Provoking an Emotion
Written by Moritz Lindert
Photography by Ram Shergill
Make-Up by Sara Sorrenti
When the curtain rises at the Dominion Theatre this winter season, Ben Forster will change the crown of thorns for a knitted hat in red and green. The West End performer, who so famously won Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV search for Jesus Christ Superstar in 2012, now took on the lead role of Buddy in the highly anticipated West End production of Elf The Musical. After premiering the role to a UK audience in Dublin last year, Forster is now ready to lead the improved show to the London stage and save Christmas again, just as US-comedian Will Ferrell did in the successful 2003 original movie Buddy the Elf. But even without the famous adult elf or the biblical role of Jesus to his records, Ben Forster would still be the man to climb mountains in musical theatre. Having also played Doody in Grease, Michael Jackson in Thriller Live!, Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Magaldi in Evita, the 34 year old's theatre credits read like every actors bucket list - and ticking off another goal, as he will take over the iconic title role of West End's The Phantom of the Opera in February 2016.
For The Protagonist Magazine, Editor in Chief Ram Shergill captures Ben Forster off stage. Out of costume and without the adorable curly Elf's wig, just as the thoughtful and confident performer he is when the curtain goes down again – talking about the early stages of his career, the struggles along the way and that lasting thrill he finds in provoking an emotion.
Ben, you are in the middle of preparations for the opening night of Elf The Musical. Please tell me more about your role Buddy.
I play Buddy, the Elf, which, as most people now, is the Will Ferrell role from the original movie. He is this crazy, big-kid, innocent person who has been growing up with elves since he is a baby. Now that he is 30 years old, he suddenly finds out that he is a human being and has to find his real dad in New York. So Santa puts him on an iceberg and floats him to New York. The Musical is following this journey of him learning all the different things about life. Finding love and sadness and all the things humans experience.
It sounds like a real family entertainment, wouldn't you say?
Most definitely yes! But it's not just a show for kids. Everybody loved the movie Elf. It crosses over so many boundaries, there are a lot of adult jokes in there. And it has a proper Christmas spirit, a really nice heart. It makes you laugh in all the right places but the message and the moral of the story really touches peoples’ emotions.
Speaking of right places - How did you find your way into performing?
When I was five or six years old, my sister used to go to dance class every Saturday. And I was sort of dragged along to watch every week. I even remember taking a dance lesson myself and feeling so stupid because I was the only boy. I felt so mortified with all those little girls in their frilly dresses and me tapping my feet along. It all felt so wrong.
How did you overcome that?
My parents joined the Amateur Operatic Society, where non-professionals put on a show. I ended up doing that with them and when I went to Comprehensive School I had a very nice music teacher who recognised a little bit of talent in me. She guided and advised me and pushed me into the National Youth Music Theatre, which was an amazing thing for me. Suddenly there were all these young people, boys and girls, that wanted to do what I wanted to do. That was something completely new to me. Where I grew up in Sunderland in the nineties it was really 'Billy Elliot' land – there was no show business or any kind of performing arts, especially not for men. You would work as a mechanic, or a builder or in the ship yards, but when I got into the National Youth Music Theatre there were all these people telling me about London, stage schools and performing arts colleges. I just knew that this is what I need to do.
And you certainly did - you went on to study at Italia Conti Academy in London and made your West End debut at only 18. But you also worked as a solo artist?
Yes, after having done various shows like Grease and The Beatles Musical, I had a real thrive to be a singer-songwriter. I left my West End career to explore this for about two or three years. But at some point it went wrong. It just never happened for me. So I ended up singing in pubs with my guitarist. I have to say, besides singing in the 02 Arena and all these amazing places or being the lead in a show, there is still something very satisfying about singing over an acoustic guitar with no one listening to you. To turn a pub full of busy, chatting people who didn't buy a ticket to see you, to make them listen and sing along, that was one of my favourite things. It still would be.
But you eventually found your way back onto the stage.
I kind of gigged for about two or three years and then somehow found myself back in the West End where I did Thriller Live!. That was an audition, which I turned down again and again because I never thought I sounded like Michael Jackson or could be him in the West End. I didn't really get the concept of the show. But finally I went to audition and ended up in the original cast, which got me back to the West End. And I stayed with Thriller until I auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar.
In February 2016 you will take on another widely known role as The Phantom of the Opera. How do you feel about moving from Buddy to Phantom?
Nervous, because it is so very iconic. Phantom of the Opera was my first ever West End show. I remember seeing it when I was ten years old and it was just magical. Jesus was iconic as well, but there is a different sort of pressure and expectation to every role. With Jesus you obviously take on something huge, with Buddy you are facing the comparison with the hilarious Will Ferrell. And it is something completely different for me as an actor. It is being funny, being a comedian. But Michael Crawford, the original Phantom of the Opera previously played the sitcom character Frank Spencer, who was actually quite like Buddy. So I know that he did it, I know that he was capable of switching from the comedian to this very dramatic role. Hopefully I can somehow do the same.
Which of those role-types do you prefer? The dramatic, broken soul of the Phantom or the joyful innocence of Buddy the Elf?
Being an actor and taking on a role is about provoking an emotion. Whether you hear 2.000 people laughing at you or you hear 24.000 people in the 02 arena sobbing in the end when Jesus dies. When you feel you created that magic, that people believe enough to laugh over a line that you have said nine times that week or to cry over a scene you have played over and over – That is what I do it for. I don't prefer one or the other. It is so equally brilliant that I get to make people laugh or cry or live in magic. It is amazing that theatre can do this, provoking emotion.
Do you like being the front and centre of a show?
I think that is what we all want. You put yourself through all that training, I started performing when I was five and never ever stopped since. And there is nothing more pleasing than being front and centre of it. That is what it is all about. It is the idea of fronting something. Knowing that you are doing the best job you could do for this production. No matter how much money people spent on their tickets, or however far they have travelled to see the show, you just can not have a half-hearted performance. You need to put everything into it. But it is very healthy, healthy for life.
It sounds quite demanding as well!
It is stressful and really busy but it is not work. Of course we as performers have to do rehearsals and previews and opening night, we have to be at a certain place at a certain time, but still it isn't work. I have never worked a day in my life. When I couldn't pay my rent back in the days as a twenty-year-old, I went to earn my money singing in a pub, but that's not work. Yes I use my body and it might be tiring sometimes. But I love it, it's my passion.
What would you like to tell your previous self, that young boy struggling in dance class?
Never be self-conscious, just be yourself! I didn't become successful until I found out who I was and was able to use my body in a free, open way. Even until I was twenty-two I didn't really know what to do with my arms. I felt wooden and self-conscious. Learn who you are use your body and be free. It doesn't matter if you look ugly or sexy.
And what would I tell the guy singing in the pub? Maybe just: Keep believing that it is going to happen. It will, if you work for it!
How did these experiences shape you as an artist?
They we're extremely important to get where I am today. Just by singing in a pub, not having any responsibilities, I was able to experience some of the best nights of my life. And still, when I could not pay my rent it made me fight even more for what I wanted. Everything builds you and gives you heart and passion. And the roles that I have been able to play all need that. Buddy the Elf has so much real heart and warmth and you just have to love him. The person playing Buddy has to know about those things, about life. You can't just be the funny guy. It has to come from a real place.
Elf The Musical is showing at The Dominion Theatre in London.