Rebecca Ferguson, star of ‘The Greatest Showman,’ thinks Brooklyn is the greatest
Editor’s Note: Rebecca Ferguson, the London-based actress who has appeared in “Mission: Impossible,” among other hits, came to Brooklyn to play Jenny Lind, alongside Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum in “The Greatest Showman.” She fell in love with Brooklyn.
While the movie filmed mostly at the Steiner Studios in Brooklyn Navy Yard, and various other scenes at BAM, Ferguson lived in Fort Greene and would often walk to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the article that follows and the interview with Brooklyn Eagle writer Peter Stamelman, she sheds light on “The Greatest Showman.”
“Showstopper” can be an overused expression, but it can also be perfect, as it is when used to describe Rebecca Ferguson’s extravagantly captivating performance as “the Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind in Twentieth Century Fox’s musical hit “The Greatest Showman.” Entering approximately midway into the film, Ferguson effortlessly seizes the spotlight, dimming, at least momentarily, even the mega-wattage of Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum. It’s truly a bravura performance. And, what’s more, it was a performance completely realized and captured in Brooklyn. More on that later…
Ferguson, who was born in Stockholm to an English mother and Swedish father, first came to prominence in 2012 playing Elizabeth Woodville in the 10-part BBC historical series “The White Queen.” For that performance she earned a Golden Globes nomination for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film. Three years later she joined the Impossible Missions Force playing Ilsa Faust, a British spy, opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.” In this fifth installment of the hugely successful series, she convincingly and enthusiastically, throws herself in harm’s way with an abandon that equals that of Cruise himself. In 2016, Ferguson played opposite Meryl Streep in the comedy “Florence Foster Jenkins” and co-starred with Emily Blunt and Haley Bennett in the film adaptation of the worldwide bestseller “The Girl on the Train.” In 2017, she starred in the science fiction thriller “Life” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and in another thriller, “The Snowman” opposite Michael Fassbender. Somehow she also found time in 2017 not only to film “The Greatest Showman” but to also return as Ilsa Faust in the sixth installment of “Mission Impossible,” to be released this summer. She is not only indestructible, she is indefatigable.
It should be noted that the songs for the film were written by the phenomenally successful team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who last year won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song with “City of Stars” from “La La Land” and last year’s Tony Award for Best Original Score for “Dear Evan Hansen.” (They’ve already repeated half of that cinematic feat this year, winning Best Original Song at Sunday night’s Golden Globes for “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.”)
Once the songs — and casting — were complete, Pasek and Paul rehearsed with the actors as if they were about to open up on Broadway, rather than shoot a feature film. In a separate telephone interview Paul explained, “We truly rehearsed as if we were about to have a live show. Our rehearsal space in Brooklyn was everything that you would dream it to be: There were dance rehearsals going on in one room and singing rehearsals in the other room and the only difference from a Broadway show was that we also had a little recording studio where we could start to lay down tracks. It was all very surreal to have these incredibly talented, massive movie stars walk into the rehearsal hall in their dance clothes and start singing our songs.”
Ferguson’s crisp, precise diction with which she speaks English is evidence of her matriculation at an English-speaking school in Sweden. And her regal bearing onstage (at BAM, where her “Showman” concert scenes as Jenny Lind were filmed) is a testament to the fact that she studied dance from an early age, as well as attending music school in Stockholm.
Recently, I spoke by phone with Ferguson, who was taking some much deserved downtime with her son Isac at her home on the English coast.
Brooklyn Eagle: How much did you know about Jenny Lind before taking the role?
Rebecca Ferguson: Growing up in Sweden I knew her principally because her portrait is on our 50-krona banknote. I mean I did know she was a world-famous opera star but I didn’t know the details of her life. I certainly didn’t know about her time with P.T. Barnum.
Eagle: Since “The Greatest Showman” is your first musical, who did you look to for advice and support? Michael [Gracey, the director]? Hugh?
RF: Oh, definitely Hugh! I got unconditionally great encouragement and support from him. I’m an actress, not a singer, and she [Jenny Lind] was at that time the most famous singer in the world. So I’ve got to act that. I’ve got to make that song [“Never Enough”] my song. When we were rehearsing Hugh was always there, cheering me on, fortifying me. And Benj and Justin [songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul] were always on set, so if I had any questions or thoughts about interpretation they were readily at hand.
Eagle: What was it like singing onstage at BAM? Knowing that Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, two of your most illustrious country women, had performed there?
RF: Oh, it was thrilling. At first I had a tiny bit of stage fright, standing alone on stage in front of an audience of 400 extras. And, yes, knowing BAM’s history, knowing that such monumentally talented actresses such as Garbo and Bergman had performed onstage at the same theater … it was inspiring and exhilarating.
Eagle: Speaking of Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini told me that when you met in Stockholm a few years ago, you both shared a laugh about your character’s name in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” and the fact that one of the film’s key locations is Casablanca. [Note: Bergman, of course, played “Ilsa Lund” in the classic 1942 Warner Brothers production of “Casablanca.”]
RF: You know, I’m not the type to get starstruck but because of Ingrid Bergman’s iconic stature, her films with Hitchcock and, of course, Rossellini, any time my name comes up in the same sentence as Ingrid’s, I’m thrilled. Isabella was so gracious and lovely and, yes, we laughed about the similarity in the character’s names, which Chris [Christopher McQuarrie, “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” writer and director] of course did deliberately as an homage.
Eagle: Do you keep up with current Swedish cinema? For example, have you seen “The Square?” [Sweden’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Academy Award category.] And do you know [the film’s director] Ruben Ostlund?
RF: Shame on me I haven’t yet seen it. But I know Ruben’s other films. He’s brilliant and I keep telling my agent I want to work with him. But I should be better about keeping up with Swedish films. It’s just that at the moment I’m working so much I simply don’t have time. In fact, at the moment, I’m doing my best to watch all the Academy screeners I’ve been sent. There must be at least 50 films I have to watch!
Eagle: Do you try to alternate genres as much as possible in choosing which films to make? A comedy like “Florence Foster Jenkins” with a thriller such as “The Girl on the Train,” then a tentpole like “M:I 6?”
RF: Yes, I try as much as possible to scramble genres. It keeps me fresh and on my toes. Even if the film is not a huge “audience” picture, if I’m proud of the work I did I’m very content. And I also don’t get thrown by reviews. If I know we — the cast, the creatives, the crew — gave it our all, then I don’t really care about the critics.
Eagle: That’s an excellent segue back to “The Greatest Showman.” It did not, in fact, open to great reviews, but it didn’t matter, the audience has found it and embraced it and made it a hit.
RF: And I couldn’t be more delighted. I’m very proud of my work in the film and I adored making it.
Eagle: Speaking of which, I found out that you lived in Brooklyn while making the film.
RF: Yes, on Lafayette in Fort Greene.
Eagle: What did you think of our fair borough?
RF: Oh, I loved it. In fact on many mornings I walked to the studio [Steiner Studios, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.] That’s something I couldn’t do in Los Angeles or even London. And I adored the Fort Greene neighborhood. Also DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights.
Eagle: Did you have the chance to eat dinner at the River Cafe, with its superb cuisine and spectacular views?
RF: Yes. In fact I had two dinners there. You’re right — the food and the views are exquisite. I love Brooklyn! I can’t wait to come back.
Eagle: Well when you do, you have a standing invitation to another dinner at the River Cafe!
Ferguson can currently be seen in Twentieth Century Fox’s “The Greatest Showman.” This summer she will be reprising her role as Ilse Faust in “Mission: Impossible 6.”
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