'Merlin' star Angel Coulby sings new tune in 'Dancing on the Edge'
Angel Coulby (center) and Wunmi Mosaku (red) do all their own singing in "Dancing on the Edge." (Starz / October 17, 2013)
"I've never had lessons or anything," the British actress said during an Oct. 15 phone interview. "I just always kind of, I don't know, somehow have been able to sing."
Coulby, probably known best in the U.S. for playing Guinevere on Syfy's "Merlin," sings for the first time onscreen in "Dancing on the Edge," a five-part miniseries debuting at 9 p.m. Oct. 19 on Starz.
She plays Jessie, a driven young jazz singer in 1930s London who signs up with the Louis Lester Band and wows high society and royalty. As a mixed-race woman from an impoverished background, Jessie is constantly wary of her precarious position in society even as her and the band's fortunes rise.
"She's in the spotlight now, but it's not necessarily going to last, so she's kind of desperate to hang onto it," Coulby said.
Coulby filmed the role between the fourth and fifth seasons of "Merlin," a fantasy series that ended its run on Syfy earlier this year. It was on "Merlin" that she first learned about "Edge" when "Merlin" crew members were talking about what they were doing next. She called her agent, who already was talking to casting directors for the miniseries.
While the acting role was juicy, Coulby couldn't resist the original jazz music written by Adrian Johnston that sounds like authentic 1930s tunes. She's a huge fan of the era and the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and earlier singers.
"I really found that actually this was kind of my niche with my voice," she said of her rehearsal time. "It's not kind of the classical music star voice, but definitely has a more jazz tone to it ... So it felt quite comfortable for me actually, and I loved it."
So can we expect an "Angel Coulby Sings Jazz Classics" album any time soon?
"I would love to do that," she said. "We got to go into a studio and work with a huge, amazing band of musicians. If I was offered the chance to do that again I would definitely."
Coulby talked more about singing, this role, keeping up with "Merlin" castmates and fans, and what's coming up.
Did anyone know you could sing? Did you know you could sing like that?
[Laughs.] I knew I could sing. Yeah, I haven't done a lot of singing in my time but it's been something I've always really enjoyed. But no, I think my agent sort of vaguely knew but she never actually heard me sing. When I first joined with her about 12 years ago I think that was probably something I mentioned at the time. But since then we haven't really kind of had the opportunity or reason to talk about it particularly until this came up. But yeah, I was able to use my lungs a bit more on this.
Was singing this music a challenge for you, or did you feel you could do it?
Yeah, I did. I really enjoy music of that time and ... I've always been really kind of charmed by that sound. So perhaps whenever I've sung to myself I've kind of leaned in that direction.
I think when Stephen wrote the piece he wasn't thinking that he would find an actress who could also sing in the kind of style of the piece ... He said that he added a few little scenes for me once he knew that he had a singer who could act as well. Or an actress who can sing, however you want to look at it.
Did you have a performance style or did that come with the choreography?
A bit of both I suppose. I tried to find as much footage as I could of the time to see how people moved in general, as well as just sort of while singing and performing. But I suppose I've got a bit of a flair for that kind of dancing and singing ... So it actually all came quite naturally when we came to do it. Like we had a choreographer who worked with us occasionally, but when it came to me performing onstage they sort of left me to it a bit and I sort of just let it happen. And it seemed to work.
I love the costumes in this. And I was wondering if your movement, even offstage walking around in those dresses, if you had to adjust.
Yeah, I think there's something about the elegance of the time, of having to sit in a certain way. A lot of the dresses I was wearing were quite tight. So you're not able to like stride down corridors or anything. You have to take your time when you're moving. And also, because they were original old costumes, a lot of them were very delicate and I remember there was one particular day where I had the costume people following me around sweeping up sequins from the back of the dress as I moved. They were kind of asking me not to sit down too much and stuff like that. So I had to kind of spend the day like standing up.
Did you base Jessie on any particular real life star or singer?
Not necessarily. Stephen Poliakoff was like a sort of research post I guess. He would talk about all the stuff that he knew. He was very knowledgeable about the period and stuff. And he told us a lot about one particular person, Florence Mills, who I guess my character is kind of a loosely based on. But it was quite hard to get hold of any actual footage of that stuff. There wasn't a lot of it around that I could see. So I wouldn't say she was definitely based on anything for me. I just tried to have a look around and see kind of how people moved and what they were wearing and how they sounded and all that stuff as much as possible.
What appealed to you about this? Was it just the 1930s jazz thing?
Basically that was what happened. I've been very sort of charmed by that era. I suppose I have a few pieces in my house that are vaguely 1930s and I basically like old stuff. And definitely the music I've always really loved. And it just sort of sounded like something I should definitely go for. And then obviously there is Stephen Poliakoff. I've heard of him obviously and I was very excited about the prospect of working with him because I'd seen his stuff and really enjoyed it and thought that would be an amazing opportunity.
We have something in common then, because I have books about 1930s deco, British deco.
Oh really. I love all that stuff. My eyes are always drawn to stuff like that. I go to lots of vintage fairs and stuff like that and I'm always drawn to kind of '30s stuff. I love the style and the fabric and stuff.
Same here. So tell me about Jessie.
Jessie is obviously young, a mixed race girl of the time who I think has this kind of driven ambition. Even before you kind of meet her you can tell that she's got this drive to try and make something of herself. And obviously considering the time, as a black or mixed raced woman, you weren't guaranteed success on any level. And so I think she's kind of got these stars in her eyes and I think, in the end, it's sort of to her detriment a little bit because she's just willing to sort of do whatever it takes to get up there. But I think she's also very aware of the kind of precariousness of her position.
It does such a good job of showing that precarious position for all of them and how they're aware of it. They're a little suspicious maybe of their benefactors even. I thought that was very interesting and sad at the same time.
Yeah, absolutely. It is really sad because it all seems like it's going so beautifully. But they are literally dancing on or teetering on the edge of this. I think there's one line that Jessie uses; they're on the train and they're having this amazing time, having this amazing picnic with Masterson and she's going, "We could all be in the gutter tomorrow." She's very sort of hyper aware of that. And I think it's really kind of well depicted in the piece, as you say.
All these themes still resonate today. There's so much happening in this that you could look at things today; the fickleness of fame and popularity for example.
Absolutely. I'm always quite aware of that just as an actress. I just kind of feel you can't ever be complacent about where you are because it doesn't guarantee you anything. It's nice when things are going well, but you kind of still have to work hard and hope that it's all going to work out because you don't know; there are no guarantees. And people are also very fickle, like the next best thing is what people are going to be interested in. And it's not necessarily going to be you. You can't guarantee that it's going to be you that everyone will be interested in for the rest of your career and rest of your life.
So, how do you battle that as an actress today?
How do I? [Laughs.] I try not to think about it too much. I don't know. I just sort of try and live in the moment as much as possible really. And work hard on each piece that you're involved in. And also just try to sort of be somebody that people—well, hope to be someone that people want to work with. So try and be part of the team and stuff.
One of the things I really enjoy about acting is all the different kinds of people that you meet and that you come across. And that atmosphere that's created when you're working together and to be part of that togetherness, as opposed to sort of thinking yourself as more of just an island or a star or anything like that.
I certainly don't ever think about myself in that sense. So yeah, I think it's sort of being part of a team, thinking of yourself as part of a team, a cog in the machine as opposed to anything massively special. I think that's quite helpful.
The issue of race obviously comes up in this piece. Seeing you here it made me think about "Merlin." Because one of the things I always loved about it was the blind casting. They could have gone traditional with that. Did that ever come up when you first auditioned for "Merlin"?
I sort of didn't think it would happen, partly for that reason. I imagined they would choose a white actress for the role because that's how everyone will think of it. And then when I got it I was surprised for that reason definitely. And I kind of wondered how people would respond to that. And I wondered how journalists, if journalists would ask me about it and stuff. But I was surprised as well that that wasn't one of the questions that they would raise. And I kind of hoped that actually they were focusing more on the fact whether I was portraying the role in a believable way, as opposed to whether what my ethnicity was.
Oh my God. So I'm the only annoying journalist you've had?
[Laughs.] No, no, no. Well, it's a relevant, isn't it, to this piece that I've been working on? So it's totally fair enough. But yeah, no, it's obviously something that you kind of do think about in this industry because a lot of why people get roles and stuff is a part of why people get roles is based on their looks and stuff. And how you look is relevant I suppose. That's why with Merlin it was so refreshing that it didn't seem to matter in that sense.
Was there any sort of transitional anxiety between "Merlin" and this?
There always is with every role, I think. I suppose particularly with "Merlin" because I had been doing it for a long time. But there's always that slight feeling of, "Oh my God, I'm not gonna be able to do this" at the beginning of every job, for me anyway. I always feel like that. And then hopefully in the end it's always fun. But yeah, when you've been playing a character for a long time you sort of forget that there are other characters out there that you could also be playing. But as I said, the role was something I was very attracted to because of the era that I'm very interested in. So I sort of felt comfortable putting myself up for it.
Do you miss "Merlin"?
I miss certain aspects of it. I particularly miss the team and the people because that was one of the best things at the job for me. That was a really lovely bunch of people. But I became an actress so I could play different roles and be versatile. So I was pleased to kind of move on to other things as well.
Do you keep up with your cast mates?
Every now and then we kind of get together. Yeah, I'm still very much in touch with a couple people who became good friends during that time. It's always nice to see what people are doing as well, what people have gone on to do.
And are you happy for the worldwide fandom you know have because of that show?
Yeah, I mean is really flattering. I think people really have a lot of affection for the show and for the characters. We always felt really sort of a welcomed whenever we did any sort of fan conventions or anything like that. People were always really positive and really excited about that, which is lovely.
So it's really nice to have people sort of rooting for you, and also like I get fan mail that sort of mentions, "Good luck for the future and hope to see you in other stuff" as well. You kind of feel like you have fans of your own as opposed to just fans of "Merlin," which is really nice.
I also like a bit of anonymity as well when I'm not at work. So I would never like to be ... mobbed or anything like that. People tend to be very nice when they do approach me. There's a kind of a level of recognition. I wouldn't want too much more. But I also want success. So it's difficult to have both those things I guess.
What else you have coming up?
I've just finished doing a series called "The Tunnel," which is a remake of "The Bridge," a Scandinavian drama series. I finished it actually about a month ago, but it's coming out tomorrow I think on Sky Atlantic. Or it's definitely in the very near future, which is again something totally different.
I play the wife of the lead detective who's played by Stephen Dillane. So yeah, do you know "The Bridge?" Have you seen it?
Not the original, but our American remake.
OK, yeah, I've been avoiding watching any of the other versions just so I can sort of see it as a fresh new project. And then once I seen our version then I'll watch the other versions.
Are you trying to look for things that sort of distance you from Gwen a little bit?
Always whatever my next project is I want it to be completely different from what I've just previously done, just because it's more interesting that way and because you get to show a bit more of what you can do. I'm always on the lookout for different kinds of things. Things that challenge me; things that I kind of maybe think I might not be able to do. But then hopefully can in the end.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on Show Patrol's Facebook page.