INTERVIEW: Jenna Boyd chats Come From Away, mastering the Newfoundland accent & the importance of diverse casting

Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

Jenna Boyd is currently bringing audiences to tears in the West End Olivier Award-winning musical Come From Away. Amongst other characters, Jenna plays Beulah Davis a character based on a hybrid of two of the real residents of Gander, Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis.

Prior to Come From Away, Jenna starred in a number of West End and touring productions including Wind in the Willows and The Sound of Music. She also starred in the film adaption of Les Misérables.

Jenna chatted to us about the ongoing success of Come From Away, how she navigated the tricky Newfoundland accent and how, as a plus-size actor she defied convention and challenged stereotypes to build a successful career on both stage and screen.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it – describe Come From Away in one sentence – It is a musical about the best people can be in the worst possible time.

How did you come to get involved with the show and what was the audition process like? I just found out that I hadn’t got Madame T in the West End production of Les Misérables, so I was very upset and disappointed as you can imagine. A couple of days later my agent sent me an email saying you’ve got an audition for Come From Away. I had never heard of it but thought, great something to really focus on, so I went in, sang a song and got recalled. I then got sent some material and I thought, gosh this is really quite good! After my second audition (I’m sure I had four altogether) I made a conscious decision not to do any research on the show. I didn’t listen to the soundtrack because I knew that I would fall in love with it, and if I didn’t get it I would be heartbroken. So when I found out I got it (nine weeks after my final) I was in Salisbury doing a wonderful play. I read the script that night and cried and that was without the music. On Saturday I drove home and had to pull into the slow lane, and at one point nearly had to stop the car altogether because I couldn’t stop crying. I mean they were like noisy tears and I genuinely couldn’t believe that I was going to get to do it.

The Newfoundland accent is tricky! How hard was it perfecting the accent and how did you do it? You say that like I have perfected the accent! I am going to go out on a limb and say, I think I am pretty good at accents and I have never gone into an audition and felt uncomfortable. I always think gosh it must be awful going into an audition knowing you sound like an idiot! WELL let me tell you, it was SO hard! For the audition, they just said give it a good stab. So I went online and listened to people and I was thought to myself I don’t believe that people talk that way, it can’t be real – but it is! When we got into rehearsals we watched a lot of documentaries and we quickly became aware that there were several variations of the Gander accent. The creative’s decided that they needed to pick one version that everyone would understand and keep it constant. We had a dialect coach (Joel) to help us to learn the accent. He actually still gets audio copies of the show and emails us with notes, so we’re constantly monitored to ensure the accents remain consistent. I don’t think my accent is perfect but I could never say those words any other way because to me it’s like the tune of a song. I wouldn’t sing Humpty Dumpty to the tune of Three Blind Mice; it’s just not the same thing.

You play Newfoundlander Beulah (and others) who develops a close bond with the grounded Hannah. Did you seek advice from the real Beulah to do justice to that relationship in the show? No, (and I don’t know if this was purposeful) but we didn’t meet the real Newfoundlander’s and plane people until we opened. Our Director was quite insistent that we didn’t impersonate because none of us plays only one person. Beulah Davis happens to be a composite of two people. I didn’t need to ask for advice on the closeness of that bond because the writing makes it so easy. I mean this show makes us look talented – the show is the star. The direction, the choreography, the music and the arrangements are designed to make us look good and I swear they do 90% of the work. It’s always very humbling when you see it happening around you. In terms of the bond between Hannah and Beulah, it all comes from the writing.

The success of the show has been further heightened by its performance at the 2019 Olivier Awards, how did it feel to perform at the ceremony and did you expect the awards it won? Performing at the ceremony I felt like a rock star, I was beside myself, it was so cool! I don’t really have the words to describe the joy I felt when we finished that number, I just swelled with absolute pride not just for myself, but for my friends and colleagues and for the show itself. You could feel the love in the room for the show; it was the same at West End Live. Did we expect to win so many awards? Absolutely not, we thought that the very talented and brilliant production of SIX was going to win best new musical because it’s phenomenal. For whatever reason, it did go our way, and goodness me we were pleased and so happy and so grateful.  Also, if I had known we were going to win, I would have been a bit cooler, I did not realise there were cameras pointing at me!

Come From Away is such an emotional show with audiences regularly moved to tears. How does that emotion translate to you as actors on stage and how do you keep it together? I think because the piece doesn’t end in a sad and emotional way, we’ve left that behind. So by the time, we come to the end we are up because we’ve moved somewhere else. You can feel the audience being moved in certain parts and it’s lovely because that energy kind of lifts you and moves you on. Something our Director Chris Ashley was very insistent about when we were rehearsing was that there is no room in the show for sentimentality; it is not our job to be sentimental. Our job is to tell the story and how that affects the audience is their business. I mean obviously, the phone call is heartbreaking and I hear people gasp, it’s like a peripheral thing, I know that it’s happened but I have to be in a different place and just as quickly let it go. Same with the TV watching, in rehearsals, we were so affected by it and there were lots of tears and Chris was so amazing, he was like that’s fine go through it, find it sad, allow yourself to be moved by it but by the time you get to an audience that can’t be a thing. I remember Diane Davis telling me they had those TV’s in that room and people would either come in watch it and leave and never come back in again or they would sleep in there and watch it on a loop. She said that when everyone was first arriving, it was like watching that moment on repeat because she had to witness that first time reaction so many times which was utterly devastating. I do think of that in that scene and embraced that from her because it’s just so valid.

If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be? That’s really hard! I think if I could change one thing in this industry I think it would be equality and diversity in casting. This is very personal to me because I have been typecast my whole career due to my appearance. This is the first time anyone has ever really asked me to be serious and not act a clown or play the fool or be larger than life. Come From Away is a simple job to tell a story and I really wish other opportunities had been presented to me when I was younger to do the same thing. I was just a girl who had a life outside of the business that was never reflected in what I saw. I was never in love on stage or screen. The whole spectrum of society should be represented on stage regardless of whether you are older, younger, fatter or thinner. Then, of course, we have our lovely BAME colleagues, which we have in this show and again the diversity of casting in that regard. It’s starting to happen now but late to the party! It shouldn’t be a conversation that we’re still having but the conversation has to be had because it’s not happening regularly enough. I think one of the wonderful things about Come From Away is that you look at the stage and see people that look like you, which makes it more relatable.

What challenges have you faced being a plus-size actor? I was told at drama school that I wouldn’t work until I was 35. If that had happened then I would have been unemployed for the vast majority of my career. I have been lucky enough to work since I left college but quite a lot of the stuff (not all) that I get is based on my appearance. I get into the audition because they have a specific type of look in mind and it’s not the look of a person that falls in love with somebody else, but that’s OK, I have accepted it. I auditioned years ago for Jesus Christ Superstar for the role of Woman One and I was told I wasn’t right and I was like, what, to play a woman? Were there no women that looked like me in Nazareth? It is frustrating and at times it really hurt but I have carved a career in spite of it and I have loved the roles that I have played. Would I like to have played Fantine? Yes. Would I like to have played Elphaba? Of course, but that isn’t the way that it was.

How have you overcome the challenges and made peace with that side of the industry? I had an interesting experience when I was doing Wind in the Willows. In that show there are two stand-out roles for women, one is the Gaoler’s Daughter and the other is The Bargewoman. I played Mrs Hedgehog and the Gaoler’s Daughter. When I told people that I was going to be in the show they immediately assumed that I would be playing the Bargewoman.  I was actually embarrassed to correct them and it took me months to be comfortable with telling people. I struggled with the part because of that but I knew that I had to get over the embarrassment of it because clearly the creative’s saw me as that character otherwise I wouldn’t have been cast. I did The Beautiful Game right at the beginning of my career and was Hannah Waddingham’s understudy for a while. I was 21 and in the end, they swapped me with another girl because I just couldn’t do it. I’d had no training on how to play a love interest and I had no clue how to sing a love song because I had never done one and was told quite frankly I never would. It was all so alien to me, so after that, I moved more into the light-hearted roles that I have been best known for playing because that was where I was most comfortable.

Have you ever felt the pressure to change your appearance off the back of those experiences? I have to constantly watch what I eat otherwise I would have real problems. In terms of work, no, because I know who I am. I’m not able or willing to change that and who I am is part and parcel of everything about me. I’ve always looked this way so I don’t really know what it would be like to be a skinny person or to look like the atypical leading lady. I’m not uncomfortable with myself and I never have been. I work this way, I am physically able to do the job and I have never been cut from a dance call because I am a strong actor mover. So no, I have never felt the need, I have been employed largely for the way that I look so I am there for a reason. I get a lot of people at stage door say to me; it’s so refreshing to see someone like me on stage. I get the same thing when I do master classes in colleges.

What has been your biggest career highlight to date? The Les Misérables film. When I was a child my only experience of musicals was movies, I didn’t really go to the theatre much as a kid so it was all about the film versions. That’s what I thought I would do when I grew up so when I got to do that film, it was a literal childhood dream come true. Obviously Come From Away is up there as well, this is just exceptional and the opportunities that have come from it as well, The Olivier’s, West End Live which I had never done before was amazing. Oh and a panto I did in Eastbourne, one of my favourite jobs, I played a fairy – I was thrilled!

What was the last thing you saw at the theatre and what do you wish you had seen but missed? The last thing I saw was actually on Thursday, we went to see the matinee of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican and I will say this, Ricardo Afonso’s voice is essentially something else – I have never heard anything like it, I might have to go and see it again! In terms of what I missed, London Road, I wish that I had seen that. The focus was very much on the acting and the storytelling which is what I love. I am going to see Harry Potter later this year but I wish I’d seen it already!

We then asked Jenna some Dress Circle Antics quickfire questions…

Favourite Come From Away Lyric / Line – “You are here at the start of a moment”, I think that’s beautiful

Favourite musical number – What, ever?? Ok. I am sorry but there has to be more than one… Something Wonderful from the King and I, one of my favourite songs to sing is Meadowlark from the Baker’s Wife, I am currently very in love with Unusual Way from Nine. I would also say that Opening Number from the Lion King is one of the best openings of a musical ever. Oh and the End of Act One sequence from Les Mis, it can’t be beaten. Right move on now or I literally won’t stop!

Go to audition song – Nobody Does It Better, You Can Always Count On Me and Fifty Percent from Ballroom

Who would play you in the story of your life – Melissa McCarthy because I am obsessed with her, she is brilliant and a trailblazer. However, that would mean I would be more famous that her which I cannot foresee! Or me! I’d play me in my own movie.

Favourite musical – La Cage aux Folles, one of the most moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Les Mis and The Sound of Music and The King and I (movies)

Your inspiration growing up – My mum, because she allowed me to believe that I could do this and that it was a possibility.

Dream Superpower – Definitely not flying because I’d be scared in case I died! Time Travel!

Tell us something no one knows about you – When I was sixteen I came to London and me and my best friend Carrie crept into the Palace Theatre through an open fire exit. When we got caught standing watching the show by an usher, we said oh no we’ve got tickets; I just felt faint and came outside. They then bought me some water so we watched the entire performance of Les Mis for free!  Oh and we used to also steal show posters from the tube! For what purpose, I don’t know, and I couldn’t tell you where they all are but we used to do that as well.

Come From Away is currently playing at The Phoenix Theatre, London and is booking until February 2020.

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