About a girl

Jill Wintermitz


Glass is talking music with 28-year-old actress Jill Winternitz, but it’s not all musical theatre from the female lead of Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s Once, based on a much-loved, low-budget indie film. “I lived in Washington State for a while and I think it made me quite grunge,” she laughs. “I was really into Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Modest Mouse.”

In Once, Jill plays a young Czech mother known as Girl alongside Ronan Keating’s Guy, an Irish busker, in a boy-meets-girl story of love, friendship and music. The actors double as the show’s band and Jill had to pick up from discarded childhood piano lessons for the part. Not that you could tell – it sounds like she’s been playing for years, holding her own against professional musicians. Originally from California, Jill studied at UCLA and the Moscow Art Theatre, before moving to London to continue her training at RADA. She made her West End debut at the Piccadilly Theatre, starring as Baby in a sell-out UK tour of Dirty Dancing. The role earned her a West End Frame Award nomination.

What came first for you, Once the movie or the musical?
The film. I watched it when I was on school holidays during my time at drama school in California. It was so different from anything I’d seen and I was quite taken by it. It’s so charming in that it’s very low budget but the emotions it captures are so raw and so real. Then, I was in New York a year and a half ago when I first heard that Once had been made into a musical. It’s a beautifully intimate, indie film and my first thought was, “How’s that going to work?’ But I didn’t know of John Tiffany [the show’s director] or Enda Walsh at the time. I went and saw the show on Broadway and was absolutely blown away by it. It was one of those pieces of theatre that I felt arrested by. I never saw myself in it, but then my other half said, “You’d be really good for that role.’ That really played on my mind; I thought, ‘Yeah, that would be cool.’ At the time, it had already been cast in the West End, so I started relearning the piano and the songs in case an audition ever came up.

Then, early last November, my agent called me up to tell me I had an audition! It seemed like such a dream; like something that was never going to line up for me. After the initial excitement, there was a lot of late-night practicing between shows (I was playing Baby in Dirty Dancing on the West End). A few auditions – and quite a few months – later, I found myself in the role. It’s surreal.

You took piano lessons as a child, then stopped. How easy was it to pick that up again for Once?
I had a teacher who taught piano and singing, but I was more interested in the singing part and the piano bit fell by the wayside. Then, I started doing more theatre and acting, which took up a lot of my time. But growing up we always had a piano, so I’d play from time to time. I didn’t put in the dedication and the hours, and, unfortunately, I’m making up for it now.

When I got the role of Girl, I could play the songs but I was still a bit shaky. They hired an incredible piano teacher for me who’s a classically trained concert pianist and also plays a lot of West End shows. I started training with her and then production was like, “OK, Jill’s good enough now, she can stop lessons,” but I wanted to continue with her because I really love it. She’s now preparing me for a piano exam. But what with rehearsing with Ronan for the show and performing together on Children in Need, I’ve been a very bad student [laughs].

Ronan Keating recently took over from David Hunter as Guy. What was the transition like?
I started rehearsals with Ronan a few weeks ago. I was rehearsing with him during the day and doing performances with David in the evening. Ronan and I were creating something together that’s new, and I am adapting my performance to him, but then at night I have to remember what I do with David. It took a lot of concentration to juggle those two: one guy in the day, one guy at night [laughs]. Last week Saturday was David’s last show and it was such an emotional day. He went out and “put a flag in it”. We’re all going to miss him so much, but he’s going to go out and do amazing things.

Now that Ronan had his first show, it’s such an exciting new chapter. And he brings with him a lot of energy – there’s so much support for him. He has fans from all over the world who came to his first show. They’re lovely fans who are so generous with their support, which extended to me and the rest of the cast, too.

One thing that is bonkers in a way, is that Ronan is the first Irish Guy. The script just flows out of his mouth. It doesn’t even seem like lines because he’s so authentic in his accent. The way that he is is so Dublin. It feels so natural and I’m loving that.

It’s a very intimate performance between Girl and Guy. Does that suit your personality, or do you have to dig deep to get into character?
I trained at RADA and there it was all about finding truth and rawness in our performances – whether with classical or contemporary writing. Once requires absolute emotional honesty in order for it to work. It’s such a fragile show that relies on a delicate chemistry between the actors. I thrive off of it. I find myself constantly digging deeper to improve my performance daily. Each night is a chance to rework things and get it closer to what I want it to be.

So it’s never a chore performing in a long-running show like Once?
I think that’s because of the quality of the writing and the music, which is so uplifting. Also, the creative team on this job are incredible – I’ve never seen anything like it. John Tiffany is so involved, and even though he’s off doing a lot of other projects, he’s still around. There’s never a moment where I think, “OK, we’re done.” It’s constantly evolving and I think that’s why it’s so gratifying. It gives me a challenge every day. And having Ronan come in as Guy is another whole exciting element that adds a freshness to it. This show is so beautiful in that it requires each actor, especially Guy and Girl, to reach within themselves and bring themselves to the role. So inevitably, every show you see with different leads is going to establish its own uniqueness and its own truth.

by Natalie Egling

Photographs by Justin van Vliet

Once is currently on at the Phoenix Theatre in London. For more information, please visit here and runs until March 21,  2015.