Carley Stenson has starred in two West End musicals, both based on hugely successful Hollywood films. The 29-year-old actress was the third Elle Woods in the Olivier Award-winning London run of Legally Blonde, and she is now the third Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical, which is set to run through February 2013 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Broadway.com caught up with the charming performer one recent afternoon to talk about takeovers, American accents and why she will never be in Wicked.
First Legally Blonde and now Shrek: You’re the go-to girl for taking over starring roles in the West End.
I know, and that can be a bit daunting because you sometimes get the feeling that people want to watch what they have already seen. But you just have to go in guns blazing and hope that you take over the role proudly. At least you know the show has been tried and tested and it works.
This must have been a nice job offer, since Dean Chisnall [Shrek] is a good friend of yours.
Dean comes from the next town over from me in the north of England, and we went to college together. What's amazing is that I came to see him especially in Shrek before I even realized I would be auditioning for the show. Now that we’re acting together every night, I feel like you can see Dean through Shrek. I mean, Shrek is different in his appearance and mannerisms, but he’s got Dean’s eyes and voice and soul.
Does this feel like a similar gig to taking over as Elle Woods?
With Elle, you had to hit the ground running and not stop until the final bows and that could be quite draining. Princess Fiona is a more tranquil role—a bit more chilled—and there are sections where she’s not doing anything for 20 minutes. But that can be equally draining in its own right: keeping the energy levels up.
Of course, both musicals were inspired by very well-known films.
I’d already seen the movies, and I couldn’t help but have them in mind. But what you have to remember is that neither of these characters sings on screen, and the scripts for the musicals take you in a totally different way, so that you have to stay true to the character as written.
Princess Fiona, unlike Elle, does allow you a fart joke.
[Laughs.] I have to say, I wasn’t looking forward to that at first but I’ve definitely gotten used to it! Anyway, it’s not as if they were going to take it out for me, so you have to just go with it. As I see it, [the joke] goes with the character.
You’re certainly getting the opportunity to perfect an American accent!
I hope so, though I do think sometimes there are little telltale signs that I’m not American. But, you know, I don’t really think of the parts in terms of the accents; to me, it’s about what defines the character, and the accent comes after that.
Have you been to Broadway yourself?
Oh my gosh, yes! I went in February and saw five shows, including Memphis, The Book of Mormon, Death of a Salesman and Spider-man. I’d like to think I might be able to work there someday; that would be lovely!
It’s interesting that you made a name for yourself on British TV and have only recently shifted to the stage.
My heart has always been in musical theater, and I was training and auditioning for musicals when I got the role in [British soap opera] Hollyoaks, where I then spent 10 years. I got into several drama schools but turned them down because I thought, “I can always go back to training but I can’t always go back to a job.” I don’t think many people would turn down a job in order to train for one!
But as Steph Dean in Hollyoaks, you did get to sing.
I did, although the ironic part is that for 10 years I was playing a character who wanted to sing but really couldn’t and every time you heard her sing, it was terrible; I was calling myself a singer but millions of people were seeing me be nothing of the sort [laughs]. Toward the end, I have to admit I grew to love it. It was great to play someone who always thought she was getting it right when in reality she was getting it so wrong.
What happened to the character?
I got terminal cancer, but there was an explosion in the village and she went in and rescued three people, so she got to choose how she died.
Sounds intense! Your boyfriend is an actor, right?
Yes, he’s called Danny Mac and is in the ensemble of Wicked and understudies Boq; he’s gone on quite a few times. The funny thing is that he’s now in Hollyoaks, so it’s as if we’ve swapped lives! That’s complete coincidence but it’s perfect as well because I know exactly what he’s talking about and who he’s talking about. Any questions he’s stuck with, I know the answers, and vice versa.
Speaking of Wicked, do you find yourself looking at other shows and pondering what roles might be right for you?
I have learned over the past 18 months that even if a play or musical comes in that you think is perfect for you, it isn’t necessarily the right thing at the right time; sometimes you have to let things go. I always thought, for instance, that I would love to be in Wicked, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to touch it after seeing it done so well by Louise [Dearman] and Rachel [Tucker]. Now I just enjoy watching it.
You've got a major birthday—the big 3-0—coming up [on September 22]. Any plans?
There is a tradition in the cast that we do a cake on people's birthdays and they get sung to, but when I get back home I'm planning a big party up North where I'm inviting pretty much everyone I've ever known. It will be a bit theatrical—as I tend to be!