In Chichester’s Minerva Theatre’s production of The Narcissist, Jenny Walser is playing Cecily in the world premiere of Christopher Shinn’s play, which is booking until the 24th September and is directed by Josh Seymour. Before the pandemic, Jenny was in the cast of Natasha Kaeda’s In My Lungs The Ocean Swells at the Vault Festival, and she previously trained at the National Youth Theatre. Having also worked on screen, Jenny is well-known for playing Tori Spring in the Netflix series Heartstopper, working closely with her on-screen brother Joe Locke (as Charlie), and the show is written and created by Alice Oseman, who also wrote the graphic novels on which the series is based, and with Heartstopper proving hugely successful, it has since been renewed for a further two series. Jenny had her first professional screen job last year, playing Louise Wrigley in an episode of Series 10 of Call the Midwife for BBC. We recently caught up with Jenny about playing Cecily in The Narcissist at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, filming as Tori Spring in Heartstopper and her first screen role in Call the Midwife.
You are currently playing Cecily in The Narcissist at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, can you tell us about the play and your character?
The Narcissist is a new play, written by Christopher Shinn. It’s a very hard play to sum up in a succinct sentence because Chris tackles a whole lot in one play. You really get your money’s worth! Essentially, The Narcissist follows the story of Jim, who is an ex political adviser in America. It’s set in 2017, just after Trump won the election (so a cheery old time!), and it follows Jim in the aftermath of that. It’s all about how the people in the different strands of his life are sort of vying for his attention, and the role that technology plays in that.
Jim has a younger brother called Andrew, and Cecily is Andrew’s girlfriend, who lives at the family home. Cecily is a very complicated character and she’s struggling with a drug addiction, as is Andrew, and that really takes a toll on the mum’s life and Jim’s life. She’s a real force in the play. She’s a budding fashion designer as well and we get the idea that she probably starts a new project every few months, and she can never really hold on to things.
I don’t want to give too much away, but we’ve got a really incredible set, and the way it’s been directed is really exciting. I think the challenge for the audience is to work out who the narcissist is, or whether they are all a narcissist. I think it will resonate with people a lot.
How was it rehearsing for the play and what was it like meeting the rest of the cast for the first time?
Rehearsals went really well. The team is absolutely lovely and the cast all get on really well. We had Christopher in the room quite a lot and he helped us a bit with the accents because it’s set in Connecticut and, obviously, none of us are from Connecticut so that was quite useful! We also have three people in the team and cast who have dogs, and they brought them in to rehearsals. Harry Lloyd (our lead actor) has the most adorable little Pomeranian Chihuahua-cross called Zoe, who was with us most of the time. She’s like our communal pet now!
Weirdly, we met as a cast for the first time on Zoom because our very first day of rehearsals was that first 40 degree day in London so it was absolutely boiling hot. It was a bit strange to be meeting everyone virtually, so it was nice to actually properly meet them when we got in the room. We’ve all bonded now and it feels like a little family.
Little fun fact: the guy that’s playing Andrew was actually my flatmate at the time. I just moved out of the flat when we moved here. I was already cast when I moved in and he got cast a little bit later but it was just the most bizarre coincidence. Josh Seymour (our director) had no idea, and neither did anyone in the team, so it was quite fun when we popped up together on the Zoom on the first day.
Was there anything that drew you to the play and how does it feel being involved with a world premiere?
I was drawn by the fact that Christopher had written it. I’ve seen some of his plays before and I thought they were really, really challenging and really intellectually stimulating. It’s not something where you’re going to sit back and be able to tell what’s about to happen as they’re not predictable in any way. Also, getting to work at Chichester because I’d heard amazing things. I was meant to be coming to see something here before the pandemic but then obviously that didn’t happen. The fact that we were going to be in Chichester was a big draw.
It’s really exciting being involved with a world premiere but it’s also a weird one because you don’t really know how it’s going to be received, but that’s exciting as well. It doesn’t allow you to get complacent and you feel like you have a responsibility to represent this new piece of work in the best way possible. It definitely feels like you’re part of something quite cool. No one’s ever played that part before so you don’t have a preconception in your mind. You’re creating something new, and who knows where it might go afterwards?
Can you tell us what it’s like being directed by Josh Seymour?
Josh is lovely. He’s one of the kindest souls I think I’ve ever come across. He’s got quite a different way of working to any director that I’ve worked with before. I think some directors fall into quite a standard schedule of doing a read-through on the first day and then doing this and then doing that. Whereas Josh has been bringing in some really interesting exercises that I’ve never come across before that have really opened up the characters for us. He’s picked a really wonderful team around him and, with the cast as well, he’s created a really nice group that really work well together.
What are you looking forward to most for continuing in the show?
I’m very excited to see people’s reactions to the set. The idea is quite new and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. I’m excited to see how people react to Cecily because I think she could divide opinions. It’s weird when you play a character because you obviously have to see the sympathetic side to them and you have to see the human, but she is quite a handful! She’s got some very strong opinions that she really lets people know and she’s very direct. That’s all very different to me so it’s been quite fun to unlock that side of myself. I’m excited to see what people make of her because I think there will be some people that really understand her struggle and some people that just think she’s awful.
Who do you think The Narcissist will appeal to and why would you recommend booking tickets?
I think it’s going to appeal to everybody if I’m totally honest. It’s set five years in the past but I don’t think it could be more current. Our political situation in this country at the moment is not a million miles away, and the situation in America had a massive effect over here. Also, the texting and the phone side of things will connect with most people as it’s that thing of people constantly wanting your attention and just that overwhelming side of how much technology has changed our ways of thinking and the ways we communicate with people. I think The Narcissist will appeal to everyone, both young and old. I think everybody should come and see this play.
Before the pandemic, you were performing at the Vault Festival with In My Lungs The Ocean Swells, what was this like?
That feels like ages ago! That was literally a few weeks before the first lockdown so we were very lucky that we got it in because some of the Vault Festival shows were cancelled. It was one of the happiest working experiences I’ve had. Again, it was a new play and the writer was really involved. Natasha Kaeda (writer) is brilliant, and I think we’ll probably be seeing a lot more from her. It was a really small team as it was a two-hander play, but it had really beautifully poetic language that was really great to perform every night. It was also really scary because when it’s a two-hander you don’t have much of a safety net! It is terrifying, but once you’ve done it and it’s gone well, it’s a big adrenaline rush. It was a lot of fun.
On screen, you play Tori Spring in the hugely-popular Netflix series Heartstopper, what is she like to play?
Tori is great fun to play! She’s just so dry and witty, but she’s also got a heart of gold. It’s such a fun job because of the other people working on it. Alice Oseman (our writer) is just out of this world incredible. All of my scenes were with Joe Locke, who plays Charlie, so a bit of luck that he’s an absolute superstar and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life! We’re still really close. I actually saw him recently as he’s been doing a play in London so a few of us went to see that. He smashed it, along with Will Gao, who’s in the show as well. It’s a real privilege to play Tori and I think we’re going to be starting back up soon on Series 2 so I’m just excited that I get to play her some more. I’m growing my hair because I don’t want to have to wear a wig again!
What was it like seeing the response to Series 1 and having the show renewed for a further two series?
It was amazing. It felt really, really good when it got renewed because we all felt like we had something special. We knew the effect that it was having on people’s lives and I honestly think it’s saved lives and improved a lot of people’s lives. The books have helped me a huge amount, and I don’t think there’s anybody that I know of that’s watched the series or read the books or comics who hasn’t been impacted in a really positive way. I’m just really happy that we get to put more of such a good thing out into the world and we couldn’t have hoped for a better response. It’s been really wonderful.
What do you enjoy most about being part of the cast and how was it reading the scripts for the first time?
Getting to call them my friends is really amazing because they’re really wonderful people. They’re all quite a bit younger than me so they’re keeping me youthful! I’m getting to relive my teenage years through them! Feeling like you’re even a small part of something special is so amazing.
The scripts are really beautiful. I don’t know if fans are aware, but within the scripts there are little drawings that Alice has added. It’s beautifully written and it really leaps off the page so it’s not difficult to picture it. Of course, you’ve also got the comic, so you’ve immediately got an idea in your head. I loved that the scripts were quite close to the comics, and it’s really fun seeing the lines from the comics go straight into the script and that I get to say them.
Do you have any stand-out highlights from being part of Heartstopper so far?
I think probably the first day that it came out. Some of us were together and it was quite a special thing to be with all these people knowing that, certainly for the central cast, their lives were going to change quite a lot. Even my life has changed quite a lot because of it! We also had a big screening with all the cast and crew where we watched the whole series in one day. I cried lots out of pride! It was special getting to watch the finished product with everybody.
Why would you recommend watching Heartstopper on Netflix?
I’d recommend watching it because it’s one of the most heartwarming shows I’ve ever come across. I think it’s relevant for all age groups and I can’t think of anybody that wouldn’t enjoy it. I think if you’re a bit older, and perhaps weren’t brought up in such an accepting space, it’s really cathartic to watch it and know that younger people are going to hopefully have a better time, and to sort of heal a bit of the hurt maybe within yourself if you didn’t have great experiences growing up. It’s a really amazing thing that it exists.
Last year, you played Louise Wrigley in an episode of Call the Midwife, can you tell us about this?
Call the Midwife was my first professional screen job. I’m really happy because they taught me so much and were really patient with me. The rest of the cast were lovely and I think they are aware that, for quite a lot of their actors, it can be one of their earlier jobs, so I think they’re quite used to teaching people about what pieces of equipment do. I was asking everybody loads of questions because it was fascinating. Sets are the most amazing places because there are so many people who have such distinct, incredible jobs, and it’s amazing to see all the magic behind the camera and how it happens.
It was filmed during the height of COVID, so everyone was masked up and the two-metre stick was out to make sure that we were always far enough apart, so that was a little bit strange! I’ve actually never had an experience on set without COVID measures! I’m told it’s very different, but everyone made sure that everyone was safe and it was the best thing because the show got made. Everyone was doing their best and it was amazing to see everyone pulling together.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
I used to do a lot of ballet when I was younger, so I started off as a dancer really. I was quite shy, but whenever I got up on stage during a dance show, I sort of came alive. I did a lot of drama at school and there were great drama departments at the schools I went to. I’d always seen acting as a hobby though so I actually ended up doing a science degree at university because I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I think I eventually realised that drama was the thing that made me the happiest so I just went for it. I owe a lot to the National Youth Theatre because they have been there the whole way along the journey. It was via training with them that I managed to get my agent and that platform has helped me out hugely. National Youth Theatre are great – shoutout to them!
Do you have any favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
I watch a lot of TV, probably too much! I love a good reality TV series, like a cooking show. If you’ve been rehearsing all day, sometimes what you need is to just switch off. I’m also a big fan of comedy shows like Stath Lets Flats and The Office and things like that. Shows that can lift your spirits and you can switch off for a bit. Other than that, Normal People was amazing. I know that was a while ago now but that is still stuck in my mind.
Play-wise, there is such amazing theatre in London that I think pretty much any theatre that you’re going to go to, you’re going to find something really good. The National Theatre is always right up there, Almeida Theatre is doing some amazing work at the moment, and Chichester’s doing some good stuff too!
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