She may already have won a handful of awards for her celluloid work and be a regular at the National Theatre of her native Croatia, but chances are you’ve not yet heard the name Zrinka Cvitešić. That could all change as she takes the leading role of Girl in new musical Once, which opens at the Phoenix theatre next month.
The winner of eight Tony Awards when it played on Broadway, the John Tiffany-directed show, based on an Oscar-winning film, is a tale of love, friendship and music that tells the story of a young Czech mother and an Irish busker.
When we chatted to the actress, who told us she had nightmares about forgetting her lines before previews began, we discovered an unfulfilled ambition, a surprise at conductor-less performance and how much her character had opened her eyes.
CV in brief:
2005: Stars in What Is A Man Without A Moustache (Wins the Best Actress Award at Sarajevo and Pula Film Festivals)
2010: Stars in On The Path (Wins Best Actress Award at Pula Film Festival)
2010: Wins Shooting Star Award at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival
2012: Stars in My Beautiful Country
2013: Makes West End debut in UK premiere of Once
Where did you grow up and how did you get into acting?
I grew up in a little town close to Zagreb. There was a little acting group in my primary school when I was six. I joined that first and then joined a youth theatre in my home town. After finishing secondary school I went to Zagreb and I joined the academy of drama.
My first goal was to study dance, but there was no dance academy at that time in Croatia, so I had to give up. My friend told me they thought I should try acting because then you can be everything; you can be a sportsperson, you can play piano, you can be a singer. That’s why I went to the acting academy.
What was your professional debut?
My first professional show was, I think, a rock musical for kids and youths. I played a female ant.
How are you feeling about making your West End debut?
At the beginning I was trying not to think that this was any different to my previous job. Now I’m okay. We’ve had, I think, 10 performances already in Dublin and every night we have standing ovations. It’s a full theatre, sold out and that’s given me the feeling that we must have done a good thing. I don’t think I’m afraid any more.
What made you want to be part of Once?
I had a lot of offers for this year, both movies and theatre. At this point in my life I was looking for something different to everything I’ve done so far in my life, and this is completely different. That made me go to the audition. After the audition I felt that it was something special I had on my hands. I had a week to decide whether to do two movies or this. I listened to my heart and my heart said this is the one for this year.
What can audiences expect from Once?
It’s not a typical musical. It’s not really a play. It’s a drama with music. I think it’s best that you just come with an open heart. Then you just have opportunities to be touched, to cry, to smile, to think of your life, to think of your relationship. I’m pretty sure that if you come with an open heart we will do everything for you.
Tell me a little bit about your character.
We are becoming the best friends ever. I’m learning so much. It’s so easy to follow this path that every one of us is trying to be on, chasing the better life, better car, more money. This play, and this role in particular, brings us to the basics of life, to family, to relationships, to caring for each other, to seeing others’ problems, to helping, to giving.
She’s so simple and she really believes in those things in life. She’s teaching me to be more open with people. When I’m in a new environment I always feel closed and threatened and vulnerable. She’s so open. Sometimes I feel that it would be easier to be naked on the stage than to play her because she puts her heart and her soul in the palm of your hand for two hours every night.
Which performers do you most admire?
I never had a big icon in my life that I thought I would like to be like. Even when I was a child I always wanted to be me, with all the wrong decisions. But I definitely have actors who I really admire. Number one is Meryl Streep. She really picked the right roles and the ones she felt she could do the best. I would like to be that honest with myself, that prepared and that patient.
What’s the most enjoyable thing for you about performing?
Right now it’s the most unbelievable task, to really be a band without a conductor. That’s huge. We were having music rehearsals with Music Director Martin Lowe. After the first week I panicked and asked “How will it happen on stage without you?” He said, “Okay, just sit down and let me tell you.” I’d had this question in my head everyday for months.
I think it’s the power of listening to each other and really feeling each other on stage. Usually if you’re a good actor you feel your partner 100%, but in this one you have to be 150% aware of where everybody is or of hearing every single breath on stage. This is like the most unbelievable thing on stage I was ever in. It’s happening and it’s getting more and more brilliant each night.
Is there anything about being a performer you don’t enjoy?
It is tough when you are working with not so talented directors who don’t know where to go with you, who don’t have the answers. That is difficult, because you have to be your own director in a way. When you’re an actor you need somebody to lead you and to guide you and to watch over you. If you don’t have that it’s difficult work. If you have it it’s just joy.