At selected cinemas over the weekend, a specially conceived version of the long-running stage production of Billy Elliot was beamed from London’s West End onto the big screen. Based on the Academy Award nominated film, it tells a story of a young boy during the hardships of a mining town strike hoping, against all odds, his passion for dancing will come true. Ahead of the upcoming Universal pictures DVD release, I was lucky enough to speak with Jessica Ronane – the original casting director and first actor to play stage Billy.
Did Stephen Daldry (director of the film and creator of the stage production) handpick you to be casting director on the project?
JR – Yes he did. I trained as a dancer myself from a young age then turned to acting in my teenage years, I was introduced to Stephen at that time. Much later I was selected by Stephen to start searching for the boys.
How does one become a casting director of international recognition?
JR – Luck and the people who you are introduced to. I was hired by Stephen after recommendations by others in the business and I was brought on very early. I was told on Billy casting to leave no stone unturned for any boys we can train in the role, two years before the London show began. I felt under pressure but very excited. I also felt really comfortable and in my ability to be able to spot someone and I was working with a bunch of people who had already made the film.
Being from a dancing background did you ever feel like getting up on stage and strutting your stuff to show the boys how it’s done?
JR – (laughing) Oh no, while I can spot the right dancers for various roles, I am happy to have hung up my dancing shoes, no urge at all. I liked working with the choreographers in unison with the parents too; it’s a nurturing role for me.
Do you put your own makeup on or are artists running around you like mad?
LM – Depends, generally I put it on which is fine but time limits will sometimes mean others do.
What is the first thing you notice or look for in choosing a boy for Billy Elliot or any role?
JR – Easy, you can see energy, or a boy who is eager, committed and something about the way they move makes you want to watch them. They don’t have to be the best dancer at first, you get to the details later but to start with, it’s about engaging us.
What is your opinion of stage shows being filmed for cinema audiences – do you agree with it?
JR – I don’t know due to my love of the stage. However, the special things we are doing for this particular production, surprises and carefully planned moments, it’s on celluloid forever. For an audience who enjoyed the film, it takes them beyond that onto another level looking at the story from an alternative aspect. Liam Mower returns as adult Billy, he was found at 10 years old when we first laid eyes on him and was cast from a dance studio in Hull. When he began to dance, I knew due to my heart in my mouth, it was a beautiful moment of discovery. As a child, not just a dancer, it was obvious he was very special. He and his family are now friends for life.
I remember seeing the film for the first time and if this production is anything like that, I’ll cry.
JR – Yes you’re right, I think that may happen to you again Shane.
Liam Mower – original on stage Billy
How exciting is it to be returning to the role of Billy all these years later, but as the older version?
LM – I’m surprised they even asked me, I was approached by the Billy Elliot team explaining through my agent of their concept. I said yes, ring them back immediately, a definite yes.
What does your role envision this time, is it simply a final act appearance or a touch more?
LM – You can’t say too much but I dance in a dream sequence and I fly but I won’t reveal how or why. It’s powerful and lovely. It is extremely exciting, the end of the show is called a mash up Billy where 27 Billy’s will be involved.
Do you remember that very first time you took the stage as Billy?
LM – Only parts of it, I do remember that I was so used to the seats being empty in rehearsals that it shocked me when there was people side to side. I was taken aback; what it looked like in the opening scenes, it was the biggest stage and audience I had ever seen. It was all a blur.
Does any of your own life growing up in working class Hull mimic Billy’s getting into ballet?
LM – Oh god yes, the one year at the dance school is very much like you saw in the film and show. I was the only boy amongst a gaggle of dancing girls, but I was accepted. It was a definite connect with Billy on my first audition wearing the leotard with other boys, I hadn’t experienced that before.
Your Royal Variety Performance number was very popular and is still talked about amongst dancers. Did you get to meet the Queen afterwards?
LM – No, I have never met Her Majesty but have met Prince Charles. It’s quite sad really as I know she has come to the Billy show as well and I performed in front of her at the Coronation in a dance number based on James Bond.
What about Elton John, he has been a big supporter of your work, does he keep in contact?
LM – Yes he and his partner remain in contact, David is a producer on Billy. Lovely genuine guys.
Describe Stephen as a director and a person.
LM – I love Stephen, he is the first person related to all this I met along with Jessica Ronane. We have always been close, it’s amazing working with him. I like the way he has the ability of dragging things from you that you’re not currently trying to do. Dancing was something I was always quite confident in, but the singing and acting I learnt on the way. He gave me acting challenges but instead of being intimidating like crying on demand, I was a kid remember. But the way he worked with us all was keeping us at ease and caring director. He is still supportive.
So he is not the kind of director that if something goes wrong, he goes nuts or points fingers?
LM – The first preview was close to three hours, there were loads of scenes and dances cut because by law, they had to shorten it. The audience was full this time, he could see I was tired I guess and some of the cast were missing marks. Stephen walked down the middle aisle yelling ‘stop stop, take a break’ as the audience looked on as if it was part of the show. Offering water, he was worried about us and I found that comforting. He stood on stage explaining to the audience the show will go on, momentarily.
Do you want to do any straight acting in a movie rather than a musical?
Lm – I do and it will happen. I am working on it with friends and contacts.
Have you performed Down Under or at the Opera House.
LM – Never been down there and I would absolutely love that, while the Opera House would be a dream come true.
What do you do if you’re performing and a mobile phone goes off, has that happened?
LM – It has, personally I really hate it. I believe it should be an instant routine for anyone to just turn it off when sitting down or even upon entry. I never stop, I carry on but it’s so annoying. Once in the front row during a really quiet scene, a lady answered it and started a conversation.
Do you like the idea of stage shows being filmed for a cinema audience?
LM – It’s a nice opportunity for broadening audiences to experience theatre from a different perspective. I don’t think it actually takes a dedicated audience away from the theatre.
Shane A. BassettSydney Unleashed is one of Australia’s premier entertainment publications exploring the latest in lifestyle trends. From Sydney’s finest restaurants, cafes and bars to the hottest in gadgets, products, and home entertainment, Sydney Unleashed is your one-stop lifestyle platform.