Interview: Ashley Gilmour
by Angelique Jones
Miss Saigon, a West End meets Broadway musical touring the UK, with a rather controversial but heart thumping story set in 1970s Saigon in the Vietnam War. It’s a tragic love epic - What else would you expect from the creators of Les Mis? - about the 17-year-old Vietnamese prostitute, Kim, who falls in love with an American GI, Chris, as they navigate love amongst the devastating consequences of conflict.
There’s much to debate about this visually stunning production and its place in our contemporary context, so we thought we’d hear from the leading man himself, Ashley Gilmour.
Angelique Jones: Tell me about the role of Chris that you’re playing?
Ashley Gilmour: Chris is an American GI; the show is set in the Vietnam war and it tells the story of the last two weeks of the Vietnam war - when all of the American soldiers are leaving. So, [my] character’s a little different to the rest of the GIs, [as] they’re still partying hard and having a good time, but Chris is kind of done with all that, he’s done with the war. He wants to get out and then he meets this beautiful Vietnamese girl… they fall in love and have this really passionate, romantic, two-week relationship; and then they get torn apart.
AJ: How did you prepare for the role?
AG: We do a lot of research, watch a lot of documentaries and films, and read books and get the best understanding we can of the situation of the war. It’s quite challenging, as I’ve never been to war, I’ve never been a soldier, so it is quite hard; but you just do as much research as you can. That gives you […] the truth.
AJ: Did you have a lot of rehearsal time?
AG: We did 5 weeks of rehearsals which isn’t loads for a brand-new show. When I did this show in London we had 11 weeks of rehearsals. It’s not loads of time, but yes, it’s quite an intense sort of period of time - you’re rehearsing from 10 in the morning until 6. Then you do tech rehearsals for two weeks which is where you learn your way around the set, learn your costumer changes, all the technical kind of stuff.
AJ: You mentioned you did 11 weeks in London, so have you been in another production of Miss Saigon before?
AG: Yes, so I did the original revival cast in 2014 and I was in the ensemble, so it’s nice for me to be doing it now, playing Chris.
Chris has been through a lot of trauma and stress, and like most men in the world, he holds it all in, he doesn’t tell anyone about it, he doesn’t release it or let it go […] that’s something that most men can relate to.
AJ: How do you feel about the role of Chris and the relationship that both characters Kim and Chris have?
AG: I can relate to the character in a lot of ways, because like most men he spends most of the show […] holding in his emotions. Obviously, he’s been through a lot of trauma and stress, and like most men in the world, he holds it all in, he doesn’t tell anyone about it, he doesn’t release it or let it go […] that’s something that most men can relate to.
And I think the relationship between Chris and Kim is what makes miss Saigon… it’s what first brings you in at the start of the show, it’s what people remember when they leave the show. It’s so quick, the relationship is so quick, so it’s very hard as actors to make it believable because in a few sentences they fall in love and decide to be together – it is a massive challenge.
AJ: Why do you think Miss Saigon is such a popular show?
AG: I think there’s a number of reasons. I think obviously the themes in the show, [such as] war, refugees, exodus from countries, motherhood, survival - all of those themes are really key in the world we live in today. So, no matter where the show is [performed] it is always going to be relevant to things that are happening in the world …[alongside it] there is absolutely stunning music, incredible set, and lighting. It’s beautifully written.
AJ: How do you feel that Miss Saigon navigates our current political and cultural climate? And How do you think it fits into our contemporary society?
AG: It’s set in the time of the Vietnam war but it’s [still] just so relevant…we see all over the world today that people are fleeing from their countries because of war, and it’s probably always going to happen, as sad as it sounds, it’s probably always going to be there, there’s probably always going to be war, because, well people are greedy. So, it will always be relevant to the world.
It’s kind of sad but then it’s also important for us to tell the story of the show, because it’s just another way of showing people what’s happening in the world.
AJ: I picked up on the brothels that the American soldiers find themselves in, do you feel that the story might open up space to comment on the situation of war and its effects on young men during war?
AG: I think a lot of why those - not to make excuses because it’s terrible - but a lot of the reasons why the men were doing that was to escape from the horrible things that they were being made to do during the day. They were being made to burn down villages and shoot people and they didn’t really know why they were doing it or what they were doing it for…they kind of used that as a way to escape.
The opening scene of the show is obviously set in a bar in Saigon, it’s quite full on […] but it sets up the story of how messed up it was.
AJ: What is your favourite scene in the production?
AG: The helicopter scene is pretty awesome, because the helicopter is only a third smaller than a real helicopter, and it flies thirty feet in the air… I also love the last night of the world scene, because the music is so beautiful, it’s really passionate and you can really get into it - it’s great.
AJ: And what is the most emotional scene for you?
AG: Probably the scene at the end, it’s something I’ve never had to do obviously, not to give any spoilers, but it’s quite tragic; it’s not a situation I’ve ever been in and it’s not a situation I hope I’m ever in. It’s quite hard to play that every night, and you know doing that 8 times a week.
The good thing about the show is that it’s written so well so you kind of follow the journey. So, if you invest in the opening scenes, and falling in love with Kim […] in the beginning then the end doesn’t come easily but you can feel it, you can give over to it easier.
AJ: As you get so into the character, does it take a while for you to come out of it at the end of each night?
AG: I feel like it’s very important to leave the character in the theatre. Once I get into my dressing room I get into my normal clothes and get away from the theatre, I leave it all here. And I think that’s very important. I step out of the theatre and I try to forget about miss Saigon for a little bit.
AJ: How long are you on tour for?
AG: We have another 4 weeks in Bristol and then we are touring until November in the UK, and then we’re going across to Switzerland for a few months.
AJ: Are you excited?
AG: Yes I can’t wait. I’ve been to Switzerland, but I’ve never been to Zurich, so it should be nice.
AJ: And lastly, what’s it like being on tour with the production?
AG: It’s nice actually. Some tours are weekly, where you change venue every week, but this tour we do long stays in cities so it’s really quite nice as we can explore the cities a bit more and actually feel like you live in a city for a while[…] I’m really enjoying it actually.
AJ: Anything else you want to say about Miss Saigon?
AG: One thing important to say is that it’s not a cut down version of the show. From experience when I was in it in London, I know this is exactly the same version. Well actually it’s probably been improved upon because it went away to Broadway, so this is the Broadway version of the show that’s now on tour, so it’s really nice for audiences across the country to be able to see the Broadway… it’s a Broadway-West End show on tour. When people come to watch it, they’ll understand because the set and the lighting is massive – no expense has been spared, it’s a proper full-scale production which is amazing.
Miss Saigon is currently touring in the UK.