It is hard not to slip into cliché when talking about The Lord Of The Rings, but when, on a visit to interview leading lady Laura Michelle Kelly, I am led across a pitch black Drury Lane stage, stumbling over the set and walking into metalwork along the way, it is particularly difficult not to describe the ordeal as a quest. At the end of this short, harrowing, adventure there is an elven queen waiting for me, writes Matthew Amer.
This particular elven queen is wearing jeans and a floaty top, rather than the bejewelled trappings of her position seen in all the promotional material for the show, but is no less radiant for it. There is something distinctly elven about Kelly, not in the high cheek-boned, daintily featured kind of way, though there is a touch of that too, but in her nature. Tolkien's elves are a race of honesty and purity. After a short time with Kelly, these are the words that spring to mind. There is no pretence about a performer who is undoubtedly one of the biggest talents in the West End at the moment; no airs, no graces, just an everyday girl who won’t even take credit for her talent.
As a performer she has so much talent – and, after originating the role of Mary Poppins, it is high-profile talent – that it is a little surprising to find her in what is essentially a supporting role. Elf queen Galadriel, though she is an important character in the story of The Lord Of The Rings, does not drive the plot. She does not embark on the quest to save Middle Earth, but is rather a friend met along the way.
For an actress who could now be commanding leading roles, it is an interesting decision to take on a character that does not appear until the second half of the show. "For me it was about being part of a theatre family again," she explains, "and it was interesting to me that I'd get to do something completely different to any other character I'd played, that I wouldn't be on the stage the whole time, that I'd be able to support the guys."
"I'll probably have a lot of time to be able to put my feet up"
Support she does, for once she has made her spectacularly magical entrance – "It's quite an interesting entrance, yeah. I think we can say it's very special" – she remains fully part of the performance, whether on stage or singing in the wings. In fact, even before she has appeared, she isn't slacking in her dressing room, though, she giggles, "I did actually think, 'I'll probably have a lot of time to be able to put my feet up', but I don't, and actually I'm grateful, because I love working hard." In truth, it takes Kelly an hour and a half to complete her transformation into Galadriel.
"I love it here, I just love it," she giggles in the most endearing way possible. "This [her dressing room] is like my home, actually. I get lots of friends, during the show, coming in. Lots of the cast come in." The dressing room is indeed quite homely and has enough space for a shire’s worth of hobbits and dwarves, though whether a cast of over 50 humans would fit in at one time is questionable, especially when you consider that there is not enough room in the theatre for them all to warm up together; they have to have three separate groups. This doesn't stop Kelly meeting the whole team before each performance, though: "I go to all of them! I just want to see everyone, it's brilliant. I'm incredibly warmed up!"
Indeed, when I arrive, there are cast members enjoying a break from rehearsals in a dressing room that feels more like an unofficial green room than the boudoir of an elf queen.
As she sits, drinking a can of Coke, she seems truly happy to be back in the West End and starring in The Lord Of The Rings in particular. She professes that the people working on the project are making it a real delight to be a part of, and may tempt her to extend her contract past December. In addition to the opportunity to work with director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Nightingale and the rest of the creative team, the project itself intrigued her: "In every show you go to there's something you haven't seen before," she explains, "but I do keep describing this as a new generation of musical because it's more like a play with music, in that the songs really progress the story in a different way. That's the reason that I wanted to be part of this, because it was supposed to be a new level of theatrical experience, which is what I want out of life; I want to experience something new and I love sharing something new with an audience. I do think they'll be blown away by a lot of things they'll see, because that's what I was like."
When Kelly talks, it is with an honesty and openness that is as enchanting as Galadriel's ethereal forest home of Lothlorien. Schoolgirl-ish giggles are scattered liberally though her answers, which come with a casualness and naturalness that hint at naivety. It is not naivety – after years in the business, she knows how it works – but a real humbleness and enthusiasm that, coming from someone at the top of the theatrical tree, takes you slightly by surprise. The suggestion that she might not have had to audition for Galadriel, based on her numerous leading roles and Mary Poppins in particular, is met with disbelief and worry that this would ever be the case. "I hate getting jobs and not having to prove myself first," she protests, saying that she always wants to audition. "I don't ever want to think that it's easy, because you stop working hard."
"Nothing makes me more special than anyone else, except that I've had so many people help me"
This is a slight contradiction, as Kelly does not really register that to progress to her position, she must have worked hard. From her West End debut in Beauty And The Beast, she went on to play leading roles in Mamma Mia!, My Fair Lady, Les Misérables, Whistle Down The Wind and Peter Pan, before making her Broadway debut in Fiddler On The Roof and returning to the UK as Mary Poppins. Kelly simply argues, using a phrase that could easily have dropped from the mouth of the magical nanny, that "if you find your jobs fun, you don't remember the hard work you've done." It is hard to argue with someone with that wide a smile on their face.
She also refuses to take any credit for what she has achieved; not her swift movement through the performing ranks, her winning of one of the most sought-after roles in recent years, or her triumph at the Laurence Olivier Awards. "It's certainly not me; it's certainly not what I do," she says, without a trace of cynicism. "Nothing makes me more special than anyone else, except that I've had so many people help me get here. It makes me feel incredibly unworthy and very grateful for the opportunity."
The lack of appreciation for her own talent is only matched by a complete disinterest in fame. The profile gained by being the actress to bring Mary Poppins to the stage was something she barely seemed to give a second thought to, focusing more on her performance. "It's not all about will I be successful at this, it's about will I do a good job. I think if you think about it that way, then you'll endeavour to do your best."
Behind the giggling, excitable Kelly, there lies an inner strength that, I imagine, fed both her performance as Poppins and current character Galadriel. She knows who she is and how to stay true to that, and she is only influenced by those she trusts. "I think in the long run there's always much more success if you’re being true," she says, referring to life both on and off stage. This is possibly why the world of pop music did not agree with her.
"You go through an initiation into the pop world when you do an album," she says, for the first time sounding as though a shadow has fallen across her, "an initiation of huge disappointment and of it being completely not what you expected it to be. I did enjoy it, I enjoyed the creative process. It's the releasing of it, the pressure from the money men that makes it hard; people not quite getting you, you not quite getting yourself, not quite understanding who your own person is, and knowing that a lot of people, as images, are all made up."
"The fact that she's blond is good"
But again, the inner strength comes through. One would think, after hearing Kelly's downhearted appraisal of pop, that she would not follow up debut album The Storm Inside. On the contrary, she fully intends to release a second album and is already writing it; she will just do a few things differently this time around.
Kelly is much more upbeat about her film debut in Tim Burton's version of Sondheim's macabre Sweeney Todd. She nearly turned down The Lord Of The Rings as the completion of filming on the murderous musical clashed with the show's previews, but with a touch of elven magic she made it work. It is a project that many performers would gladly donate an organ to one of Mrs Lovett's pies just to be involved with; it is directed by Burton and starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Talk of Sweeney Todd leads to possibly the first time that I have ever been taunted by an interviewee. Kelly has a cast recording from the film, and, on this particular day, she has it in her dressing room. But she delights in telling me "You can't hear it" in a school-ground, sing-song fashion. "I wish I could play it to you," she says, trying to lift my disappointment, "but I’m not allowed". She even has it padlocked away to stop her own temptation to reach for the CD player.
"I know some people are going to go 'I can't believe it, she's singing rubbish'", she says of her Sweeney Todd performance as the Beggar Woman. "But for me, to be more authentic and fit in with the production, I made some choices that are going to surprise some people, I think."
There you have it again. For those film fans who don't know Kelly, their first impression of her will not be of a professional actress with a pure tone of voice, but of a rough, dirty sounding woman singing out-of-time. But image is not what matters to Kelly, it is the integrity of the performance, and her commitment to that belief is what will keep her in work for a long time to come. In the meantime she is focused on The Lord Of The Rings and a character she enjoys playing for reasons both understandable and endearingly bemusing: "It's another powerful woman part… and the fact that she's blond is good.” em>MA