DEREK HOUGH, who made his London stage debut in 2006 in the West End premiere of FOOTLOOSE — THE MUSICAL, interviewed by me then! (Interview date: April 2006)
Currently: Starring as Ren McCormack in the West End premiere of the 1998 Broadway musical adaptation of the 1984 film Footloose at the Novello Theatre, in a new production directed and choreographed by Olivier Award winner Karen Bruce. It is Derek’s first professional principal role.
Hometown: “I’m originally from Salt Lake City , Utah ,” says Derek – “a very Mormon populated community, where there are beautiful mountains; it’s a great place. And actually the film Footloose was filmed in Utah – in fact, I grew up literally in viewing distance of the mill where it was filmed. That was the claim to fame of the area, being in Footloose!” But he doesn’t remember it: He wasn’t even born till 1985, a year after it was released!
And in 1998, when he was just 12, he moved to London and has stayed here ever since. It was thanks to a combination of pursuing his then-developing passion for Latin-American dance and difficulties at home that brought him here. “I’d started out doing Latin-American dance when I was about ten, and did competitions in New York and LA. These world champion coachers, Corky and Shirley Ballas were travelling around the world teaching, and they saw at this school in Utah and saw my potential. Plus they had a son, Mark, and thought they could help train me up and also be a companion for their son. My parents were going through a divorce at the time, and they wanted to get me out of that environment which was a bit rough. During the whole trauma of it, I went to six different schools – I was a troubled kid who would bunk off school a lot. So it was fate or serendipity, I guess you could call it, that they brought me to England . I was only supposed to come over for a couple of months, but eight years later, I’m still here!”
Culture shock: Coming to London in those circumstances and at that age must be a bit of a shock. “It was, big time! The food, the weather, just everything was completely different.” It wasn’t what he expected: “Being naïve and stupid, I thought when I came over I was going to see people with little eye-glasses and horse carriages and stuff, like you see in the movies.” But it was also the making of him. The Ballas family provided him with security, an education and a profession. Their son was already at Italia Conti, a London performing arts school, “so I went there, too”, says Derek, where he achieved 8 GCSE’s. “It was great to be in an environment where I was being educated in something I was interested in, and I learnt everything over again.” But he was also being coached in Latin-American dancing, and the school let him pursue it: “They were very nice and understanding about the whole Latin thing – we were always off travelling around the world and they were very accommodating to let us do that.”
Band (and life) on the run: Meanwhile, Mark Ballas came to be like a surrogate brother – Derek has four sisters, three of them older than him, but no brothers, “so he’s like my brother.” They still write songs together and perform in a band, Almost Amy; but Mark has also gone on to become a musical actor, and is currently in a UK national tour of the musical Buddy. “Growing up, we constantly did everything at the same time. I was juggling school and travelling around doing Latin; and as well as our band and writing songs, we did something new at every given opportunity. I would take any opportunity that came up, just for the experience.” At 14, that included a few weeks on the set of the first Harry Potter film. “I was only an extra, but you can see me very clearly in the first one – a ghost walks through me and I turn into an owl. It was really cool, being on this amazing set at Pinewood Studios.”
Romantic complications: During his Latin championship dancing days, he had six dancing partners in turn. “That’s a lot – normally people don’t have that many, but what happened is that I outgrew the first three, and the last two I fell deeply and madly in love with, and that always goes wrong! When you’re travelling with each other, you’re going to these places in great romantic settings and earning good money; we were having fun and the time of our lives, but it broke my heart. I was devastated for a while!” But he’s not single now: “I have a beautiful, stunning talented girlfriend who is actually in Las Vegas right now, where I should be, too. I bought us some tickets there for a two week holiday when I didn’t know we were going to be here in the West End ! But I told her to go – she’s never been to America , and my mom has a beautiful house up on the mountain. She’s going to have a blast!”
Panto and flying cars: Derek found a different home for his talents in the theatre. “I hadn’t done the theatre thing till two years ago, so I went to do a pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, at Windsor . Wayne Sleep was in it, and I was the last guy on the left and I also played the giant. I was 18.” Then he then made his West End debut in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, appearing in the show for its final six months at the London Palladium. “I was the last guy on the left again. It was pretty crazy – it wasn’t my type of show, really, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.” Then he played the title role in an amateur production of Jesus Christ Superstar – “for the experience, because I love the music so much” – and in the midst of that, there was a round of auditions for Footloose: “They were just changing a few guys for the last tour, and I went up for it but I didn’t get it, actually. But the next time around, I’d improved a lot since then, and I was seen again, and this time they wanted me! I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity and I want to do it as much justice as I possibly can, to my greatest power.”
Let’s Hear it for the Boy: Playing the lead now – the first time he has done so in the West End – is quite a responsibility, and a very demanding one. “This show is like running a marathon – you have to dance full-on and then bust out a song, and then do quite a serious scene, especially towards the end.” But he’s very excited by it: “The music’s really energetic and fun, and to be in a show of such high-energy and with such a modern feel to it is great.” And it has a particular personal resonance for him, too: “The story is very close to home for me. Growing up in quite a repressive community is very much like this story. And obviously being moved away from home at a young age, and my character’s father leaving him, is an absence I can relate to. It feels good and truthful to play that.”
He’s also delighted to finally have his own dressing room: “The biggest perk about doing this show is having my own dressing room. Not that I have anything about being in a dressing room with others, but I came from doing Chitty where there were ten of us in one room which was smaller than the one we’re in now. Especially in the summer when it was so hot! And backstage at the London Palladium is pretty derelict!”
A work-out: How does he stay in shape? “By doing the show! By the end of it, man, I’ve had a work-out. As far as cardio-vascular goes, I can’t do more than what I’m doing. As far as weights and stuff to build up my body, it’s difficult because I’m nervous and don’t want to strain anything, because the second I do I’m messed up. Actually, I’ve lost about eight pounds since we started the show. It’s difficult to keep the food coming in and the energy going out. But now that I’m in town, I think I’ll be able to eat more, and will start going to the gym.”
Ambitions and leisure time: And when he’s not working or working out? “The first thing I try to do is write music. To be honest, that’s my ultimate goal. I’d love to write music and be in a band doing that. I’m still growing and developing as a person, and discovering what I want and what I don’t as far as being happy goes. There are these three things in my life – theatre, Latin and music, and I kind of want to do it all!”
So the best thing might be starring in a Latin musical that he’s written? “Quite possibly! That would be pretty interesting!” But otherwise, one of his favourite hobbies is watersports, “though I’ll never have the time doing this play. When I go to America , we have a houseboat, and all my cousins and I go there and do wakeboarding, which is where you get pulled behind a boat on a board and you curve in and out of the waves. It’s the fun-est thing in the world! But it’s not the best thing to do when you’re dancing, in case you get injured!”
Living in and loving London: “I still live in the same place I’ve lived in since I was a kid, in Dulwich. I’m very, very fortunate, because it’s a very beautiful place and a very nice house.” He loves London . “It’s such a great city – especially when the sun shines. Because it’s quite rare, you appreciate it so much. And when it does, because it is so green from the rain, it just looks fantastic. I love it that I’m still finding stuff out – walking today from rehearsals to Covent Garden, I had no idea it was that close. And I love going to Leicester Square – that’s my favourite place, because I’m the biggest movie buff.”