Jane Horrocks: ‘I’ve not experienced ageism in the industry’

The ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ star is appearing without prosthetics as Rumpelstiltskin in a new version of the classic fairy tale. She talks to Isobel Lewis about always playing old people, returning for ‘Chicken Run 2’, and being ‘bored to death’ of ‘ Ab Fab’

Thursday 23 December 2021 06:38 GMT
Throughout her career, Horrocks has played her fair share of big, brash characters
Throughout her career, Horrocks has played her fair share of big, brash characters (Jacques Benaroch/SIPA/Shutterstock)

Think of Jane Horrocks and chances are it’s her voice you imagine first. With her thick, endlessly soothing Lancashire accent, the actor has always been known for her distinctive dialect, as well as her ability to vocally shapeshift and mimic others. As a result, her latest role – in a silent adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rumpelstilzchen, airing on Sky Arts tonight – has been a whole new challenge. “Yeah, it was weird actually. I sort of invented a voice for the character and used to mess about doing his voice in the costume department,” she says, with a laugh.

Throughout her career, Horrocks, 57, has played her fair share of big, brash characters. Onscreen, she’s been the flighty, utterly ridiculous Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous and the lead in Little Voice, a role Jim Cartwright wrote for her based on her vocal ability. On stage, she’s played a screaming Sally Bowles in a landmark production of Cabaret, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, and Lady Macbeth in a production directed by Mark Rylance. But as we speak in person over Zoom from her home in Twickenham, Horrocks seems more reserved, savouring her words and knowing when to not spout off excessively. She’s enjoying a day off from her final week of filming series two of Samson Kayo’s paramedic comedy series Bloods, so rest and quiet are appreciated.

Rumpelstilzchen is a project breaking new ground for Horrocks. Devised by the cool kids of the dance world BalletBoyz and directed by Horrocks’s frequent collaborator Richard Jones, the film stars Horrocks as the eponymous villain. As in the Grimm original, “Rumpel” (as Horrocks calls him) attempts to woo a young woman (Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds) into giving her his baby in exchange for spinning straw into gold.

To say Horrocks underwent a transformation for the role is an understatement – at first, I don’t recognise her when she comes onscreen, hunched over with thinning hair and jutting teeth. Surprisingly, she says the transformation “didn’t take very long” to complete. “There were no prosthetics involved, it was literally make-up and a bald cap and a wig,” she pauses, “Oh, and some false teeth. I wasn’t hours and hours in the make-up chair, I feel sad to say.” She laughs. “I want to tell you that it was hours but actually it wasn’t.”

The project feels worlds away from Horrocks’s biggest role in the high-fashion world of Absolutely Fabulous. She first played the role of Bubble, useless PA to Jennifer Saunders’s PR maven Edina Monsoon, with a penchant for ludicrous dressing, in 1992. She later reprised the role in the 20th anniversary special and the 2016 film. I start to ask about the show’s impact and if there are plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary next year. But three decades of the show has also meant three decades of talking about it, which Horrocks is not keen to do today. “You know what, I’ve spoken so much about Ab Fab and I’m absolutely bored to death with it,” she says.

But the Saunders and Joanna Lumley vehicle isn’t the only Horrocks project to be given the reboot treatment. Just last summer, it was announced to the delight of fans that Chicken Run, Aardman Animations’ 2000 take on The Great Escape starring, well, chickens, was being revived for a Netflix sequel. Horrocks, who voiced the character of Babs (best line: “All of me life flashed before me eyes… it were really boring”), confirms that she’ll be returning for the new film and has already had two sessions in the studio. “They showed me a little clip of it and it looks really good fun,” she says. “It was nice to see Babs come to life again. That’s a lovely thing to be involved in.”

It’s a relief to hear that Horrocks will be appearing in Chicken Run 2, because it wasn’t a given. Mel Gibson wasn’t asked to return to voice Rocky, in what is believed to be a response to accusations of antisemitism made against him by Winona Ryder (Gibson has denied the claims). And then there’s Horrocks’s Absolutely Fabulous co-star Julia Sawalha, who claimed last year that she had been “unfairly dismissed” from the sequel because her voice sounded “too old” to reprise the part of Ginger. Horrocks says that she hasn’t spoken to Sawalha about the claims – has she had her own experiences of ageism in the industry?

“No, I’ve not actually, no,” she says, somewhat firmly. “I seem to just be cast as old people… when I went to drama school, I went to Rada and I played all the old people there, so ageism doesn’t come into it for me because I’ve always played old people and young people. Actually, I feel that my career seems to have been getting a bit more enriched by becoming older in that new opportunities are arising because of my age… But it is obviously there and present. I accept that it is an issue.”

‘Rumpelstilzchen’ is a project breaking new ground for Horrocks who stars without prosthetics as the fairy tale’s titular villain
‘Rumpelstilzchen’ is a project breaking new ground for Horrocks who stars without prosthetics as the fairy tale’s titular villain (Hugo Glendinning)

When it comes to characters, she says, “as long as they’re something to get your teeth into”, age really is just a number. Just before lockdown, she and Alan Cumming – who appeared with her in Sam Mendes’s famous stage Cabaret – worked together on a production of Beckett’s Endgame at the Old Vic, which also starred Daniel Radcliffe. “Alan made me laugh saying, ‘You know, we started off working together in Cabaret where we were both these sexy young things’ and only last year I was playing his mother in Endgame,” she says, with a laugh. “How times have changed.”

‘Rumpelstilzchen’ airs on Sky Arts on Thursday at 11.45pm

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