An actor by craft, a performer in nature, Layton exudes star quality which was originally captured on CBBC’s School of Stars as a pupil at the renowned Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. It’s indubitable that much of his candour and gratitude was born out of unrelenting ambition and growing up on a council estate in Bury before propelling to centre stage at London’s iconic Victoria Palace Theatre as Billy Elliott. While attributing much of his current success to his West End debut, Layton reveals how close he was to ditching the Billy Elliott audition and what life may have looked like if he had in an alternate universe. In reality, the trajectory of life still does not always travel in our desired direction, and after ascending through his early adolescence amongst the fruitful freedoms of London’s performance scene, Layton returned to Bury, but neither dream nor devotion dwindled or diminished.
Securing a scholarship saw Layton’s return to London to study, before landing the role of Stephen in Jack Whitehall’s iconic Bad Education, and returning to the wonder of the West End stage. As we delve into the depths of his current role of Jamie in the marvellous Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Layton defines the power and privilege in his life’s calling and the endless possibilities that await him.
Although Layton reminds me that ‘you can't hide behind high kicks and flips in heels’, he proves you can certainly look good whilst doing them. Paying homage to his fabulous frame, photographer Sophie Mayanne seizes the sun as it melts upon Layton’s face whilst pert pearls and azurite earrings glisten in the daylight. From humble beginnings to a prospering present, Layton Williams isn’t just the future, he is the moment.
Layton Williams stars as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Touring now.
Imagine you’re writing an autobiography titled ‘Layton Williams: The Story So Far’, what would be the synopsis?
What would the synopsis be? Whenever I do interviews, I'm always like, ‘huh, I should just record them for myself’ because this is really good stuff for when I do potentially write my autobiography. It would be something along the lines of: ‘everyone listen, we're going to be taking a deep dive into the good old days, the bad old days, the moments, and my evolution’. I'm not about to reveal all in this interview, but I have so many stories and moments that I've never told anybody and people would be quite surprised to hear some things that come out my mouth. I would entice them to make sure they are ready for a good ride.
It’s said that gratitude is a remedy for many of life’s stresses. What’s one thing you’re grateful for?
I've been trying to do that a lot recently: journaling, trying to meditate more, trying to be more wholesome in my energy and spirit. Yoga has been helpful, but when it comes down to it, when it comes to my career, life is not really about things like that. I'm grateful to be healthy, happy, and being able to wake up and have everything working and flowing and moving. We really do take it all for granted. Just the fact I have an able body that can then do the work and make the exciting things that go on in life. Sometimes, I just have to think, actually, I'm just grateful to be healthy and able to tackle life which is easier than lots of other people.
For someone like yourself with such a dynamic career, one particularly physically and mentally demanding, I can imagine it's easy to forget sometimes that you are only human…
Because of the whole pandemic, I realised my health, particularly my mental health, is way more important than work at this point. I love my job and everything I do, but if I'm completely exhausted or can sense I’m going to burnout, I have to take a step back and say ‘okay, my health has to come first’, and the sooner you learn that, the better really.
You landed the lead role of Jamie New in the theatre production Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a coming-of-age show based on the story of teenager Jamie Campbell as he battles homophobia, bullying, and prejudice to ascend into the limelight as a drag queen. Are there any similarities between Jamie’s story and your own?
There are definitely parallels in the fact that we’re both queer working-class kids - sorry, not me thinking I'm a kid playing a kid 10 years younger than me at this point - but listen, we move. I grew up in an estate just like Jamie did, that's a snap. I was a gay kid just like Jamie was, that's a snap. But I'm not a drag queen and people get that confused. Only the other day, my dad said I should do drag and I'm like yeah, I could, but I'm an actor and I'm pretending to be a drag queen, I'm not actually one. I would say, apart from those moments, we were very different, especially being 16. When I was 16, I was out on the town in London living my best life. You know, she was a working girl since she was 12 years old - booked and busy. I took a little break, got my GCSEs, everything was together… I thought. Now I look back, I’m like ‘lol, you were still a kid’, but I was a lot more mature and grown up than 16-year-old Jamie was, so in that sense, we were really different so I had to tap into a younger self for the role.
There are always elements of Layton in my characters and because I'm an actor, I have to put my myself in it. I don't know if everybody agrees with that, but it’s literally my body so I have to manoeuvre myself in certain ways. When people I know come and see the show, they're like, “Oh my God, you're not even acting - that’s just you”, and I'm like, ‘rude, don't take away my talents’. You think it's actually not me acting, but it is. I would say we're similar in some senses, but in in other ways, we’re not.
Do you attribute that feeling of maturity at 16 to the fact you moved to London at 12 years old and had the opportunity of find yourself more quickly in that environment?
One hundred percent. Jamie was still living at home at 16, I was gone. At 12 years old I was already on a train to London, living in this really crazy house with all these other performers working and doing shows every other day. I had a responsibility, I had to pay checks. You grow up quick when you already have that at that age, so that's why we were quite different.
For any individual who struggles with their identity or sexuality, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a story millions of people can relate to worldwide. Did you ever feel a sense of pressure being the face of a story which could potentially change someone’s life?
I wouldn't necessarily say pressure, I would say privilege. When you think about it, we get to play all these different roles as an actor, but when you get to play a role that is so suited to your community and is inspiring people, it’s a privilege. I looked out last night, and in the second row we had a Queen all dolled up, beat the house down face looking gorgeous, and I was just like, wow, there aren’t many musicals where you feel that comfortable that you could come dressed up in drag. We've had that numerous times - people dressing up and people really feeling their oats - it's inspiring. It’d be silly to say I wasn't a little bit nervous, and with nerves comes pressure, just because you know, I talk like this 'cause I can back it up’ and I'm like, ‘oh my God, I'm going on, that's #hashtag slay’, but deep down I’m thinking ‘oh God, am I actually going to be able to do this? Am I actually cute?’. Goodness knows, some people think I'm not and some people think I am so it's all perspective darling.
Has the show taught you anything about your sexuality or identity that you didn’t know before you started?
Yes. I was looking at pictures of myself on the red carpet from the Jamie movie premiere and I thought, ‘hmm, would I as Layton have felt comfortable wearing a gown to a premiere if I hadn't explored my sense of self?’. I guess it's style, but it's also more than that, isn't it? It’s who you are, what you represent, and how you feel. I don't think I would have, quite honestly. Playing Jamie really helped me just say, ‘screw you!’. I am not going to conform and fit into this mould that you think I should anymore. I'm going to be 100% me. I’ve always wanted to rock the heels, rock the gowns, the dresses, and now I just love it. If I'm going to a big event, I'm feeling myself. I don't think I would have been able to if it wasn't for Jamie.
What are your go-to’s if you’re having a particularly rough day?
If I’m having a shit day, I'll usually head to one of those apps like ‘Calm’ or ‘Headspace’ and try and breathe it through because I always find that a reset is really fab, or I love a good structured nap if I'm stressed or burnt out. I try to surround myself with loved ones, maybe call a friend and have a lol, whether it be my boyfriend or my mum - just something to cheer me up. I’m a very fast-paced individual, so with acting and running my own company, there's lots of things going on and sometimes I realise I’m definitely doing too much. If I'm stressed and I've got a big old weekend coming up I have to ask myself, ‘how many of those things do I actually need to do?’. My friend said to me once, “Layton you don't always have to say yes to everything, your energy and your time is important, so don't feel like you have to exhaust yourself just to please others", and it’s so true. I love a good event, but sometimes I have to really take a moment and think, ‘do I actually want to go?’. Yeah, it might be fun, but do I actually want to be there? I'm not saying it's only events - it could be anything - but usually if I'm stressed, it's because I've got too much on me and that's why I'm having a bad day.
You’ve dedicated a lot of your free time to raising awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues and bullying in schools. Do you believe today’s young people are more open and accepting than they were when you were in school?
I would like to think that they are, but unfortunately I'm not sure whether statistics are in favour of that. I didn't have too much of a bad time at school - it definitely wasn't horrendous because I wasn't out - I was in the closet when I was back in state school. I mean, it was pretty obvious if we're going by tokenism right here. I was a little bit fruity, but I never really let that out. I had my get out jail free card by going to London where I could just be myself, which is a shame; I wish I would have been a bit more like Jamie, and just be me from the get go in Bury where I grew up. LGBTQ+ hate crimes have literally skyrocketed recently and I'm not sure whether that's the teens or the adults.
There's definitely more visibility with amazing shows like Sex Education - watching these beautiful beings, whether they’re lesbian, gay, non-binary - there's just so many different stories. Millions of kids around the world are watching this and that’s really inspiring. At a base level in schools however, whether that is actually the tea, I don't know because I'm long gone from the streets now. But I would like to think that people, hopefully like myself who have been portraying these characters on TV, are inspiring people to keep it moving. Bit by bit or day by day, year by year, it will get easier because we just had a 19-year-old win RuPaul’s Drag Race. I mean, come on: pretty iconic stuff. It's the next generation - I have hope in this world we live in right now. It's so easy to get bogged down, like shit, we’re all screwed, literally. Every time you turn on the news: climate change this, COVID that. But I do feel hope is really important and I do have hope for our young LGBTQ+ Queens and allies. So, fingers crossed.
After a nationwide search, you made your West End debut as Billy Elliot back in 2006. What was it like as a young 12-year-old boy from Bury, stepping onto stage in front of thousands of people a night in London?
When I look back and think, ‘oh my, little old me, 12 years old, making his West End debut, first job ever, career debut in a lead in part’, it blows my mind that I even did it. Not to be like ‘yay me’, but I was a kid, running around, pretending that I knew what I was doing, and the truth is, I really didn't. I rocked up to that audition with thousands of other people, being one of the only people of colour that I could see apart from my friend Matthew Kuhn, who is Asian and incredible. I had a full circle moment a few weeks ago when I saw both our posters - he's doing Merlin, the Northern Ballet show, and obviously I was doing Jamie, and it was in Leeds - and our posters were there together. Leeds is where we started Billy [Elliott] school together, it's where we used to train every week, and I messaged him like, ‘wow, isn't it mad? We were at that audition that day, and now our lives have completely changed forever’, it’s so wild.
I do look back on the fondest memories and just think, 'where would my life be now if it wasn't for Billy?'. I struck gold with turning up to that one audition. If I would have walked away - which I very nearly did - where would I be? I know I was destined to do this, but it's crazy that that one audition changed my life forever, and so many other boys for that matter. Look at Tom Holland: every time I turn on my phone, every time a bus drives by, it's just crazy to think it's changed so many of our lives. This is one show called Billy Elliot and I’m so very thankful they took a chance on me.
In an alternate universe, one where you didn’t land the role of Billy Elliot, do you imagine you’d still be in the industry today?
I could potentially be the fiercest bitch on my counsel estate, like proper chav, but proper gorge, do you know what I mean? I reckon I would have found it; I would have found a way in somehow. If I wasn't an actor or on telly Layton or on stage Layton, probably fashion or something in that industry - I love arts in that sense. I don't necessarily think I would be a designer, but maybe a bit like Simon Doonan, who was an iconic window dresser in Barneys New York - a huge inspiration. I say that sitting here in my slacks and my hats and my hoodie, but there’s something I love about getting dressed up and making other people feel fabulous in clothes as well: what it can do to you and what it can make you feel - very Gok Wan vibes. I could have been a presenter, but that's still kind of the same, isn't it?
I can absolutely see you presenting, you’d be a great awards presenter.
I actually presented an award at the Black British Theatre Awards the other week, it was so fab. Cynthia Erivo was hosting aka Elphaba, which was super exciting. I do love a cheeky guest-presenting job every now and again but maybe I would have been a full-time presenter. Who the hell knows but I am doing this and I feel like this is right.
What goes on in the hours before you’re on stage or on-screen?
I’m usually doing a thousand things. I spoke to my boyfriend today who's just officially opened on his first tour and we've got the same showtime and we’ve been texting each other ‘have a good show’, it’s cute. But when I was speaking to him earlier, I was saying ‘I've got this interview then that interview and I'm doing this and then I've got to go get my nails done - that's a key part - then I've got a massage in order to keep me good for the show’. He was like, “So you're busy then?”, but clearly I just love it, so it's fine. After this, I will probably finish the interview, I’ll boil that kettle, I'll steam for like 20 minutes, I'll do some other exercises, I will be on mute, and then I'll go do the show and hope for the best.
You’re the director of Pros From The Shows, providing workshops for young performers. What’s one lesson you’ve learnt from your own journey that you share with your students?
Number one thing when people come to my workshop, I say: ‘listen, it's all about vibes’. It's all about being yourself, especially with this choreography of Jamie, depending on what I'm teaching anyway. But I just say, ‘I'm not really that bothered if the steps aren’t 100%, it's more about the person you're bringing to the table’. If I was a choreographer or casting director, I want to see somebody, I don't want to see 50 of the same people, a flock of sheep, you know what I mean? I want to see you going the extra mile, when I say improvise, give me something gorgeous. I want to see you being you. The sooner I started to fully embrace myself, that's when everybody else started embracing me and the phone doesn't stop ringing and the emails don't stop popping. The sooner you just do you, the better. If I can see you're not relaxed yet, you're not being yourself, so shake out them shoulders, start again and just relax. Just be present and fabulous in the moment.
How does it make you feel when you see your students grow as performers?
I do get lots of lovely messages which feels amazing. I don't have set students because I roam all around the country teaching groups, but that's maybe something to think about doing in the future and I would obviously want to give it my fullest attention. I do feel that when people I've taught in regular classes come back for solo sessions or come back to group sessions, their confidence has definitely skyrocketed. It just takes somebody to tell you that actually you are beautiful in your own skin and you might not be perfect in your vocals right now, you might not be perfect in your choreography, but you’re a bloody student and no one is looking for perfection. You go to college to train to be the best version of yourself. You will always be a student of life. You'll always be learning and evolving so amen to that.
Following Billy Elliot, you were cast in Beautiful People but returned to Bury after the first season. Did you find it difficult to readjust when you arrived back home?
Yeah, it was difficult. It was really hard. I'd gone from living this life of fabulousness - not saying Bury isn't fabulous, it can be - but I was just not my complete self. When I was back home, I didn't feel like I could be myself in the environment I was in. At home, yes...ish. But at school definitely not, so it was tough. It was probably the toughest time of my life. But then again, you know that boring thing when people say ‘it made me who I am today’, it's actually very true. You've got to have them rocky moments in order to be like, ‘okay, yeah, cute, I appreciate this’. The grass is always greener if you don't appreciate what you have. If it's a shit day, it makes all the rosier days even more rosy.
No rain, no flowers…
Exactly, it's going to rain sometimes, and when it rains it pours, but you’ve got to move, and things will only get better.
But of course, you didn’t remain in Bury for long, returning to London and training at Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. What was it like to study at one of London’s most prestigious art schools?
I had such a good time. I'm so sad actually because the theatre school aka ‘School for Stars’ is not really a thing anymore so I look back on those years. We were like the last generation of Year Elevens to have that full experience of going to theatre school in the centre of London. I've still got my best friends from there, one of them is getting married next year, we are still so tight. So, I'm thankful because without that school, I wouldn’t have found my chosen family. I could just be myself and learn about the industry whilst getting my GCSEs, how fab is that? I don't really think I'm a proper theatre school kid, I was always the wild one who came from the council estate. Oh god, some of the parents’ teacher days were interesting, but I turned myself around and I was head boy, honey, so how about that.
Many will recognize you as Stephen from the successful comedy series Bad Education. What is one of your funniest memories from your time filming the show?
I loved Bad Education. I was actually just chatting to Jack Whitehall before I jumped on this call - we still chat a lot and he’s been really helpful with some of the projects that I’ve got going on. He’s been such a fab support. Buses with his face on will fly by and he just told me he was in LA and my posters were everywhere. It's really special because the producer of Bad Education, who now works at Netflix in LA, sent me a picture of my poster of Jamie right outside the LA building as we're going there next year, and I literally cried. It's the first time I'd seen a poster of me up in Los Angeles. It just feels like it’s all making sense, clicking into place. But probably my fondest memories were just being on set. We were all such a bunch of siblings, it was crazy, sitting in each other's dressing rooms and trailers all day just chatting shit; we knew everything about each other. But I loved having my dance numbers. I think one of the favourite ones to film was probably the Christmas special because we were just pratting about, dancing about, winding each other up. Yeah, we were like a good old family, we'd known each other for five or six years by the time we finished. I miss them.
The arts industry was hit particularly hard during the pandemic, how has it felt now things are returning to a sense of normality?
It has been really nice to be back on the road and perform to audiences, even during the pandemic. I was really lucky, I got to film a couple of TV shows, so if I could do that in a pandemic then goodness knows what I can do when things are back to normal, so I’m excited for the future even though these are wild times. But with my business hat on, I'm really ready to conquer the world. That's not me saying I want to be famous. Going out to LA and playing this part that is literally made for me was just so special. After being rejected the first time and then getting it the second time around, I can’t wait to get out there. I’m ready to show Los Angeles what I am made of and capable of in my international American debut.
Goodness knows what the hell is around the corner, it could be nothing, it could be everything, with the conversations that I'm having right now, anything is possible. So, I’m ready; I'm ready for whatever is about to come, whether that be something quite modest, whether that be something quite huge, you never really know. One phone call can change your life forever - it already has. I could stop now and be very happy with how things have gone, but I'm not finished, and that's scary. I’m sat here in Hull with posters up in the street of me, and at this very moment, my face is up on posters in LA. From Hull to Hollywood, what is good? Let's just see what happens.
Where is your happy place?
My happy place is with my chosen family. Period.
You’ve played an array of different roles throughout your career, is there one in particular you found the most difficult?
I actually did a show in lockdown called Hushabye Mountain. It’s a play by Jonathan Harvey which shines a light on the AIDS epidemic. I think because of the restrictions and how busy I was, and the fact I'd never done a play before, I found that probably one of the hardest jobs I've done. It was so intense, but also really amazing. I was kind to myself, I did the best that I could possibly do, and I'm ecstatic to potentially do another play in the future. You can't hide behind high kicks and flips in heels in these things, so it was it was exposing, but in a in a good way.
It’s common knowledge that most people only post the good things online, but still the bad things are seldom discussed. Has there ever been a time you’ve wanted to open up about something online, but felt like you couldn’t because of what people might think?
Yes, actually. I feel like being in the public eye, on telly, the amount of times I go to tweet something and I'm like, you know what? I can't be bothered. It’s usually not that deep or whatever, but if this is potentially going to upset someone, like let me practice what I preach and save it for the goddamn journal, save it for the diary, save it for the therapist. The world does not need to see me saying this shit. Sometimes I have regretted speaking on things, other times I’ve wanted to because I feel like it's something I'm really passionate about. But at times, if I go to do something or say something, I'm like, do you need to share it? Who actually cares? If it's going to have backlash, is it worth the stress? No, I save it for my journal. There are some things in my personal life that I'll share when I'm ready, but if it feels forced, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe you shouldn't.
If you had the power to change anything, anything in the world?
It would be equality, morality, gender, race. I just think there's so many inequalities in the world because of the way we're born and the way we are which none of us can really change. So, equality across the board. Imagine if we were all equal, it would just be amazing, because we could all just crack on with who or whatever we were.
Absolutely, I think it’s also important to recognise who fought and made those sacrifices for my equality and freedom, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community, like the ballroom scene and trans people of colour.
You need to know your history: black, Latino, the ballroom culture. Know the words that you're saying and where they came from and respect that. I like to think that I know my history in some senses and I appreciate those that have come before me, because if it wasn't for them, we would not be able to be our fabulous selves.
What does the future look like for Layton?
I hope it looks bright, I hope it looks happy, I hope it looks healthy. I’m sure there will be a few bumps along the way and you can't literally say ‘I just want to be happy’ because it's inevitable that there's going to be moments when you're not. Can you tell I read some self-help books? But overall, it’s just good health, surrounded by love with my gorgeous boyfriend... hopefully, if he can put up with me. Family, my friends, good times. I honestly just think if I crack on and carry on the way that I'm going right now, things can really only get better. With age I hope will come more possibilities and I want to be surprised by what I can do. I'm excited to explore more avenues and whether that's in TV, film, more theatre, who knows? We shall see, watch this space.