For their most recent theatre project, Joni Ayton-Kent has been part of The Danish Girl workshop, written by Alex Parker and Katie Lam, which was held at New Theatre Peterborough in April, and they will be part of Pride at the Palace on the 7th June at Palace Theatre in the West End. In their first year out of drama school, Joni was in the cast of Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse in 2019, and in the same year, they appeared in their first regular TV role of Bradley in Don’t Forget the Driver for BBC. With the release of TV series The Watch on BBC America in January, Joni plays Cheery across all episodes with a UK release date yet to be confirmed, and they also worked on recording the original soundtrack. Joni has written and directed short film Lessons which they also starred in alongside Abigail Middleton, with the film premiering on YouTube in October 2020 having been filmed during the pandemic. Answering our questions, Joni talks about workshopping The Danish Girl, playing Cheery in The Watch and their first regular TV role in Don’t Forget the Driver.
You were in the cast of The Danish Girl workshop, what was it like being involved with it and is there anything you can say about the musical?
I think we’re onto a hit with this one! The writers, Alex (Parker) and Katie (Lam), have realised a lot of potential in Lili Elbe’s story, about the love between she and her wife, Gerda. It has the hit-factor of something like Dear Evan Hansen, but musically harks back to the Golden era – think Rodgers and Hammerstein; Lerner and Loewe. In the show, Lili’s transness isn’t so much an exotic titbit or an obstacle, but an integral factor as to how the couple’s relationship develops, and they’re telling it with such care and respect. I think it’s gorgeous. There are so few trans stories being told now, and even fewer that focus on the spirit and feelings and emotional lives of those people, not just their private parts or healthcare! Shows like this will start to change the conversation, I hope, and being at the front of the parade with the rest of the team feels very special. I can’t wait to see where it goes.
What are you looking forward to most for being on the line-up of Pride at the Palace, which is due to be held on 7th June at Palace Theatre?
Getting to sing my socks off. Although, I won’t be wearing any socks, as they wouldn’t work with the outfit I’ve got planned!
You play Cheery in The Watch, how was it finding out you’d booked the role and what is Cheery like to play?
I was on the bus when I found out I’d got the part, so, unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to scream and jump around. Not the first time I’ve been in that situation, actually: I was on the bus when I got the call for Don’t Forget the Driver, too!
Playing Cheery is one of the great honours of my life – being non-binary and transfeminine, I didn’t have many role models growing up (except, for example, people like Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica, or the queens in To Wong Foo, which are close, yet still pretty far). And even now, I still don’t really see anyone on screen who looks like, walks like, talks like, feels like me, except Cheery. I think there’s plenty of young people who feel the same: forgotten, or not reflected the way that some other people are. And I don’t know any other part out there like Cheery – I’ve not seen any other character like them. They are, for one, male-bodied non-binary, which is rare in TV. There’s also an episode dedicated to Cheery exploring their gender, and it’s so relevant to the story that it actually saves the day, (which I think is a first!). Again, what I said about changing the conversation: hopefully, Cheery can be instrumental in that. I’ve already had tonnes of people, from all different countries, messaging me (and making me cry happy tears), telling me how grateful they are to have someone like Cheery, to have someone they can see themselves in, to help them and their families understand what it means to be outside of the gender binary – something I wish I had when I was younger! I’ve had parents tell me how much Cheery means to their kids!! It is, truly, the greatest honour to do that for people.
How was it being in the cast and working on set of the series?
South Africa might as well be on a different planet. It’s a beautiful view, whichever way you turn, and so bloody hot in the summer! We filmed outside on the hottest day of the year (plus 40 degrees C) in woollen pyjama-type things and wellington boots – that was about as enjoyable as it sounds. Besides that, the design for the show – that’s the sets, the costumes, the special effects – have to be some of the most amazing work I’ve ever witnessed; so much of what you see on screen is practical effects; really not that much CGI (obviously, the dragons are computered in, but you know what I mean). I got to work with live snakes, get hoisted on wires, run around a hall of mirrors, record vocals for an original soundtrack… the list of firsts goes on. Honestly, a dream come true.
Working with Richard (Dormer) was one of the best experiences – I learnt an awful lot from him, as an actor and as a human, and still do (we’ve been messaging each other through the lockdown).
Do you have any highlights from playing Cheery and why would you recommend watching the show?
Some of my favourite moments on the job were getting to writhe around in pain… as was required of me in the script, of course. I mean, it sounds masochistic, but being in a high-stakes, pressure-cooker environment, like being on a film set sometimes can be, letting out the beast can be incredibly cathartic. And I got paid to do it!! Also, just getting to make magic with the hardest-working people – Cheery wouldn’t be possible without the makeup and hair team: Amanda (Ross-McDonald), Jess (Veasey) and Vera (Alimanova).
The whole thing is anarchic. It’s whimsical, chaotic and stupid – like Doctor Who on some Class B drug! It’s wicked funny – that’s why I’d recommend it. I cannot wait for my friends in the UK to see it!
How did you find the experience working on your first regular TV role as Bradley in Don’t Forget the Driver?
The film and TV world is an entirely different thing to theatre. Luckily, they did a couple screen classes at college. If I didn’t have them, I think I’d be a lost cause. I knew so little going into it, and I learned so much! In the first week, everyone kept asking me if I’d seen any of the ‘rushes’ (also called ‘dailies’, depending on where you are; they’re the raw, unedited footage from a day’s shoot), and I thought they were talking about a series on the telly, so I kept asking if I could watch it on catch-up, and they would laugh at me because they thought I was joking.
I believe playing Bradley makes me the first non-binary British actor to play a regular non-binary character on TV. The first, second to Asia Kate Dillon, an actor from the US. So far, no one’s corrected me on that, so it must be true, which is mad!
What was the series like to film and be part of?
I had so much fun, getting to work with people I’d watched since I was a kid, and, genuinely, everyone was so lovely – six weeks in heaven. Plus, for someone who was still learning the ropes, I come out looking pretty good. Very proud of what I did.
You wrote, directed and starred in short film Lessons, can you say more about this?
I saw an advert for a job last year, for a film, and I tried putting myself up for it. For whatever reason, I physically couldn’t send off an application – I guess it was a webpage glitch or bad Wi-Fi… but, essentially, I’d spent a day trying to apply for this job, and I ended up at square one. I felt really powerless, actually. So, I sulked for a bit, and then I got over myself and thought “hey, why not just make my own film?” And I did. Wrote a script in about a week (an easy, simple story about two people chatting on, of all things, a Zoom call), spent another week scouring the internet for bargains, as well as tips, tricks and tutorials. Got my good friend and fellow actor, Abigail Middleton to star alongside – she was in Liverpool, and I was in London, so I bought two identical lots of equipment for cheap (camera, microphone, memory card) and sent one lot her way. We set everything up over video call. I had to keep flexible about what I wanted, and I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but we were both bored, and it was a great learning curve for me. We both got to flex our acting muscles a bit, too. It’s available to watch for free on YouTube!
In 2019, you were cast in Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse, how was it performing in the production?
Sweet Charity is a long show, and it’s a dance-y show. I’m not a trained dancer, so I’m still in shock, two years later, that The Wayne McGregor would want me in a production of his, doing his choreography. But I did it. And by the end of the run, I had to ask costume to buy me a belt to hold my trousers up, I’d lost that much weight! I got to play Frenchie, one of the girls in the Fandango Ballroom, and I got to sing Big Spender and swing around on ladders, and I had a beautiful short blonde wig which cost lots of money, apparently. I had to pinch myself some days, because I couldn’t believe I was working at the Donmar Warehouse, in my first year out of drama school.
You’ve workshopped a number of productions previously, what do you enjoy most about this kind of work?
Besides feeling like you can never make a mistake (because there’s nothing to compare it to), you get the sense that you’re in the middle of something that’s about to burst wide open – there’s an electric buzz in your belly. It doesn’t matter what the project goes on to be, but working with new material, telling new stories, marking new territory, I think you get to experience stagecraft in its purest form, boiled down to its essence… Fancy lights and orchestrations that you get in TheatreLand are a different kind of spectacle; instead, it’s all stripped back, with just you and your company, a small audience (to keep you on your toes), and text you might’ve only read out loud from start to finish once or twice… watching it, being in it, experiencing it; it taps into your humanity in a way that I can only describe as profound. Everything hits a lot harder, a lot deeper. You feel changed, more full of life by the end of it.
Do you have a favourite aspect of working on screen and stage?
With stage, it’s the partnership between the player and the watcher – both parties have responsibilities. When you get them invested, and when they hit all the right beats – laughing in the right places, gasping, staying quiet – you can create some real magic together. It’s also getting the chance to do the same text night after night, and every time it to be different, without fail!
With screen, I love how vastly different the technique is. Stillness is everything… I also love how random the job is. I’ve never experienced anything quite like a filming schedule – it’s so stupid. One day, you can get up at 4am and work for thirteen hours solid, stressing about daylight and a zit on your chin, acting some scene that makes absolutely no sense… and then the next, you’ll be sat in a trailer for ten hours reading your novel.
Had you always wanted a career in screen and stage and how did you start?
It was either this or music. I played the violin as a kid, and I was pretty good, so I could’ve gone into that, or composing. I was even in a ska band after I left sixth form! I’m really lucky that my parents are in the same business, so my love for theatre/acting/performance came from them. My mum went to the same acting school as me – she’d kill me if I said when – and then she got into playwrighting. My dad’s at retirement age now, but he’s still jobbing up and down, directing regional theatre productions. So, really, I’ve had it there my whole life, and they were supportive when I said I wanted to do it, too… although my mum did once sit me down and give me the “don’t become an actor” talk, only because she knew how tough the business can be. She was right about that one.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
Tough question… so many of my hobbies are linked to the career! I mean, I love what I do, so it only makes sense. I think a lot of acting folk experience that… I’m a Japanophile, so I watch a lot of anime, have a lot of Japanese things lying about. I daydream about moving to Japan. Still trying to learn hiragana – hasn’t happened yet… I also like eating? I’m a foodie, and I love trying new things. Japanese food especially.
What are you looking forward to most for when the industry is fully reopen and what are you hoping for in 2021?
Touching people again. I’ve really struggled with the two metres thing – not physically, just emotionally. Even on set, we’ve had to keep our distance except when during takes… I’m tactile; being close to people is how I work best. I don’t think my work has so much suffered, but I feel sad that it’s not the same, that I can’t access nuance and intimacy in the same way. I also can’t wait for us to get to a point where we can go see a play, watch a Netflix show, and not think “ahh, they did that because of COVID”, or getting taken out of a story because they’re on high alert and breathing into a face mask. But we’ll get there.
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