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Best known for her role as Bubble in the cult TV classic Absolutely Fabulous, Jane Horrocks gets to show off how absolutely fabulous she really is, playing a shy young woman able to burst into song as Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe. In this exclusive interview, PAUL FISCHER met the diminutive star of stage and screen.

She's the petite, waifish blonde actress with the most remarkable of talents: mimicking musical stars of old as she does so perfectly in Little Voice with her Lancashire accent flying thick and fast. Horrocks first caught audiences' attention as the anorexic teen who memorably insists that David Thewlis lick chocolate off her breasts in Mike Leigh's comedy Life Is Sweet (1991) and went on to create an indelible impression as the aptly named Bubble, the dimwitted, kooky assistant to Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) in that cult British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1993-95).

"I think it came about at the right time" on Absolutely Fabulous

It's her ability to glide effortlessly between high comedy and intense drama that has established the 34-year old as one of Britain's most versatile performers, and she happily admits that given a preference, comedy remains her first love.

"I like going back to comedy, because that's how I started out, and that was the reason I got into acting in the first place; I find that I just have an ability to do that." Her mastery of comedy was in evidence as she sailed through Absolutely Fabulous, which became a major hit throughout the world. "I think it came about at the right time", the actress ponders when asked to analyse Ab Fab's miraculous success. "I think that people were tired of the type of sitcom that was being thrown out, and it was the first of its type, in that we finally got to see women behaving badly. Also, the outrageousness of it was so fantastically appalling, people could experience what they would have loved to experience themselves through these characters." Horrocks is happy to admit that there was a lot of her in Bubble "but I'm not quite as mad as that."

Of course one might argue that to be an actress these days, you need to be a bit mad. With this the actress agrees. "The more actors I meet, the more I think that they are bonkers, after starting off quite sane."

"I realised that I did have a chameleon quality"

She was born and raised in Lancashire, of working-class parentage, and no hint of the actor that would evolve. As a child, she recalls, she relished in showing off, "as a means of gaining notoriety." It was then she discovered how to make people laugh "by doing these impersonations or little sketches, and then I thought that maybe I can make a living doing this."

Looking back, Horrocks realises how unrealistic an ambition it was. "I knew nobody who'd done it from the place that I'd come from, and I didn't want to go the Northern route, which means that you sort of end up in Coronation Street. I realised that I did have a chameleon quality, and wanted to play a lot of different parts."

Unrealistic as the dream might have been, Horrocks nonetheless matriculated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where her classmates included Iain Glen, Imogen Stubbs and Ralph Fiennes). While in school, she was advised to work on losing her nasal native accent, as it would limit the roles she could play. Almost in defiance, Horrocks has nurtured her distinctive, working class Lancashire twang, and that decision has led to a string of interesting character parts.

Fresh out of drama school, Horrocks landed at the Royal Shakespeare Company where she felt under-utilised and unchallenged. In 1986, she appeared in Jim Cartwright's Road (later filmed for British TV). The playwright was fascinated by the actress' facility with impressions (including Julie Andrews, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich) that he promised to write a play around her gifts. Five years later, Horrocks had a stage triumph as LV, a childlike, painfully shy girl who finds release in impersonating divas like Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Billie Holliday, in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Although she had achieved a degree of fame, Actors Equity in the USA would not allow her to recreate the role on Broadway.

Instead, Horrocks continued to show her versatility on stage as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' landmark 1994 revisionist staging of Cabaret in an actual nightclub and as Lady Macbeth in a rare 1996 outing in Shakespeare.

"I'm not reclusive, and I certainly don't have a mother like Little Voice"

Horrocks entered feature films with a supporting turn in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and moved up to a more prominent part in The Dressmaker (both 1988). She continued in distinguished projects like The Witches and Memphis Belle (both 1990) before breaking out in Life Is Sweet. Her mesmerising turn as the deeply unhappy, vitriolic teenager was one of the year's best and the Los Angeles Film Critics awarded her their Best Supporting Actress prize. Horrocks' refusal to go Hollywood (where she feels British actors are often oddly dropped into unsuitable films) may have hampered her career somewhat, but her uncompromising attitude has not stopped her from working in her native land.

Now, Horrocks has recreated her stage role as LV in Mark Hermann's film, Little Voice; LV is a shy and reclusive young woman who lives with her overbearing mother (Brenda Blethyn). When mum starts dating a seedy manager (Michael Caine) and he inadvertently hears LV singing, he cooks up a plan to have her perform in public at a local nightclub.

Of course it was Horrocks' astonishing musical mimicry that led to the role of LV being devised for her; the rest of the character, she says, is quite different from the actress. "Well I'm not reclusive, and I certainly don't have a mother like Little Voice has, so they're both different."

Playing the character, however, was no major stretch for the actress, admitting that despite the differences between character and actor, "you still choose aspects of yourself that you can draw on, and I'm very much into choosing people to base my character on. So it might be an amalgamation of different people." Horrocks always hoped that a film version of her acclaimed play would be made, "simply because it would be nice to have a record of it", and even though the role was written for her, there was serious talk of Horrocks not even being in the film.

"Gwyneth Paltrow was supposed to be doing it at one point", the actress exclaims laughingly. Brad Pitt was even considered to be her co-star. Fortunately, those ideas were shelved, and Horrocks ultimately became very involved in the process of transferring the play to the screen. The actress is pleased with the results. "Basically, the backbone of the piece is exactly the same, which was what I wanted to ensure, but this is just more cinematic than the play."

"I think the characters are universal"

Despite its regional setting, Horrocks feels that Little Voice has a clear sense of universality. "It really could be set anywhere, but at the same time, it was important for it to be set up north, because it's so incongruous for this girl to be singing Judy Garland in that tiny northern English town. If it had been set in America, it wouldn't have seemed so extraordinary. But I think the characters are universal, as people from all over the world could identify with mothers like that, as well as shy and repressed daughters, such as LV."

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