Interview: Emily Atack follows Audrey Hepburn in new theatre role
She made her name playing blonde bombshells in The Inbetweeners and Dad's Army but the smell of greasepaint is in Emily Atack's blood. She tells Janet Christie about swapping TV for theatre in an elegant debut as Holly Golightly, the perfect part for a fellow free spirit
You’ve cringed with her in hit E4 comedy series The Inbetweeners when she played Charlotte “Big Jugs” Hinchcliffe, running rings around awkward teenage boys, then seen her as a blonde bombshell in the film remake of Dad’s Army. Now it’s time to watch Emily Atack take on a more sophisticated role as she swaps screen for stage for the first time in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Sharing the iconic role of Holly Golightly with singer Pixie Lott, the 26-year-old has already won rave reviews for performances in Aberdeen and Nottingham, and is due to appear in Glasgow and Edinburgh over the next two weeks.
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” says Atack, pronounced Ay (as in hay)-tack, enthusiasm bubbling down the phone line like one of Holly’s endless flutes of champagne.
“It’s my stage debut and it’s such a different experience to a film set. To have an audience there, a few hundred other people coming on a journey with me, makes it something I can enjoy. It’s the most challenging thing I have ever done and I’m nervous. This show is going to be tough... But I’m so up for it.”
As she prepares for the photoshoot to publicise the show, gone is the Inbetweeners blonde barnet, fake tan teenage fantasy look of Charlotte as she swaps sexy for soignée with the elegant brunette up-do, pearls and gloves that Audrey Hepburn made a shorthand for sophistication in the 1961 film.
“It’s the signature look, black dress, pearls... I feel so elegant and it changes the way you behave. I might get used to it. When you step into that outfit it helps you get into character, you’re part of that era. But I’m very lucky that I got to wear beautiful outfits, the dresses, sunglasses, gloves, it’s a girl’s dream really. She’s obviously one of the most beautiful women ever, so I can only do my best.”
Despite the black dress and pearls and crooning of Moon River, the stage play owes more to Truman Capote’s 1958 novella than it does to the loosely adapted from the book screen version with its love affair and happy ending. In the novella Holly leaves New York and nothing is heard of her again until years later a photograph of an African wood carving bearing a resemblance to her turns up, stirring up memories in Fred, who recounts the tale.
“The play has similarities to the film, but it’s more like the novella,” says Atack. “People shouldn’t come and expect to see something like the movie. It’s different, it’s sexier, more risque. I watched the film to get an idea of Holly’s general behaviour, but the play adds a whole new dimension and there’s so much more story in it. It’s so beautifully written. It’s more interesting, there’s more that the audience will have to work out for themselves.”
So what about the ending, does it go with the book or the film? “I’m not saying anything,” is her response.
One element Atack loves in the show is the singing and she has three songs to perform, People Will Say We’re in Love, Hold Up My Dying Day and Moon River.
“I love Moon River, it’s my family song. My mum sings it on the piano for us every Christmas Day. I don’t know if I’ll sing it as nicely as my mum does though.”
Mum is Kate Robbins, the singer and actor who is currently touring in Grumpy Old Women with Jenny Eclair and Susie Blake and must surely take some of the credit for instilling her daughter with the confidence to get out there and perform.
As Holly Golightly puts it in the novella, “Anybody who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot,” and Atack agrees.
“My mum has been helping me with my lines. She knows a lot about performing to an audience so she’s very supportive. Although sometimes when I say ‘what if no-one shows up?’ she says motherly things like ‘oh well, even better, then you can just have fun on the stage by yourself.’ Wrong answer!” She laughs.
Set in New York in 1943, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the story of Fred, a young writer from Louisiana who moves into a brownstone and tries to woo his vivacious neighbour Holly Golightly. Born Lulamae Barnes in Texas, she’s a country-turned-good-time-girl who hopes to marry one of her financially eligible sugar daddies, who range from a playboy millionaire to the future president of Brazil. Yet she begins to fall for the penniless Fred, played by Matt Barber (Atticus Aldridge in Downton Abbey).
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a perennial favourite but various stage versions – the 1966 musical version starring Mary Tyler Moore that folded, then Anna Friel’s outing in the West End in 2009 – have not quite matched the success of the book or film. This version, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning finalist and Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, Three Days of Rain) and directed by Nikolai Foster, played on Broadway in 2013 with Game of Thrones’ Daenerys, Emilia Clarke playing Holly, hopes to change all that.
“People have a fascination with Breakfast at Tiffany’s because it’s very glamorous and when the lights go down and that music comes on, they love to be taken back to another time. Then with the story, she’s such a complicated character that lots of people can relate to different parts of her. She’s definitely not a one-dimensional girl. People try to figure her out, but they can’t. And they love a bit of romance, the idea of a man really chasing this woman and saying ‘why can’t this happen?’
“Holly is a woman who has confidence and strength, but vulnerability too because she’s had it tough. Despite that hardship she decides she is still going to be elegant and make people love her. She desperately needs some kind of love and is still searching for it, and searching for a home. When she gets it together, it’s the ultimate girl power. She’s unapologetic, glass of champagne at 10am, and she’s open about who she sleeps with. She says ‘this is what I am, take it or leave it’. People love honesty.”
They also love animals on stage, or is that just me, and won’t be disappointed by Bob the cat, who plays Cat, the street cat adopted by Holly. Unless there’s a Sheridan Smith situation and the ten year-old-veteran thespian is replaced by his understudy Jasper on the chaise longue or fire escape.
Like Cat, Holly is searching for a home and security, and her life is plagued by anxiety and fears. She calls these “the mean reds” and whenever they strike, jumps in a cab and heads for Tiffany’s, the legendary Manhattan jewellers because “nothing very bad could happen to you there.”
Has Atack ever stood outside the Manhattan jewellers, sipping a take away coffee and nibbling a pretzel while gazing at the baubles on display?
“No, I’ve not been there,” she says, ”but my dad did give me a lovely Tiffany bracelet for my 21st.”
What does Atack do then, if she suffers from the mean reds? Where is her Tiffany’s?
“Well, I’m a very happy and positive person and I never fall out with anyone. I have a lot of lovely friends and a lovely family,” she says. “I was sad when my parents split up but they’re best friends now, and there’s nothing that makes me sad. Apart from if I have a hangover. Or when Jack goes to the football.”
Jack is Jack Vacher, with whom she lives and who is sitting in the room playing FIFA when we talk. Atack and Vacher, a model, have been together for four years after they met when he was working in Abercrombie & Fitch. Which brings us to another Holly Golightly quote regarding men and jewellery: “You can always tell what kind of person a man thinks you are by the kind of earrings he gives you.”
So what kind of earrings has Vacher given her?
“He hasn’t given me earrings. I’ll ask him what kind he would,” she says.
While he thinks about this, she says, “He bought me a lovely watch for my birthday and a couple of rings, not an engagement ring,” she adds quickly for clarity, “and he’s got lovely taste. He’s great with styling and is the only boyfriend that would sit outside a changing room for two hours and say yes or no. He’s lovely and because he’s away on modelling shoots he understands my life. He’s really supportive.”
“Tricky one, earrings,” comes back the considered response.
On the rumours that she went out with One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles before Vacher, Atack simply won’t comment apart from to say: “My lips are completely sealed.”
So, back to the mean reds, which Atack doesn’t suffer, but she does admit she couldn’t wait to get out of school and away from some of her contemporaries. Taken on by her mother’s agent she landed a part in the Caroline Quentin crime drama Blue Murder followed by her time in The Inbetweeners from 2008-2010.
“I couldn’t wait to leave school and start working, to get out and start living. When I was 12 I felt like I was already 26. I got The Inbetweeners and moved out at 17 into a flat with my sister.”
Although her character Charlotte was meant to be in the year above the Inbetweener boys, Atack was the baby on set and spent the remainder of her teenage years there.
“It definitely made me grow up really quickly. I had to learn how to be very professional, be on time, camera ready and to look after my health. I wanted to have that feeling that I was working with adults and in that world.”
Born in 1989 in Bedfordshire, as well as having Kate Robbins for a mother, Atack’s father is Keith Atack, who had hits with his band Child in the 1970s and is also Bonnie Tyler’s guitarist. As if this wasn’t a showbizzy enough background, her mum’s second cousin is Paul McCartney and the families have always been close.
“He’s my grandma’s first cousin,” she says. “He grew up with her. He’s a lovely man with a lovely family and we always have New Year’s Eve at his house. And I recently worked with Mary [McCartney] doing a photo shoot with her, and we went to see Stella’s show at Paris Fashion Week.”
So unfazed is Atack by having Sir Paul as a relative, or she’s very discreet, but she doesn’t have behind the scenes stories of the singer. Apart from the time when he gave her advice when she was 16 and crying over her first heartbreak at one of his New Year’s Eve family parties.
“He said, ‘Oh babe, if someone’s not making you happy, you have got to just get out of it. You have no time to be unhappy’.
“It’s a family philosophy, my mum says you have got to be happy with whatever you are doing and if you’re unhappy, get out, in a heartbeat. Don’t waste a second of your life being unhappy.”
Despite her mum being Paul McCartney’s second cousin, it was watching her dad playing on tour with Bonnie Tyler that really impressed Atack.
“When you grow up with fame you don’t know any different. My first real awareness of it was through Bonnie Tyler, standing in the wings watching my dad, because she wasn’t a relative and it hit me that she was famous.”
Atack never considered doing anything other than performing, having grown up backstage, wearing ear plugs and headphones along with her siblings.
“People always say I’m loud, but it’s because I grew up around live music and performance. It’s in my blood and there was never anything other for me. I’ve been doing it since I could speak. Even though I was a shy child, I knew I had a very talented family in the industry and it was something I was going to do, a family business I was inevitably going into. I would watch my mum on the stage and knew that when I grew up I would go into that too.”
After The Inbetweeners came Dancing on Ice in 2010, then movies including Outside Bet with Bob Hoskins and The Hoarder with Mischa Barton. Then in 2011 she made a BBC documentary on binge drinking called Ready, Steady… Drink. As part of the show she drank 15 vodkas during a night out filming, which is not something she’d recommend.
“No, I couldn’t do that and do my job. I felt terrible the next day. I made the documentary because we are known for it in Britain and I thought it would be interesting to find out why we drink as much as we do. It’s important to highlight issues like that if you’re in a show that young people watch and enjoy. I wasn’t standing there wagging the finger. I wanted to learn for myself about the dangers and was learning with the audience.”
Then there’s the 2014 film Almost Married, a romcom that is really not served well by that description. Less romantic and funny than gritty and wry, it’s a study of trust with a sting in the tail. Atack plays Lydia, who is about to marry fiancé Kyle, played by Philip McGinley from Game of Thrones.
“I love roles like that where I can inject a little bit of my own personality, because you can relate to it. It was just so realistic, an ordinary couple about to get married that love each other then start to struggle.”
What Atack does have in common with Golightly is the liberated nature of their characters. As Holly says: “I’ll never let anybody put me in a cage,” and for her part, Atack says: “I’m absolutely a free spirit.
“What I love about this industry is that you have no idea what’s coming next. You can’t have an organised life and a five year plan and be an actor. I don’t make any plans. When I finish one job, I make the most of some time off, then get back on it again.”
Already in the bag and coming out later this year are Lies We Tell, in which she plays opposite Harvey Keitel, Gabriel Byrne and Gina McKee. She describes this as “a really gritty drama type film” in which she plays the pregnant girlfriend of an evil drug lord. There’s also the “crazy sci-fi” Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with comedian Tom Green about Nazis who escape to the moon after the Second World War, build a space fleet and return to conquer Earth.
“I’ve no idea what’s next,” she says. “I take each thing as it comes and appreciate everything that’s in front of me now because people in this industry are so fixated on the next thing that they don’t enjoy the moment. It passes you by and all of a sudden it’s over.
“The most important thing in the world is the moment you’re in now, so take it and be grateful.”
That sounds just like something Holly Golightly might say.