In one 20 minute phone call, Sharon Rooney uses the word ‘amazing’ 10 times. Sometimes repetition like this can be an indicator of a strained interview or a distracted interviewee but nothing could be further from the truth with Rooney.
Enthusiastic, engaged and humble, all the ‘amazings’ – and subsequent disbelieving tone – is all down to the emerging star’s new found love affair with the stage and, to be precise, performing in Phyllida Lloyd’s acclaimed follow-up to 2012’s Julius Caesar, an all-female Henry IV.
Returning to Julius Caesar’s prison-setting, the production opened to a tidal wave of praise earlier this month, with Rooney more than once singled out for her impressive stage debut. While she’d likely equate this with working with her “disgustingly talented” co-stars, even without having to witness her performance fans of My Mad Fat Diary would no doubt disagree.
Starring in the acutely observed and emotionally affecting breakthrough E4 series as Rae, a teenager struggling with mental health issues, the series marked the Glasgow actor’s big break. But, as I found out when I chatted to the actor following Henry IV’s press night, her current role on the Donmar Warehouse’s prestigious stage might just be another one of those breaks in the making…
CV in brief:
2012-2014: Stars as Rae in E4’s critically acclaimed My Mad Fat Diary
2014: Makes an appearance in the BBC’s cult series Sherlock
Oct 2014: Makes professional stage debut in Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse
Henry IV marks your professional stage debut. How are you finding doing eight shows a week?
I think because I’m enjoying it so much I haven’t really noticed that I’ve been tired! It’s just so fun.
Who do you play in the production?
I play two characters; Gadshill, which is one of the boys, and Lady Percy, Hotspur’s wife, who is an amazing character to play.
Why is she so great to play?
Just because she’s such a strong woman. She gets a chance to vocalise how she feels and what she thinks, it’s not what I expected of playing Lady Percy. I didn’t know the play before I got cast in it; I thought she would be just crying and letting her husband get away with things, but she doesn’t at all, she stands up for what she believes in. I really love playing her.
Has it been exhilarating working on such a radical version of Shakespeare?
It’s been amazing. When I got offered this job I was really nervous because I thought: ‘I’ve never done a stage play. I’ve never done anything in the West End. I’ve never done Shakespeare. Ermmmmm… can I do this?’ [But] the way that Phyllida works is that you understand what’s going on constantly, and if you don’t understand it’s fine to ask. I felt like a baby approaching something for the first times and my eyes had been opened. I always assumed that I was someone who didn’t get Shakespeare, but actually when you give yourself a chance and you just listen to it, you understand more than you think. Phyllida’s an amazing woman who taught me that I do understand Shakespeare.
How does Phyllida work with the script? Is it set by the time you start rehearsals or do you develop it together?
We created a lot, which was amazing for me because coming from mostly a telly background, you don’t get that opportunity to try things. It was so cool to go into a rehearsal see what works and what doesn’t work. There was no right or wrong. It’s a really cool way of working.
What attracted you to appearing in the production?
I know Phyllida’s work and the chance to work with her, the chance to work with Harriet [Walter] and all these fantastic women, and to work in the West End, I just thought ‘I have to do this, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ And I’m so glad I did.
How has it been working with people like Harriet Walter?
It’s amazing, every single one of those girls has taught me something, and they continue to teach me things. Even little things like what do you do on opening night? Do we get each other cards or presents?! I’m so new to this world.
It’s such a family, it’s been amazing. It’s just constant laughs! We have so much fun and even if you have a day when you’re not feeling great or you’re tired or something’s happened, they’re just there for you. I think I’ll be lost without them when this show finishes, it’s like I’ve got 13 new big sisters!
How has it felt working with just women in the cast?
It’s funny, I thought it would be quite difficult to have just all girls, because you know what girls are like. But actually I haven’t noticed. When I see Jade [Anouka], I just see my husband because of the way she plays it and what a fantastic job she’s doing. When I see Liz [Chan], I don’t think of Liz, I see a Father-in-Law. For Harriet I see the King.
It just feels really good to know that here we are, all these girls, different ages, different sizes, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and here we are taking on a huge play, playing boys, playing girls and just doing it. It’s kind of empowering to know that we can do it, but it’s also just kind of lovely just to be a little part of it.
Has there been talk of the show transferring to New York like Julius Caesar?
I don’t know, but I would love that! It would be like the cherry on the top of the cake. Can you imagine going to New York with these girls? It would be like the best holiday ever!
Lots of people will know you from My Mad Fat Diary. Is there going to be a third season?
I still have hope, but I don’t have anything confirmed which is really frustrating because everyone asks me. I would like to [do another season] because I think she’s got one more in her. I think we should finish the story, I don’t think it’s finished yet…
Rae’s such an amazing character, so many people love her.
In the first series, I just thought ‘What if they don’t love her as much as I love her?’ It’s a funny old world because [I thought] it might just be teenage girls [who love her], but it’s not. It’s younger girls, older girls, men, fat people, thin people; so many people come and say ‘I relate to Rae.’ It makes me feel so happy that finally there’s someone that people can relate to, with problems that people can relate to. It’s really special. I also feel very lucky and very blessed that it’s helped people talk about things.
If you had to pinpoint a moment from your career so far as a highlight, what would it be?
To work with Phyllida has just been an amazing, amazing thing. I’ve always wanted to work with her because Mamma Mia! has a very special place in my heart. I always hoped that one day I would get to meet her, so working with her and that moment when she comes in the dressing room and says ‘That was a really good show, well done’, you can’t buy that. It’s amazing.
What is your favourite thing about being on stage?
It’s the thrill. It’s live and there’s no going back. Once you open your mouth, that’s it. You have to be on the ball all the time.
The most special thing for me is that I get to sing a song on stage in the West End. It’s like my biggest dream come true. It was always something I wanted to do, but I thought ‘I’ll never get the opportunity’ and Phyllida’s given me that opportunity, so every night I have to pinch myself.
Have you found any of it scary or nerve-wracking?
I’m a bit like ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens.’ That’s an attitude that I’ve learnt as I’ve got older. If this had been five years ago I would have gone: ‘I cannot do that, I cannot sing on stage, nope, no way, I’m not doing it.’ Whereas now I just think: ‘Come on, there’s 14 of us’ and the girls always have your back. That’s the best thing about it, knowing that no matter what happens, these 13 girls have my back and I have theirs.
They’re so supportive, they couldn’t be better actually. It’s kind of annoying how lovely and talented they are. It’s quite disgusting actually how talented they are!
Have you caught the theatre bug then?
I’d love to do more. I think I have got the bug! There is no feeling like it. It’s funny because a lot of my friends have done theatre and they said ‘You won’t be able to sleep until really late, you’ll be up all night’ and I was going ‘I love sleep, are you joking?! As soon as I get in, 11 o’clock I’ll be in my bed.’ You’re totally not. I’ve got so much adrenaline.
Are you going out a lot after the show with the cast then?
There’s always so many lovely people at the shows that we’re always staying to say hi to them. We’re going out next week for my birthday, which I’m really excited about. I’m sad about turning 26, I don’t feel like I’ve had enough of being 25.
Lastly, if you weren’t an actor what would you be doing now?
I wanted to be a nurse. I still actually would like to be a nurse, I’m so fascinated by medical stuff.
I always assumed that I was someone who didn’t get Shakespeare... Phyllida’s an amazing woman who taught me that I do understand"