Layton Williams is determined as hell. He’s just returned to the stage playing Angel in the UK tour of RENT, following a month off to recover from surgery for an injury. You’d think that might slow him down, but no, he’s back in the six inch heels, and doing backflips (yes, backflips in the heels. After surgery. Seriously impressed.)
But that’s just the kind of guy he is. Living for performing, he’s rocked the West End, playing Billy in Billy Elliot (as the longest-running Billy) the original Young Michael Jackson in Thriller Live, and Duane in the UK tour of Hairspray the Musical. He’s also danced in Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies and The Car Man. To top it all off, he’s also added TV and film to his portfolio, starring as Stephen in Jack Whitehall’s BBC comedy Bad Education and the 2015 feature film (also called Bad Education), and the BBC’s Beautiful People.
I caught up with Layton a few hours before his second night returning to RENT after his injury, super bubbly, confident, and oozing enthusiasm as he talks about playing Angel.
Layton! It’s Louise here!
Nice to meet you! Or to cyber meet you!
You’ve said before that Angel is your dream role. Why is that and what are they like to play?
Well I guess when you say dream, it’s not so much like it was a daydream -- it was actually a dream. Like, it wasn’t something I thought I’d actually be able to do. And I soon took down that barrier and was just like, you know, give it a shot, you can do this, and got a bit of self confidence, which you wouldn’t think because I am quite a confident person…. You know you have to push yourself and let the barriers down. So as soon that happened, I let myself be open to it, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can sing this, I can do this’, and then it all just sort of fell into place and I got the part.
Saying that, actually, this week has been quite iconic because I only just got back on the stage after a month, and I can’t tell you… like, I knew I loved it, but then having a month away from it, it’s just reminded me of how much I loved-loved-loved and missed this role. Like, you don’t realise how much you loved something and how much you had until you’ve had it taken away from you, so I’m really enjoying being back and doing my second show tonight!
What about the character of Angel do you relate to?
Confident, and out there, and kind of wears whatever he wants when he’s being him, and wears whatever he wants when he’s being his alter-ego. I cant put my finger on whether she identifies as a male or a female, so sometimes I say ‘he’ and sometimes I say ‘she’, depending on what I’m wearing as the character. I just love how she doesn’t care about what anybody thinks, you know what I mean? She’ll cross-dress and wear whatever she wants as long as she’s making herself happy. And you know, hopefully that can inspire people to do the same thing. 20 years ago for a character to be made like that, it’s quite… it was groundbreaking at the time. So I just think even now it’s so important with the trans murders that are going on in the world, and in America… it just could not be more relevant now. I feel very privileged to be playing this role.
You do some pretty crazy moves on stage. How do you do flips in heels?!
Have you seen the show?! Did you see it in London?
I have seen it previously, but not this version. Not with you in it, I would have loved to!
Ah okay, but you have heard about it, clearly!
I have heard the rumours!
Yes, I do lots of flips, I just… do it. I don’t really know. I just put the heels on and I’m like, ‘Go on then!’ It did take me a couple of times, I was like, ‘I don’t know whether I can do this,’ and then after doing it once or twice you just get it into your body, stamina gets good, and then you just flip, you trick, and you just hope for the best! I mean literally yesterday I was scared, but usually when I’m in my swing of things everything’s fab.
Love it! Is there any pressure in doing a role that other actors have done before? Do you find you can be creative with it or do you have to stick to the boundaries that other people have set?
Usually that is the case with those big musicals that constantly go around and around, and it’s kind of like, ‘Stand on that number, say that line, say it there, turn to the left and put your hand up at that time’. And I think I would hate that, and I feel quite lucky because this time around I’ve got a new creative team. So I’ve got Bruce Guthrie the director, and Lee Proud who is the choreographer -- who I actually worked with when I was a kid in my first job as Billy Elliot. So it’s really sweet because we used to play alongside each other and now it’s like because we know each other so well we can take those risks and do all that crazy flipping and all that crazy chorography and really push the boundaries out there. And it’s been incredible creating the work with him. And also our MD, he didn’t tell me that I had to sing exactly what the Angels sang before, because I’m not about that. This is my take on Angel, it’s not, ’What did the Angel do before?’. So obviously I looked and watched the movies and watched the musicals for research, but I took essences of what every body kind of did and their vibe and then I just made my own I guess. The costumes as well, it’s so fab to just be able to put our own stamp on it.
And you mentioned Billy Elliot, that was the start of all of this wasn’t it?
Yes, it was indeed. I was twelve years old, I trained for a couple of years and I was on the stage for a couple of years too. It was a great start to what I’m doing now.
And did you know that you loved performing during Billy Elliot or was it beforehand when you were training?
I guess… I always say my opening night of Billy Elliot. Because as soon as I finished the show I looked out and everyone was on their feet and I thought, ‘I kinda like this, this is something that I want to do.’ You definitely know the kids who are like, ‘This is going to be my career’ type thing. But then I loved it so much and I couldn’t really see myself doing anything else. I don’t know what I could do to be honest [laughs].
You’ve done musicals, you’ve done plays, then you did TV, you did film, and now you’re back doing a musical again. Do you think you’re going to keep rotating through all of them?
I really really really want to. I feel like having your fingers in all the different pies is a good thing. You don’t want to do too much and stretch yourself, but you don’t want to be limiting. You know, I don’t want to just be that guy… when people are like, ‘Oh you’re that dancer’, and I’m like, ’Oh please don’t call me a dancer. Like check the CV’, you know? It’s not that. You only see that part of me, but there’s so many different sides that I want to express, because I’m a creative person I guess. I want to be challenged so it’s really lovely like, to be able to do that. Especially at my age, I know that I’ve been lucky, and I hope to continue. I don’t feel I’ve done enough at the moment to be like, ‘That’s my thing, I enjoy doing that more’. So I want to keep doing as much as I possibly can, and then start getting picky when I’m older. When I’m in demand! [laughs]
Definitely! Do you ever get bored doing a show over and over?
I’ve never done a show longer than a year and I think that’s when I talk to my friends and stuff in the industry who say that’s when it gets a bit yawn yawn, you know. And whenever I’ve done shows before, say with Matthew Bourne, performing in his company, you got to take two different roles. So that was nice because creatively you’re going to be doing the same thing eight times a week, you know. So now I’m doing that for the second time but its so me. I’m literally doing what I love, I’m doing the most full-on choreography, I’m getting to sing the most amazing pop songs, and I’m going on a full arc as well as a journey, and no matter how many times a week you do that it can’t get old if you’re in the moment. You know what I mean, as soon as you take yourself out of it, like, ‘Oh here we go again’, then there you go. But I guess then it’s not really for you, if you’re going to be complaining about it. But most of us just get on, I mean we do nine shows a week, it can get a lot. But you get your holidays! I’ve just come back because I’ve been injured and had to have surgery. It’s all been kind of crazy.
Did you injure yourself doing flips in heels?
I didn’t, funnily enough. I was just in my converse running about, but I think from the build up of all the pressure, and all the things I was doing in my heels it really did build up and put pressure on my knees and it just gave up. But I bounced back and people can’t believe that I had surgery a month ago and now I’m back in my heels dancing again. But I think it’s willpower, and that love for it. I was like, ’I need to work hard during rehabilitation because I’m getting back on that stage!’ And I am!
I want to ask about the photo shoot with 1883 at Winter Wonderland.
Oh my god, I had such a good time! I mean it was a little bit like, ‘Who is this guy thinking he is’ when you’re having a photo shoot, but I guess you’ve just got to embrace it. Like when I used to have photo shoots and stuff outside you get to the point where you just have to not think about about what anyone is thinking, because if you believe in your own hype then they’ll start believing in it. If you’re just striking a pose and owning your situation they’ll just be like, ‘Okay, he knows what he’s doing, leave him be!’ So if you’re stood there looking all nervous and tentative and like, ‘Oh god I don’t know what to do next’… I was just like grabbing stuff, I was playing ball. I won a little cushion as well, it was so cute! I loved that shoot.
So I have to let you go in a minute, which is so sad because I’d love to talk to you longer, so tell me what the future holds for you.
I don’t like to plan too much but I hope the future just continues to climb. I feel like every time I do a different job it just gets better and better, and I’m surprised at how much more I can love something. I just want to keep being creative and, like you said, doing different things and not limiting myself to one moment. And maybe try other things as well, just branch out a little bit more.
I don’t know, I’ve been thinking recently maybe I’d quite like to do presenting work and thinks like that. And interviewing. I’m quite a chatty person, you know. So yeah I’m just going to see, to see what the future holds.