measure up to someone else's success. I still get sad if I don't get a role I worked hard to audition for, but at least I don't feel envious or jealous of someone who got the role over me, as I truly believe we all have our own purpose and plan and it can always be turned around for something good. It's freeing to always be able to support and encourage others in their success and wins. You can celebrate someone you no longer feel you have to compete with. You can join in others’ joy when they win. Not everyone gets that idea but I'm totally on that love train.
10) Tell us more about your Cadogan Hall show in February! What can people expect and why should they come?
The show is titled On My Way to You. I literally just finished piecing it all together on a couple of flights across America. Starting with a belting Barbara Streisand song, “Piece of sky”, I won't be holding back. Then I’ll be belting and crooning my way through a few of the great songs and memories from the first 10 shows I had the honour of singing in London, from “Lothlorien” from Lord of the Rings to “Feed the birds” from Mary Poppins. Songs of my journey along the way. Plus, songs like “All that matters now” from Finding Neverland Broadway, as it has yet to come to the West End, as well as few more people might be hearing soon in London. The rest of the night will stay a surprise until you buy a ticket! Expect songs that have brought me back home to London after eight years away, as well as what got me creatively through 20 years of being on stage. Despite how fun and loud it might be, it's going to be quite an intimate night of stories and beautiful songs and memories. I know it's going to be super-fun to share and invite people along through the songs of my life and love! The show is on February 24th – and I can't wait!
Need a little help chasing your own childhood dream? Grab your tickets to On My Way to You now – on at the world-famous Cadogan Hall on Sunday 24th February.