Layton Williams’ life in the limelight began aged eight, when he took on the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical on the West End, before becoming a regular on the stage and screen – including roles in the BBC’s Beautiful People and Bad Education. This year, he takes on his biggest challenge yet as the lead in Everybody's Talking About Jamie, the award-winning musical inspired by the true story of a 16-year-old boy chasing his drag-queen dreams
Hi Layton! You opened Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the end of January. How’s it going so far?
Amazing. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, though. On the first night, it was kind of just: “Go.” It was such a short rehearsal period, but now it’s nice to be settled and just get out there to enjoy telling a story.
What makes this show different to others?
I think people are surprised when they come to the show, because they didn’t realise it’s got such a heart to it. The audience don’t think they’re going to go on such a journey with this young boy who’s just trying to figure stuff out.
Everyone can relate to going through that time when you’re a teenager; trying to find out who you really are, and everybody else has their opinions on you, too. It’s just about being unapologetically you, being happy, being free, and comfortable in your own skin.
It has a message that says: ‘We are the change. We are this generation.’ And: ‘You’ve got to just grow up, be proud of who you are and represent.’
That feels very timely for 2019.
It is. Lots of people are being suppressed, and we’re still fighting for rights all around the world. In 2019, we’re lucky that a boy can be out and gay in school, and can decide to go to prom in a dress in this country. But elsewhere that kind of thing is illegal, or is absolutely frowned upon.
We forget that the world outside of our little bubble isn’t as forgiving. Us just being ourselves is actually a form of activism every single day. So, it’s important for our kids in this country, and people everywhere else, to see that we’re not going anywhere.
You get lovely messages from people who've felt empowered by the show. That must feel amazing!
It’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve literally just come into the theatre today and I’ve got fan mail from little kids. They send me drawings, and young boys and young girls send messages saying they now feel proud to come out to their family, and they’ve come out at school… It’s just like, wow. This is really changing people’s lives.
Did you have affirmation like that growing up?
I think so, because I was so young when I got into this industry. But it was different back then. You weren’t able to switch on the TV and see somebody represented like you are now. I lived in a bit of a bubble, so it was different for me.
You were thrown into the spotlight at such a young age for Billy Elliot, what was that like?
I’m always so thankful for that show, and the beginning of my career. What better show to play the title role? And now look, it’s happened again! When I got into it at that age, I didn’t think that this was going to be a full career path, I was just going along with the ride to be honest. But I’m so happy that it happened.
You also got involved with charities from when you were young, like Stonewall at 17. What made you want to do that?
I knew that I was lucky to be in an industry where it was so accepted to be out and proud. Coming from a small estate in Manchester, it’s absolutely not the same there, so I understand that. I wanted to make sure I could reach out to as many kids as possible, to let them know that they’re loved, know that they can be supported, and know that they’re absolutely fine, and not wrong for being who they are.
You’ve spoken quite a lot about being bullied growing up. Was there a turning point in your life where you felt like you could stand up to it?
I guess coming to London, finding myself and being free, seeing other people that were like me. It’s just another world here, and I was like: “Oh my God, I want to be this type of boy.” I started dressing differently, I started expressing myself differently. Well, not differently, but who I really was inside. It really freed me up to be a confident person, and then I never turned back.
Anyone who follows you on social media will see that confidence in the form of a young man, loving himself and loving life. Is that a true representation?
So true. I try to put out there, on my social media, the most real moments. Like this morning, I got on the wrong train, it pissed me off, so I’m saying: “Oh my God, this is annoying.”
Private stuff is private stuff, but I think what I put out there is a true representation of me – it’s not fake. I don’t even use a filter. I just think: “You know what, if this picture doesn’t look cute and I’ve not found the lighting, then I don’t need to be changing this to make myself look better, because that is not me.”
There’s another side where you’re using your online platform to call out discrimination and injustice. Was that a conscious decision?
It’s a representation of my life as a black, gay man living in the UK. Those things are always going to be a part of my life, you can’t ignore it.
I think even if I didn’t, I would still be vocal about that stuff because if we don’t speak up then who’s going to make the change?
Do you think social media has the power to make that change?
I hope so. I do get lots of messages, especially when I air my opinions on certain situations. It creates a conversation and that’s what we want to do; we want to open up conversations and make sure we’re not pretending these things don’t happen. So, hopefully, silly people won’t do those things again.
So, I saw you did a social media detox for January...
Yes! Can you believe?
No easy feat! How did it go?
Do you know what, it was so much easier than I thought it would be. I mean, I do my odd little story here and there – there’s always some drama happening in my life – but it’s all just documenting. Once I’ve documented what I need to document, I put my phone down and I get on with my life.
So, I just logged out, deleted the apps and it was really easy. It was nice to just not have anyone else’s opinions and anyone else’s voices, anyone else’s stuff, apart from my own, going on in my head. I got some real headspace.
Is self-care something that’s important to you?
Yes. So, the first thing I do when I wake up is I open my blinds, let the sun in, let the day in, sit there, and do my 10 minutes of meditation. It’s not so much like zoning out, it’s almost checking in to what’s going on in my body and my mind, essentially. And there’s not a week goes by where I haven’t had a massage, truly, because I’m always running around the stage in heels. So, I look after myself. That’s my vibe.
'Everybody’s Talking About Jamie' is booking at the Apollo Theatre, London, until September 2019. Keep up-to-date with Layton by following him on Twitter and Instagram @LaytonWilliams