Hairspray was the hit musical of last year, winning several Laurence Olivier Awards and bringing a smile to the faces of curmudgeonly critics everywhere. The heartwarming tale is set in 1960s Baltimore and centres on loveable teen Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with a big heart and even bigger hair. Passionate about dancing, Tracy tries out for the local television dance show, only to find that she’s not exactly welcomed with open arms – and she’s not the only one.
One of those unwelcoming people is Amber Von Tussle, the spiteful, shallow teenage daughter of the racist, sizeist station manager Velma. Playing such a horrible character doesn’t come naturally for Northern Irish actress Zoe Rainey – the 25-year-old is so unlike Amber that her friends didn’t think she would even be considered for the role. But she auditioned and won the part, and since the end of October Rainey has risen to the challenge of being nasty. Actually, she tells Caroline Bishop, it is really quite fun indeed.
So Amber isn’t the nicest of people is she?
ZR: No she’s not but you know what she’s a product of circumstances, her upbringing. Her mother isn’t the best role model she could have had in her life and it all stems from that really. She just repeats what she’s heard, so the fact she uses words like ‘minorities’ and ‘fat’, is purely because that’s what her mother says. She [Velma] was a beauty queen, she pushes her onto the TV programme and says ‘make sure you get your face seen in every shot’. And then the next minute she’s saying ‘you’re rubbish, you weren’t good enough’. So [Amber]’s got it from both sides. She’s not particularly pleasant but I do feel for her because everything just falls apart.
Is it more fun to play the bad girl than the good girl?
ZR: Yeah, I mean she’s absolutely vile at times and it’s really quite fun to be able to say those things and get away with them! Because I wouldn’t dream of saying it in real life! So it’s kind of nice to look at someone with absolute disgust and then go ‘oh it’s just a part’!
How did you get the role?
ZR: I was up for a different part; I wasn’t even expected to be seen for Amber, and then the night before my audition they sent me her stuff and I went in. I’m not particularly like Amber in real life, so people were like, no you won’t be seen for that. And then I got a phone call the next day saying I’d got it and it was all a little bit of a shock, it was a real pleasant surprise. She’s been a real challenge, I won’t lie, but she’s been a real treat as well.
You have stepped into the shoes of original cast member Rachel Wooding. Is it hard following someone else in a role?
ZR: She set a standard, and she was great, and everyone loved the original cast, including the people who have stayed on; I think they all got very close. And also I’m the only new girl in my dressing room! There are nine girls and I’m the new girl. But they’ve been absolutely brilliant and made me feel so welcome and really been very, very supportive. The creative team has been really lovely and never compared me, they’ve just tried to let me find my own way, they’ve never said ‘well this is what Rachel did’, they’ve let me do my own thing with it, and that’s been really nice to have that freedom.
Is it as much fun backstage as it looks onstage?
ZR: It’s an amazing show to be [in]. Such a high energy – it takes a lot out of you but it’s so rewarding. Just the quality of the show – the writing, the songs, everything about it, is just perfect, so it’s such a blessing and so lucky to be a part of it. When we did You Can’t Stop The Beat, the last song of the show, we got the most amazing response and I just thought, the people who have been in it for a year, no wonder they want to stay on because it’s just such a buzz! And everyone really loves it. It’s a story that everybody can relate to on some level, and the underdog wins and everyone loves that!
What’s it like working with leading lady Michael Ball [who plays Tracy’s mother Edna Turnblad]?
ZR: Oh he is just wonderful, he is so lovely. He’s been one of the most welcoming people in the cast, just always telling us that he thinks we are great, really encouraging us. And Ian Talbot [Wilbur] and Leanne [Jones – Tracy] and Ben [James-Ellis – Link Larkin], they’ve all just been so welcoming.
You have previously been in ensemble roles in musicals including Jason Robert Brown’s Parade at the Donmar Warehouse and Gigi at the Open Air theatre. This is your first principal role – is that a challenge?
ZR: To be honest not only because she’s my first part but because she’s completely different to anything I’ve done, it’s been a huge challenge. I’m used to being very serious – the last West End job I did [was Parade]. So it’s completely different to that and it’s been really challenging, in a good way. To do something really different and get some comedy and be able to smile through a show instead of crying!
What’s your favourite experience in your career up until now?
ZR: I’d have to say Parade. Oh my goodness it was just the best ever. The most amazing creative team, the most amazing cast and production to work on, I really couldn’t have asked for anything else.
The funny thing is that last year at the Laurence Olivier Awards we were up against Hairspray and they came away with all our awards! So I’m now working for the competition! So it’s been nice that I’ve been able to work on the two hit shows of last year.
You have worked mainly in musical theatre. Do you want to do dramatic roles too?
ZR: I’d love to do straight drama, TV, films, any of the media, but I adore musical theatre and it’s kind of where I’ve come from. The thing with musical theatre is they’re long contracts, so you can’t necessarily do other things, so that’s kind of why I’ve stuck at it and I’ve not been able to branch out just yet but definitely I’d love to move into other areas at some point.
Why did you get into the industry?
ZR: Well when I was about seven I [attended] a stage school called McMaster Stage School at home in Bangor, it was every Saturday. It was just brilliant. I had to choose between horse riding and that! And I chose going to McMaster, thank goodness. It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. You know whenever you just feel something in your blood; I think with everybody in this business you have to be so passionate about it and really love it otherwise it’s not worth the heartache sometimes. So I guess I knew since then that that was something that I really wanted to follow up. I guess I have just been fortunate enough to have been employed, you know. There’s a lot of very, very talented people out there who don’t get the chances I have so it’s been really lovely.
What was your first break after graduating from Arts Educational School in 2004?
ZR: I went straight into the UK tour of Jekyll And Hyde. I did that for a year, it was a great starting point to be honest. The thing is with college is that… it’s like a little bubble and you can only learn so much, but actually when you get out into the big bad world you learn a lot more, even in just a year. So it was a really great time for me to learn a lot. And then after that I was lucky enough to get into the West End with The Woman In White, so it went from there. I just missed Michael Ball – he’d left the year before!
What would be your ideal role?
ZR: It’s such a hard question because there are so many musicals out there and there’s so much new stuff coming which is really exciting. I love being in stuff that really means something, that has a real depth to it, that kind of brings a story to it – like with Hairspray, even though it’s bubbly and fun and colourful and smiley, there’s still the deep, underlying aspects of racism and fat-ism, so it’s nice to do something that means a lot to people and that people can relate to.