As The Bodyguard heads towards its first birthday on the West End in December, the musical is welcoming two new leads: Beverley Knight has replaced Tony winner Heather Headley in the late Whitney Houston’s screen role as singer Rachel Marron, with TV and stage veteran Tristan Gemmill taking over the non-singing title role of Frank Farmer (created on screen by Kevin Costner) from Lloyd Owen. Broadway.com spoke to the charming Gemmill returning to the stage, interacting with fans and why audiences love a Whitney Houston tune.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 19 years since I first saw you on stage, and nude no less, in the 1994 revival of Rope.
You saw that? Gosh, well done. I thought the theatrical conceit of our production was really interesting—to make it a little edgier and racier and to emphasize the homosexual side [of the play]. I’m not sure people were ready for that sort of full-on assault, but I enjoyed doing it.
And now, you’re in a musical in which your character doesn’t sing, except for one particular moment.
You know, I’m fairly happy to be in the background when it comes to singing! I wouldn’t normally inflict my singing on the British public, though I’m quite happy to listen to [co-star] Beverley [Knight] and the girls from my position next to them.
Have you ever sung on stage?
The last time I did a musical was at school. I was one of the sailors in South Pacific, primarily because we got to do the show with the girls’ school next door. I never thought it was a remote possibility that I would actually be in a West End musical, which is why it was so strange and exciting and challenging when this offer came through.
Why were you interested in joining the show?
I wasn’t really angling for it, to be honest, but once I realized that this wasn’t your regular musical and that [Frank Farmer] wasn’t really required to sing, I thought, why not go for it? I like things that take me out of my comfort zone and into areas I’ve not done before. An extra plus was that Thea Sharrock was directing, and I very much respect her body of work.
What about the show’s use of Whitney Houston hits?
She is one of those iconic American figures—a tragic one now, obviously, but she had this magnificent, transcendent voice. From the moment you first heard her sing a bar of any song, you knew you were in for something special.
Is Beverley Knight keeping pace as Rachel Marron?
You know what? She’s pretty amazing, too! Her reputation in Britain as a phenomenal voice is well-established, and I’m perfectly aware that another huge bonus about doing this show is that I get to be on stage every night with her magnificent voice.
Do you relate to a show that addresses issues of security that come from being in the public eye?
That’s a fairly universal thing now; we live in an age that is so much about celebrities. And while we once might have thought that the story our show tells is more of an American—or Hollywood—thing having to do with crazy fans, that sort of thing happens all over the world to anyone who brushes up against even a little bit of fame.
Has it happened to you?
I do have some loyal fans who have followed me since my early television days, and it seems quite natural in the days of Twitter and Facebook to have some form of engagement with the public. Obviously, for some people that gets sinister, and that’s the area The Bodyguard explores.
You’ve been away from the stage for seven years, and you became a father during that time. Are the two things related?
Pretty much so. It’s not like there was some massive personal choice on my part not to do theater, but we bought a house in the country and had three children, and TV tends to be a bit easier to manage when you’re parenting three little ones. The upside with a play, of course, is that you get to spend more time with the kids during the day, so it’s not without its advantages.
You’ve taken on other American parts, including Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire in Wales. Are you a closet American?
[Laughs] I guess I am! When you boil down our conversation, there must be an element of truth to that. I’ve never joined in the bashing of America that you sometimes get [in the UK], at least politically, and I’ve been a big movie fan for as long as I can remember. When you live in a rainy windswept corner of Kent [southeast of London] and see these great American landscapes in 70 millimeter, you build up a fantasy idea of what the country might be like.
I hope the reality hasn’t proven too disappointing!
Ha! In fact, when I was 22, I went across America with my well-thumbed copy of [the Jack Kerouac novel] On the Road for a couple of months. I loved every second of it, even though some of it was quite hair-raising. I’m not sure I would recommend getting washed up in a bus station at the wrong end of Houston at 1 AM: That wasn’t exactly a dream evening.
Have you done theater in the U.S.?
No, and it’s still TV that I’m best known for on both sides of the Atlantic: [BBC drama series] Casualty here, and Meadowlands there; I did one season playing this nerdy, weird doctor. I’d love to do some theater there at some point and maybe even have another go somewhere at Stanley Kowalski—though I’d better do that one fast before middle-age spread takes me over and makes it impossible!