Charting the highs and lows of a group of students at a performing arts school in New York, Fame is a high-energy, feel-good musical. On 8 May it returns to the West End for a limited summer season. For Ian Watkins, who makes his Fame debut as actor-turned-student Nick, the date has an extra special significance – it is his birthday. Watkins, who will be 31, is better known to 90s pop fans as H, one-fifth of chart-toppers Steps. He says ‘H’ stands for hyperactive, but he was pretty calm when he chatted to Caroline Bishop about taking to the Shaftesbury stage.
Fame marks the singer’s second West End appearance – he played the lead role in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2004 – but the first since he went back to college to train in musical theatre, which was documented in the C4 television programme H-Side Story. Here he talks about why he is so similar to his character in Fame, what it is like to fulfil a childhood dream and exactly why he wanted to go into the house in this year’s controversial series of Celebrity Big Brother…
Are you looking forward to being in Fame?
Watkins: Yeah I am. I’ve known Natalie [Casey, who plays Serena in the show] for a long time as well. I know that I get on with her really well so it’s gonna be great.
How does it feel to come back to the West End?
W: Do you know, I had a dream since I was a kid that I’d love to play in every West End theatre, I’d love to make my way through all the theatres. This is obviously my second job here and I’d love to keep going. It’s so exciting! This theatre is so prestigious, I love the Shaftesbury, it’s an old, beautiful, gorgeous Victorian theatre and I’m very excited to be here.
Tell us about your character, Nick
W: I saw Fame two years ago, on the 10th anniversary, and I love the part of Nick. For me, he has the best song in the show and I get to sing it, so I am over the moon. Nick is very similar to me, he was a very successful actor, a television actor, and then he takes time out to go back to college, to study and learn his craft because he wants to be a real actor and have longevity in his career. And that’s what I did. I went back to college and paid in sweat!
What is the show about?
W: What people don’t realise, people who’ve not seen the show, is that it’s not the same story as the TV show or the film, it doesn’t have the same characters. It’s still set in a performing arts college and it follows a group of students from audition to graduation. It is a really feel-good, up-tempo, fun musical. For me there’s a lot of personal messages in the show as well, to believe in something and be committed – if you want something hard enough you have to work at it and be good at it. And also there’s a storyline where one of the characters succumbs to evil. The message is, be careful with what you do because the outcome’s not a nice one. I wasn’t expecting that when I came to see the show. I thought, that’s a really important message to get across.
What was the experience like of being filmed during your time at college for H-Side Story?
W: For me that was hard, because you go back to college and the only way you learn is by making mistakes. But to do that very publicly with a television crew, it was very hard. I’m not making excuses, I knew what I was getting into, but it’s still very hard to make mistakes, and that’s the way you learn. But now the whole experience has finished I can look back and reflect on the good times. But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was always what I wanted to do, go back and train in college. For me this is where the real work starts. I’ve learnt that I have all of these tools but I can now put them into practice, which is scary and exciting and fulfilling.
Prior to that you were in Joseph in the West End – what was that like?
W: Well it was quite poignant for me, because the first [amateur] show I was ever in was Joseph, when I was 11. I played Benjamin. I used to sit in the wings and watch Joseph sing Close Every Door and dream it was me one day. And then, full circle, I was doing it. That was such an achievement for me personally.
How does your life now compare to your life in Steps?
W: Obviously the whole of my 20s I spent growing up with Steps in the public eye and then I took time out to retrain. For me, in my life now, this is where I’ve always wanted to be. I feel so fortunate that I get to be on stage every night, I’m in one of the best theatres in the West End. A little boy from a Valley [Ian grew up in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales] who believed and worked hard, and here I am. Honestly I love my life, I do! I’ve not sat on my bum and done nothing, I’m so proactive; I work on my voice, I work on my acting. You’ve got to get off your bum and take chances, take risks and do it.
Your former bandmates have done well too…
W: Yeah. Well we all have a great work ethic, we get off our bum and we go and get it, we don’t wait for things to come to us. We get up there and audition. People don’t realise that you have to audition for a show like this, they just think that you just get offered it, but no.
What was the experience of being on Celebrity Big Brother like?
W: I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and I don’t think any housemate does until you’re there. I can now obviously reflect on good times. There were times when I didn’t want to be there, but I came out of the whole experience with some wonderful friends that I know will be with me for the rest of my life. Shilpa [Shetty] is a really good friend of mine now.
What’s your view on the race row that erupted?
W: At the end of the day, the way it [Big Brother] is edited, they can only use what you give them, so you just have to think before you speak. If you’re that kind of person, a show like that will always show your true colours. And if you are inclined to behave like that then of course it’s going to expose you.
Why did you go in?
W: I specifically had one aim in mind, to make everybody realise that my surname wasn’t Steps, and my name was Ian. I’ll always be H to my friends but for doing a musical like this, it doesn’t sound right – ‘H from Steps plays in Fame’. I don’t want to disrespect what I’ve done [before] because that’s why I’m here and I love what I did. But I want ‘Ian Watkins in Fame’.
Any other shows you’d like to do in your tour of West End theatres?
W: There are so many… I’d love to be in Chicago, but I like the quirky characters, so I would love to play Amos, the geeky husband. And I’d love to play Seymour in Little Shop Of Horrors. There are so many things I’d love to get my teeth into, and maybe I can.
What advice would you give to those who want to get into musical theatre?
W: Do it because you’re passionate and you love what you do, not because you want to be famous. Despite the title, it’s not about fame, fame comes when you work hard and you’re respected for what you do, rather than selling your soul!