When I talk to Jessica Daley she has just come out of tech week, that most famous of exhausting weeks in a show’s life cycle where actors are contained in a dark theatre for long hours and relentless rehearsals. It’s also mid-morning and I’m already relying on several cups of mahogany-coloured tea to keep me buoyed up. But not Daley. Perhaps it’s all red bull and protein bars or maybe it’s an actual genetic difference between journalists and performers, but I get the feeling that this giggling, Tigger-like actress at the end of the phone line needs no artificial stimulants to keep her infectiously bouncy northern accent going a million miles an hour.
It could also be excitement of course, as Daley gets set to make her West End debut in the new cast of Mamma Mia! tonight, something she has dreamt of for as long as she can remember, and something that anyone who watched her down-to-earth but intimidatingly talented turn in Over The Rainbow will know was just a matter of time. Here she tells us exactly what that experience was like, how it never swayed her from her determination to go to drama school and why her two heroes are the unusually paired Debbie Harry and Barbra Streisand.
CV in brief:
2010: Survives six weeks of TV talent search Over The Rainbow
2010: Wins scholarship to attend leading drama school Arts Ed
2013: Makes West End debut in Mamma Mia!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Middlesbrough.
What first got you interested in performing?
I started dancing lessons when I was about three. I’ve always been a performer and I’ve always stood on coffee tables at parties and sung to people, it’s so embarrassing [laughs]. I’ve never ever thought about doing anything else seriously, I’ve always thought that I wanted to do this.
Your actual name is Jess Robinson, where did Daley come from?
I had to change it because there is another Jess Robinson and she’s really successful! Daley is a family name, it’s my Nan’s maiden name and I think it had more of a ring to it. I needed to find a name I didn’t need to keep repeating until people understand me with my accent!
Tell me about your character Ali in Mamma Mia!
We’re around the same age – I think she’s 20, I’m 21 – and I speak with my own accent in it. Some of her costumes are a bit… quirky, but she’s pretty much quite similar to me. We had a little chat with Emma [Crossley], who’s playing Sophie, and discussed who we thought our characters were and made up a backstory. I said she’s a photography student at university.
What has it been like rehearsing a West End show?
It hasn’t really hit me that it’s West End yet I don’t think! I was speaking to my college buddies who have gone into the show with me and we think it’s like an everyday rehearsals really, like college! Obviously the stakes are higher and it is a different experience. We’re learning constantly from the other company members who have worked before, which is really exciting.
So some of your friends from Arts Ed are in the new cast too?
Yes. It’s really nice. My friend Steph [Parry], who I was really good friends with before, we’re playing Ali and Lisa in it, so that’s really great that we’re in it together. It’s a really cool transition.
Tonight will mark your West End debut. Is that something you’ve dreamt about for a long time?
Oh my God, yes. It genuinely won’t hit me until opening night I don’t think. My dad actually called me a few months ago and he was clearing out the loft and said ‘I found this letter that you wrote to yourself when you were 13’. It sounds really cheesy, but I remember writing this letter. I went to see a college show back home and it turned out to be the college I went to when I left school. I was like ‘I went to see Hair tonight and I really loved it and I hope I get to go to Stockton Riverside College. I hope next time you read this you’re really happy with your career and you’ve made it to the West End.’ He read it out to me on the phone and I was crying, it’s so cheesy, but it’s crazy how things pan out.
I read on your Twitter that you have to have a fake tan for the show. Do you have to do that for every performance?
Basically we have to look like we’re on holiday so we do our tan and whenever we look remotely English or pale, they’re like ‘Go for it, tan more, tan more!’ so you go home and do it and wake up the next morning and get a fright in the mirror [laughs]. It is fun though. I was addicted to fake tan when I was 16; I think we’ve all been through the phase, so it’s like revisiting my childhood!
Have you had to make any other changes for the show?
Yes, I was blonde when I started and now I’m brunette again. Emma’s [Sophie] blond and Steph [Lisa] has always been blonde, and I walked in with massive roots because I was a student still and just couldn’t afford to get my hair done, and they obviously didn’t want three blondes so asked me if I wouldn’t mind going dark. I used to change my hair so much, in the past three years it’s been every colour under the sun, so we had a few cocktails before we went into this hair appointment, me and Steph, and I just sat down and said ‘just do it, dye it’.
Mamma Mia! is performing at West End LIVE later this month. Why should people come down for the weekend?
It’s such a great opportunity. It’s really nice to see different casts do snippets from shows and it’s just a really lovely day out. When we were in drama school, we were straight there because…. it’s theatre! Anything theatre related, get yourself there man.
The show was famously made into a film. What would be your dream role if you could be in any musical film adaptation?
I love Barbra Streisand so much and I love Funny Girl, but I’d be petrified to star in it because it’s my favourite and I’d hate to ruin it because it’s such an iconic role in a film. It would just be such a big challenge, but it’ll never happen!
Lots of people will remember you from Over The Rainbow. What was that experience like looking back?
It was such a learning curve. I know there’s mixed views on these shows now, but I loved every minute of it and had an absolute whale of a time. It happened at just the right time of my life. I learnt so much and it was a stepping stone on my way up, because I always knew I wanted to go and train too, but it gave me a bit more experience in areas I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on in drama school. It’s like an escape, you just run away to London and I was thrown into it. I was 18 at the time and I did learn so much and work with so many people and had amazing opportunities. There are people I’m still in touch with now, like people who worked behind the scenes and I’m moving in with two of the girls from it in July. It’s really cool, I made friends for life.
Was there ever a temptation to skip drama school after finding fame on the show?
I really wanted to train. I had my scholarship, I had my place at Arts Ed, which is one of the best places ever, it’s just incredible, I’ve had the best three years of my life there, and I thought ‘Do I really want to give that up? People would die to go to Arts Ed, people would die for a scholarship and I’ve got it there.’ Why the hell would I waste it? I thought ‘Whatever I can do to make myself more versatile or more employable or to prolong my career, then of course I’m going to do it’.
What do you do when you’re not working?
When I’m not working? [Struggles to make sense of the question]. Hmmm I don’t really know at the minute because I’ve literally gone from college straight into work, so I haven’t had a chance to stop and think about other things. It’s all systems go. I’d love to be able to write an EP sometime because I do love writing. I’d love to do some jazzy gigs, I love music, I love going to festivals and I’ve got loads of friends back home in the music scene. I want to do everything.
Lastly, if you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
I think I’d have gone down the music route and try and be in a band and try and be Debbie Harry. The only reason I went blonde was because I really wanted to be Debbie Harry.