Pippa Bennett-Warner must have one of the most impressive CVs going for an actress still in her early 20s. Before she had even trained at one of the most prestigious drama schools in the country she’d starred at the National Theatre and before graduation she’d appeared on the Almeida theatre stage and had been cast opposite Derek Jacobi in Michael Grandage’s acclaimed King Lear. That’s not even to mention her turn as a child star in Disney’s The Lion King.
Charlotte Marshall talks to the actress about how watching her sister on stage gave her the acting bug, pesky school work interrupting her chance of a record contract, the fear of forgetting lines and her current role in the Royal Court theatre’s The Witness.
CV in brief
1999 Appears as Young Nala in one of the original casts of Disney’s The Lion King
2006 Stars in Caroline, Or Change at the National Theatre
2010 Appears in BBC series Case Histories
2010 Plays Sophie in the Almeida theatre’s acclaimed Ruined
2010/11 Stars as Cordelia in King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse and at BAM in New York
2011 Returns to the National Theatre to appear in The Swan and King James Bible
2011 Returns to the Donmar Warehouse for Richard II
2012 Currently playing Alex in The Witness in the Royal Court’s Jerwood Upstairs theatre.
What first got you interested in acting?
My sister and I went to an all-girls prep school and we did a school production of Oliver and my sister played Oliver. I saw her doing it and it was the classic thing of wanting to do what your sibling does, so I think that was where I got the bug from. Then the singing came and the straight acting came after that.
Did you want to be a singer before you decided to be an actor?
Yes, it was something I was very keen on pursuing and I nearly had a record deal but it didn’t work out because of school work and things. Singing was the thing that I loved the most and then I found the acting through the singing.
Could you imagine going back to just singing now?
No because I’ve fallen completely in love with straight acting. Singing is still something I like to do, but I don’t think professionally I would be good enough.
You combined singing and acting for your first role in The Lion King when you were only 11-years-old. What was that experience like?
It was so brilliant. I remember there were six of us that got chosen, three young Nalas and three young Simbas, and I think all of us went through about nine rounds of auditions, which was, at the time, pretty intense, but also you don’t kind of realise because you’re 11 and you’re in this bubble and it’s just like a big game or something, you don’t take it that seriously. But when I got the part I just remember being completely elated. Doing it for six months, including rehearsals, was just the most exciting experience. Working with Julie Taymor was a dream. She’s a complete genius.
Is it true you got your first job at the National Theatre in Caroline, Or Change at the same time as being accepted into RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]?
When I was leaving senior school I sent my CV out to loads of agents and I got one response from a child agency in High Wickham and I went with them. Two weeks after signing with them I got sent up for Caroline, Or Change and I was also auditioning for RADA at the same time. I got both things and I was in a complete dilemma because you can’t go to RADA and do a job. So we made the decision that I would do the job and then would hopefully go to RADA the next year, which is what happened.
After the show was such a success, were you tempted just to carry on working and not go to drama school?
Totally tempted not to. But I can hold my hand up and say I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t trained for three years. I think drama school is so important. If this is something that you really love and really want to do then I would recommend it to anybody.
In your final year you won the role of Cordelia in the Donmar Warehouse’s King Lear. How did you feel when you found out you’d got it?
I was doing Ruined at the Almeida and I remember getting the call from my then agent saying Michael Grandage wants to see you for Cordelia and I was so excited but tried to keep a lid on it because I thought there’s no way. So I auditioned and I remember he said to me: “If it goes to the next stage, I’ll bring you back in to read with Derek Jacobi”, and then of course that happened and I remember getting the call and screaming down the phone to my agent because it was the best job of my life.
Was it daunting having to do an audition and then work with Derek Jacobi?
No because he’s so warm and so inviting and he makes you feel at ease as soon as you’re around him. He’s so wonderful. Obviously there are the nerves of doing the audition but actually doing the reading with him, I felt so at ease because he’s just like a beacon of warmth, he’s just glorious.
Tell me about your character in The Witness.
I play a character called Alex. She’s a very intelligent 19-year-old who has been adopted by white parents; she was rescued from the Rwandan genocide by Danny Webb’s character. She grows up in a white middle-class area in London in Hampstead, goes to Cambridge University, has a bit of a rough time at Cambridge for whatever reason and wants to try and rediscover her roots. She’s very strong, she’s witty, she’s incredibly vulnerable and totally naive. That kind of 19-year-old persona when you think you know everything but you don’t.
Did you have to do any research for the role?
Yes, I did loads of research about Cambridge, the university, and the halls and where she would be living. Loads of research on Rwandan genocide – looking at photos you can’t believe you’re seeing what’s actually happened. What happened there then was just… I mean it’s indescribable. I watched Hotel Rwanda for the first time and was a mess afterwards. You’re sort of speechless at the end of it.
Did you do the research as a company or did you do it individually?
We did it at a company. Simon’s [Godwin, the director] very good at group participation and everybody getting their research done together, so it’s an open floor which is really helpful. When it’s a tiny cast it’s good because everyone’s very open together, I think that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most actually.
Are you looking forward to performing in such an intimate space?
I can’t wait, I think it’s going to be awesome. The set is brilliant and I find that when I go into these spaces, you just go into that world and the audience and the size of the space goes out of your head because you’re like: ‘Okay, we’re in our world and we’ve done this a million times in the rehearsal room, let’s just do this’.
What’s been your favourite job so far?
I’ve loved every single job I’ve done, but I think my favourite has to be King Lear; I made some of my closest friends and I had such a great time. It was such a long job and we were such a happy company, I’ll always look back on that with such fondness because it was brilliant.
DC Moore wrote your part in The Swan specifically for you. How does it feel to have a role written for you?
Well I didn’t believe him when he told me to start with! He’d seen me in King Lear and then I met him at the Oliviers after-party and he told me that he’d written me this part and I wasn’t going to be able to do it because of King Lear and I was like [adopts disappointed tone] ‘Oh, okay’, and then it turned out that luckily I was able to do it. He’s brilliant, such a great writer and that script was great.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
The mixture of the terror and the thrill of it. Being in front of a live audience every night and getting to go on your character’s journey every night is such a great thing. [It’s] a really exciting thing because things change, audiences change, you change, your character changes every night, no two performances can be the same so I think that spontaneity of not knowing where it could go tonight is probably the most exciting thing.
..and the worst?
Forgetting a line! Forgetting things is my biggest fear.
Has it happened to you?
In New York I was really jet lagged when we doing King Lear – we’d been doing it for about five months I think at that point – I was so tired and I forgot my lines and I just beat myself up about it, it was a really bleak moment [laughs]. But you just have to accept that you will, over a course of five months, forget your lines and, come on, we’re only human.
How do you spend your time when you’re not working?
I’m very boring! Normally I just see friends or I go and see my parents who live in Buckinghamshire, I hang out with my sister, I like to write, I love reading. I don’t party – my sister’s always like ‘You need to get a life!’ [laughs]. Hanging out in parks and things, that’s my kind of thing.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
Something quite creative. At one point I wanted to be a doctor but I think it would be something like fashion editing, fashion styling or something to do with advertising.
What plans do you have next?
I’m not looking that far ahead yet, purely because I want to get this up and in a place where I can feel free to have the brain space to think about other things; at the moment it’s very much ‘The Witness, The Witness, The Witness’.
We’ll see what happens; it’s very exciting not knowing what’s coming round the corner I think.