When Aimée-Ffion Edwards auditioned for a new play by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court, she had no idea that two and a half years later she would not only still be playing the role, but that the play would have transferred to Broadway and not once, but twice to the West End. Charlotte Marshall talks to the actress about the magic behind Jerusalem.
CV in brief
2008 Makes professional acting debut in Channel 4 series Skins
2008 Makes London stage debut in Sh*t-M*x at Trafalgar Studios 2
2009 Appears in the world premiere of Jerusalem at the Royal Court as Phaedra
2010 Jerusalem transfers into the West End to the Apollo theatre
2011 Appears in the Broadway transfer of Jerusalem and is currently back at the Apollo theatre for the West End revival
Where did you grow up?
In Newport, South Wales.
What/who got you interested in acting?
I wasn’t massively into it and then my friend did the National Youth Theatre of Wales so I decided to apply for it the following year. I was about 17, 18. I did it to fill my summer and to have a good time, and I just fell in love with it. It was such a creative atmosphere where for the first time you could do whatever you wanted, or dress the way you wanted, just be yourself, which isn’t really what you get when you’re in school. So it was my first taste of being a bit free.
What was your first job?
My first professional job was Skins which I did the following year.
Was it a good experience?
I didn’t really expect it and then it just came along and I had an amazing time on it. It was such a good first job to have, not just because it was so high profile but, because there were so many young people on it, it meant that we were well looked after and nurtured into the environment and the industry. I had a brilliant time.
Were there any negative aspects to being part of such a high profile series?
To be honest, I think people forget I was in it! I’ve never played a character since like her; I try to avoid playing too many Welsh parts because it’s so easy to get typecast. For me, it was an amazing start and if anything it chucks you right in there and people take notice and you get seen for amazing things. It was a good way to start a career.
When it first came out there was a bit of backlash, but you always get that. People were madly in love with Maxie and I got to snog him so there was a lot of that sort of nonsense on the internet but I don’t really take any notice of it.
Tell me about Phaedra, your character in Jerusalem.
She was crowned [as May Queen] last year and the play is set on the day of the carnival when they crown the new queen. I can’t say too much because it’ll spoil the story, but she’s quite flighty, creative and a bit dreamy. I don’t think she’s like other girls, she’s a bit of an outcast and is drawn to Johnny [played by Mark Rylance] and his stories, and feels safe in his company.
She finds herself at a bit of a loss because this is the last day of being May Queen; it’s the idea of time running out. It’s like an actress getting a job and then the job running out and not knowing who you are at the end of it and having to re-establish yourself as a person.
When you first got the role, did you have any idea how successful it might be?
Absolutely not, no idea. A lot of my friends had gone up for it and I was hearing people talk about it all the time and it was weeks and weeks later that I was called up to be seen for it. I went to my audition, had my recall a day or two later and met the writer Jez [Butterworth]. I knew I had the part but by that point, because it was such an early draft, no one knew what the parts were going to be or if the parts were still going to be in the final script, so it was all up in the air.
I do remember there were a few other things in the pipeline and it meant turning them down at the risk of not having a part in Jerusalem. There was just something so magical about it and you couldn’t put your finger on it. Apart from Mark [Rylance] and Mackenzie [Crook] we were all in the position of not really knowing what our parts were or if they were going to remain, or how big they’d be or if they’d be cut. But you just didn’t care.
Did you know anything about Mark Rylance before you started?
I kid you not, I had no idea who Mark was! I was quite new to theatre, I’d not really seen anything. I have quite a strong memory of turning up on the first day and Mark sitting next to me and him turning to me and literally improvising in character which was incredibly scary! I think he’s extraordinary though, I’m glad I know who he is now.
Have you learnt anything from acting with him on stage?
Definitely, I think everybody has taught us something. But Mark is so playful, nothing is ever set and he’s changing things all the time, even in the early previews at the Royal Court, which taught me that I could do that as well. It was as if he’d catch me off guard and I’d almost have to defend myself on stage. It gave me the confidence to do that as well, to go on stage with different ideas and run with feelings. He’s extraordinary, he’s really beautiful to watch, and so real. I love working with him.
This is your fourth run doing the play. Do you ever get bored of doing it?
I don’t ever get bored of being a part of it and being a part of the company. I think as with anything, especially when you do a long run, the challenge is keeping it fresh.
Mark keeps it so fresh anyway so you’re always on your toes because you never know what he’s going to do. The way our scene is set and the way we play it is a million miles away from the way we did it at the Court. I don’t know if other people would notice, but we do. Every time I come back into the rehearsal space I’m always surprised.
What was it like doing it on Broadway?
I had a brilliant time, it was a brilliant place to be with such a raggedy army and this company [laughs]. We’d been doing it for so long, so to actually get there – because there was always talk of it, but I don’t think anyone actually allowed themselves to believe it – we never in a million years thought we’d get taken over!
Were you worried about whether American audiences would get it?
Yes I think everyone was quite nervous, it’s very place-specific and the humour’s very British. We didn’t know that we were going to end up staying there because it’s brutal out there; if you get bad reviews that’s it, you close the next week. We had to change a few things, some of the references were too specific, the American audience wouldn’t necessarily get [them]…but it was still the same play, it still had the same heart and story.
I absolutely loved it but everyone was really excited to come home, to do it here – you can’t beat a British audience. The run was quite short when we did it last time and there were so many people who wanted to see it but couldn’t get tickets, so we feel a duty to give them the story as well.
What is your favourite thing about being on stage?
Crikey, I don’t know. It’s a bizarre feeling just stepping out on to a stage and having so many people watch you, I don’t really know how to explain it, I just don’t think you get that feeling anywhere else.
I think that the power of being able to influence people and to create a world and a person, to try and sell it to an audience, and when you get the feedback and to have actually sold it is amazing. We’re so lucky to be in a play which is so beautifully written and to have such an amazing cast, we’re spoilt rotten. There’ll be times when we do plays and it’ll be half full and that will be a completely different experience. Being on stage in Jerusalem is like nothing else. You get to stand next to Mark Rylance, it’s quite brilliant actually!
And the worst?
The fear of forgetting your lines.
Has it ever happened to you?
I’ve not forgotten any lines in my scene but there have been times when technical things have gone wrong in my song, or there’s a lot of earth on the stage and it can get really dusty when it gets warm and sometimes trying to sing in that environment is a bit hit and miss. There’s been times when I’ve just said one word wrong in the song and it just completely throws you. But I’ve not had anything major happen, thank God.
You have live animals on stage as well, that can’t be easy!
We’ve had the chickens escape a few times, which is always fun trying to get the chickens back in the pens whilst doing a scene!
I have a goldfish in a bag and I poke the goldfish with a pin and I’ve always got to time it so well and pre-empt where that fish is going to swim to next so I don’t kill the fish! There’s always that fear that you hope the fish doesn’t have a heart attack. I’ve got really good at that fish move now [laughs]. I’ve managed not to stab one once and we’ve done the play God knows how many times. People do get concerned about it, but they’re well looked after, they have better changing rooms then we do!
You’ve been filming a TV series recently, tell me about that.
I’ve just finished filming a comedy series for Sky that Kathy Burke has written about her childhood. I literally finished it on Friday and went into a dress rehearsal from filming so it’s been quite hectic but I had an amazing time on it. I’m really excited about it coming out. It’s Called Walking And Talking.
It was something completely different from this and I’ve wanted to do comedy for a while so I was really excited to do it. I was really lucky that they managed to fit it all in so I could do Jerusalem and that – I couldn’t bear not doing Jerusalem [laughs]!
What’s next, stage or screen?
I think I’d like to do another play; I haven’t done a play other than Jerusalem for two and a half years. I’m not too sure what I’m capable of anymore so I’d love to do a part that I know I can do but I’m not sure how I’m going to get there. To be scared again, really challenged. I want to be surprised.
If you weren’t an actor what would you be?
I think I would like to compose music.
What has been your favourite point of your career so far?
I’ve got quite a lot! The last night on Broadway, Mark gave an extraordinary speech during the curtain call. You think it hits you all the time about how lucky and extraordinary the situation is that me, Charlotte [Mills] and all of us from the cast have been chucked into, but at that point we’d managed to get through a five month run on Broadway – which is always risky – and we knew we were going back to the West End in five weeks time and it was just amazing to be on that stage with all those people, I absolutely love them. I’m not just saying that, they really are really special people.