Jane Horrocks is a peculiar sort of scene-stealer. Mannered, mercurial, sometimes just plain mad, her uningratiating acting style is so unpredictable that when it works, the results are doubly startling, whether they take the form of riotous comedy (Ab Fab‘s stunningly incompetent secretary, Bubble) or from-the-gut pathos (the scowling, bulimic daughter in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet). In her most prominent film role yet, the 34-year-old Horrocks has reprised her Olivier-nominated West End triumph as the title character in Little Voice— a perfect vehicle for a quintessential character actress, one that literally calls for her to gradually discard her protective tics and just perform.
The stage play was written especially for Horrocks by her friend Jim Cartwright, but the movie project was nearly taken away from her by Miramax, who’d acquired the rights to this tale of a shy English girl with a gift for note-perfect musical impersonations and, in a frightening stretch of the imagination, saw it as a Gwyneth Paltrow showcase. “Brad Pitt was going to play Ewan
McGregor,” Horrocks recalls dryly, referring to the relatively minor love-interest role. “Very appropriate.” She says the snub was almost too ludicrous to take seriously. “If they were involved, it would be such a different entity that it wouldn’t have been recognizable. If they’d chosen a British contemporary of mine, that might have been more upsetting.”
When production finally got under way last year, despite the obvious feeling of “huge relief,” it was, she says, “difficult to get back into it. I’ve never liked repeating parts, especially if I had a good experience the first time. For the film, I went to a singing teacher, who suggested that I go through the songs line by line and dissect them. At first I thought, oh no, I don’t want to approach it like that, but that actually reinspired me.”
With her distinct Lancashire accent and unguarded, down-to-earth demeanor, Horrocks is hardly a typical product of posh love-ins like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the RSC. The prestigious RADA was, she says, “a very secure, cosseted environment” (her graduating class included Ralph Fiennes, Imogen Stubbs, and Iain Glen, currently appearing opposite Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room). Horrocks’s disdain for actorly bullshit becomes evident when she speaks of a recent reunion. “It was weird, really. I liked that we talked more about our children than about our careers, though a lot of the actors in my term talked about their careers. Which was very boring.”
As for the RSC, where she spent a year, she says, “It wasn’t my sort of place. The Royal Slumbering Company, I used to call it. I would dread it when my friends were performing and I would have to go. I never, ever liked anything I saw; it was just boring, bored actors boring us to death.”
True to character, when Horrocks did eventually get around to a classic, it was with a singularly inflammatory version of Macbeth, a 1995 production by the director-actor Mark Rylance, in which her Lady Macbeth peed onstage. The media outrage was deafening. “That did my head in,” says Horrocks. “It annoyed me that the tabloids took it out of context. It seemed to them like I was doing it as an exhibitionist thing when what I wanted was to show a character totally out of control, both mentally and physically. I wanted the scene to be humiliating for the character. I hate those ‘Ophelia scenes,’ when they’re running around in a blooming nightgown, chattering. I’ve never seen disturbed people behave like that.”
Expecting her second child in March, Horrocks is for the moment focusing on voiceover work. “Endless chickens,” she notes of her parts in Nick Park’s first feature, Chicken Run, and in another animated barnyard tale, opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Joanna Lumley. With Little Voice, Horrocks has the kind of role that opens Hollywood doors, though she did the casting-director rounds after Life Is Sweet and found the experience “humiliating and tiresome.” “I’m quite happy at home,” she says. “The only reason to do a big Hollywood film would be for the money and, unfortunately, you can’t put a label on the end of the film saying, ‘I did this for the money.’ “