Tammy Faye opened at the Almeida Theatre in October last year, with Katie in the title role performing alongside the Tony award-winning Andrew Rannells. The new original musical by James Graham explores the rise and fall of American televangelist Tammy Faye, who became an unlikely queer ally during the AIDS crisis at a time where gay people were being attached and ostracised. Music for the show was created by Sir Elton John, with lyrics by the Scissor Sisters’ frontman Jake Shears.
Katie Brayben has recently received her latest nomination for Best Actress in a Musical at the Olivier Awards for her role in Tammy Faye.
Congratulations on your latest Olivier nomination, and the show as a whole too. How did you become involved in the project?
I had worked with the director Rupert Goold before on a few other projects; American Psycho and King Charles III, both at the Almeida. He asked me to meet for Tammy once they knew it was going ahead and I ended up doing two auditions.
When did you first learn of Tammy Faye?
I hadn’t heard of Tammy and Jim at all before I learned about the project, and I didn’t have a clue about Televangelism. It was fun for me to discover all about them and deep dive on all their television shows. As they were such public figures, there was plenty of information available on the story of their demise, which was heavily publicised.
Tammy Faye is a queer icon, does it feel like putting her on stage in a musical is a real full circle moment for that same community to celebrate and rediscover her?
Absolutely. We had a lot of audience members say that they had grown up with Tammy. They talked about what her legacy of inclusivity and love meant to them at a time when members of the conservative Christian movement were actively against the queer community, and Pastors like Jerry Falwell were stirring up prejudice. It was a big deal that they interviewed Steve Pieters on their show, as he was a gay pastor who had AIDS. As Tammy and Jim were at the height of their powers, we can’t imagine how much that interview being streamed into millions of homes changed people’s ideas.
This is not the first time you’ve originated a character onstage based on a real person, what’s your process for developing these?
Just lots of research really. With each real life person I’ve played there has been a lot out there to read and absorb. However the time comes when you have to engage solely with the play and be faithful to the material. So, you take all you have absorbed, hope it’s all there inside you, and then let it go. I set a lot of trust in the energy and life-force of a person, so I try to let that guide me rather than doing ‘impressions’ which I find sometimes can create a distance between you and the character. One of the things I do which really helps me, is to find the aspects of the person that are similar to me and build on those characteristics. I think this works equally if you are playing a fictional character.
Tammy Faye brings so many incredible artists together, whether that be on stage, backstage, behind the pen or the piano. What has that been like for this production?
It has felt truly collaborative from the beginning. There has been a huge respect for the skills and insights each artist brings. And with that amount of trust you are able to do your best work and feel most free and confident. One of the hardest things to do in our industry is to create a new musical. As an actor you know there has usually been 10+ years of work on the project before you even step into the room to rehearse. It requires gargantuan passion and perseverance to get a project that big underway. We had a very respectful room of people who just wanted to tell the story as best they could. It’s not always like that, so it’s truly wonderful when it happens.
Katie went on to win the Best Actress in a Musical award at the Olivier Awards 2023. Learn more about Rose Bruford’s Actor Musicianship BA (Hons) course here.