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Ruthie Henshall: The chance to step into Julie Walters' role in Billy Elliot was a no-brainer

The English actress and singer (47) has starred in some of the most successful stage shows of the past 20 years, including the smash hit Billy Elliot: The Musical

By Roger Crow

BILLY ELLIOT WAS THE FIRST BROADCAST STAGE SHOW TO TOP THE UK MOVIE CHART. HOW DID THAT FEEL?

We couldn't believe it. My company manager came in and said, 'Do you like to know things before a show?' and I said, 'No, don't tell me 'til afterwards!' And, of course, he had all these facts about how we were the third biggest grossing film that Universal had ever had. I'm kinda glad I didn't know because it was a big enough night as it was, but it put the stakes up even higher.

IT WAS A GREAT EXPERIENCE FOR PEOPLE WHO WEREN'T IN THE WEST END

It's exciting to us because that gives children and people who can't travel, and people who can't afford it the opportunity, because unfortunately theatre is expensive.

AFTER THAT GREAT PERFORMANCE HAD BEEN SCREENED WORLDWIDE, HOW DID IT AFFECT THE CAST?

We know every night when we do this show that we're in a hit because the reaction is so huge at the end of the show; the audience stand every night without fail, so you know you're in this brilliant show, but then to have it confirmed again ... I've never had so many texts on my phone in a two-hour period from people coming out of the cinema going: 'Oh my goodness, I just saw it!'

IT'S RARE TO GET THAT REACTION FOR A SHOW ALMOST 10 YEARS OLD

It was such an exciting event for someone like me, who has joined a show that's already running. I adored the show when I saw it, so when this came up and they said, 'We're going to be doing Billy live as well', it was a no-brainer. When do you get the creative team coming back nine-and-a-half years later, and you work with (director) Stephen Daldry and (choreographer) Peter Darling, and Lee (Hall), who wrote the script? It was an incredible opportunity.

DID YOU GET ANY ADVICE AT ALLFROM JULIE WAlTERS WHEN YOU STEPPED INTO HER PART OF MRS WILKINSON?

No! I haven't spoken to her since I've done Billy. I sat next to her once at a do, and she was everything I wanted her to be. She was just gorgeous, so I was very relieved.

WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG, DID YOU FEEL THAT ACTING AND SINGING WAS YOUR DREAM JOB?

I did. I can't actually remember wanting to do anything else. I feel very lucky that I did have that because so few people do; very few people have that moment in any other business of, 'Right, I know what I want to do'. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I had to do to get there.

WHAT WAS THE FEELING LIKE WHEN YOU MADE YOUR WEST END DEBUT IN CATS?

Oh it was incredible. I remember I did the same in Cats as I did when I made my Broadway debut in Chicago. I remember it vividly with both, standing on the stage and having that moment of, 'Wow. Ruth Henshall from Bromley in Kent did it!' And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

IS THEATRE A CATHARTIC EXPERIENCE?

Theatre is responsible for healing a lot of people. Just looking at children who get the chance to do a school show; the confidence that it can give and how it changes hearts and minds. It's incredible.

WHICH HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT FOR YOU?

Crazy For You will never be topped because it was an MGM musical on stage. I couldn't believe my luck because that was what I had fallen in love with. Also, it was my breakout show and you can never be "discovered" again, if you know what I mean. You can be rediscovered in different ways, but for me that night was like a film, and I knew my life had changed.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING ON BIG AMERICAN SHOWS SUCH ASLAW AND ORDER, AND CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM?

Absolutely wonderful because they're a big machine, especially Law And Order, but Curb Your Enthusiasm ... what a lovely bunch of people; they were so lovely and so welcoming.

WHAT ARE YOU STILL DESPERATE TO DO?

Well, I've started a production company called Three Pin Productions, and really I'd like to see how the producing side of things goes; not just producing me but producing other people and other things. Working with the children (on Billy Elliot) has been incredible because while I love my own children, other peoples' children come round for a play date and I can't wait for them to go home - but I am besotted with these children. The boys, the girls, and it's making me re-think about passing (my enthusiasm) on to children.

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