Q&A: Will Kemp

Published December 18, 2013

There’s a saying in America that is whispered amongst those in the know in the performing arts about that most feared of competitors, the triple threat. As one of the UK’s most well-known dancers, an actor whose Hollywood credits include horror blockbuster Van Helsing and a model who famously turned down a contract with Giorgio Armani, I think it’s fair to say that Will Kemp can wear that label with pride.

Boasting a career that has taken him from stages in London to Japan, LA to New York and seen him become a regular face on television with appearances in series including everything from the BBC’s New Tricks to US guilty pleasure 90210, Kemp is going back to his roots this Christmas, appearing in the West End transfer of the Royal Opera House’s The Wind In The Willows.

To mark the hugely successful show’s opening week and its fifth ever run after premiering more than a decade ago, we quizzed the performer on childhood memories and West End ambitions, discovering if it hadn’t have been for an encounter with Michael Crawford at a very young age, Kemp’s life may have been very different indeed.

Describe The Wind In The Willows in six words.
Classic, imaginative, detailed, moving, charming and fun!

How did you feel when you heard the production would be transferring to the West End?
As it’s the first time the Royal Opera House has ever transferred anything into the West End, it was a chance to be a little part of history and help pave the way for future productions to live beyond the Royal Opera House. So I was thrilled!

What attracted you to appearing in The Wind In The Willows again?
Having been in the original 11 years ago, I have a very strong affinity with the production. I believe we have created a unique show that stays true to the classic essence of Kenneth Grahame’s book but clearly retells the story by combining speech, song, dance and puppetry.

What has been your favourite moment of being part of the production so far?
The production has always changed a little with each incarnation of the show and favourite moments are constantly being found through performing the show up to nine times a week. This time we are joined by several new cast members in key roles, most of whom I have worked with before on other projects and are all extremely talented. It’s great to be working with Clemmie Sveaas as Mole again. She is a beautiful dancer and a fantastic actress. We have several lovely moments and duets together. Her Mole really grounds my Ratty!

What first sparked your interest in performing?
I remember being taken to see Michael Crawford in Barnum at the London Palladium when I was five and I had never seen anything on that scale before and it left a huge impression on me. When I started dance classes aged nine, I found a new connection and freedom. By the age of 13 I knew that I had found a new way of communication and what it was that I wanted to do for a profession.

What is your fondest childhood memory?
Making movies at the bottom of the garden with my father’s VHS tape deck connected to a huge over the shoulder camera and directing my brother and sister dressed up as soldiers.

What is the finest performance you have ever seen?
When I’m in London I try and see as much as possible. For me it’s usually a combination of performances that inspire me, but I still can’t get Jude Law’s death scene in Hamlet out of my head and his Henry V is so incredibly detailed with such a deep understanding of text and circumstances.

If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
Gosh, this is a tough question… Many of the jobs I have done feel like a fantasy production with a dream cast! I was recently on a set with Peter Fonda, playing Alicia Silverstone’s love interest and being directed by Darren Star [the creator of television series including Beverly Hills, 90210 and Sex And The City]. There are so many great people in the world I work in that each job brings its own realisation of certain fantasies…

You’ve worked across the world. Where has been your favourite place to perform?
I love Japan. But it’s more than just the performing and loyalty of the fans, it’s the culture, the food, the beliefs and the way in which you feel like you’ve landed on a different planet. I am actively looking for things to do there in order to take my family and introduce my children to the culture and way of life.

Dancing or acting?
I moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago because that’s where the acting work was coming from. I thought I had stopped dancing but I surprised everyone, including myself, when I returned to revive Willows last year. With its transfer to the West End I just couldn’t resist. My respect for a dancer’s life goes up tenfold when I return to this kind of work. It’s the most hardworking, disciplined, physically and mentally demanding job I’ve ever known!

Stage or screen?
I have had a good year working in film and TV, but I am always drawn back to the stage. It’s where I began and something I always want to return to. I have really enjoyed the rehearsal process and sharing the stage with such talented people night after night. Living a story from beginning to end, whether through dance or acting, live in front of an audience, is still a performer’s medium and the most rewarding artistically.

Who or what has inspired you?
Anybody who has had to overcome certain obstacles in order to fulfil their dreams. Success tastes sweeter, [is] appreciated more and, I think, lasts longer when fought for.

Do you have any regrets?
No. Life is too short.

What do you consider your big break?
As an actor, the film Van Helsing. As a dancer, [playing] the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Swan Lake brought me to America and gave me a great platform from which to work. Van Helsing was one of the highest grossing films of that year and was seen throughout the world giving me a well-known point of reference as an actor.

Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
Something that’s becoming more inevitable but that I find harder now is leaving my family to travel for work. Relationships are often put under a lot of pressure for any artist, but being away from your children definitely feels like a sacrifice and makes you really think hard about the job in hand. Ultimately it makes me more focused because if I’m going to be away from my family then I had better make it worthwhile.

What could you not be without?
I live a very active life and if I can’t do my usual exercise of yoga, martial arts, running or have time in the gym I start to go a little crazy. People close to me will tell you that I’m happiest when I am active.

Do you have a pre-show routine or any rituals?
I enjoy the whole ritual before a show. Travelling into the West End, doing company class, making sure I’ve eaten enough but not too much, stocking up the fridge with fluids, putting on make-up, getting into costume and warming up just before the curtain rises. If it’s a play I’m doing then I run my entire dialogue through at speed just to remind myself that I know it inside out.

Where do you head after a performance?
It takes me a while to calm down after a performance and I’m usually the last one out the theatre. If I have guests in then I may meet them in my dressing room or out somewhere for dinner. Saturday night I try and make a cast night in a pub as I tend not to drink during the week and choose to head straight home to a hot Epsom Salt bath and bed.

What ambitions would you like to fulfil?
Seeing what’s going on in the West End, it seems to me that you have to be a well-known name to open a play. I would love to get to a point in my career where my work in TV and film allowed me to come back and headline a great play.

How would you like to be remembered?
In this day and age to be remembered at all is an achievement in itself!