Alex Jennings won a 2003 Olivier Award for playing Henry Higgins in the Trevor Nunn-directed revival of My Fair Lady, and the protean actor is now back at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in an altogether different sort of show. He recently stepped into Douglas Hodge’s shoes as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Sam Mendes-helmed musical now in its second year. How does a talent whose previous roles include George W. Bush in David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art feel about singing and sharing a stage with children eight times a week? Broadway.com caught up with him to find out.
You’re back at Drury Lane, where you had an acclaimed run in My Fair Lady. Do you have the same dressing room?
I do, indeed. It feels good to be back, and they’ve done a bit of decorating in here, so it’s very nice, I have to say.
Henry Higgins seemed like a role tailor-made for you, Willy Wonka perhaps less so. Were you surprised to get the offer?
It did take me by surprise! I hadn’t seen the show, so I went to see it and enjoyed it and thought “Why not?” The fact is, this is a new area for me, whereas I could go on playing Higgins forever. It felt right to be doing something new and fresh and that wouldn’t seem like a walk in the park—and nor has it been.
Did you talk to Douglas Hodge about the role?
No I didn’t, though I’ve known Doug since we were in the National Youth Theatre back in the ‘70s. But I think I felt that this is an iconic fun role where you can be sort of anything, really, and I didn’t feel as if I had in any way to repeat Doug—and that was never asked of me.
The challenge, I imagine, with this show is how darkly to play it.
Very much so: Roald Dahl’s world is full of darkness and that’s fun to play but at the same time you’re trying to be playful with it since there are, of course, a lot of children in the theater so you can’t overdo the darkness. What I’ve enjoyed has been trying to find the various voices for the character, and I’ve got all sorts of options kind of whizzing around in my head.
After a distinguished a career as a classical actor, it must be lovely to give musical theater another go.
Oh, it is. Working in musicals is something I always dreamed of, and then it happened with My Fair Lady, which was a completely joyful experience. And then came Charlie, which I am aware makes considerable demands on me, but I’m really enjoying it.
You made your public debut as Wonka at the Olivier Awards before you’d started performing the role. Was that daunting?
I made the mistake of looking at it online recently, which was a big error [laughs]. It was completely terrifying. The screen flew out and there I was as Willy Wonka thinking, “I wonder if I could just walk back into the wings now!”
No worries about the glass elevator that flies you and Charlie over the audience?
Not really. I don’t particularly suffer from fear of heights, but I do make sure to hold on very tightly to Charlie’s hands.
You don’t find yourself pondering the famous W.C. Fields adage that one should never act alongside children or animals?
[Laughs.] No, but now that you mention it, W.C. Fields is one of the voices I’ve been meaning to get in as Willy Wonka—I’ll have to think about that. And the kids are fantastic, no little horrors at all. Their work ethic is awesome and they are forever throwing you different things.
You'll be playing two roles—or two versions of the same role—in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van.
I’m guessing that may come off a bit like the twins in The Social Network: Alex Jennings acting with Alex Jennings? [Laughs.] Hopefully, we’ll be filming in the house in north London where the events [in the play] actually happened; Alan is writing to the neighbors as we speak.
You’re no stranger to Dame Maggie Smith, having acted opposite her in The Importance of Being Earnest in 1993.
And I had a wonderful time with her—a really fabulous time. How can you not enjoy being on stage with one of this country’s greatest if not the greatest living actresses? All that is left is to try to live up to the mark and match her, and what’s been wonderful is that the Charlie producers are giving me the necessary time off to do the film before returning and continuing in the part through to next May.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I bet you never thought you would play George W. Bush [in Stuff Happens].
Never in a million years, and [director] Nick Hytner gave me the choice of whether I wanted to play Bush or [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. I chose Bush because it just seemed less obvious, at least for me. That was a weird and amazing experience.
Is that the closest you’ve ever got to the White House?
I’ve actually been in the White House! When we were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Kennedy Center, we had a private guided tour. That was during the Clinton presidency, as I recall.
Is your current experience in Charlie making you look around the musical landscape to see what else might possibly appeal?
Not in any sense of being very proactive, since that’s not usually how I go about getting work. But it has given me more confidence in this field, certainly, and I have to say I do love Sondheim and would love to do one of his musicals one day. I wonder whether that could ever happen?