He’s every woman

  • Arts
  • Thursday, 19 Sep 2013

Damian Williams makes a big splash as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray The Broadway Musical.

DAMIAN Williams can’t see himself playing any other parts other than that of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray The Broadway Musical.

“I don’t know who else I could play, really. I think Edna is ideal for me in terms of physicality because you know, you need a big guy to play the character,” says the 42-year-old British actor.

For almost a week now, the Essex-born actor has been performing the role for the wildly popular theatre production that is being staged here at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

Based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, Hairspray the musical tells the story of “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad’s dream.

It’s 1962 in Baltimore and there’s nothing that Tracy wants more than to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local dance programme based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show.

And when Tracy finally wins a role on the show, she launches a campaign to bring down social barriers in the 1960s American society.

“At the core of it, the show deals with the issue of racism and fatism. There’s just a lot of prejudice in that period,” says Williams.

That being said, the man thinks the subjects tackled in Hairspray are still very much relevant in today’s contemporary society.

“The musical showed you just how bad the situation really was back in the 1960s and I think the subject was handled really well,” he says.

It’s undeniable that Tracy’s positive cause and the message of eradicating prejudices remain the premise of the musical. However, part of Hairspray’s inherent appeal could also be attributed to the role of Edna, who is Tracy’s agoraphobic mother.

In both the original film and subsequent theatre versions of the show, the character of Edna has been traditionally played by a man.

While some say that the decision served as a tribute to the drag queen Divine who first brought the character to life in the movie version, others have commented that the role is all about acceptance and breaking gender construct.

“Playing Edna is hard because you’re obviously a man playing a woman. However, you want the audience to believe that you’re also a woman although they know you’re a man by the end of the show,” adds Williams.

“It sounds really complicated but that’s really what the part of Edna is all about.”

For the majority of men, the idea of putting on a dress, make-up and wig does seem terribly emasculating. However, Williams has no qualms about embracing a feminine facade for the role.

“It was fine for me. It’s sort of strange because once you put the bra on, you know the boobs, suddenly you find yourself walking more upright. And when you put the shoes and the wig on, it sort of just takes you over. But then again, it helps with getting into character.”

A central character in the show, Edna is seen as this really shy and reclusive plus-sized woman who runs a laundry business out of her home when she’s first introduced to the audience.

Edna’s intrinsic characteristic is pretty much the polar opposite of stage actors who are usually extroverted and unreserved, but Williams doesn’t seem to have a problem switching the character on.

“The script is such a well-written piece and that helps a great deal to guide you along. In a way, the script sort of acted for you and Edna is a really fun role to play. I think she’ll be one of my favourite roles when I look back,” he reveals.

Williams notes that many famous actors have played the role in both Broadway and the West End, and he does try to put his own interpretation into the iconic character.

“I try to make her a warmer person. At the end of the day, she’s a mum. She has a daughter and I make her as warm as I can,” says the proud father of two.

Prior to Hairspray, the man just finished a number one British theatre tour Being Tommy Cooper, where he played the lead. His other roles include Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Mr Fezziwig in Scrooge and Sir John Tremayne in Me And My Girl.

For someone who began dabbling in the theatre scene at the age of 15, it is interesting to learn that Williams doesn’t have any formal training in theatre.

“I trained by just doing different plays and different parts. I also watched other people and picked up all the acting skills along the way,” he says.

But for most part of his career, Williams has been doing various comedy roles that range from Luther Billis in South Pacific to Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

“I love comedy because you get an instant reaction from the audience. If they laugh, you know you’re doing your job right.

“A lot of people say it’s hard but comedy is all about bravery. You got to be brave and wait for the perfect comic timing. Some actors fear it, but I enjoy it,” he concludes.

Related story:

Damian Williams - The transformation from man to woman

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He’s every woman


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