Next month, Joanne Henry is set to start her run as Miss Prism in the upcoming tour of the Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest, which opens on 5th September and will be directed by Denzel Westley-Sanderson. Earlier this year, Joanne was part of the 10th Anniversary Tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as Mrs Alexander, and her previous stage projects have included Jane Eyre, The King and I and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was her first musical and she performed alongside Phillip Schofield as Joseph. On screen, Joanne plays Judgy Mama in the Netflix series Bridgerton, in both Series 1 and 2, and she has played one of the Ravens in Pennyworth, Alison Mackie in an episode of Vera, and she appeared in both Wonder Woman 1984 and TV mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings. We spoke to Joanne about her upcoming role of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, her time touring with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and filming as Judgy Mama in Bridgerton.
You’ve been announced to play Miss Prism in the upcoming tour of The Importance of Being Earnest, was there anything that drew you to the role and what do you think it will be like performing an Oscar Wilde play?
This is one of Oscar Wilde’s best-known plays, and it has been given a fresh viewpoint and vibrant retelling of a classic, through gender and sexuality and also from a cultural point of view. There’s also an added bonus of the Sir Peter Hall Director award-winner Denzel Westley-Sanderson. Wherever there is fresh talent, I love to be part of it.
Being part of an Oscar Wilde play will be a new experience for me, and I’m looking forward to the fun we will have on stage with it. Coincidental fact!… Sir Edward George Clarke – the barrister that represented Oscar Wilde with his case against The Marquess of Queensbury in 1895, gave the money to build the church where I was married, St Peter’s in Staines-upon-Thames. The case did not go well!!
What are you looking forward to for starting the run and why would you recommend booking tickets?
It’s the second time after lockdown I’ve been in a rehearsal room with a full company, and it’s exciting still after the many years I’ve been in the business. Starting, discovering and creating are my favourite bits, also, the audience reaction for the first time. This production will be the first of its kind to tour and firsts are always great to recommend when booking a ticket, it’s exciting and the unknown. I always enjoy seeing something different.
Earlier this year, you were in the cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, what was Mrs Alexander like to play and what did you enjoy most about being part of the 10th Anniversary Tour?
The National Theatre’s production of Curious Incident is fabulous, I’ve always wanted to work for them, and Mrs Alexander is adorable to play, from her Swindon/Wiltshire accent to her funky NB trainers, she’s a sweet old lady who unintentionally reveals, in conversation, a family secret that changes the direction of the play. I could lose myself in the part. Although she’s nothing like me, she reminded me of a lovely neighbour we used to have as kids. The 10th Anniversary drew an audience of fans and newcomers alike, to this clever warm play, and Mark Haddon, who wrote the novel, and the Playwright Simon Stephens were very much around, to see the play (even though they’ve seen it many times) to support us.
How much did you know about the show before booking your role and how was it seeing the audience response to the production?
One of my sisters bought me the book when it first came out, but I’d only seen clips of the play on news items. Before I auditioned, I reread the book and watched as many clips as I could about Frantic Assembly, who created the movement for the play, so I knew what I was letting myself in for. The audience response was an eye-opener, it is such a well-loved play, and it resonated with people through the diversity of the casting, people wanted to meet, email, comment on social media, it was heart-warming for people to recognise that there were people in the cast like themselves, a show that keeps adults and children enthralled, even teenagers at the same time.
Can you tell us about your time touring with Jane Eyre as Mrs Fairfax for Chapterhouse Theatre Company?
Chapterhouse Open Air Theatre was physically and vocally challenging. Touring building, and striking the set, you are your own wardrobe, crew, sound, and no matter the weather, the show goes on. I toured with a great hard-working fun bunch, and it was a joy to play some of the UK and Ireland’s best stately homes, castles and gardens. Mrs Fairfax is a sturdy kind character. I’m seeing a pattern here, I love character parts.
What do you remember most from performing with The King and I over the years and what is the show like to work on?
The King and I is one of those shows that allowed me room to grow as a performer. I started out as understudy/cover to the part of Lady Thiang, and then eventually got to play her for myself. I was very lucky, a beautiful song like Something Wonderful, it’s a spotlit moment, and a moving song, with beautiful orchestration, the sound of the cello in the arrangement throughout the song always got me. The choreography is very precise especially when it comes to Uncle Tom’s ballet, and most of the cast are in bare feet on stage, which is great in summer but not in winter. The costumes are just beautiful, and the children in the show are always a delight to the audiences. I love being part of something with a great story.
What are some of your favourite memories from performing in the West End and on the UK Tour with West Side Story as Teracita early in your career?
West Side Story, fabulous in every way, when the show went into town from the tour, we rehearsed with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the story. The choreography is outstanding and a joy to do, America was so much fun. A guest percussionist one night lit us up on stage, the music is fabulous anyway, but that was an electric moment. I used to watch the guys doing Cool every night from the wings, and giggly fun with the ladies in I Feel Pretty. I was also at my fittest physically, a very happy time that fired my interest for wanting to play other roles in theatre, musicals or otherwise, and it was the longest I’ve ever spent with a production.
On screen, you play Judgy Mama in the popular Netflix series Bridgerton, how do you find the experience on set of the show?
Bridgerton, what can I say, a series where I was only meant to do one episode, it was a privilege to be asked back, completely unexpected, not what I imagined myself doing. On set, in particular in the ball scenes, it’s super busy and bustling, you need to keep yourself focused. The costumes and hair and attention to detail is awesome, it’s beautiful to see everyone on set when you’ve arrived in a tracksuit and unruly hair like mine, and then they turn you into this wonderful character you see on screen, what’s not to love. Everyone – cast, crew, creatives are lovely, I’ve been incredibly lucky.
How is it working with the rest of the cast and what is Judgy Mama like to play?
The cast are very welcoming, it’s lovely to go back after time away, and catch up, and having gotten to know people from the first script table reads, or on location, or social occasions, it’s just so nice when you’re familiar with each other. Of course, most read-throughs happen on Zoom or other such platforms now, and when a new script arrives, you cannot wait to read through it, and see who’ll you be filming scenes with, and they always welcome any newcomers to the series warmly, it’s a very happy set.
Judgy Mama is great to play, she has some great put-downs/one-liners, I’d describe her as cutting with a smile, she is, as the character suggests, very judgemental, and always gossiping with Lady Cowper and Lady Featherington, and other guests on the social scene.
What was it like seeing the huge success to Series 1 and how was it returning to film Series 2?
I did not realise how big a project it was, millions watched on Christmas Day, and the original Season 1 clocked 625.49 million hours viewed during its first four weeks (info taken from a online site).
It really blew me away, and many people I’d met over my career in different parts of the world, messaged to ask if it was me they’d seen there. As I’d said goodbye to everyone at the end of Season 1, it was an even greater surprise to be asked back for Season 2, and people were again so super welcoming on my return, I had a little more idea of what it was all like, but it’s still exciting to go back.
How was it filming an episode of the second series of Pennyworth?
In the second series of Pennyworth, I played one of the Ravens, an unpleasant, bawdy drunk group of people. It was filmed at the height of the COVID safety rules, so the cast spent a lot of time far away from each other, and took masks off only to shoot the scenes. I missed the social aspect that comes with filming on set very much. The 60s costumes and hair were a great look. The sets were amazing, especially the street scenes, very realistic. I was very grateful to be working at a time that was very difficult for many others.
In 2019, you had a guest role in Vera for ITV as Alison Mackie, what was this like to film?
I’m a huge fan of Brenda Blethyn and the programme is a great piece of TV. I’d been doing theatre for a while and was used to getting myself around, so I’d forgotten how luxurious it was to be driven to set. This was one of the first filming jobs I’d done in a while, I was very surprised to be asked, I was also very nervous. We filmed up in Newcastle, a great city and lovely cast and crew, and a fab little scene with the main actors. I’d just changed agents and this was one of my first filming gigs for the agent too, so I was super happy for both of us.
Can you tell us about some of the other projects you’ve worked on over the years, which have included Wonder Woman 1984, The Salisbury Poisonings and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?
Wonder Woman 1984 came straight after Vera, so it was a huge deal to be part of this film. The Whitehouse scene I was in had an amazing set built at Leavesden Studios, if Vera made me nervous, this did more so, but I loved it. Patty Jenkins, the director, was great to work for, and Pedro Pascal was a fab baddie. It was a huge deal to see myself up there in a big blockbuster movie, another first, I had to pinch myself a little.
With The Salisbury Poisonings, it was a privilege to be part of something so important, it was a very talked about piece, especially as it affected a whole community.
I’ve also loved working at the Crucible for Tim Sheader in Sweet Charity, one of my first character roles. I found my love of dark comedy working there, and it’s led to all sorts of wonderful castings.
I mustn’t forget other smaller films that have brought me a great showreel, like Almost and Really for Day For Night Films, and Waking up Jed and Dogwood for Garagesale Productions. These really helped me being cast in their projects so I could get a great quality showreel.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was my first ever musical, and in the days of no mobile phones, I remember walking down to the phone box to call David Grindrod’s office to have them tell me I had a job, can you imagine doing that nowadays. The show was huge fun and virtually a two-and-a-half-hour aerobic class, a hugely enjoyable show, I couldn’t do it now. Phillip Schofield was our Joseph, I have great memories from the show with that lovely company of people, some I’m still in touch with today. I got the job after leaving another audition, and an agent I was with at the time who suggested I wasn’t right for it. The rest is history, as I queued around the block at the open audition and a few recalls later!!! It changed everything, and I’m so grateful for that.
Where does your love of acting come from and is it something you always wanted to do?
As I started out as a dancer, my interest lay elsewhere. It was a slow burn. I learnt to sing so I could stay dancing, then acting through song, so I could stay in musicals, and then West Side Story was the one that changed my direction, I wanted to do a role of my own. So it was workshops, and classes via The Actors Centre, and Spotlight Casting workshops, and platforms like The Actors’ Guild, that I looked to. I can’t get enough of it now, I’m a late bloomer, but a happy one. Everyone takes different routes into this industry and that was mine.
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
My favourite TV shows to zone out to are Ozark, Schitt’s Creek (which I’ve watched three times through, I love comedy), I also love a good sci-fi series, like The Expanse, or Resident Alien. Films would be any of Mr Craig’s Bond films, Whiplash, the original B&W version of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Devil Wears Prada (up to Meryl Streep’s entrance). Theatre – Nine Night and Cirque du Soleil… (love to watch something I couldn’t possibly do).
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
Away from it all, I love family meet-ups, gardening (I’m really bad at it but love it), and I love to read. All my books have the year and place in them, I’ve still got those that I bought or was given when I was 14. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, all of John Wyndham’s books and To Kill A Mockingbird, among many others. I can often be heard harmonising in the church choir and I’m pretty good with a paint brush for DIY purposes too.
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