The green room of the Almeida's rehearsal area is all brightly coloured chairs and sofas, and tables covered in piles of papers, reminiscent of a sixth form common room. That is somehow suitable for a meeting with Jenny Jules, as she is an actress with the infectious passion, verve and energy of an 18-year-old. Jules stars in the European premiere of Theodore Ward's Big White Fog, which she is taking a break from rehearsing when she meets Matthew Amer.
Jenny Jules is in a good mood. Having spent a short period of time with her, I find it hard to imagine her in a bad mood, as she has one of those personalities and presences that exude happiness, lifting the spirit of a room simply by sitting in it. Today's good mood is caused because she has just been fitted for her costume and now feels connected with Ella Mason, the character she plays in Big White Fog. Although she is nearing the end of the rehearsal process, it is only now, as she can picture an image of the character, that she can fully get to grips with her. The process of pulling on a costume, she says, "helps me put on the woman".
Ward's play was written in 1937, but is only now, 70 years later, receiving its European premiere. Jules's description of the piece starts concisely – "It's a fat one; it's a really massive play. It's like a modern classic: it's a classic structure and it's a classic play" – before moving onto a rather longer and more detailed breakdown.
"[Michael Attenborough] might just be Satan"
It follows an African American family in 1922 Chicago, in which Ella's husband, played by Danny Sapani, whole-heartedly believes in Marcus Garvey's Back To Africa Movement, while his brother-in-law, played by Tony Armatrading, is fighting to pursue the American dream. It is a piece that explores these political oppositions, while also examining family life and the experience of African Americans in Depression-era America.
"It does sound quite depressing," admits Jules, having taken time to delve into the depths of the plot. "It's not depressing; it's good writing and it's funny and it's quick and there are all sorts of other issues in it for everybody, for the black community, but also universal issues about families and about love and relationships and about people trying to be the best person they can be and then s**t happening to them which stops them from reaching their goals, from reaching their potential." And then she takes a breath.
Full of vigour she may be, but this is not to be confused with naivety. When it comes to the big issues that concern her, Jules takes on a seriousness which is no less passionate than her 100mph enthusiasm. She is pleased, for example, that the political debate of Big White Fog presents "intelligent black people who aren't just 'oh, we're suffering, oh we're being dragged down, look what's happening to us.'" She is also vocal about the fact that many of the issues examined by the piece are still incredibly relevant today, including the ongoing fight against racism and the plight of migrant workers.
This is Jules's first real outing at the Almeida, though she has coveted the idea of working at the Islington venue for quite a while. "I love the space," she explains, in a voice that gets faster to match her excitement levels. "I love being a member of the audience and experiencing a play at the Almeida and I really like the work they do. I just think it's really good quality and really high end cultural stuff. I want to wear the Almeida badge." It is a metaphorical badge she pins to her lapel with pride.
Her debut in the theatre she has lusted after came about remarkably easily. No long-winded auditioning process and repeated call backs on this occasion. Instead, the Almeida's Artistic Director Michael Attenborough offered her the role over a laid back lunch. He had seen Jules perform the marathon role of Undine Barnes Calles in Fabulation at the Tricycle, a role which put her onstage for nearly the entire one hour 50 minute performance, and decided she would be perfect for Ella. So keen was Attenborough that he booked Jules six months before rehearsals started. The actress snapped at the opportunity. The strong relationship between director and actor continued into the rehearsal room, where Jules describes Attenborough as "delicious".
"I'd walk along the tube and my nose would be on my forehead."
"It's easy to talk to him and to communicate," she says. "He's an accessible director." Cheekily, and in a way that is nothing if not endearing, Jules suggests that it could all change when they start technical rehearsals. "He might just be Satan," she explodes.
Jules first performed in Fabulation in February 2006 as part of an African American season at the Tricycle. The season drew together a group of black actors who stayed together for nearly six months to produce three back-to-back plays; rehearsing during the day and performing at night. An official ban was put on the word 'tired' – which Jules still refers to as "the T word" – and Jules's whole way of life was altered. She gave up alcohol, ate five meals a day to keep her energy up, and could not commute from Brighton each day, so stayed away from her south coast home, returning only at weekends. Yet even with the physical and mental strain the cast was under, Jules still considers that season one of the crowning glories of her career. "For me," she says, "technically, that's the best I've ever been. If I was an instrument, I would be used to my full effect. My voice was really strong, my muscles, my diaphragm, my stomach, everything was really strong."
As strong as everything may have been, there were still some worrying side effects that came with playing Undine for a length of time; she started to become her. "Undine used to arrive on my way to work," she laughs, "as soon as I'd be on my journey she'd just kick in, bang, Jekyll and Hyde. I'd walk along the tube and my nose would be on my forehead. I was so haughty, looking at everybody. It was just bonkers."
As a non-actor, I find it hard to grasp the frightening idea of another being just taking control of my actions for a period of time, but Jules revels in it, enjoying the feeling of being "inhabited by characters".
"I love it when actors come and work with me and say 'I don't want to play with you when you're a serial killer. There was a look in your eye and I didn't know if you knew that you had that look in your eye,'" she giggles slightly disturbingly as I edge slowly away from her.
Jules's CV includes as many productions at the Tricycle as the rest of her theatrical credits combined. She owes a lot to that theatre and to its Artistic Director Nicolas Kent. It was at the Tricycle as a child that she was first introduced to theatre through the youth theatre scheme, and it was Kent who, when Jules threatened to quit acting as she had become disillusioned with the profession, found her the right vehicle to pique her interest again. Jules now calls the Tricycle "home" and refers to Kent as her "godfather". "It's somewhere I absolutely love to perform," she says of the Kilburn venue.
"The maddest thing I've ever done. Absolutely crazy"
Yet Jules is also very quick to vehemently explain that she is not an actress who works exclusively with the Tricycle. She can, would and dearly wants to perform elsewhere. With the Almeida now under her belt, she has her eyes set on the Donmar Warehouse and the National. She is not afraid to put herself out there either. She knows that Donmar Artistic Director Michael Grandage saw her in Born Bad at the Hampstead, and she invited National head honcho Nicholas Hytner to Fabulation.
She has a confidence and belief that never really threatens to overflow into arrogance, and thinks she has earned the right to perform in London's most lauded venues. "I think it's about time. I've been doing this for ages. I keep feeling like I'm discovered every time, and that's kind of lovely because people can have their own experience of me and it's always unique, but at the same time… I know most actors feel like they're trudging through their career, trying to get noticed, but I don't want it to be that hard anymore; I want the artistic directors of those theatres to go 'yeah, I can give her a lead in my theatre.'"
Big White Fog is not actually Jules's first outing at the Almeida, as prior to this production she performed in A Chain Play. It was a one-off project that saw six writers create a piece for six actors which was rehearsed in just 12 days. Jules describes it as "the maddest thing I've ever done. Absolutely crazy. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed, and then we got on stage and s**t ourselves. It was so funny, we'd just look at each other with no trust; you pause, I speak, because I don't know what’s coming next." Still, like most of what Jules describes, it sounds like riotous fun and, though she protests that she might not do it again, it is with a gleam in her eye that suggests she just might.
Then again, that gleam seems to be there almost constantly, and especially when she talks about her job, however much she may feel it is a battle. "I love doing theatre," she says, "because you just literally have really concentrated periods of being with people and trying to tell stories." Big White Fog, though it is set in Depression-era America and tackles some very serious themes, is no different: "Everyone's onside, everyone loves what they're doing, everyone's really good at what they do, really excellent actors, and so we're having a good time.” With Jules around, I can't imagine anyone having anything other than that.
Big White Fog plays at the Almeida until 30 June.
For more from Jenny Jules, visit The Alternate.