Piping up about Pippa

[slideshow_deploy id=’10006′]

Having only graduated from RADA in the summer of 2010, 25-year-old Pippa Bennett-Warner has already trodden the floorboards of stages in some of London’s most prestigious theatres, including the National, Almeida, Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse. And has been called “one of Britain’s best young acting talents”.

Her CV reads like that of someone far older than someone only in their twenties. Her first break came at 11 when she was selected as one of the original young Nalas in Julie Taymor’s theatre production of The Lion King when it first came to London. Later, after graduating from a public school in Oxford and wanting to take a break from acting, she enrolled at RADA and was promptly offered the role of Emmie Thibodeaux in the musical Caroline, Or Change for which she was nominated for The Stuart Phillips London Newcomer Of The Year award for 2007. Not wanting to skip classes, she took a year out from RADA and resumed her studies the following year.

Now, joining the cast of an exciting new British precinct drama, The Smoke, after what she describes as her “worst audition ever”, Pippa plays Ziggy, a fun-loving Londoner who’s one of the only women in a London fire crew. This role sees her sharing screen time with British household names such as Jamie Bamber (Law And Order: UK, Monday Mornings, Body Of Proof) and Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch, One Day).

How did you get cast as Ziggy in The Smoke?
I got a call from my agent a week or two before Christmas saying there was this new Sky 1 drama about firefighters and there was a female role in the White Watch. I went in and I did the worst audition ever – I thought I’d blown it. I managed then to go in again and do a slightly better audition, which thankfully managed to get me the job.

Why was it so bad the first time?
In my head I thought they were looking for someone who aesthetically and physically was very different to me. I’m quite short and I was expecting them to be looking for someone a bit taller and someone who had better comic timing than I do – I’m not that funny [laughs]. So I didn’t really know what to do with the character at that point. But then I got some notes and I read the script over and over again, and finally the character started to fall into my lap a bit. But before that, I didn’t really know what to do with her.

Tell me about your character on The Smoke? She looks like she’s one of the boys in a male-dominated industry.
She is the only female in White Watch, but she’s incredibly protective of the guys; she’s one of the lads. Ziggy has a naughty streak – she’s constantly going out, kissing boys, having fun and going to raves. She’s effortlessly cool and a good laugh.

Is real-life Pippa anything like Ziggy?
[Laughs] Um. Some bits, I guess. I like to go out and have a good time, but I don’t think I’m as cool as Ziggy. She’s got natural street smarts; she’s got swagger, which I’m not sure I do. She’s London born and bred and much tougher than I am.

Do you find you gravitate to Jodie Whittaker, who plays Trish, as one of the other women in the series?
I wish there were more days on set that we were together. During the six months of shooting, we had just two scenes where it was just the two of us – and one of them eventually got cut. But I was always pining for her, and for another female because we both always surrounded by guys. But whenever she was there I would naturally gravitate to her because she’s a hero. She’s just a class act and she taught me so much – I would just go and watch her during takes because she’s brilliant.

Do you have a good relationship with the other actors in the White Watch?
We’re like best buds; we all meet up and go for tapas. We’re always Whatsapping each other. We were shooting scenes together for six months and nobody ever argued; we always got on. We all genuinely love each other and I think that comes across in the show. You get to see this group of unified actors and characters. I think we’re all very lucky.

At 11, does the thrill and scale of being chosen as one of the young Nalas in the theatre production of The Lion King really hit home?
The beauty of being cast in something so big at such a young age is that you’re completely protected by your innocence. You have no idea how big it. If I were to be cast in The Lion King now, I’d be way more scared than this 11 year old who went into it wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. The fact that I was so young made it less daunting. Now I’d be like, “Oh my god, 2,000 people per night!”

What stands out for you about that time?
Working with Julie Taymor, who is, for me, a theatrical genius. Being able to share such an experience with her, and also being in rehearsal with her, watching her work, was amazing. It’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

What first interested you in acting?
The first time I knew I wanted to be an actor was when my elder sister played Oliver in the play Oliver Twist at the all-girls prep school we went to. I was always very inspired, and still am, by my older sister. Seeing her on stage singing and having fun made me think, ‘I want to do that too!’ I just got the bug… and I’ve still got it.

Did you grow up loving television dramas?
I did. When I was growing up my mum used to quite like soaps, which I realise aren’t really dramas, but that was my first foray into watching TV. I remember listening to all the different accents on all the regional soaps. But I love television dramas now. I almost prefer watching TV drams to going to the cinema. I think you get such interesting ,unpredictable and varied stories with amazing actors who aren’t necessarily “star” names, but they’re just so good at what they do. I’m quite into The Musketeers and The Bridge. I also want to start watching The Tunnel because I heard that it’s equally brilliant. And Broadchurch, obviously, which I thought was absolutely brilliant – and Jodie [Whittaker] was amazing in it as ever.

Ziggy’s accent, is different to your own, how do you keep that up while filming?
I had a very clear idea of who I thought Ziggy was and I know that she didn’t have the same background as me, so naturally wouldn’t have my accent. During scenes, I just got into a different state of mind. Sometimes I had to be careful because I could hear my own vowel sounds coming through, which weren’t right for her. You just have to concentrate and focus. I’d snap out of it after every take.

Have you always been good with accents?
I owe my knowledge of accents to the soaps [laughs] – watching Brookside and Coronation Street when I was 10 years old really informed me. Accents are my favourite “thing” about acting; moving your tongue in a slightly different way can just instantly transform you.

Do you miss the thrill of live acting?
Being on stage is just phenomenal. Going out every night and getting to give a slightly varied performance is thrilling. TV is fantastic, and film is equally as good, but I think there’s something about having a live audience – and not quite knowing what is going to happen on that particular night – that gives me an extra buzz. TV and stage require different skills, which you just blend to; you work with the medium you’re in.

Do you think the success of an actor lies in “stage, telly, movies”?
When I first left drama school I was very keen to do as much theatre as possible. I’d just trained for three years, and I wanted to bed in all the things I’d learnt through the security of school and put it out there in the world. For me anyway, the route I’ve taken – starting with stage and moving into telly – is progression. It can give you more of a sense, potentially, of longevity, which I think we all want in our careers. And you can always go back to theatre…

 by Natalie Egling

Portraits of Pippa Bennett-Warner by Justin van Vliet

All other images courtesy of Sky 1

Catch the first episode of Sky 1’s The Smoke on February 20, 2014 at 9pm



About The Author

Glass contributing travel editor

Related Posts