Jill Winternitz is going from one epic love affair to the next at the moment. First, the RADA graduate made her West End debut as Baby in one of the 20th century’s most popular love stories, Dirty Dancing, and now she is swapping watermelons for pianos to star in what could just become one of the great romantic tales of the 21st, hit Irish musical Once.
‘Hit’, in fact, doesn’t quite cut it anymore after the deeply moving film to stage adaptation became a double Olivier Award winner last month; one bronze statuette awarded to its musical team for the show’s powerful, eclectic score and the other to Winternitz’s predecessor Zrinka Cvitešić.
While the Californian star, who will begin performances opposite new leading man David Hunter tonight, admitted in our revealing Q&A that the prospect of following in award-winning footsteps was a tad daunting, we also discovered a genuine love for the show and a passion that reminded us just a touch of the show’s feisty heroine.
What first sparked your interest in performing?
My mother signed me up for tap dancing classes when I was in third grade and I just couldn’t get enough. I was a bit of a ham in the performances and always had the biggest grin. I fell in love with the whole process of ‘putting on a show’!
Had you seen Once before you were cast in it?
I’ll admit it, I’m a big Once fan. I saw the show on Broadway last year and loved it. Of course I then wanted to see it in London too. So yes, a few times!
What are you most looking forward to about starring in Once?
Working with such a talented group of actor-musicians and being immersed in the gorgeous soundtrack each night.
Is it nerve-racking following in the footsteps of an actress who won an Olivier Award for the role?
Absolutely! It’s more inspiring than anything else. Both Cristin [Milioti, who originated the role on Broadway] and Zrinka leave big shoes to fill. But I feel honoured to have this opportunity and look forward to making the role my own.
How are you and co-star David Hunter planning to make the roles your own?
For me, that’s all we really can do. That’s the job, taking this moving story and bringing our own humanity to it. I think that’s essential to what makes Once so brilliant, it feels so real which makes it incredibly relatable.
Does it feel odd having to fall in love with someone every night on stage?
I’ve been falling in love with someone eight times a week for the last 20 months with Dirty Dancing so it feels normal, oddly! We all enjoy a good love story, eh?
What is your favourite moment in the show?
My current favourite is Gold. There’s nothing like being surrounded by such powerful music and energy. The scene is directed in the most magical way. It’s a hugely significant moment in Girl’s journey.
If you could create a fantasy production to star in for your next stage production, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
I have so many passion projects it’s hard to choose, but I think it would have to be Hedda Gabler. I’ve wanted to play Hedda since I was a teenager! My dream director would be Lyndsey Posner or Jamie Lloyd. I’d cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Judge Brack.
You studied acting at UCLA, the Moscow Art Theatre School and RADA. How did such an eclectic education come about?
It wasn’t planned out exactly. I always dreamed of training at a great conservatory and found that drama training in the university setting wasn’t right for me. I went to Russia because it felt like the Mecca of contemporary acting and because I have an overwhelming love of Chekhov. I wanted to see for myself how the craft is taught and what the scene is like over there… And I was tempted to stay! I auditioned and won a place at RADA just after I returned from Moscow. Nicholas Barter – the principal at the time – is the most insightful and accomplished teacher and I knew there was nowhere else I’d rather train.
What is the finest performance on stage you have ever seen?
I saw a Royal Court production of 4.48 Psychosis with Marin Ireland, Jo McInnes, and Jason Hughes. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so arrested by a piece of theatre.
Do you have a pre-show routine or any rituals?
A good warm-up, listening to music whilst I get ready, and sometimes Rescue Remedy.
What do you do when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
I’m big on yoga. I also love reading and gardening.
What is your favourite thing about living in the UK?
My favourite aspect of living in London is the breadth of culture. On any given day there are so many events, festivals, plays, concerts, parks, markets, museums etc you can check out. It’s such an inspiring place.
Who or what has inspired you?
My father. He’s the most positive, caring, hard-working person I know.
Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
The biggest sacrifice has been living so far away from my family in San Diego. I miss them like crazy.
What would you choose as a last meal?
Sushi. That’s the Californian in me coming out.
What will always, without fail, bring a smile to your face?
Cats. I’m a big fan. I was thrilled to discover that the Phoenix Theatre has a neighbourhood cat that visits every day.
What one book, one film and one album would you recommend?
Book: The Master And The Margarita by Bulgakov (it’s magical); Film: Waiting For Guffman (it’s hilarious); Album: Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (classic).
If you had to star in one other show currently on in the West End, what show would you choose?
Anything at the Donmar Warehouse or the National would be swell.
If you weren’t a performer, what would you be?
Probably a doctor. I come from a very long lineage of doctors. Hopefully I will get cast as one someday so I can continue the legacy!