Martin Walsh, who plays Billy’s dad in Billy Elliot the Musical, talks us through who his character is, the importance of his relationship with Billy and how he sees himself in his character.
How did you get the role?
I first got a phone call off my agent and they suggested that I go along and audition for the part of dad. I said I’d love to!
Tell us a little bit more about your character
Within the community I think he’s one of the leaders within the working environment at the pit, probably one of the foremen. He’s also a father of 2, he’s now a widow, Tony is already grown up so there’s less or different problems with Tony, he’s grown into a man. Billy’s the younger one, he’s his mother’s love. Dad’s really struggling with the balance of work life, especially back in the 80’s which was worse than it is today, to be both roles.
Why is Billy’s relationship with his dad so important for the story?
Dad’s relationship with Billy in the play is really important, I think it’s intrinsic in the fact that Billy’s forever looking to him and at least for the first half of the play he’s somewhat missing, he’s somewhat absent, if not in body in mind and in time that he gives to Billy. Billy’s a bit of a lost soul and dad’s struggling. He feels all the right emotions I think but he can’t get them out and he can’t show them to his son. Hopefully we get there in the end!
What in your eyes is Billy Elliot all about?
Well, it’s not just about Billy Elliot, obviously that’s the main character and it is about a little boy’s struggles growing up. Going against the grain in what I think is quite a loving supportive community, but one that’s struggling through emotional times and struggling through losing their jobs and their communities being ended really by their main employee going away. But it’s also about community, it’s about family, it’s about love, it’s about expressing that love and showing that love. For me it’s about a father who’s struggling both with the loss of his wife, one son who’s turning into a man and one son who’s trying to find himself.
Do you see yourself in Dad?
Yeh of course, I mean I am a dad I’ve got 2 little ones at home, a 5 ½ and a 1 ½, so that’s tough! Every time I look at Billy, although the age is different I still see a vulnerable child and emote to that. It brings up lots of emotions for me so yeh I do see myself a lot in dad, being a dad I suppose helps. And that struggle with coming from a similar background, a mining community, I’ve got a similar working class background and wanted to do acting as a career. There wasn’t the same struggle, there wasn’t the same stigma attached to it but it was a bit of a joke thing, a “you’ll grow out of it” sort of thing. It wasn’t laughed at but it was like, “You’ll get over it”.
Do you have to do any dancing in the show?
We do a little yes, we won’t torture the audience with it! I’m not there for my dancing skills but yes we have fun, everybody’s dead supportive. Some of the guys and gals are just cracking dancers, they’re really good and they’re always there to help and they’ll always pitch in and show you a step again. It’s not too advanced, it’s certainly nowhere near the scale of what some of these guys are doing!
What do you think it is about the Choreography that makes Billy Elliot special as a show?
I’ve never seen Choreography like it, it’s balletic obviously but it’s also athletic and gymnastic, it’s tap. It’s all these things that I’ve really seen from afar, I’ve never been that up close to and I get to share the stage quite a lot with the Billys when they’re doing it, and it’s both fascinating and inspiring, it’s beautiful.
What was the training and rehearsal process like for the show?
I’d say primarily my function is to be there to act, there’s lots of singing and we touched on a little bit of dancing. It’s just having the discipline really, being in the same room as some of these guys who put their legs in positions I could never dream of and bend their backs almost in half which is not going to happen in my mid 40’s! The training we do, it’s all about feeling together as a group, obviously there’s warm up to make sure we’re vocally ready and physically ready but there’s such an array of vocal use and physical use of our bodies that people need different warm up techniques, so if everybody’s bending and stretching then I’m certainly not doing that too much! They’d probably have to put me in hospital!
What’s your favourite scene or musical number in the show?
My favourite scene in the show is Electricity; sharing the stage with the Billys at that time and watching them do their thing, up close and personal, they’re right in front of me doing it, putting myself in the situation of being the father, it’s hopefully a beautiful moment. I certainly enjoy it!
What do you think it takes to be Billy Elliot?
All the Billys are different, they all bring something different. I thought I’d have a favourite or something like that but it’s not true, each and every one of them has different nuances both in the movement and in the acting and it’s just great! I think you just need skill, I think you need to be fearless and I think you just need to love it.
What have your biggest challenges in the show been so far?
There’s physical challenges and vocal challenges but that’s part of being an actor. I think the biggest challenges have been, although very enjoyable, getting to know the Billys; getting to know my “sons” also getting to know the Tony character, who’s also my son but I’m very much protective towards the smaller guys having left my family behind for the tour. So although I’m deeming it a challenge it’s been a very enjoyable one.
What’s it like working with the Billys?
It’s great working with the Billys, it reminds me of when I was small. Although I wasn’t dancing, I was doing youth theatre and musicals. I see the joy and the fearlessness in their faces that I remember having. From my youth I never remember the struggles of rehearsals or learning lines or the pressures of “what happens if I forget it”, I just remember the joy. To see these 4 little fellas doing their thing fearlessly and just going full at it, it’s a joy, a pleasure.
What are the other kids like to work with?
The other kids in general, they’re just so switched on, so there all the time. You’d expect their concentration to wander but really it doesn’t. They’re so good, in some ways you’d argue they’re more professional than we are. Every rehearsal they’re there in the moment and giving it everything they’ve got. It’s great to watch!