With just two weeks to go until he reprises his role as Buddy in Elf, making its London debut at the Dominion Theatre on Saturday 24th October 2015, I spoke to Ben Forster to find out how he’s preparing for the starring role in the Christmas family musical, and how life has changed since winning ITV’s Superstar competition
So Ben, tell me where did your interest in theatre start?
Originally my sister was quite a keen dancer, she’s six years older than me, and when I was about five or six I was accompanying her to dance class with my mum and watching. Then, my mum and dad joined an amateur dramatics society and I sort of walked in as part of the family. It was a weekly thing and we were putting shows on, so it was the amateur dramatics that started it for me. I became addicted to the feeling of performing and understood what it was, and I had learnt so much so by the time I was at school. So it all started there really.
Was it your family who encouraged you to go onto Superstar?
They were very keen for me to do it. To be honest that was an easy decision. I’d always been in a contract or working when all those TV shows were happening, so when I was offered the opportunity this time I was coming to the end of a contract – I was in Thriller Live in the West End at the time – and when someone said it was happening I said I definitely want to do it. I loved the show and I loved the part, so for me it was an obvious thing to do and I applied straight away. When I told my mum and dad they were like, ‘brilliant, just go for it!’ They support everything I do.
How has life been for you since winning Superstar?
Mad. It was definitely life changing. I know that’s a corny thing to say but I wouldn’t be able to sit here and say no it didn’t change my life at all, it absolutely did. It opened so many doors. It’s like a spotlight was shone on my face in the crowd of thousands of people that currently work in the entertainment business, and now there’s a little light shining on me and people know who I am from it and I get some great job offers. Life’s definitely turned a corner, and it’s a lovely one. I’m very happy.
You’ve recently finished playing Brad in the Rocky Horror Show at the Playhouse Theatre, how was that?
Oh my God it was mad! I absolutely loved it! It’s such a unique show in that nothing really exists like that in musical theatre. You really have to keep on your toes because people just constantly throw things at you on stage and it’s so vocal, but I love that. I love working and I love it when something’s difficult and hard, it makes me thrive. I think that I’m probably at my best when I’m under pressure and Rocky Horror Show is just a constant pressure because you never really know what to expect. And I loved working with Richard O’Brien; he is such a unique, fabulous individual.
It must have been quite sad when it ended as it was over so soon…
It was! I think for everyone it was quite sad. I was starting Elf on the Monday so I was thinking now I’ve got to get into Buddy’s world. But it was sad because it was a lovely cast. Usually when you start a job you’re in it for a few months at least, if not six months or a year, so you can invest in everyone, and we all invested in each other but then we were like, ‘oh, bye’, after two weeks. It was kind of like a little holiday romance for everyone.
Going from playing Brad to playing Buddy in Elf is quite a contrast in characters. How have you found that transition?
It isn’t something I find that difficult to swap between. I don’t know whether it’s just a personal thing, but if I’m acting like Brad he’s a completely different person in my mind, and Buddy is a completely different character so I just switch into that person. I think that’s the job of an actor. It does sound quite odd thinking that I would go from Rocky Horror to Buddy, and then straight after I’m in Phantom, but you just wake up in the morning and you’re playing someone new, so you do it I suppose.
How are rehearsals going for Elf?
Really good, the cast is just brilliant. It’s such a fabulous group of people and there’s so much talent. The little kids – the Michael’s – are absolutely outstanding and it’s good to be back in the world of Buddy. I absolutely adore him and I adore his personality and the show, so it’s lovely singing the songs and being stupid the whole time. It’s great!
How have you found Elf in comparison to other shows you’ve done?
It’s a Christmas show so I find it’s quite an emotional show, especially for me. It’s a hard show to do as Buddy is on stage for the whole show apart from one or two songs, so I’m constantly on and using a lot of energy. But it’s got such a beautiful message and it’s got so much heart, even though it’s kind of ridiculous and Buddy’s stupid and it’s a comedy, so it makes everyone laugh. I do think it makes everyone shed a tear as well because it reminds you of the Christmas story and what Christmas is about. I know there are a lot of religious connotations, but for most people in the world Christmas is just about being with your family and finding your family again, whether you live in London or if you live in New York, you travel to be back with the people that matter the most, and that hits a note with everyone I think. At the end of the show I think everyone goes, wow Christmas is just about the silly little things; eating big boxes of chocolate and watching silly TV. The message is so honest and truthful, it means something. It’s a lovely part and it’s lovely to be part of the show for that reason.
Is being on stage for almost the entire show the biggest challenge you’ve faced with Elf?
Yes, it’s the level of fitness. I’m having to get fit again because it is just constant, there are so many lines and so many songs, it’s a challenge. Most people will probably know me for playing Jesus, which is a very serious role and it’s very emotional and a completely different thing to playing this iconic comedy role, and that is a pressure – having to be funny and having to find the timing of the jokes and what’s written on the page. It’s a challenge but I love it.
How do you prepare for a role like that?
It’s just eating and exercise leading up to it. Now, when we rehearse, it’s like doing five shows a day because we’re constantly rehearsing different scenes and different numbers, and I’m in everything, so I’m using my body the most I use it. In that rehearsal period it’s what makes you stronger for the performing time, so I’ve just been relying on that in the last few weeks.
What do you enjoy most about being on stage?
I think it’s just knowing what it feels like to be in the audience. I am a massive fan of theatre and musical theatre and I remember being the 10 year old that was watching Phantom of the Opera, Blood Brothers, Les Misérables, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon… I remember watching all those shows and being taken to a different world and not knowing how it was done. It’s just amazing that a group of people can come together behind the curtains and create a whole movie-like story from beginning to end, which could go over different genres and times, and you just go on a journey as you sit for two hours. For me, knowing that we’re doing that and we can make the hairs stand up on people’s necks and give them goosebumps when you hit a certain note and you can make people cry and laugh, it’s not a job. We get paid for it, but it is just not a job, it’s a joy. It’s a complete gift that we can do that.
Do you have a favourite musical?
God I don’t. There are just so many that mean different things to me. Jesus Christ Superstar I will never forget and whenever I hear a piece of music from it, it is now just such an iconic moment of my life. Standing in the O2 arena in front of 25,000 people and screaming Gethsemane out of the very bottom core of my soul, it just means something. But then I went to see Blood Brothers 13 times between being 12 and 16 because I was obsessed with Blood Brothers. I’ve seen Les Mis 15 to 20 times throughout my life, so there are just so many different shows that mean things to me. You get emotional connections with them all.
Do you have a dream role you’d like to do?
Well Phantom was the very first thing I saw when I was 10, and I remember being completely in awe. I saw Michael Crawford in it and I remember just being in awe of the role and being so terrified I didn’t dare breathe when the mask is ripped off of him. The fact that I’m getting to play that in January is really iconic for me. I can’t even believe that I’m going to be Phantom! That’s been a role that I really wanted to play along with Jean Valjean in a few years time. Of course in Les Mis the songs are just amazing and I would love to get that opportunity at some point.
Yes and it means something to my parents too as they remember me coming out of the theatre and sitting back on the coach that was going to drive us eight hours back to Sunderland, and me saying ‘that’s what I want to do. I want to be the Phantom of the Opera and I want to sing that song.’ So for them it’s special.
Prior to playing Phantom, what’s been the highlight of your career so far?
It’s got to be the O2 and Wembley. Wembley was a really iconic gig. Just being on the cross at the end and hearing people sobbing in those quiet moments and knowing what we had created, the sound of me screaming mixed with the lighting and this beautiful set, and the make-up with all the blood running down my torso, knowing that everyone collaboratively had made this moment special, it was just amazing. Jesus Christ Superstar will always be a highlight for me. I finally felt that people were seeing what I could do. It was showcasing me and it felt so rewarding that I could go, yes I can act and I can sing and I can be taken seriously and I can do this, because it is a fight. Our business is such a fight. Constantly you’re fighting to prove yourself, and you have 120 seconds in an audition to sing a song that they’ve chosen, or you’ve chosen that probably isn’t the right song but it’s the one you’ve always done, and you get that moment to show what you can do. But, finally, I could show what I can do and it meant a lot to me.
Images: Matt Crockett, Alastair Muir