Big wigs, full make-up, shock frocks - Joanna Hunkin chats to Priscilla star Jeremy Stanford about the colourful stage show everybody's talking about

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The first time Jeremy Stanford underwent his full drag transformation, the crew couldn't breathe for laughter.

At more than 1.8m tall, with a strong, wide jaw and defined, muscular neck, the Australian actor is a picture of masculinity. So it was more than a little unsettling for him to audition for a roomful of strangers donning a frock, wig and full face of makeup. The laughter didn't help.

"It was the most nervous I've ever been for an audition in my life," the actor recalls. "I felt like a 4-year-old behind the wheel of a Mack truck.

"I didn't know how to work this strange creature that I was suddenly expected to be."

But Stanford couldn't afford to be self-conscious. After partaking in the initial development workshops, in which the original Priscilla Queen of the Desert film script was converted to a musical stage show, Stanford knew he wanted to be part of the project.

"I had to entertain them to make sure I got the job," he recalls.

That was more than two years ago, in January 2006. Eight months later, the musical premiered to rave reviews at Sydney's Lyric Theatre, where it ran for nearly a year.

After an extended season in Melbourne, the stage show is coming to Auckland this month, debuting at Auckland's Civic Theatre on Tuesday, May 27.

Taking on the role of Tick, originally played by Hugo Weaving in the film, Stanford jokes he can no longer remember a time before Priscilla.

"In a funny way it's a victim of its own success. It stayed in Sydney for 11 months without stopping. By the end of the 11 months I didn't know if I was wearing lipstick or not."

When he first signed on to the role, there was no official time frame on it. But Stanford had a feeling it was going to be a hit.

He was so confident, he began penning a behind-the-scenes book about his Priscilla experience, the very day after he was offered the role.

The book, Year of the Queen, was published last year and recounts the early days of putting together the hit musical.

"Usually musicals come from somewhere else and you just go into a role. This was a completely new thing and quite a unique opportunity to write about."

Though intrigued by the idea of working on a new, original show, it was the powerful themes of the story that really drew Stanford to the role.

"The thing that I fell in love with, is it's about acceptance and tolerance. They're really important things we need in our society.

"It still boggles my mind when I hear people not accepting gay people."

The actor also loves how hopeful and uplifting the story is.

"The three of us Bernadette, Felicia and Tick all have wishes at the beginning of the play and all their wishes come true by the end of it. I think that's a beautiful story to tell. Three gay men whose dreams come true."

Audiences seem to share Stanford's delight in the story, with the cast receiving standing ovations nearly every night.

Despite the somewhat weighty themes, the story is told with humour and fun throughout.

"Never in the show is there any finger wagging. It's all great, light-hearted fun. But if you look at the structure of the piece, the guys are accepted and then they're rejected. Accepted and rejected. It's quite ingenious.

"There's never a sense of being didactic about our theme. People want to be a part of it, they don't feel they have to be."

Though the musical shares the same plot as the 1994 Academy Award-winning film, Stanford says the stage version is an entirely separate entity.

"The musical is so different in terms of its energy. And there's a lot more of it. The movie runs 90 minutes, we run three hours.

"The film isn't really a musical. We do all the music live on stage," he explains.

One of Stanford's major concerns taking on the role was the inevitable comparison to fellow Aussie actor Weaving.

"I was a little nervous of being compared to Hugo Weaving because he's one of the best actors on the planet. I purposefully didn't watch the movie so I didn't play it too much like Hugo."

More terrifying still, was the night Weaving came to see the show, which someone foolishly forewarned Stanford about earlier in the evening.

"I was shitting myself," laughs Stanford. "But he loved it. He was very kind to me about the performance."

The nerves must have come before Stanford donned his costume, which sees him transform into another person entirely.

"I'm a reasonably shy person in my real life but when you put drag on, it's like a mask. I get incredibly bitchy and queenie and nasty, which is the opposite to me."

Though it's all terribly good fun, Stanford is adamant that Priscilla will be his first and last foray into the world of drag.

"I have no desire to sneak off and do a little bit of drag. When I finish Priscilla, I will never, ever put on another dress in my life."

Who: Jeremy Stanford
What: Plays Tick/Mitzi in the musical stage show Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Where & When: The Civic Theatre, Auckland, from May 27.