It takes someone special to have spent nearly half a decade on a national soap opera and successfully worked the lads' mag circuit, and also had an award-nominated classical album and lead roles in both touring and West End musicals all by their mid-twenties. Amy Nuttall is one such special person. The former Emmerdale actress who, until recently, was playing Eliza Doolittle on tour, is now starring in Guys And Dolls. Matthew Amer met her in her dressing room at the Piccadilly…
For someone who has completed two national tours of high profile musicals – headlining the last one – making your West End debut still feels "a little bit bigger and more exciting in a way". That is how Amy Nuttall feels about it anyway. "It's no different really, because tours are exactly the same," she says after considering the proposition for a while, before considering it again and deciding she's not really making much sense.
It seems I might have caught Nuttall at a bad time. She's just finished grabbing a bite to eat in her dressing room – the aroma of something hearty hangs in the air – and is squeezing in an interview before preparing to go on stage.
Nuttall is currently playing Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown opposite Samantha Janus, Alex Ferns and Norman Bowman in the highly successful Michael Grandage-directed production of Guys And Dolls. She has been playing the role for a while now – since 16 October to be precise – and is starting to really enjoy it.
As the production has been going for over a year – it opened in May 2005 – many of the ensemble members have been working together for quite a while. The show, Nuttall says, has a family feel to it, and though everyone was very welcoming there was a touch of the 'first day of school' about her introduction to the show.
"I cried on the phone every night for the first six months"
Still, she wasn't alone; Janus and Bowman joined at the same time. (Bowman actually rejoined the show after a previous stint understudying.) The trio didn't enjoy the luxury of a long rehearsal period either. Their work was done over two and a half weeks, and they did not meet the rest of the cast until two days before their first show.
For Nuttall this was not too bad as Bowman plays Sky Masterson, the love interest of Sarah Brown, so the two could practise their scenes together. For Janus it was a little trickier as she didn’t meet her leading man until the rest of the cast joined them. At that time it was not Ferns playing the fast talking, bumbling gambler Nathan Detroit, but Hollywood legend Patrick Swayze.
Nuttall, being only 24, is the perfect age to have grown up watching Dirty Dancing, the film that made Swayze – and his moody pout and his rippling physique – famous. "Obviously I was a little bit star struck when I met him," she admits, "and he's so lovely and down to earth and welcoming and just really friendly." She'll get another chance to work with an 80s icon by the time her stint in the show is through; Ferns is replaced by Miami Vice's Don Johnson in January.
Had the craps dice of fate fallen a little differently, Nuttall could have come to the role even earlier than this, as three years ago she auditioned for the original cast of the show. On that occasion, the part was given to Jenna Russell, who went on to be Laurence Olivier Award-nominated for her performance. Nuttall is philosophical about the process, saying "You win some, you lose some; I would have been way too young to play this part then."
"Within a week my whole life completely changed"
Happily, the fact that she had already auditioned played into her hands this time around; the producer nipped in to see her performing in My Fair Lady on tour and subsequently offered her the role.
Nuttall's first experience of performing for a living came relatively young. At 14, the Bolton-born actress moved away from her family to board at Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire – "I cried on the phone every night for the first six months." While studying for her A-levels she auditioned for a role in Les Misérables "just for the experience". Though she didn't get that part, the casting director asked her to return for an audition for The Phantom Of The Opera, and soon Nuttall found herself touring with a professional production and understudying the lead role of Christine. "Within a week my whole life just completely changed," she smiles "from studying for my A-levels one minute to suddenly on tour, rehearsing and doing The Phantom Of The Opera. It was the best thing that could have happened to me really." Though there were doubts about not finishing her A-levels, Nuttall sought advice from industry professionals and with the support of her parents decided "I couldn't give up that opportunity; it's all I've ever wanted to do, so I couldn't say no really."
If she had been through the entire tour performing only as part of the ensemble it would have been a great training ground for Nuttall, but actually she had to step into the breach around 30 times to perform as Christine. All this at only 16.
But as those dice rolled again, it was not musical theatre that brought her to the attention of the British public, but soap opera. Nuttall won the role of Chloe Atkinson in rural drama Emmerdale and, after only expecting to be with the show for a couple of episodes, stayed there for four and a half years. The experience, she says, was very different to working in theatre as there was something different to do each day with such a high rate of turnaround on the shows. Though she enjoyed it, a return to that world is "not on my career wish list at the moment," she says.
Her music career is. When Nuttall left Emmerdale, it was a step into the unknown and into unemployment. She chose to go because she felt it was the right time, not because she had something else to go to. "Especially being a female," she says, describing the nature of her chosen career, "you need to get out there while you're young and grab it with both hands." For someone who has had so much success in her life, she is very aware – almost fearful – that a hot run often comes to an end. "It's going to stop," she states. "It could stop tomorrow; it could stop after this job. Who knows? So far it's been okay."
It didn't stop when she left Emmerdale. Fortunately for her someone at EMI had seen her Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes performance as Sarah Brightman and offered her a recording contract. Choosing to take the classical route – "Because I'm a trained soprano. I couldn't sing like Britney if I wanted to" – her debut album Best Days was nominated for Album Of The Year at the Classical Brit Awards. The category saw her rubbing shoulders with established names such as Aled Jones, Katherine Jenkins and Bryn Terfel. Nuttall is quick to point out that just to be nominated was "amazing. I didn't expect to win it in the slightest." But you can't help feeling that underneath the protestation there was always that niggling ray of hope that has turned to disappointment. However, the nomination did validate her decision to leave Emmerdale. "With the background of coming from a soap, people are so quick to judge because of what they know you for."
"That's a huge gamble; you could ruin you career"
Nuttall is aiming to raise the stakes again for her second album, which she will start working on when she leaves Guys And Dolls in February. This time she's not only singing, but taking on some of the writing duties as well. She admits to being a novice at this and not having written anything since school, but she also voices the opinion that "if you want to be taken seriously and gain credibility you really do have to try and write, yourself. I don't want to do an album of covers and stuff." It's one thing to woo the classical world and the paying public with songs that they recognise and feel at home with, it's something far more dangerous to try and hold their affection with something new. "Challenging, I like to say," she corrects me, "not dangerous."
Of course, if you want to be taken seriously these days, the one thing you don't do is use a reality television show to boost your profile. To be fair to Nuttall, for the most part, she hasn't – "I absolutely don't even think about it" – but there is the small matter of Celebrity Shark Bait on her CV. Had it been sitting in a house or a jungle with a selection of other television personalities, it could have gone the way of her other offers, but the temptation of being plunged into water with only a cage separating you from a jawful of very sharp teeth was enough to tip the balance. That, and the other participants were world-beating hurdler Colin Jackson, film star Richard E Grant and comedian Ruby Wax. "Why not," Nuttall thought. "If they're game to do it, I really shouldn't have a problem with it. I'm the one that's the ex-soap star."
The other reality show that has caught Nuttall's attention is How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, the show that chose the actress to play Maria in the West End production of The Sound Of Music. She, like the rest of the country, was gripped by the competition and is very complimentary of winner Connie Fisher. Being a big Julie Andrews fan she'd have quite liked the role herself: "Just because I've always been a fan and grew up with it and loved singing it. It's in my vocal range. As it happened they chose to do the TV route and find an unknown. Unfortunately I'm not in that category so…" The BBC did say that anyone, trained or untrained, could have gone through the auditioning process but, Nuttall points out, "That's a huge gamble; you could ruin you career."
With a West End leading role, an award-nominated album and years of television experience behind her by her mid 20s, there is a world of opportunity for Nuttall to grasp. "I would love to open a show in the West End," she says. "It's a big dream of mine to be in an original cast." She'd also like to do a straight play, have a successful recording career and get into film. "I'd like to do it all, you know… not that I'm greedy or anything,” she laughs. "Reach for the sky."