Soap actors tend to become minor stars or fade into obscurity. But Leeds actor Verity Rushworth left Emmerdale only to find herself taking over Connie Fisher’s role in Britain’s biggest stage show. Rod McPhee spoke to her.
“We’re half way through November? Really, oh my goodness. Sorry, I went straight from doing The Sound of Music on a Saturday in October, then started rehearsing for Annie on the Monday.
“You know, it’s stress and tiredness, I’ve actually developed an eye-twitch because of it.”
Anyone who knew Donna Dingle on Emmerdale will recollect a bolshy southerner, but Verity is, in fact, a complete Leeds girl – she spent most of her youth in Rawdon and Adel – and in real life appears much more playful and youthful than her 26 years suggest. She agrees.
“It’s funny, because if someone had said to me there’s a part you’re perfect for, I wouldn’t have said Maria in The Sound of Music. But, actually, my personality leant itself to her character. I am a bit ditzy. She’s quite naive too – and I do come across, I don’t know why, like a kid.”
Small wonder most observers raised an eyebrow when the former soap star landed herself the role of Maria – a role previously filled by none other than Connie Fisher – practically overnight.
“I just knew it would be ‘Oh, it’s that girl off Emmerdale playing Maria – let’s see if she can do it!’” says Verity, acknowledging the inevitable cynicism. “I completely understand that – 100 per cent – I’ve seen shows with ‘a named person’ and I’ve been disappointed.
“Problems happen when certain people get roles but they can’t back it up – if they’re not brilliant. There’s a lot of people that are well trained actors in the West End but haven’t been on TV. Then they go up against people from TV and getting pipped to the post because of their profile and that can be quite frustrating.
“But when I first came to the West End people were very supportive because they could tell a mile off that I’d done my training.”
But throughout her 11-year stint on Emmerdale no-one had a real insight into the work she was putting in after the soap finished filming. First at St Mary’s School in Menston, then Intake High at Bramley, then SLP College in Garforth, even a stint with the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Verity was honing a hunger for singing and dancing she’d held since she was first taken to the Scala performing arts school in Horsforth at the age of three.
It’s actually been 20 years since she first appeared on Emmerdale, albeit as an extra. Now, just five years since quitting, she’s entered the premier league of performers after blowing audiences away during the nine-month run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Nazi/nun masterpiece.
When, at the age of 20, she threw in the towel on the soap and got her first big theatre break even her fellow actors on Emmerdale didn’t see it coming.
“On the last day of filming I just said: ‘Right I’m off to do Hairspray in the West End with Michael Ball.’” she laughs. “And one of the actors said: ‘Ooh, how’s your American accent love?’.
“But nobody knew I could do all this stuff. Everyone just knew me as Donna, as an actor, they had no real idea I’d been doing all this training in my spare time. So, when I got my break on Hairspray I didn’t get it on the back of being ‘a name’. They were American producers and didn’t even know I’d been on TV let alone knew I’d been on Emmerdale.”
Thankfully some of the team behind Hairspray were also involved in producing The Sound of Music and, although going from a supporting role to a leading lady was a big jump, they’d had a positive experience working with her.
“If you’re not on time and not putting the effort in people just won’t want to work with you.” she says. “You have to have a split personality. You can be showy on stage, but off stage I’m not showy at all – I don’t wander round in Louis Vuitton swinging a Gucci handbag.
“I’ve always had my feet on the ground really, which comes from my parents. I’m an only child and I was spoilt rotten, but if I ever threw a tantrum or anything like that I’d get a wallop – I had a very normal upbringing in that respect.
“And that’s also made me a hard worker. I don’t take things for granted so if you’re not a decent person it goes against you. As well as that, laziness shows.”
Verity then had a brief stint in a London stage play Departure Lounge, alongside Hollyoaks heartthrob Chris Fountain, and it was during that time she auditioned for the tour of The Sound of Music.
At this point the pressure reached an all time high, particularly since she was stepping into the footsteps of Connie Fisher who’d landed the part after a high-profile battle on TV talent show How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?.
“Not just Connie Fisher, also Julie Andrews!” Verity says. “And everyone knows the movie and everyone knows the songs – just auditioning was petrifying. I knew I could do it, but I didn’t actually believe I would be capable of playing the role. But, something just came over me – I just thought ‘You can’t mess up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’”
Nine months later and Connie was the biggest surprise hit theatreland had seen in a long time. Critics couldn’t get enough of her.
“Actually I toyed with not reading reviews at all – but I couldn’t help it in the end,” she says. “From January through to October I was reviewed in every single venue and I was terrified to read them because even though I knew I had the ability, you don’t know how you’ll come across.
“But, touch wood, I didn’t get a bad review. In fact, some of them made me cry with happiness. I’ve got them in a scrap book just in case it never happens again!”
From there her agent’s phone started to ring, she was called in to meet the team behind another recent West End smash Wicked! but simultaneously she was offered the role of Grace in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s big Christmas show, Annie, in her home city of Leeds.
“I talked about it with my agent and he said: ‘Look at it this way: West Yorkshire Playhouse is really credible, you’ll be home for Christmas, it’s an amazing production and the team has ties to Regents Park, the National Theatre and the Donmar.’
“Also, the director Nikolai Foster is someone I’ve wanted to work with for a long time and Wicked! isn’t going anywhere – it will still be in the theatre next year while the Playhouse could lead onto something else next year too.
“It’s another path which could lead onto other rep theatre and I see it as a great opportunity to work with the team at the Playhouse, I’d love to do more things there.”
Verity is now eyeing a part on Downton Abbey in the new year and harbours desires to really push the boat out by playing a character like Roxy Hart in steamy musical, Chicago.
So since she plays the part of Daddy Warbucks’s personal assistant in Annie, isn’t it a surprise choice of move given that she’s shifting down a gear from leading lady to more of a supporting role.
“It’s a lovely role though,” she says. “Besides, I’m still learning my craft and the team are great to work with, particularly the cast.
“Duncan Preston as Daddy Warbucks is superb. He’s worked with the RSC, Victoria Wood, and just finished an acclaimed run as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, being with him on a stage makes me really happy.
“It’s not as if Miss Hannigan would be right for me and Annie is the star of the show – I think even I would seem too old for that part.”
* Annie runs until January 15, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, Tel 0113 2137700, www.wyp.org.uk