Everybody's Talking About Jamie - London

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Layton Williams on How Playing Angel in Rent Prepared Him for Starring in London's Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Layton Williams on How Playing Angel in Rent Prepared Him for Starring in London's Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Layton Williams in "Everybody’s Talking About Jamie"
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Layton Williams wasn’t yet a teenager when in 2007 he became the first mixed-race actor to play the title role on the West End in Billy Elliot the Musical. Now 24, he has taken on the starring role in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre, following in the thigh-high boots of his friend, John McCrea, in the British musical based on the real-life story about a 16-year-old Sheffield drag queen. Broadway.com caught the likably exuberant alumnus of Rent and Hairspray one recent afternoon to talk take-overs, inclusivity and how it is that he could play Billy even now.

How does it feel to have taken over what seems on its way to becoming an iconic musical theater role?
I like to think I’m creating a whole new Jamie, basically. Their show was iconic, and we know that, but it’s our show now, which means that it should feel different and new and exciting. And with me playing the part, it’s as if I’m giving the role over to people of color: I’ve had an amazing amount of letters from younger black boys who are so happy to see me in this part.

Has your friend and predecessor John McCrea, who caused a sensation in the role, been to see you in it?
Not yet but I am sure he will. And I know that when he does, he won’t be looking at it through a judgy eye: in that situation, I think it’s always about how the new person has made the role their own. And anyway, it’s mine now, so if [John] hates it, tough shit [laughs]!

Was John nonetheless instrumental in getting you the part?
Well, I’m not sure John has that much pulling power, as much as I love him. I was in for it when they first did the workshops [for Jamie], and I had worked with [composer] Dan Gillespie Sells on the TV show Beautiful People, so I thought, “I’m going to kill this—how can you not choose me?” John was the opposite and was, like, “I’ve got this audition, too. What’s it for?” So, I wished him the best of luck, and the rest is history.

Were you disappointed at the time?
You know, that was back in the day when everybody was auditioning—literally hundreds of boys—and John was selected within the first group. I was 16 and my voice wasn’t where it should have been; it certainly wasn’t in a place to play Jamie. I can understand why they thought of John initially, and it all worked out in the end. It wasn’t my time, but now it is.

Layton Williams and company in Everybody's Talking About Jamie (Photo: Johan Persson)

Does this gig therefore feel like kismet?
What happened was that John asked me if he could give my number to Jonathan Butterell [the director] and I said, “Why?” and he said, “Why do you think?” So, Jonathan ends up calling me and asking what I thought about coming in within a few months and I said if you want me to come in [to discuss the role], I’ve got to come in tomorrow. I went and basically got the job on the spot: it’s the quickest booking I’ve ever had in my life!

How do you now feel when you look up and see your face adorning Shaftesbury Avenue in between the Michael Jackson musical Thriller and the outsized photo of Rosalie Craig in Company?
I still remember seeing John’s face up there next to Michael Jackson and so was thinking, “When is my face going to be there?” And then when they were putting mine up, there I was on one side and John on the other. I remember asking the cab to slow down. I was thinking: "How often is your face going to be smiling down Shaftesbury Avenue with a red lip on it?"

Did you then go to see the musical again, this time from a different perspective?
Yes, and I watched it in a totally different way. I thought I would just enjoy it and went into the Apollo thinking that I would simply sit back and take in the show. Instead, I sat there nervous and shaking. It got me a bit scared, and rightly so—and excited at the same time.

Did John leave some gifts for you in his dressing room?
He left me all of his little teas and a humidifier so that I can have super-clean air, and somebody made a painting of both of us at the Olivier Awards last year. I’d say that his dressing room was a bit more work mode whereas mine is a bit more like a boudoir! I’ve really put some love in there: I’ve got an armchair that folds out into a bed because I’m a girl about town now and might want a little nap.

How are you coping with the physicality of the show: the heels for instance, and the choreographic demands?
Oh, I am flying! I mean, I played Angel in Rent, so I know what this stuff is all about. When I started rehearsing Jamie, I thought, “This is cute: I can do a little shimmy here and a little kick there!” Putting heels on after the Rent tour feels like second nature; after that, nothing can stop me.

What do you think accounts for the continued success of this musical, which is one of the few British titles in a U.S.-dominated musical theater landscape at the moment in London?
Hopefully everybody who looks at our poster will see themselves, whether black white or Asian and whatever their gender, sexuality or religion. We have every aspect of society represented in our show, which means that people who come to see it feel as if they belong.

How does your experience in Billy Elliot look in retrospect, which was half a lifetime ago in your case?
I played Billy over two years and I reckon if you asked me to play Billy tomorrow, I could still do it. I have such fond memories of that experience, and I reckon that Billy Elliot was the reason I didn’t get quite so nervous in this. I thought to myself, “You were 12 years old when you first did this and you can do it again 12 years later. You’ve been trained now, so get out and do it again!”

Do you keep an eye out on what is happening on Broadway, given that so much these days crosses the Atlantic?
I do keep an eye out on what is happening there but at the moment, everything is going so fast here that I feel as if I am living the dream right now and haven’t given a thought to what might be next. I guess I feel that this is going to be over so quickly and you never know if an opportunity like this is going to come around again. I’m here till the end of September and for now this is my life.