Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Jane Horrocks

The Little Voice Speaks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

October 9, 1998—Actress Jane Horrocks left an indelible impression on me when I first saw her as the bespectacled anorexic in Mike Leigh's food-themed Life Is Sweet (1991). (She is better known as Bubble from the hit British TV series "Absolutely Fabulous.") Needless to say, I hoped to see a lot more of her after that. I didn't get my wish until this year in a terrific new film called Little Voice, but I got it in spades.

Jane plays the title character "Little Voice," a small, shy little thing who curls up in her room and listens to her late father's record collection (Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey, Billie Holiday, and the like). Ewan McGregor plays Billy, a shy telephone repairman and pigeon trainer who falls in love with her. Her mother (played wonderfully by Brenda Blethyn) is a brazen drunk who meets a fourth-rate talent agent, Ray Say (Michael Caine, also wonderful). As her mother gets amorous with Ray, Little Voice puts on a Garland record to drown out their noise. Her mother retaliates with a loud Tom Jones record. The fuse blows. And in the silence and darkness, Judy Garland continues. But it's not Judy Garland. It's Little Voice.

Ray puts Little Voice on stage in a two-bit club owned by Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent), but she can only sing when she feels that her late father is listening. In the meantime, Billy is waiting; for his prize pigeon to return, and for the right moment to speak to Little Voice. The movie is directed by Mark Herman, who scored with last year's Brassed Off (also with McGregor). Both movies have music as a main element, and Herman seems skilled at making it vibrant and exciting, and centering his movies with that energy. Both movies allow the characters to come alive of their own accord. But whereas Brassed Off was an effective ensemble piece, Little Voice offers a much more complex, fascinating, and moving main character in Jane Horrocks.

In person, Jane, who is 34, struck me as waifish and shy. She has short blonde wispy hair, delightful blue eyes, and a small, deceptive British voice with a touch of sweetness. She was dressed all in black, and pregnant with a 3 month bulge that looked more like 6 months on her tiny frame.

The first thing that people want to know is, does Jane really sing in the movie? The answer is yes. It's hard to believe. The impressions are so dead-on; they don't even sound like impressions. "They didn't believe me when I did the play," Jane says. "It's very difficult to convince people... because you can do so much with technical things on film. [Now] I suppose I'm going to probably go on a lot of chat shows and do it."

In the movie, Jane sings a rendition of Billie Holiday's "Lover Man" that had me in tears. The songs she sings are all sad ones, either emphasizing sadness (Holiday), or covering it up (Monroe and Garland). Horrocks not only does the impersonations perfectly, she brings out the beautiful sorrow in each. "The character was so desperate herself that she related to all those singers. I particularly like those singers. They were my favorites. That was why [Little Voice] chose those particular singers to listen to... the tragedy queens."

Surprisingly, Jane is not a trained musician. "I can't read a note of music. I just do it all from ear. Mimicking people was something I did already." For the film she worked with a singing teacher in great detail. "I was very precious about the accuracy of the singers, because I [was thinking] that people are much more critical when [they] go to see a film. And also when it comes out on video, there's the rewind."

Jane has been singing since she was a child. "Not consciously. I just sort of did it." She says she listened to long hours of records and watched long hours of television. This led her into acting. "I found that I could make people laugh doing people like Shirley Bassey. Fortunately it worked."

The movie Little Voice was adapted from a play, "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice," written by Jim Cartwright expressly for Jane and her skills. "I think he did a very good job of it, really. Because, I think it's lovely that the character's reticent about doing impersonations. I had sort of envisioned something where this character kept impersonating, and it would have been nauseating."

Jane's first thoughts weren't exactly enthusiastic. "When I did read it originally, I thought, 'why haven't I got more lines? I don't say anything. When do I speak?' And once it was up and running, I realized how much work doing the impersonations would entail. I had my work cut out for me. I think it works extremely well."

The thing that intrigued me most about Jane in person was her voice. In her movies; Life Is Sweet, Little Voice, and The Witches (1990), as well as "Absolutely Fabulous," her voice is high-pitched. "I don't really like using my own voice. The first thing that I do for a character is choose the voice. I try and think of someone that I know that's like that. And then just work around [it]. And sometimes that's been detrimental, and not a great idea. And other times it works. Mike Leigh encourages you to choose a person that you know to base your character on. You write a whole list of people that you know and you go through that list in great depth with him. And then he chooses one of those people from your list. And the person that I chose [for Life Is Sweet] happened to have a voice like that. Poor gal." As for Bubble, "I think she was more of an amalgamation. She started off being my niece at one point. She was probably about six at the time. I think there were lots of different influences in Bubble."

Jane's performance in Little Voice is already generating talk of an Oscar nomination. But Jane is the ultimate professional. She even got started much younger than most performers. "My earliest acting memory is making up a play for my mom and dad called The Lonesome Baby. I have no idea what The Lonesome Baby was about. I just remember the title. But I'm sure it was an epic."

Partial Jane Horrocks Filmography:
Memphis Belle (1990)
The Witches (1990)
Life Is Sweet (1990)
Little Voice (1998)
Chicken Run (2000) [voice]
Corpse Bride (2005) [voice]
Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006) [voice]
Arthur Christmas (2011) [voice]

Movies Unlimtied