This week sees the North American release of Asha Banks‘ latest project The Magic Flute, in which she plays Princess Pamina for the modern telling of Mozart’s work, with the film already releasing across Europe in 2022. In the BBC/Netflix show Rebel Cheer Squad – A Get Even Series, Asha played Brooke for her first regular screen character, and it has been announced that the series has been nominated at this year’s GLAAD Awards. For Asha’s return to the stage since the pandemic closed theatres, she played Thea in Spring Awakening last year at the Almeida Theatre, where she also understudied and played the lead character of Wendla. Spring Awakening was directed by Rupert Goold and the show was nominated at the Olivier Awards, where Asha and her cast members also performed. Asha played Lisa James in the workshop of The Boy in the Dress, and reprised her role for the world premiere at Stratford-upon-Avon, working with Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and David Walliams, and her previous theatre shows have included The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Annie. Alongside her acting career, Asha is a singer-songwriter and has been working on new music over the past few months with plans for releases and live shows. Talking to Asha, she told us about playing Princess Pamina in The Magic Flute, filming as Brooke in Rebel Cheer Squad – A Get Even Series and appearing in last year’s production of Spring Awakening at the Almeida Theatre.
You play Princess Pamina in The Magic Flute, which had a cinema release in Europe last year and is set to be released in North America this week, what was it like to work on?
It was such a magical experience. It’s my first movie which by itself was super exciting let alone playing a lead part! I felt so involved with all the creative discussions and had a lot of time chatting with Flo (the director Florian Sigl) about the story and my character. Also, I was one of the youngest people on set as I had only just turned 17 when we shot that film, and so I was really looked after by everyone – cast and crew.
We filmed it right in the middle of the first total lockdown and had special permits to fly to Germany, so it was really surreal in many ways – all the shops and restaurants in Munich were closed, for instance. But looking back it probably added to how special the whole experience was because the cast got so close to each other as we hung out together all the time. Also, I was so excited to get away after being cooped up at home in lockdown, so I felt very, very lucky.
Can you tell us about your character and the film and how was it working with the rest of the cast?
The film is a modern telling of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but switches between two worlds – the modern world, and then the Magic Flute world. It’s told from the perspective of a contemporary young man Tim (played by Jack Wolfe) with a lot of turmoil going on in his life, who goes to attend a prestigious music school in Saltzberg, and one night finds himself falling into a secret passage and into the magical world of the opera – in which he becomes Prince Tamino. He then has to play out the part of Prince Tamino, following the story of the opera, each night while dealing with the challenges of being in the modern world at the school, with all the challenges that presents, in the daytime. And inevitably at one point the worlds kind of collide. It’s a real coming of age story really, with a large fantasy element to it, so I think there is something for everyone.
I play Princess Pamina – so I only exist in the fantasy world. As in the opera, initially Prince Tamino has to rescue me from a wicked mother (and other villains!) and we go on an adventure together. My character is strong and feisty though, and not at all a victim. She is an independent girl with a wonderful spirit, and I loved playing her because of that. And I got to be a Princess, and play in the fantasy world with Iwan Rheon (who plays Papageno) so I got the best of both worlds!
The cast are just the most beautiful people, and I became great friends with Jack (Wolfe) and Iwan (Rheon) in particular because the three of us filmed together first, in a sort of COVID bubble! It was both Jack and my first film and so Iwan was invaluable to have around. He is the funniest and most caring person and we formed a really tight bond which I think will last forever.
Plus, I write music and play guitar and Jack and Iwan are also very into their music, and both talented singers, guitar players and songwriters, so the three of us spent hours in our hotel rooms singing and jamming together. And then when the rest of the cast came out, the group was such a fun, amazing bunch of people: Amir (Wilson), who I have known for years since we were in a musical together as young teenagers, and the beautiful Niamh (McCormack) and Els (Courtiour). This cast was such a blessing and I’m proud to call them all my friends.
I was also really lucky, I think, because all the other cast members, from all over the world, were so incredible too, and all at the top of their game professionally, and I think I learnt something from everyone in that film.
And then to top it all, I spent time with some of the greatest opera singers on the planet – Sabine Devieilhe gave us a private concert which gave me goosebumps, and Morris Robinson is the warmest, funniest guy as well as having an insane voice.
How was it seeing the completed film and attending the European premiere at Zurich Film Festival?
It felt unreal really! I went with Jack, and we spent time with Roland Emmerich, who is executive producer on the film, which was so amazing. His catalogue of movies is breathtaking.
The red carpet was a bit overwhelming at first but I was with Jack, so we had fun together with it all. I am lucky that I got so much help with my outfits and styling from Sabina Harper (@SabinaHarper) – she is the most incredible stylist going, and she sorted me out with some stunning dresses from Maison Makarem and Gaala Paris and I cannot over-stress how important it is to have that support and direction at an event like that. She really was a huge part of the whole thing for me.
It was definitely a pinch-me moment seeing the movie on a huge screen with a full paying audience. I’ll never forget Zurich Film Festival.
What was it like playing Brooke in Rebel Cheer Squad – A Get Even Series and being on set of the BBC/Netflix show?
Oh, that was so much fun! We filmed it in Bolton over the summer and the cast were all amazing. We had to have cheerleading lessons, which is much harder than you might think! Once again, the cast made that experience special. Again, I was the youngest there, and so the other actors were so caring and warm. I have met some of my best friends doing that series, and the three leads Amelia (Brooks), Lashay (Anderson) and Ashling (O’Shea) are all incredible – look out for those names because they are all so talented!
And it’s very exciting that Rebel Cheer Squad has been nominated for a GLAAD Award, alongside shows such as Heartstopper.
Last year, on stage, you played Thea in Spring Awakening at the Almeida Theatre, what was it like returning to stage when theatres could reopen due to the pandemic, and how was your time in the show?
It was incredibly exciting, but stressful too as we had to test all the time, and COVID was closing down shows every day. But in some ways I think it made our performances more emotionally charged – which is not a bad thing for a piece like Spring Awakening.
It was at my favourite theatre too (the Almeida) which I had such fond memories of from when I was in 1984 the play as a child.
How was it seeing the audience response to the show and what did you enjoy most about this project?
The audience absolutely loved this show! It was an incredible and overwhelming feeling as the first performance finished. The cast were all crying, the audience was on its feet – an unforgettable moment for sure. It was strange looking out on an audience who were all in COVID masks – I think I will look back on that whole experience and think – wow, did that happen?!
I love performing live theatre and to be cast in my favourite musical of all time was honestly a dream come true. Then add into that the fact that Rupert Goold was directing it, and Lynne Page creating insane choreography for it, and the whole thing was mind-blowing! And then the show was nominated for an Olivier Award, and we got to perform at the Olivier Awards, which was televised too!
Do you have any stand-out highlights from performing at the Almeida Theatre as Thea?
Well, probably my most stand-out moments were the two shows in which I had to step in to play the lead part of Wendla, as I was understudying that role and the amazing Amara (Okereke), who played Wendla, went down with the dreaded COVID. I had barely rehearsed the part before in context and had literally a few hours of intensive rehearsal on the day of the show with Rupert (Goold) and then there I was, playing my dream role. The adrenaline was pumping that day! I really remember running down the side of the stalls to the back of the theatre, which was Wendla’s exit route at one point of the show, and Rupert was there in the darkness and we just high-fived each other and I knew at that moment that I was doing okay!
Was there anything that originally drew you to the role of Lisa James in The Boy in the Dress, which you workshopped and appeared in for the Royal Shakespeare Company?
I think the fact that Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams wrote the music was a huge incentive to get that part! I was lucky enough to have been asked to workshop the part by the musical director Laura Bangay, just after I came out of playing Pandora in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre in London. I think the timing was great as Laura had seen me perform in auditions for other shows and she also knew that I had just played Pandora – and she has some similar qualities to Lisa James. That was a super part for me at that time and I was very grateful to get it.
What was it like working on the world premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon and with Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and David Walliams?
Incredible! Firstly, the Royal Shakespeare Company is such an amazing company to work for, at any age. And I got to sing new Robbie Williams songs in front of Robbie Williams! We worked a lot with Guy Chambers and he is a lovely guy and very down to earth, even though he’s written some of the greatest hits ever. And performing at the gala night in front of Robbie and his whole family, and David, and a whole bunch of other celebrities, was so much fun.
What are some of your favourite memories from your time as a stage actor over the years, which has seen you in shows such as The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Annie?
Gosh, too many to mention. Dropping and breaking the china doll when I was eight years old and in Les Misérables at the Sondheim Theatre, whilst in the wings, just about to go on is something I won’t forget! Being the first person globally to sing Queen of Pop on stage as Violet Beauregarde in Charlie was amazing. I have many memories of touring the UK as an orphan with Annie, not least because I met some special friends on that job (like Isabella Pappas). Playing Pandora at the Menier was amazing because the critics loved it and I was a lead so my personal reviews were so good, and there were wonderful production pictures of me in all the papers! But I think playing Wendla is the number one memory from stage – so far!
Where does your love of performing come from and have you been given any advice over the years that has stuck with you?
I honestly don’t know where it comes from! My dad has a very musical ear and plays instruments, and my mum has a very creative mind and is good with words so I think both those have played into my love of music and writing. But the performing element is a bit of a mystery!
Advice-wise, I attended Michael Xavier’s MX Masterclass school in London on Sundays from when I was 12 years old, and his mantra is ‘love, respect and positivity’ and I honestly think that is the best advice! If you are a positive person, and you respect people, then people will want you in their company, and you will get the most out of every job you do.
I am now a patron of MXM and I see that the young students there follow the ‘love, respect and positivity’ ethic and it makes me happy.
Also, I have been performing professionally since I was eight years old, and I think being within the world of theatre in particular has meant that I have had the principles and the disciplines of hard work and rehearsing drummed into me and I do think that is also good advice. Be prepared, rehearse, work hard.
Do you have any favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
At the moment I am watching This Is Us and loving it. I also really enjoyed The White Lotus, both seasons. Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious in that. Of course, I cannot wait for Shadow and Bone Season 2 and to watch Jack (Wolfe) absolutely smash it. Film-wise, I was lucky enough to go to a screening of Aftersun, with Paul Mescal, which was amazing. I also recently saw Paul Mescal being utterly breathtaking playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida. And to see he’s now been nominated for an Oscar is immense!! I do love a musical too and I think my favourite, after Spring Awakening, is Next to Normal so I’m very excited for the Donmar’s production of this in the summer!
How do you like to spend your time away from your acting career?
Music takes up a huge chunk of my life, so mainly writing music and playing one of my guitars or in the studio. I also love seeing friends, and a lot of them have gone to uni now, so I like going to visit them at weekends. I also have a little dog, a Jack Russell/Chihuahua cross called Violet and I like to take her out on walks in this huge park that I live very near to.
Can you tell us about being a singer-songwriter and what music plans do you have?
I am so excited about my music! My manager Will is so knowledgeable about the industry and gives great advice so I’m very lucky to be guided by him. He knows everyone and is putting me in the studio with some really amazing and inspirational people and I have been in my element! Will knows that I have a clear idea about the artist that I want to be and is so supportive of that, which I love, as he’s giving me complete freedom to develop my style and songwriting ability.
I’ve been writing and recording constantly over the past few months, and am loving it, as well as learning so much about how the industry works. I’ve always been passionate about music and have written songs in my bedroom, but to be pursuing it seriously is amazing and I feel so fulfilled! We have some exciting plans to do with releasing music and performing live, and I can’t wait to start sharing my music more widely.
What are you hoping 2023 brings for you?
I want to pack as much into it as I can! The Magic Flute is being released in America this month so I hope the movie does well in the US, and I am planning on going out to LA this year. I would also really love to be in a great TV show – something like The White Lotus would be a dream come true. I also love the theatre so hopefully I will get a chance to do some stage work this year.
And, of course, I am super excited to release lots of original music in 2023!!
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