Chris Scalzo chats with WICKED’s Jemma Rix, about her journey from Elphaba standby to leading lady in the first of a two part series…
I’m sitting at small laminate table here in Java Detour (a particularly ironic name if you happen to have actually tasted the coffee) awaiting the arrival of WICKED Australasia’s incomparable leading lady, Jemma Rix. The Marina Bay Sands Shoppes certainly have a lot to offer, although atmosphere for an intimate encounter is surprisingly difficult to come by, short of booking a table at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant.
It’s at this point I feel I should make it clear that I haven’t ever really interviewed anyone in this format before, at least not since my days of ‘real’ study at the University of Melbourne, which came before the call of drama school study lured me into a world of tracksuit pants, soy cheese and Chekov.
So I’m a little daunted by the prospect that anyone should actually find their way into perusing whatever this finished product becomes. I’m also a little daunted that I have chosen to commence my interview career renaissance at the very top of my work’s food-chain….with the green witch. While I’m chewing my nails and just looking generally as casual as possible, Jemma arrives all smiles and casual laughter and any apprehension melts away and I realize it is impossible to feel anything but comfortable around her calm energy and genuine sense of being.
From her initial start playing Elphaba in the Universal Studios Japan condensed production of WICKED, Jemma Rix then found herself back in her home country with a huge toolkit of professional skills yearning to be utilized and auditioning for shows like Miss Saigon, Spamalot and of course, WICKED. That is between working her shifts at Baker’s Delight of course…
She was a member of the Original Australian Company as the Elphaba Standby before taking over the role during the Sydney season.
C: So then – here we go! You ready to rock this?
C: Well, we’re nearly finished here in Singapore now – does the Australian Tour feel like forever ago or just yesterday?
J: It still is close in my mind – I still refer back to times that I had with the Australian Tour and also the Original Australian Cast. It doesn’t feel like ages ago – but when I look back to the beginning when I first started (with WICKED) that does feel like forever ago…
C: I suppose part of the challenge is that while our job is the same every night, it is executed in all these different places, theatres, set ups, with different people etc.
J: Yeah that has been interesting. The main thing that I found the most difficult was that because of the fact that WICKED was technically my first real gig – in a full production of a show- I was very much new to it all (at the start). So to know what I was capable of was definitely a big transition. And also to go through those motions of ‘yes I can do this, yes I am capable of this…’
C: Were you terrified at the beginning? With no other full-scale show experiences to compare the process to?
J: I was terrified. But I also had that same work ethic of ‘this is my job, this is what I’m supposed to do, so do it’. So I had a bit of that as well, but it definitely was daunting and I remember when I first started to do lots of shows and I was just so exhausted and was just like ‘how do people do this?’ But then as time goes on and you feel a bit more confident in yourself and you work on your show and try and get it to a certain point, it doesn’t drain you as much. So I still have to have a very restricted life. But it’s not as restricted as what it was when I was first starting to do lots of shows, because I couldn’t do anything – I was literally just doing the show, sleeping in till, you know, 12 o’clock and I was resting all afternoon just so I could do the show.
C: Resting physically or vocally…just everything?
J: Everything. Because mentally, you just, you can’t really deal with stuff as easily, I guess because you’re just so tired. And the pressure of it all, and because of that fact that I wasn’t experienced, so I was thrown in to a position where I didn’t really know exactly what I was in for…
C: So before the show opened in Australia, did you come straight from the Universal Studios WICKED show?
J: I had a year off…I think I came back in – it would have been February 2007. In the back of my mind I thought ‘I hope WICKED comes’. I never thought I would get ‘the role’ but I thought that I’d have a chance of being in the ensemble or maybe understudy Elphaba…
C: Because you’d done it overseas?
J: Well no, I just thought because of my capabilities I thought it could be possible. Sometimes I thought as well that it could work against me doing the Japan one, the Americans could probably have thought that I wasn’t the real deal because a half hour show is not the same as the full-scale production of WICKED. But you know, I worked really, really hard and I had lots of singing lessons and I took acting classes. So I worked really hard in the year that I was just working at Baker’s Delight …you know I was living the normal life. Trying to get by on $500 a week…
C: And then it happened…
J: And then, yeah. At the end of the year, of 2007, I actually didn’t get offered the role at first – I don’t know what happened but it took a long time for me to actually get cast. I think I was the last person to actually get cast…
C: You never know…
J: …what is around the corner.
C: …How funny to maybe have been the last piece of the puzzle at one point and now…
C: So they ring you and offer you the Elphaba Standby?
J: Yeah, so when I found out I was completely shocked, as I honestly didn’t know I had it as it had been so long and I hadn’t really heard. I did hear a ‘no’ – but randomly they got me to do another audition and Josh had to do the Glinda part in the video the catfight scene that got sent to America.
C: Josh being your husband…was he in the scene
J: No he was behind the camera! Yes. So he knows the words quite well…so when I got the call I was completely shocked. And I didn’t know what a ‘standby’ was, I didn’t know what that meant. Because I honestly thought, in true form, that I would have been in the ensemble and I would have been stoked. I just wanted to be part of WICKED honestly – because I thought it was the most magical show. When they said the standby – and that means that when the lead is off then I would be on, it was just really like ‘oh my gosh’ – from thinking I didn’t have it to all of a sudden being that close, it was pretty intense and a bit intimidating and I was quite, quite nervous.
But because I did the Japan thing I know I felt some confidence in that I know my voice can sustain singing ‘Defying Gravity’, singing ‘Wizard and I’ and I know it was definitely of a much smaller scale, but I think from that, that gave me confidence. But, if I didn’t have the Japan experience, I would have been absolutely terrified. And I learnt a lot from being in Japan and even just about my voice and going through how to look after yourself and things like that which then I think put me in good stead for what was about to come with WICKED.
C: So did you struggle in the beginning being able to maintain a performance level – or a stamina level even?
J: Well know – I just had to…I think like all singers; we dissect our voice, everything so ‘that doesn’t sound right’ or ‘that feels difficult’. And you just do it all in your head, but you are a work in process, so I got to go through that process partially then, rather then having to figure all those nuts and bolts before I went on in Melbourne, so I think I was lucky in that way – confidence wise it would have been a massive boost, because if I didn’t have that I wouldn’t have known.
C: Do you remember your first show?
J: Yeah! I remember all that stuff very clearly, because I think the first time I stood on the stage was my tech run before the show that night. So I knew the numbers and I was watching Amanda….Watching…watching. I couldn’t figure out the depth. Because I was watching in the theatre and I wasn’t sitting up really high, I couldn’t see where they were standing depth wise…I knew what number… but all this stuff was very, very daunting and because I hadn’t had that time because we were only just starting. So that was very scary for me. So I went though the tech run…and I was just like…like I got through it…
C: Were you green?
J: Yes. Nobody else was [costumed].
"I just held the utmost respect for anybody who plays Elphaba because it’s very, very difficult"
J: I know. And it was meant to be everybody’s day off that day and then the show that night, so I felt a little bit bad. But it was very scary and I was already exhausted from doing the whole tech run and then having to do a show, another show that night, it was really frightening. But how I mentally got through it was by saying ‘you know what, this is the best that I can do from what we’ve done previously’. We hadn’t had that time. And I think I did alright…that part of it is a blur, if I did well or not…I just needed to get through the show. And then on the Sunday, there was a matinee and I did the matinee as well. So it was pretty full on and Sunday night, Amanda was back and I couldn’t walk properly…because my legs were so sore from squatting and standing in stairs and the ‘Elphaba Dash’ for the beginning of No Good Deed and my body just did not know what hit it. So I just held the utmost respect for anybody who plays Elphaba because it’s very, very difficult. And you do get better with time and find easy ways to get through it and your body knows what to do now…but it’s still a massive thing to do every night.
C: So now you are ELPHABA – not the standby, and you have been since the Sydney season. When in your warm up process do you look in the mirror and go ‘I am her’? Is it the make-up, or the wig, or the shoes perhaps…?
J: At the beginning, I felt like it was the glasses – because the Elphaba character at the beginning of the show is a bookworm and studies really hard and stands up for what she believes in and I think those glasses really mean Elphaba at the beginning of the show. But for me now, it’s actually just before I go onstage and I pick up my suitcase. I really feel one hundred percent ‘in’.
C: OK – so looking back – to where you started, from being not sure about being cast, getting a ‘no’ in the beginning, then you were the Standby, then you take over the role and tour with it and then after all that both you and David Harris were nominated last year for Helpmann Awards for your performances – what did that mean to you?
J: Well, it was a massive shock because firstly Amanda Harrison was nominated for her performance. So I thought that was it and I didn’t really think of it. And funnily enough, she was the first person to text me to say congratulations! SO that meant so much to me…so when it happened and I got all these text messages, it was such a shock! But I was really happy because, you know, I’d been playing the role for so long by that point and I just felt like this is wonderful, being recognized and I felt really proud and honoured and it was a really great feeling for me.
C: So you went to the ceremony – and got all glammed up with David?
J: Yep! Got all glammed up with David and sat next to each other…and with Lucy [Durack] as well as she was presenting…so it was very overwhelming for me as I’d never actually been to the Helpmann Awards so sitting there and being nominated it was just…very surreal for me. But I soaked it all up…it was really, really good.
C: And how do you feel about the last bit of time here in Singapore…you ready for a break?
J: Yeah – I’m ready for a break. I think that’s because the last tour had twelve weeks, then a couple of weeks off, eight weeks then a couple of weeks off, then the last bit was twelve weeks then finishing, because this has already been so long without a break – it is…intense. So to be completely honest I am very ready for a break but mainly because I know that there’s going to be another big chunk of time on the next leg…
C: Any plans for our break?
J: Well I’m going to be doing some Korea promo work straight after – so I fly the day after we close. Then I think I’m going to have a week off and then I might go to, well probably, the Maldives – Josh is looking things up! Just…spend all the money I‘ve saved! But something like that – either that or Thailand to recharge, relax, swim – and just relax. Then go back home and I’ll spend some time with my dog…and that’ll be for a couple of weeks and then we’re heading off to Korea. But that’s all I need- I need that chunk and then I’ll be back and ready to roll again.
C: I assume fans are fans right? Are they the same here as anywhere else?
J: Yeah we definitely still get a lot of fans here! Lots of people who fly in from all over, lots of people from the Philippines – and yeah, everyone loves the show and they get so excited to see me at the stage door, still half green with no make up on! All the photos of me are with no make up on, half green and with wet hair!
C: The glamorous life!
J: Soooo glamorous! But it’s really lovely that the message of WICKED can translate to anybody all over the world and that’s why it is so successful. It’s really nice, I get little letters and things like that and I definitely read them all and it’s really nice to read how much a show can really effect somebody or change somebody’s life or make people look or think differently. And that’s pretty…pretty powerful.
C: And fans from Australia too are popping up here?
J: Yeah! There have been people doing stopovers on international trips – so there have been a few of those, which is exciting!
C: That’s pretty amazing. I mean, I don’t imagine that there are many musicals for which people would potentially travel overseas just to see…
J: Yeah – it just shows how much people love WICKED.
C: Do you feel like a different person now?
J: Umm…No. I feel the same. I probably just feel a little older and wiser just in living in this life for a long time. And I’ve learnt more things about who I am and what I’m capable of. But I think that happens with everyone whatever job they’re doing and with the years that go by. But me at the core is definitely the same person…
Part two of this series will appear on AussieTheatre.com soon!