First and foremost Jonny Wilkes is an entertainer. In everything he does he has a burning desire to entertain people, to make them smile and to make them laugh. He certainly captivates the audience in his current role as Billy Flynn, in Chicago the Musical, at the Cambridge Theatre, where he performs the role with his natural charm, cheeky smile and twinkle in his eye.
At the age of 33, Jonny Wilkes has already achieved so much in his career which spans television, music, theatre and his own entertainment show. He is a UNICEF ambassador, originator of Soccer Aid with Robbie Williams, and founder of performing arts academies with his wife Nikki and Gareth Gates. It is fair to say that the boy from Stoke has done well.
From an early age Jonny enjoyed the spotlight of being on stage as he attended drama classes and performed at the Queen’s Theatre in Stoke with the local amateur dramatic society. Right from the start, having a bit of fun has never been far away from his career.
Having been a very talented young footballer, playing for Everton Youth until the age of 16, Jonny then decided that professional football was not to be his chosen career, and he headed for the stage and singing.
Winning the Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year award in 1996, Jonny saw his career take off as he was rewarded with his own show on Blackpool Pleasure Beach which ran for three years.
Jonny then moved into television with BBC Choice, where he met his wife Nikki. He very soon found himself appearing in various television shows, before venturing into pop-music, releasing his top-five single Just Another Day, together with a subsequent album.
Although his own pop-music career may have been put on hold, he has since appeared on stage with Robbie Williams at The Royal Albert Hall and on a world tour, performing to over 5 million people worldwide. The classic song Me And My Shadow is one number that Jonny and Robbie perform together.
Away from pop-music, Jonny’s stage career has blossomed with him starring in hit shows such as Godspell, The Rocky Horror Show, Grease, The Wedding Singer, Guys and Dolls, Tommy, We Will Rock You, Dick Whittington, Pantos On Strike, Mother Goose, Cinderella and of course Chicago.
This December he will star alongside Gillian Wright in Dick Whittington at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, where he is also making his directing debut.
Close to Jonny’s heart is giving something back to the world of musical theatre and together with his wife Nikki he has established the Wilkes Academy for young people. Shortly to open in September 2011 is a new academy jointly founded by Jonny and Gareth Gates.
Away from the world of theatre Jonny and his best friend Robbie Williams have founded the hugely successful Soccer Aid which has raised over £12.5 million for UNICEF. Perhaps the dream of playing professional football wasn’t realised, but to play at Wembley is something that most professional footballers won’t ever achieve.
For his contribution to the performing arts, his charity work with UNICEF and for being an ambassador for Stoke-on-Trent, Jonny has been bestowed an Honorary Doctor of Staffordshire University.
A few days ago I chatted with Jonny and asked him about his career and his role as Billy Flynn. I hope you enjoy what he had to say.
When did you first get interested in performing arts and singing?
I went to the theatre for the first time when I was about 4 years old, and watched a pantomime. I came away believing everything about it and I instantly fell in love with the world of make believe and theatre. It was an amazing experience.
When was the first time that you performed on stage and what are your memories of then?
I did my first show (Hans Christian Andersen) when I was 6 years old for a local amateur dramatic society in North Staffordshire at the Queen’s Theatre in Stoke.
A very funny story relating to that show:
Robbie and I were brought up together having the same interests and we were in the show together. He was 10 at the time and we were both in the chorus.
At one point in the show all of the children used to wear night gowns and run across the stage. Rob one night said to me “When you run across the stage, pull up your night-gown” I said “Really?” and he said “Yeah do it”. So I did!
The audience cracked up and thought it was a great laugh. I remember the director Ray Jeffries shouted at me so much he made me cry. At an early age I think I was ‘trouble’.
When you were a teenager you turned your back on playing professional football and decided to go into acting. What made you decide that – was there a defining moment?
I played for Port Vale at youth level and then got signed by Everton between the ages of 13 and 16. At the age of 16 this was the time to make the decision as to what to do with my life, what to do as a career. In a way I lost heart and lost the confidence in football. I loved football and still do, but at the time I didn’t want to be that dedicated. I wanted to spend time with my mates an enjoy being a teenager. I did get offered contracts by professional clubs at the time but my heart wasn’t in it enough to dedicate my life to it. Singing took over really. I wouldn’t have made the premiership but I think I would have earned a living as a professional footballer and probably made 1st or 2nd division standard.
Staying on the subject of football, you have more recently played in Soccer Aid charity football matches at great stadiums such as St James’s Park, Old Trafford and Wembley alongside world famous players and celebrities. Was this a dream come true for you?
Soccer Aid is something that Robbie and I have done for 3 years. We have raised over £12.5 million for UNICEF. This is a ‘little’ idea we came up with while having a cup of tea together, where we thought that we need to do something where we fulfil our fantasies and we can also make so much money for charity.
We are both Ambassadors of UNICEF and with Rob’s profile in the world it can create so much publicity and generate so much interest from all of these stars around the world. It really was just a no-brainer. Soccer Aid is going from strength to strength and we have just signed up to do our fourth Soccer Aid which is going to be next summer (2012).
We first thought that we would do a one-off game and that would be it, but the demand for it has got higher and higher. I am really proud of Soccer Aid and what we have achieved.
You won the Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year award in 1996, and headed to Blackpool Pleasure Beach to become the youngest person to star in your own end-of-pier-style show. What was it like working on Blackpool Pier?
I entered the competition, seen on GMTV at the time. We were flown over to Malta where Cameron Mackintosh’s mother lives and we got to perform there.
Having won the competition, I got ‘picked up’ by Amanda Thompson at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I was 17 years old and she wanted to make me the youngest headliner in Blackpool. I had a show called Jonny and the Space Girls, which was myself and four girls behind me singing 28 songs a night. The money was alright, I was getting paid £200 a week, living with 60 dancers and I was having the time of my life. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid for it as it was so much fun.
Where did you train for performing arts?
My training was about being thrown in at the deep end and getting on stage and doing it. It was a really scary thing to do but it gave me the best training ever. Colleges are fantastic and I wish I’d had more training, but my training came from first-hand experience and I think in a way that is what set me aside sometimes, because I am very much an individual.
I learnt from old acts such as Frank Carson, Lily Savage, The Grumbleweeds and all these comics that had done it for years. They tell the same jokes night after night but make it sound like it is the first time that have told that gag, and this is a very special gift.
You then appeared on several TV programmes including BBC Choice Hype, ITV You’ve Been Framed, Love on a Saturday Night, The Match, Soccer Aid, All Star Cup, Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Take Away. What are your favourite memories of then?
I joined BBC Choice on a brand new show called Hype and this is where I met my wife Nikki who was in a girl band called Tout les Filles managed by Pete Waterman. I interviewed her on a beach in Bournemouth 12 years ago.
TV is a funny one you know. At the time I didn’t know a lot about it, I was just going along being myself, the “cheeky chap from Stoke”. It meant it was gaining more experience while pursuing what I wanted to do which was to try to get a record deal, which I did.
I had a single “Just Another Day” which went into the top five in 18 countries. But I don’t think I was ever a good pop star although people disagree. I didn’t feel cool enough. I wanted to make people laugh and I really wasn’t being true to myself. I wrote a great album and I am still very proud of what I did then. And then TV and theatre came knocking at my door and I found my little niche.
In February 2002 you alternated the roles of Jesus and Judas in Godspell, which premiered in Liverpool.
It was at a time when I was about to make a second single when the producer David Pugh who is from Stoke, came to me and said that he wanted to put me in a musical. He said “myself and Kevin Wood are producing the show Godspell and have an Australian called Daniel Macpherson and with you, we think it would be a great idea if you were to alternate the roles of Jesus and Judas.”
The great thing about it was that I got to work with Stephen Schwartz, who is just an amazing composer. It was great and I instantly fell in love with musical theatre from Godspell onwards, hence I am now nine musicals in and still loving it.
You then performed as the lead role Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show for the 30th-anniversary UK tour. What was it like touring in such a successful show?
Funnily enough we had a Rocky Horror Show reunion recently with the 2003 cast: Jon Boyden, Katie Rowley-Jones, Drew Jameson, Kevin Kennedy; such a fantastic cast. The best time of my life was Rocky Horror both on-stage and off-stage.
When you play a character such as Frank-N- Furter it is very hard for anything else to live up to that character. He is the ultimate to me. Frank is charismatic, charming, nasty, evil and funny. He has got everything.
I love Rocky Horror with a passion and I have gone on to do some fantastic roles such as Sky Masterson (Guys and Dolls), Danny in Grease, Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer, Billy (Flynn) is also a great role. But nothing will ever live up to Frank. That will probably be the only show that if someone said to me tomorrow will you go back? I would say Oh Yeah!
Being on tour is a different kettle of fish you know, I created a bit of a reputation on tour, as producers booked me because they knew I worked hard on tour. Provisional towns liked me going in and speaking to the press and this is really the first time someone has said to me come and be in the West End.
Being in the West End in Chicago, I am loving it but what a difference. I say this because I go on stage tonight and predominantly it will be an international audience. Now when I go to the Birmingham Hippodrome, Manchester or Stoke that’s the English crowd and the comedy lands so much better. As much as I love the West End I do miss touring as well, I miss the crowds, I miss the audiences; but it is an amazing thing to be in the West End as it is at the pinnacle of your acting career.
In 2006, you joined Robbie Williams on his Close Encounters Tour, singing the songs Me and My Shadow and Strong. What was this experience like?
When we originally did Me and My Shadow we were in America. Rob and I were brought up on that music and he said to me that he should do a Swing Album and we never expected it to be the hit it was. Robbie was the start of the influx of ‘everyone’ doing that type of music again.
When we first did Me and My Shadow, we were literally 10 minutes in the studio together messing about and we didn’t realise what a success it was going to be. He was going on a world tour and he said “Bud will you come on tour with me and we’ll sing two or three numbers together?” Of course I said yes. We played in front of over 5 million people around the world. Totally different again to what I had done. The tour was a big experience, such as playing Me and My Shadow in front of 140,000 people at one stadium in Argentina.
At the time Nikki and I had just had our baby boy Mickey, so it was very tough to have a family life as well as doing a rock ‘n roll kind of tour, but we coped and we are still telling stories about it.
Robbie Williams is your best friend. You are both extremely busy people, how do you maintain your friendship?
It is like any friendship really, you don’t see each other for a while and then you meet up and pick up like it was yesterday, that’s like me and Rob really. The important thing is that as long as he is okay, and I am okay. If we need each other we are there for each other.
Chicago will close at the end of August, how would you describe your time as Billy Flynn?
It is a lovely company, I have had a great time and I would say that it is the most grown-up role that I have done. Billy’s the lynch-pin of the show really. You’ve got two leading ladies in Roxie and Velma and you are this guy that has to hold the whole thing together in a way.
For songs and for script it is fantastic. I don’t come on for the first half an hour, come on and steal the show with two great numbers, go off again and come back and round off the show. It’s great.
I went to see Chicago 8 years ago and loved it. Then being asked to do it and watching the show I realised what a great show this is, and no wonder it has stood the test of time. If you look at the choreography it never dates. This is the last Bob Fosse show in the West End. I think Chicago has to live on and I think it will live on.
After Chicago what are your plans for the rest of this year and what else would you like to achieve in your career?
I’m directing for the first time this Christmas, Dick Whittington at the Waterside Theatre Aylesbury which is a new feather in my cap. There is a great cast and I have worked with all of them before. It’s a new theatre and is absolutely stunning.
The new project I want to do and this is the one thing that I am passionate about more than anything. I want to run a finishing school for musical theatre. We will be running a three month boot-camp at INC.
I see so many young kids coming out of college and they have done three years training, they go for their first job and they don’t get it because nobody has told them how to represent themselves, no one has told them about audition technique and how to prepare themselves.
I also think it is part of society today where young actors come out of college and think they know it all and they don’t have respect for the principals and leading actors that they should have. Some of them get their first job and think “I’ve cracked it”, but they haven’t as this is just the beginning. I’m nine musicals in and I’ve still not cracked it, as I am still learning every single day. I want to instil the right attitude, respect and discipline in them as this is lacking in theatre today
You have set up two performing arts academies with your wife Nikki and Gareth Gates in Swindon and Stoke. What are you looking to achieve?
We have run these for two years now and my wife Nikki does an amazing job and I go in and help out all of the time giving master classes. It doesn’t matter if you want to be in this business or not, I think a lot of kids lack confidence, and I don’t mean over-confidence or being big-headed. Working in any walk of life you need confidence.
I am talking about going into somewhere and thinking yes I can hold my own here, I can stand up in front of anyone, be myself and not be scared. The academies are about instilling the right attitudes and that is what I am focusing on.
You have a wife and young son, what do you like to do to chill out?
We just love being at home. I go home every night. We are very normal I suppose. I love playing with Mickey, we play WWE Wrestling and I end up getting battered every time. I am very much a home boy and a family lad. I love my wife and little boy. I do get out and play some golf and I have some great mates.
All in all I look at my life and think yeah I’m a lucky boy and I’m happy.
Finally, do you have any message for your fans?
I’ve got some incredible fans who have been with me ever since I can remember, some from Godspell days. They are just great. I try to spend time to talk to them and I ask them to be honest with me, because so many people live in a bubble and they think they are doing alright but need a bit of honesty and there is nothing better than the real people who come and watch you.
So I just want to say to my fans, thank you for all of their support.
Thanks Jonny for taking time out to chat and wishing you the very best in everything that you do.
You can follow Jonathan Wilkes on Twitter @Jonny_Wilkes
Interview by Neil Cheesman who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1
Updated 11th October 2014