Conversations...with Actor, Director, and Artist, Julie Atherton.


Julie Atherton
Julie Atherton. Photo by Ruth Crafer

Julie Atherton is really the sweetheart of London's West End. Starting her career playing the lead, Sophie, in Mamma Mia, her career has gone from strength to strength and she is infamous for playing Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in the original London production of the hilarious hit show Avenue Q!


Julie and I trained together at Mountview Academy and have some great memories of that time, so I was thrilled when she agreed to sit down and chat about her career, the struggles of being in this business, the politics of drama school, the affects of Covid, and why you should never do the splits in an audition when you cannot do the splits!


Lindsey Bowden (LB)

Hello my love! It's been a long time since we've seen each other but are you keeping well?


Julie Atherton (JA)

Hello! I am keeping well yes, bit tired but very good!


LB

I'm not surprised with all the work you are doing, you're quite popular! So let's get cracking and chat about your career. Did you always want to be a performer?


JA

Basically yeah, I couldn't do anything else. Everyone seemed to know what they wanted to do for their G.C.S.E.'s and I was starting to panic. I was quite shy and had no confidence but I loved performing, but I thought it was maybe a pipe dream and something I dreamed about whilst singing in my bedroom to Miss Saigon.


LB

I used to sing to Cats and Les Miserables.


JA

Well, when I went to Sixth Form College, my drama teacher there really pushed me...although I still failed it, it was the written work, didn't like written work. My concentration was so bad, still is really! But he really encouraged me and I thought it was great and I knew I had to pursue it. I went into the library, which I had never set foot in before, you see just not academic, but I found a list of drama schools. There was no social media back then so I just had to look at them, not knowing anything about them. Then I'd heard that somebody in the year above me, Helen Latham (Footballer's Wives and fellow Mountview graduate), had gone to Mountview so that was top of my list. There were some others on my list but as soon as I got into Mountview I was like 'I've done it'!


LB

You mention Mountview there and of course we trained together. I don't know about you but I felt I needed the discipline at that point. Did you feel you needed that, and did you enjoy it?


JA (laughs)

I definitely needed discipline! But it was mainly my confidence that needed building, I was so insecure. I do think one of the lessons that should be in drama school should be counselling. Moving to London too with all these problems we all have, therapy was almost frowned upon back then, it's so much better in Britain now, but it should be standard really to have that.


LB

I agree. I had a similar conversation recently that there should be some kind of therapy or safe space, I don't know if there is now as we're talking 20 years ago, but there was nothing like that really.


JA

Yeah, and its quite brutal and personal because as an actor, you're showing a part of yourself, it's not like a piece of written work, you're showing you.


LB

Did you have any particular inspirations or people you looked up to?



Lea Salonga. Photo by Geoff Ford.

JA

I was obsessed with Miss Saigon, I don't know if you remember that. Lea Salonga was just....


LB

She's a goddess.


JA

Yeah...


LB

Well if I remember correctly you landed your first professional job during the 3rd year of Mountview which was Charlotte's Web at the Polka Theatre. That must have been interesting to get a professional job whilst still training?


JA

It was very interesting and not really taken well. I was told I was going to miss my lead (in 3rd year shows), but I thought the right decision was to do a job that I had been training to do rather than carry on training.


LB

Well, that decision has clearly damaged your career! Then of course you landed the lead role of Sophie in Mamma Mia not long after that. How did it feel to land such a massive show when you had not long been out of drama school?


JA

It was the best feeling, and I don't think I've ever topped it. It's quite a funny story but I was doing a Pantomime in York at the time. I had been back and forth from London to York so many times because I had so many auditions for it. I just didn't think I'd get it. I was getting closer and closer and then I got a phone call from my agent saying I'd got the job, to which I said "what do you mean I've got it, you mean the understudy?", and she said no it was the lead to which I said I didn't understand! She had to tell me a few times before I realised! When I finished ringing everyone I suddenly realised I had been walking around York and was completely lost! I had to call the Company Manager to get directions back to the theatre as we had a dress rehearsal for the Panto that afternoon! Whilst in the rehearsal I was so happy that in the opening number I managed to fall and go over on my ankle. I'm crawling off the stage while people are laughing at me thinking I'm just being silly! My ankle swelled up so much they had to cut my shoe off and I ended up going to A&E in Pantaloons, with a small bottle of Champagne someone had given me, toasting myself in the waiting room!


LB

That's amazing! Part of me just wants to say "because it's you"!


Julie laughs and nods her head in agreement!


LB

So since Mamma Mia your career really hasn't stopped and you've been in some incredible shows, but we have to mention, of course, the production that catapulted you, and that's the dual role of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q. I saw you play that role twice and you were fantastic, you looked like you were having a blast up there. It was also lovely to see you up on stage with our friends Sion Lloyd and Giles Terera as well. So can you chat a bit about how you got that job and also the process of learning all the puppeteering, as, for those who don't know Avenue Q, the whole show is puppeteering. Dirty puppets, we like it!


JA

Julie Atherton as Kate Monster in Avenue Q.

Well in the audition I sang a comedy song, and then they asked me to pick up a puppet and have a go, having never done it before. So I had a go and was trying to move the mouth at the same time as speaking and it actually really hurt because they are heavy. They agreed it was quite painful but I just had to do it which felt odd having to do something in an audition that you're not trained in when you're trying to get a job. But we had a little workshop and it was quite a lot of pressure as there were others in the room who were also after that part. It felt more like a public audtition than a workshop. But I knew there was another audition after that so I went home and practiced the movements, without a puppet, so when I came back I slightly knew what I was doing. So, a few of us got the job without really knowing how to puppeteer, but they just wanted to see our progression, which was absolutely fair enough. It was a 5 week rehearsal period and the first week was an intensive puppeteering workshop with one of the guys from The Jim Henson Company, who was absolutely amazing, just great. It was so hard, but it is like riding a bike. You just think you're never going to get it and then one day something clicks. For instance, the Lucy the Slut walk. I could not get that for ages, and every morning I'd grab the puppet and practice and practice, and then one day it just clicked and I shouted "Everyone, watch this!", and they shouted yes! It was great, everyone was having epiphanies at different times! After press night I remember I just cried! The director asked if I was ok and I said that I just didn't know how it went. Because when you're a person on stage you get a feeling whether you were good, but with this it was like, I think the puppet was looking the right way and doing the right things!


LB

It's hard though isn't it because you're not only trying to show the character through the puppet, you're also showing it through your face. I've worked with the Henson lot so I know a bit about it and it always amazes me how you're not drawn to the person, that the puppeteer is so skilled that all eyes are on the puppet. That's such a skill to transfer what's happening on your face to the puppet.

Julie Atherton as Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q.

JA

It is, but again, it is like riding a bike, it becomes second nature. So, even in something goes wrong on stage you kind of physically go with it. The puppet just becomes a part of you. It was hard to let go when I'd finished the show, normally you give back the costume and say goodbye to the character and you're ok, but when you're saying goodbye to an actual thing and telling them someone else is going to put their hand up their bum now...I don't know how I feel like that!


LB

Lucky them. You went back into it though didn't you?


JA

Yes, they asked me to go back for the final 4 months, which ended up being 8 months. The only reason I left the show anyway was just because I don't think my body could have taken it anymore, the heaviness and repetitive muscle strain.


LB

Yes the puppets are deceptively heavy. Around that same time, 2006, you also released your first solo album A Girl of Few Words, and you have released two more solo albums to date. Did you always want to do solo work?


JA

Yes, I'm just one of those people who wants to do everything. It's difficult to hone into one thing because I like variety, I think it helps me grow. Also just survival. You have to learn to survive in this industry and nobody really talks about that enough. The reality is, the hardest thing about acting is staying in work, and the more fingers you have in pies the better.


LB

Absolutely. So in 2011 you toured the UK with Sister Act: The Musical playing Sister Mary Robert and shortly after that you created the role of French Teacher in the musical LIFT which was written by our mutual friend Craig Adams, a man that is far too talented for his own good. So when you're creating a character from scratch do you have a particular process and approach?


JA

It varies really and it's not necessarily a process, more getting to know the character as much as possible and giving your own experiences to it, and then it's up to the director to pick and choose what they like.


LB

Did you identify with some characters more than others?


Julie Atherton in LIFT

JA

Definitely. Some are harder to find if they don't feel like you, so that's an extra discussion with the director. French Teacher was quite difficult to find until I realised that, as with all parts, it's just emotions. Even if you haven't had the exact experience of that character, you have on a certain level, everything is relative. I'm quite open to the director and whatever their process is really. The one thing is I don't like to be rushed to learn my lines, I need safety or I'm just stood their remembering. I'm the same in auditions, it's like, do you want to see me remembering or see me work.


LB

You mentioned auditions there; do you still get nervous at auditions?


JA

Yes! I don't think it gets better, in fact I think sometimes it gets worse, especially if the person in the room knows you. You think "oh no, if I fail at this now, you're going to think I have now failed and that is it", whereas you're probably just having a bad day!


LB

I used to suck at auditions, I used to get myself so worked up. Have you got any comedy stories from auditions?


JA

I remember back in Mountview we went to an open audition for Beauty and the Beast. We thought we'd just go along and see what it was like...and it was a dance audition. I don't know why we went to that! But the end of the routine was "and down into splits". Now, I can't do the splits, but I did them that day, and I couldn't get up!


LB (laughs very loudly)

Oh my god! What did you do?


JA

I just crawled off and that was it. They were just like "Ok, thank you". There was no getting through that.


LB

That's just brilliant. All these crazy things people do in auditions to impress.


JA

Some panels are so used to what they do that they can't sympathise with the person walking in the room, who is the only person in the room who hasn't been paid to be there. Sometimes they expect so much like "how much do you want it?". Can we just take it as read that everyone who goes to an audition wants the job?


LB

There does seem to be a power play at auditions sometimes. We'll talk about your directing in a moment but what do you do at auditions to put people at ease?


JA

First off I thank them for coming and taking time out of their day. People are working so many jobs to just stay alive in London that they've probably spent money to get there, money on an outfit and they've had things to learn for the audition, so I try not to send them too much material before as well. I tell them it's not a memory test as the casting director of the Donmar once told me. I try and make them feel comfortable, we're there to work and I want them to feel that they have a voice in the room.


LB

Absolutely. So let's talk about your directing. You've done quite a bit of directing now, and one that really interested me was Bare which you directed at the Vaults* in London. How important was it to you to give a platform to the LGBT+ community as that's something that's very dear to my heart too.


JA

It was really important. We changed the ending of the show as well and mentioned all the people who had taken their own lives due to trying to be just who they wanted to be. We had a tree at the end and all their names were hung on the tree so that everyone could read them and read their story, it wasn't just a show, it was a brilliant piece and was so important. I'd love to be able to do that show again with that group of people. It was a great rehearsal process but there were endless problems such as the venue not being built for musical theatre shows which ended up costing money and so on. But what a wonderful bunch of people in a room and a lovely story to tell. The fans of that show are incredible, they came for solace and met like-minded people and became friends, it was just such a lovely atmosphere.


LB

So with your directing, you actually returned to our drama school Mountview and directed there. How was it being back in that drama school atmosphere?


Mountview Academy

JA

It was amazing. I started directing there because of Eddie Gower who was also in our year at Mountview, he's now the head of the foundation course. So I taught a lot there and was chatting to Eddie telling him I was working on something where the director was making me quite cross, and I'd done a couple of auditions where I didn't feel safe in the room, and I said that I thought I wanted to be a director. So I actually had a chat with a few people including Sean Holmes*, then Eddie offered me the chance to direct the foundation course showcase. There were 26 girls and 4 boys. My brief, which I didn't stick to, was 3 half hour slots of a musical and they have to have a similar theme. So I thought, three different musicals with a similar theme that have a lot of girls in them. There was nothing. Then I started looking at the writers and directors and all the creatives and I thought "there's a problem here. Where are all the women at?". I didn't realise how much of a problem there was. The influx of girls into drama school is huge compared to boys but it's the opposite when it comes to parts, and for us when you get to a certain age the work goes down because you're no longer considered pretty enough. I started getting so cross, I believed everything was ok but it's not, especially not in musical theatre. So, I put a show together using parts of various shows and also wrote some of it myself about suffragettes, and it turned out amazing. They actually wanted to use it as a 3rd year show and I thought "good luck getting the rights for that to show to the public, there's about 200 shows in there!" I then directed Girlfriends at Mountview, and because I was still so new to it the cast were so supportive, just a lovely bunch people. The more collaborative you are in a room the better it is anyway because why wouldn't you use all those brains in a room? I loved it so much and I loved being able to control the atmosphere in the room. It was fun and it should only be fun. If you instill fear into a room, which can happen a lot in drama school, I just don't understand it. They say you must develop thick skin as actor but no, you must have thin skin so you can access a range of emotions like that (snaps her fingers). So if fear is instilled into a room, then that's an emotion you have to try and get rid of to be able to do the emotion you're supposed to be doing. There's enough fear within yourself over whether you're going to do it well or not. You have to be allowed to fail to move forward.


LB

Absolutely. It's impossible to succeed and know you've succeeded without failing first. It's important to fail.


JA

Exactly. And it's hard to fail if you don't feel safe to.


LB

A mutual friend of ours and I often have this conversation about drama school, and one thing we often chat about is how, back then, there wasn't enough emphasis on the 'business' part of the business. Like, how to live as a self employed person, how to do your tax properly, how to properly approach people like agents and producers, how to properly run a business as you are your own business. How many times can I say business in one sentence?


JA (laughs)

Yeah, a bit like at school, why don't they teach you about life? Why don't they teach you about money? Cause they want to keep you poor!


LB

Well, they succeeded! So let's talk about Covid which has massively affected our industry in so many ways. Were you personally affected it?


JA

I was. 2020 was...wonderful. I was personally affected by it, but kind of in a good way if I'm honest. I discovered painting and that was amazing.


LB

Your painting is amazing, I follow it on Instagram, it's gorgeous.


JA

Thank you! I just really enjoy it and it's a great pastime. It's really therapeutic and a job I don't mind doing. I think I just kicked into survival mode, and sometimes I find survival mode fun because you can be creative with it. So it did send me in a bit of a different direction but it also made me so grateful when it all came back.


LB

Do you think they way it has affected our industry has produced any positives?


JA

I think it has yes. A lot of people have finished projects they have started and a lot of people have got productive, so a lot of new work has been put on, and also videoing performances. For people who can't get out to the theatre, live-streaming is great.


LB

Well I was going to say, that's what you did at the Coliseum. You were Associate Director for I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change which was filmed and then streamed. How was the experience of doing a show with no audience there?


JA

It was hard doing it with no audience because part of theatre is the immediate response, especially for a comedy, you feed off of their reactions. But, it was amazing as well, because it something goes wrong you can just cut and redo the scene. It's fun filming stuff as you know.


LB

It's all fun! I feel that Covid has challenged us all to think outside the box more and learn how to work in different ways. I think personally we will see more of that work in the future.


JA

Yeah I hope so. I also hope it won't just be West End in the future, site specific work is so interesting. Let's get creative. Isn't art about moving forward and doing different things?


LB

I love site specific work too. So, for anyone who is reading this and wants to break into the industry, what sort of tips would you have for them?


JA

Just believe in yourself and do what you do. I think that's the only advice I can give really, because yes it's about luck, but it's also about perseverance. Believing in yourself and not being swayed too much by other people's opinions, there's always going to be people who tell you that's not the way to do it, but who says that? It's art. So my advice is you do you Boo!


LB (laughs)

So, I think I probably know the answer to this, but what has been your favourite role to date?



Julie Atherton and David Hunter in The Hired Man. Photo by Robert Day

JA

It's really difficult because yes of course, Avenue Q, I adored Kate Monster so much, but also I really enjoyed playing Emily in The Hired Man. As a role that was a great part to play. It's like choosing between your children, I loved Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act as well. I think....yeah I'm going to have to go with Kate Monster aren't I?


LB

I think so. I'm going to tell you, yes you are. You mentioned earlier about writing, I know you're a fan of new writing and enjoy writing yourself, so if you were going to write about somebody you admire and tell their story and maybe direct it, who would you write about?


JA

YOU Lindsey!


LB (laughs)

I was just about to say " is it me?!" That's hilarious.


JA (laughs)

Do you know what, I don't know the answer to that question. It's too many amazing people, but one day I do want to tell the story of my mothers life, she had an interesting life.


LB

Well you must tell me over a coffee one day! Well that's all my questions I have for you today Julie, thank you so much for taking the time to do this today.


JA

I'd like to see you properly soon please over a big bottle of wine.


LB

Yes! One that costs £3!


Photo by Ruth Crafer



Julie Atherton is in The Book of Dust at the Bridge Theatre until 26th February 2022.


Follow Julie Atherton on Instagram and Twitter.

Follow Atherton Paintings on Instagram

Follow Lindsey Bowden on Instagram and Twitter


*Vaults - Old tunnels beneath Waterloo Station, now a performance venue.

*Sean Holmes - Associate Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe.














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