Jemima Rooper: A Very Blithe Spirit

Story and Photography David T. Burgoyne

As I drive down Sunset Blvd in late November, I notice the lamppost billboards are adorned with the familiar homely face of Miss Marple. On closer inspection I realize that Angela Lansbury is in town reprising her Tony Award winning role as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s brilliant ghostly comedy, Blithe Spirit.

Now we all have our favorite childhood films and this was one of mine. Directed by David Lean and starring Rex Harrison, I was totally in love with the mischievous ghost, Elvira. The special effects were simple and effective for those days and I never tired of its story line. Noel Coward’s comedy focuses on a writer who is researching psychics for his new book. Along with his wife, they invite a locally famed medium to dinner to conduct a séance. She inadvertently conjures up the spirit of his ex-wife who has been dead for 7 years. Pandemonium ensues in a hilarious otherworldly ménage a trois. With Angela Lansbury in the lead role, how could I refuse a Christmas outing to see this charming comedic ghost story. My husband is not a fan of live theatre but even he is captivated by the plot and magnificent cast. Angela receives a standing ovation and I was far from disappointed.

It’s Christmas Eve and after a few beers at the Angel City Brewery, I’m riding the elevator to attend a Christmas party at our neighbor’s loft. The smiling girl beside me looks very familiar. We make small talk and I suddenly realize I know her from somewhere. Slightly drunk I blurt out, “I know you from the telly!” My husband turns crimson and she sweetly replies, “I’m impressed if you do, but yes, you might.” Wishings of a Merry Christmas were thrown about with the spirit credited to the season and we went our separate ways.

You know when you know someone famous and you can’t remember what they have been in? Well, I knew this girl but couldn’t place her. I knew she was British and that was that. Fast forward a few hours and our party host mentions the girl across the hall is starring with Angela Lansbury at the Ahmenson Theater.

BINGO! It was JEMIMA ROOPER!

Minutes later, we are knocking on her door and her adorable boyfriend answers in his sweats and we proceed to drag them in to join the festivities.

I love the randomness of living in L.A.

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Jemima Rooper was born in Hammersmith, London. The daughter of TV journalist Alison Rooper, Jemima knew from a very early age that she wanted to act. She made the announcement to her mother to which her mother simply replied, “Well, you are going to need an agent then!” Jemima found herself an agent and landed a string of successful TV roles, including the tomboy ‘George’ in Enid Blyton’s, “The Famous Five.” It was during the filming of this series that she passed her secondary education with straight A’s.

After finishing college, again with flying colors, Jemima’s next TV role revolved around the lives and loves of six teenagers in “As If,” set against the London background in the 21st century. Each episode in the series was presented from a different character’s point-of-view which, up to that point in time, had never been done before in a comedy drama television show. The show had a cult following and received critical acclaim. It was considered groundbreaking with its unique style, surreal fly-on-the-wall style camera work, fast camera transitions, wacky sound effects and distinctive theme music. “As If ” ran for 3 successful years.

camera work, fast camera transitions, wacky sound effects and distinctive theme music. “As If ” ran for 3 successful years. Next up was the supernatural drama, “Hex,” where Rooper played a lovable lesbian ghost named Thelma alongside Michael Fassbender. “Hex” ran for two seasons between 2004 and 2005 during which time Rooper also took a lead part in the original film version of “Kinky Boots.” She recalls it was a departure from the lovable lesbian in “Hex” but after reading the script, was very happy to take the role of Nicola, the straight-laced fiancé of the newly-appointed owner of a failing shoe factory set in the north of England. She admits to not having seen the stage hit yet but is very excited about seeing the musical adaptation. “I’d love to play a drag queen in it!” she teases. It wouldn’t be the first time that Jemima has played a transgender role. In the complex stage play, One Man, Two Guvnors, at the National Theatre in London, Jemima plays a woman who takes on the identity of her twin brother. (It’s very complicated!)

With her beautifully defined jawline and strong mannerisms, it’s easy to see how Jemima keeps getting these interesting roles. “I’m happy to be typecast as a lesbian. In fact, I’d love to be ‘Downton Abbey’s’ first Victorian suit-wearing, cigar-smoking lesbian.” She laughs. “No seriously!”

Theater has kept Jemima busy over the last 5 years, including a part in London West End’s, Breeders, written by her boyfriend Ben Ockrent. Also, she received her first opportunity to take on the character of Elvira in Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury earlier this year. When given the chance to tour the states with Lansbury, Jemima jumped at the chance. She says, “The part is so much fun to play and being with Angela again is thrilling! She really is a joy to be on stage with.”

Not being one to miss the chance for a scoop, I wasted no time in inviting Miss Rooper to be immortalized in the pages of Left Magazine.

“Ooh, I’d love to!” she squealed clasping her hands together, “I was on the front cover of MUFF magazine once!” she boasts… but that’s a whole different story.

We are backstage in-between shows at the Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles. She welcomes me with a hug and we weave our way through the connecting doors of the dressing rooms until we reach the one reserved for Jemima. She has just finished the matinee and is happy to be out of the blonde bobbed wig. She’s petite and has the warmest character. She is definitely someone you want to be around and is happy to share a laugh with you as well as her stories from home. She looks as familiar as an old friend and I remark on how much the wig makes her look like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” She takes the compliment with a grand smile. “Its the wide mouth,” she beams and rests the wig on a can of hairspray. We settle down with a ginger and lemon tea as she touches up her make up for her next performance.

How are you enjoying the California Christmas? Immensely. Just having blue skies and the sun on your face makes a hell of a difference. In my old age I’m finding English winters harder to tolerate. The cold and rain beats you down!

It certainly does. A Los Angeles Christmas takes some getting used to, though. I miss the cold weather at Christmas. I make up for it by cooking up a big ol’ traditional British Christmas dinner with lots of leftovers for bubble and squeak. Jemima, please explain to our readers what bubble and squeak is. Ha! It’s been a while since I’ve had any. It’s basically leftover roast veg, like brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc., fried with potato and sometimes leftover meat. So you can make Christmas dinner last for DAYS! We had traditional California brunch instead with blueberry pancakes with bacon and maple syrup. Slightly more exotic!

You were clearly set on becoming an actor from a very early age. What was your motivation to stick with it? Er…stubbornness? I think it took me a while to be any good at it but everything else I wasn’t good at straight away I’d give up on. So I’m not particularly sure what kept me acting, not that I’m necessarily any better now. I think it was a kind of an escape. There are two types of actors, show-offs and shy ones, and I’m a shy one and it’s a way of pretending not to be, I think. It also meant I was skipping a lot of school from age 13 upwards which was a definite bonus.

Was it a struggle finishing school and taking on such big roles for TV during that time? It actually did me a lot of favors. School and I didn’t mix well and I was a bit naughty and unfocused. Missing so much (school) I had to come back and be as good as gold and keep my grades up so it helped me do better in a way. Also, I learned far more being on the set with adults and actually doing a job and working with all sorts of people in different occupations. Though now I’m still grateful not to have homework to do once I’ve finished rehearsals or a filming day.

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We are all a little jealous you co-starred with Michael Fassbender, he has such a huge… reputation now. Could you tell he was set for super stardom? (she laughs) Before the job we had never worked together, though we had mutual friends that were all in “Band of Brothers” together. It was interesting meeting someone a little older who had seemingly popped out of nowhere. I remember him being brilliant at our first read-through and there being a little rustle of excitement from men and women but he’s also a really low-key, down-to-Earth guy. We were drinking buddies on location on the first series and I think he’s managed not to change despite all his success. That’s the good ol’ Irish in him. And the fact that he’s worked hard to get where he is.

You have been so lucky to play such cool, cult roles. You are clearly not afraid to play a lesbian. Any more in the pipeline? Not at the moment and I’m very sad about it. Women have a really tough time in this industry. I know it’s something that seems to be harped on about a lot but it’s the fact there are so many more actresses than actors and so fewer parts. So I relish a meatier role. And that often comes with the ‘character’ roles, or the more alternative ones who actually have something to say and aren’t necessarily defined by the man they are alongside.

When you ‘kissed a girl,’ did you like it?  Yes. I may have gone to ‘practice’ when I first played a lesbian role.

I know everybody is asking you this at the moment, but she is a LEGEND. Tell us about your experience working with Angela? I don’t really have enough words. She manages to be completely humble and ‘normal’ and warm and generous and mischievous but takes the work seriously and is such a support to all of us. I don’t normally really believe in doing a job twice (having done the play in London) but I just couldn’t walk away from her.

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Charles Edwards as Charles Condomine, Jemima Rooper as Elvira and Charlotte Parry as Ruth Condomine in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT.

Are you ever worried a murder is going to take place. Whenever Jessica Fletcher shows up, someone gets it! That’s so true! You’d think she would be getting paranoid by now! We’re more concerned about ghosts. There have been some very strange goings on. No murders yet, though.

So your boyfriend is a talented writer, that’s amazing. Do you pressure him to write you good parts! Constantly. I always say, “Does that character really HAVE to be a guy? Couldn’t it be a slightly odd looking girl??? Me???” I think he’s learned to blank it out. Though we did just collaborate on a play which was wonderful but a pretty intense experience. You’re suddenly doubly paranoid and anxious to do well.

So next stop is San Francisco, it’s my favorite place in the world and the people are incredible. They are going to love you in ‘Blithe Spirit.’ Do you have any plans for your days off whilst you are there? We sadly only get one day off whilst there and think a lot of us will be doing Alcatraz and we’ve got an extensive restaurant list from a family friend of my boyfriend’s to sample, which I’m looking forward to.

Make sure you go to Harvey’s on Castro street for a ‘Bloody Mary Tyler Moore’. They are the best. Oh really, sounds fantastic, I most certainly will! What would be your dream role? Nancy in the film of “Oliver!” Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Sally in “Cabaret.” All musicals. Definitely need to brush up my singing skills. (she bursts into “As Long as He Needs Me” from “Oliver!”)

Wow, that is an amazing voice! I wasn’t expecting that! So what’s next for Jemima Rooper? I’ve got a short but very not sweet storyline in season 2 of “Atlantis” that shows on BBC America like, now! We don’t go home until April so I’m not really sure. Probably unemployment and misery. Or maybe something COMPLETELY different….who knows….

Jemima, thank you so much for sharing your time with Left. We hope you enjoy San Francisco and we’d like to take this opportunity to wish you and your boyfriend a very HAPPY NEW YEAR and continued success in the future.


Make sure you catch Jemima as Elvira in Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury at SHN’s Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 from January 20th to February 1st, 2015.

The North American tour of Blithe Spirit is produced by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Steve Traxler, Lee Dean, John Frost, Charles Diamond and Will Trice in association with Ken Davenport, Kathleen K. Johnson and Jam Theatricals.

For tickets, visit SHNSF.com or call 888-746-1799

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