Anna-Jane Casey has sung Sondheim at the Menier Chocolate Factory and Rodgers and Hammerstein at the annual Royal Albert Hall Proms and co-starred in the most recent London incarnation of Forbidden Broadway, followed by the ongoing revival of Spamalot. The gifted 41-year-old can currently be found on the West End playing the dancing teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, now in its ninth year at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Broadway.com caught her at home one recent afternoon for an engaging and lively catch-up chat.
As a northerner blessed with a great sense of humor, you seem such a natural fit for this musical and this role. Had you been eyeing Billy Elliot for a while?
Well, I remember when I first saw it about six years ago: it was a matinee and I was with this massive group of schoolchildren and I sat there and wept along with 45 13-year-olds! I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. It’s not a musical like any other: it’s primarily a kitchen-sink drama with some songs in it that also happens to be one of the loveliest things imaginable because it takes you somewhere different.
Was it just a matter of waiting your turn?
I thought at the time that I would love to be in this show, but this part has always been played by someone a little older than me, not least, I guess, because Julie Walters was in her late 40s when she filmed the movie and at the time I was 34 or 35 and I thought that the show would probably have closed by the time my chance came around.
So what happened?
It’s very funny, actually: about 18 months ago, when I was pregnant with my second girl, I went in to audition done up in high heels and lashes and they looked at me like, “What the hell has come into the room?” There I was trying to be Chita Rivera! So the next time around, I went in looking every one of my 41-years-plus—and another seven!—because I had just had a heavy night with the baby, who’s now 14 months, and it must have worked! The thing is that unlike Chicago [of which Casey is a West End alumna], with all its glitz and glamour, this is a show about real life. That’s why it touches people.
Have you been able to share it with your older daughter?
We saw it together a few years ago when she was four because I had a friend in the show, and she thought it was wonderful, though she hasn’t yet seen me do it but it’s still early in my run. Yes, there’s gritty language and swearing, but I think that goes over the heads of the children, to be honest, though my daughter did remember the word “shit,” which she thought was hilarious.
Your husband, Graham MacDuff, is also a West End regular. Is it hard for you both to juggle work demands with those of raising a family?
We recently did five months together in Spamalot, which was a lovely show to do: it’s so funny and short and quick, and we were home by 10:15. He was Lancelot and I was the Lady of the Lake. But this will be the longest run I’ve done since West Side Story, where Graham and I first met 15 years ago, and for the moment, he’s playing house-husband. He told me that he would stay at home for at least six months and be mummy.
I can imagine tears, though, as you’re getting ready to leave for the theater.
There’s a lot of holding on to legs from my daughters, but they just do it for effect. [Laughs.]
People may not realize that you were the first Dot/Marie in the much-acclaimed Sunday in the Park with George revival, with Daniel Evans, that transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End and then to Broadway, with Jenna Russell taking over your parts.
Yes, I was pregnant with my eldest girl, who’s now six and a half, and I would have been eight months pregnant by the time we went into the West End, which would have meant only being able to do the show for a couple of weeks and that just wasn’t viable. But Jenna’s a great friend and she took the role beautifully and went to Broadway, where there’s no way I could have done it.
That must have been disappointing.
I think of it as karma and the way the world works. I was not meant to be on Broadway at that time. Let’s hope there will be another opportunity.
Closer to home, you have an unexpected relationship with Family Guy creator (and recent Oscar host) Seth MacFarlane, having shared a stage with him at the annual summertime Proms concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Can you believe it? I made such a jerk of myself when I first met him, I was like Baby in Dirty Dancing! He looked at me like, “Oh my God, she’s a stalker,” but we somehow got through that, and we ended up performing together on two separate occasions. Not long after, I got this bizarre email asking me whether I’d like to be in an episode of Family Guy, where I speak literally all of five lines!
Talk about unexpected career turns.
He was probably sitting there thinking, “Who do I know who’s British?” It’s a very small role in an episode that’s not been broadcast yet. I play Stewie’s British mum in a fantasy that Stewie has where he believes that he should have been British. Julian Ovenden, who appeared with us at that same Prom, is his fantasy father. I’m going to have to send Seth bribery presents.
As your career continues to build, do you find yourself looking around the West End at other roles, or shows, that might appeal? Maybe the mother in Matilda?
I would love to do that, but I read a great quote from Carey Mulligan after she did the movie Never Let Me Go, where she repeated something about her agent saying, “Don’t take every job you’re offered; only take the ones that really grind your gears if you can imagine someone else doing them.” I feel pretty much the same, which is to say that I am drawn to parts I really want to play where it would pain me not to play them, and I don’t know that I feel that way with Matilda. When I saw Billy Elliot, I actually did think, I want to do that; it’s just taken me a few years to get there!
Just imagine, maybe in a few years you could do Matilda opposite your oldest daughter in the title role.
I think my daughter would look at me and say, “Mummy, what are you doing here?”