As one of the 12 wannabe Josephs on the BBC reality show Any Dream Will Do, Ben James Ellis gave up his course at Italia Conti in order to strive for that pot of gold at the end of a particularly technicolored rainbow. He didn’t win the chance to wear that famous coat, but as the gods of Theatreland would have it, James-Ellis has ended up wearing a very different outfit – one which, he quietly admits, suits him rather better. He tells Caroline Bishop about making his West End debut as Link Larkin in the musical Hairspray alongside such musical theatre royalty as Michael Ball…
How has the Hairspray experience been so far?
BJE: It’s absolutely amazing, it’s everything I hoped for and more really. It’s a great show to be a part of. I tell you what it is, it’s absolutely exhausting. I never, never thought it would be this hard. The energy levels have to be up so high every single performance that it really does take a lot of energy to do it.
So has it been different to how you expected?
BJE: Different in the sense of the workload. I never knew it was going to be this hard, but you know, this is what it is and it’s great. It’s working everyone to the limit and it’s pushing us. You’ve got to find something else every performance, something new.
Tell us about your character, Link Larkin.
BJE: He is the young teen heartthrob on the TV show, the Corny Collins show, the local [dance] show in Baltimore. He is the nicest kid in town, type thing – he’s a nice guy, all the girls fancy him, all the lads love him. He’s a lad’s lad but he’s got the softer, affectionate side as well which Tracy brings out of him.
What do you like about the role?
BJE: I get to do everything, which is amazing. I get to sing and dance and I get to do a lot of acting as well which is really every actor’s dream role if you’re in musical theatre. I love coming to work and I love going on stage and knowing I’ve got to do a big serious scene and then do a massive dance number after it and then sing a song. It’s keeping me on my toes, but I love it.
How has it been working with Michael Ball?
BJE: Well to start with it was pretty gobsmacking really. I’ve got all his albums and he was one of my big idols – well, he still is – and to be actually in a cast and to watch him work and give me advice and everything like that… At 18, I can’t ask for any better experience really than working with these people.
What have you learned from him?
BJE: Well it’s really just his way of doing things, his way of acting, singing. He will advise me on ways to say a line, or sing a line in a song and things like that. It’s very, very helpful, which is great because some big stars aren’t very helpful but Michael is, he’s such a nice guy.
Leanne Jones, who plays Tracy Turnblad, is also making her professional debut. Is it good to be able to share that experience with someone?
BJE: It is. Me and Leanne are like best friends now, we get on so well. We just clicked straightaway; the first time we met, we got on like a house on fire. And that’s a good relationship to have going into the show, knowing that you’re working with someone who’s a really good friend, who you can work with and get on with. Yeah it’s her first job but Leanne’s nothing but professional and she’s a great person to work with and very, very talented.
Did being on Any Dream Will Do open up opportunities for you?
BJE: I got an agent straight off the back of the TV show and then I did a musical, a concert tour of Dirty Dancing, which was good. I had a few auditions for different things and then Hairspray came in. I didn’t know too much about the show so I went and bought the soundtrack and got the script and kind of made myself familiar with it and fell in love with it. As soon as I heard the music, it was a part that I just really wanted to play.
Are you glad you didn’t win the part of Joseph so you could do Hairspray instead?
BJE: Well I don’t know if I could ever say that, but to be honest… I mean, Joseph is a good show and it’s great for what it is, but my strengths are more in performance. I love high energy and I love working off the audience, and to be in a musical like Joseph where it’s not as jumping about and the part of Joseph doesn’t have to do much energised stuff… Hairspray’s perfect for me; I can work the audience, I can dance, I can jump my socks off. I kind of feel much more suited to [Link] than I would have done Joseph, and I think that’s what everyone at the stage door says afterwards – ‘I’m so glad you got this and not Joseph’. So yeah, in a way I suppose it was a blessing.
How did you find the experience of being on Any Dream Will Do?
BJE: It was incredible. It was something I will never forget. It was really, really hard actually. It was different every week. Some weeks I enjoyed it, some weeks I hated it, but by the end I was just a bit over it really. It was just hard, week in week out having to put yourself up in front of the public and the panel. Obviously it’s helped me get where I am now, so I’d never say I’d regret doing it.
How old were you when you first thought you might like a career in musical theatre?
BJE: I think my mum tells me I was about eight when I first showed an interest in it and I went to my first audition. I did all the school productions, amateur productions, musicals and things like that and I loved every minute of it. I absolutely hated school, so I had to get away from college and move down to London and really make a go for it really.
What advice would you give to other young people who might like to do the same?
BJE: People say that it’s the hardest business in the world to get into, but if you’re passionate enough and you want it enough to really commit to it and give your all and really focus on it and work hard, then anything’s possible. That’s the same with anything, but especially in this business you’ve got to be the best in it and as long as you want it enough there’s no reason you can’t be.
How do you feel about opening night in Hairspray [which took place on Tuesday]?
BJE: I can’t wait; I’m eager, I’m itching, my feet are going. In a sense I think it will be harder for me than it would be for Leanne, because everyone knows me already and they’ve already got an opinion on me. I think in that sense it’s hard, but that’s what I revel on, I love coming out and proving people wrong. I know that we are doing a good job here and I’ve got to be confident with it and wow everyone. em>CB