Ruby Wax, the fast-talking, quick-quipping actress, comedienne, writer and documentary-maker is currently starring as The Grand High Witch in David Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s splendidly macabre The Witches at the Wyndham’s theatre. Tom Bowtell caught up with Ruby for a chat and just about managed to keep up as she answered his questions with the verbal velocity of a conversational cheetah.
Believe the hype. Ruby Wax IS Ruby Wax. This might sound odd (let’s face it, it does sound odd) but what I’m saying is, that unless she was acting throughout our chat, her persona isn’t an, er, act. She really is as fast talking, sharp-tongued and effervescent as she seems during those legendary interviews with celebrities ranging from Pamela Anderson to OJ Simpson. Ruby Wax is also her real name, not, as I had assumed, a snappy pseudonym adopted to reflect her vivacity.
I approach the interview with slight trepidation: how should one interview an interviewer? Is Ruby going to expect me to be outrageous and ask her naughty questions about intimate subjects? Such rumination becomes irrelevant as soon as proceedings begin: interviews usually last about half an hour (I’m not afforded the three full days that Ruby revelled in for her TV specials), this one lasted for around ten minutes. Rather disappointingly, this isn’t because I asked a question so outrageous that Ruby abandoned our chat in high-dudgeon, indeed she answered all my questions with the panache one would expect: it’s just that Ruby reallydoesspeakreallyreallyquickly.
“I don't think she's a vamp: I think she's nuts”
The Grand High Witch – a tall, bald, club-toed, spiky fiend – is an ideal role for the famously exuberant Ms Wax, although she says that she intends to refrain from going too overboard with the character: “I’m going to make her real, like she’s a narcissist and she knows how funny she is – but she’s also like a Fuhrer, so she’s gotta lot of mood swings!” The Grand High Witch would also appear to be a role which allows Ruby to indulge her predilection for vampishness: “you know, I don’t think she’s a vamp – I think she’s nuts” points out Wax, before adding, intriguingly “it’ll be interesting – we’re sort of making things not quite what you’re expecting”. Any tips on what they’re going to be like? “I don’t know yet – we’ve ask for some things but we’ll have to wait and see.” Are feet going to be clubbed for the occasion? “I hope so”.
One of Ruby’s most glorious recent appearances came in Celebrity Fame Academy (which has just returned to our screens for a Rubyless sequel), where her committed and highly alternative renditions of songs such as Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boy and The Cheeky Girls’ Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum) earned her a place in the final. While The Witches does feature a sinister-yet-tuneful score by Matthew Scott, it will not, sadly, offer Ruby the chance to sing. “They haven’t asked me to a musical yet,” she admits, amazed; “but maybe after this…”
As this last comment underlines, there is a deliciously wicked side to Wax’s nature, which makes her ideally suited to the darker elements of Roald Dahl’s work: “I am a big fan of Roald Dahl – especially The Witches and Matilda – they’re great”. While his popularity with children has never wavered, some adults have had the opinion that the vividly grotesque nature of Dahl’s books makes them unsuitable for youngsters. Wax disagrees: “kids need it because they’re Harry-Pottered out – the darker the better”.
“They haven't asked me to do a musical yet!”
As all true Dahl fans should know, one of the darker, though inspired, elements of The Witches is the fact that its main character is permanently transformed into a mouse at a fairly early stage. While I have no wish to besmirch the acting talents of our rodenty friends, actual mice on stage would be invisible from beyond row c, which leaves me intrigued as to how the show will get around this problem: “I'm intrigued too!” chirrups Wax, “I think we’re using a range of puppets and Paul [Kieve], the guy who did the special effects for Harry Potter, has done this, so it should be pretty good!” (David Wood, who has adapted The Witches for the stage, is also a professional magician, so his advice will certainly have come in handy).
In addition to her work as an outlandish interviewer, Wax has also enjoyed considerable success as a comic writer (she is a script editor for Absolutely Fabulous) and as an actress. It is often forgotten that as well as comic cameos in institutions such as Red Dwarf and the aforementioned Ab Fab, Wax has also appeared in Measure For Measure, The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost for the RSC. Apparently, she often played the “wench” parts. Having initially been drawn to the world of straight acting, and now returning to the stage, would Ruby ever like to revisit her classical roots? “Yeah, I’d like to do more serious theatre work – If I was good at it. If I understood it, like I understand The Witches.” She is, however, refreshingly frank about the limitations she feels she has as an actress “if I knew I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it for the sake of it. Some of it I was terrible at, so I don’t want ever to be in that position again”.
Ruby Wax made her West End debut in a one-woman show, Wax Acts, directed by Alan Rickman, in 1992. Rickman and Wax were colleagues at the RSC and he is somebody she thanks for her transformation into her renowned guise of documentary innovator, comedy writer and über-zesty interviewer: “I had people like Ian Charleston and Alan Rickman at the RSC telling me to write comedy, do documentaries – they told me to follow this path”.
“I had Ian Charlson and Alan Rickman telling me to write comedy, do documentaries.”
Although she may have been encouraged by her peers to pursue her dream, the documentary genre was something Ruby actively wanted to reinvent: “it was something I really wanted to try and make that one up – and do something that no-one had done before”. Ruby is particularly proud of her earlier documentaries, including East Meets Wax, where a pregnant Ruby travelled across Russia performing comedy, which was translated by a beautiful translator who didn’t get the gags. The developing relationship between the two became the hook for the film, which was interspersed with Ruby’s interviews with the Russian public. Another early(ish) Wax documentary, Ruby Meets Jerry Springer, was recently reshown as part of BBC 2’s controversial Jerry Night. This documentary featured a memorable moment when, after a typically fractious Jerry Springer show, Ruby manages to get all the protagonists to forgive each other for their misdemeanours.
A little surprisingly, Ruby Wax is rather grudging about her famous interviews with celebrities, quipping that she “worked down – not up” to meeting the stars. Despite her self-depreciation, Ruby's no-holds barred approach to interviewing, and her refusal to avoid talking about taboo subjects (she famously waggled boobs with Pamela Anderson), can actually have a positive humanising impact upon the celebrities – even if they find some of her more pointed questions slightly uncomfortable.
When I ask her, Ruby can’t remember a time when she genuinely offended someone during the course of a programme, and she agrees that, for some reason, stars seem to respond more openly to her full frontal assault than they do to the cagier approach of others. Obviously putting one’s subject at ease is an important skill for any interviewer, but the rapport Ruby builds up with her celebrities often seems to teeter intriguingly near to genuine fondness: is this ever the case? “I have made some good friends – Carrie Fisher and Rosanne in particular”.
“I have made some good friends – Carrie Fisher and Rosanne in particular.”
While Ruby was the world’s first purveyor of the alternative in-yer-face interview, the trail she so scarletly blazed has recently been followed by Louis Theroux, who has applied his own endearingly-baffled interviewing style to the likes of Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee and the Hamilitons. Would Ruby consider doing a special one-off interview with Louis? “Well you can’t have two people talking at once…so I guess it would be pretty hard!” Ruby was once asked what would happen if she interviewed herself. Apparently she paused before quietly murmuring “I’d love it”.
Our whirlwind interview concluded, I leave Ruby to race off to practice her maniacal laughter and mouse-boy torturing skills. The Witches is currently previewing at the Wyndhams theatre and will open on 9 March.