After six weeks in the wings nursing possibly the world’s worst ever sprained ankle, Justin Burford was itching to return to his role as Drew in the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, ahead of the season in Brisbane. Lucy Graham caught up with him in a Melbourne café.
Justin Burford was proudly showing me photos of his ‘war wound’. During a performance a member of the audience tossed the mini torch handed out by ushers onto the stage (the prop resembles the cigarette lighters which 80’s crowds lit during ballads).
“I didn’t realise it was there but one minute I was OK, next minute I wasn’t.
“I had to keep going but I did not realise how bad it was until the end of the night,” he said with a grin. In the picture the ankle looks like a tree trunk.
Rock musicians are more used to having things tossed on stage than music theatre stars. So perhaps Justin Burford should have known better. He virtually fell into the Australian production of Rock of Ages after his Perth-based rock group, End Of Fashion, became a studio band last year.
“I was wondering what I was going to do with my life,’ he ponders, ‘and then Rock of Ages came along, and it was just perfect timing.”
Burford began the audition process, unaware hundreds had already been knocked back. The production team desperately sent casting briefs to any company with “management” or “agency” in their title. Burford’s management had never before touched music theatre, but forwarded it on to him.
“I had to learn a couple of scenes, sing two songs from the show and pick my own song – I chose Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen. I had no idea what I was doing - to a large degree I still don’t. I remember arriving on the day and it being completely alien to me. I think I was enjoying it, but like you enjoy a really scary horror film. And I kept saying to myself, what am I doing here?”
At the call back Justin’s performance was recorded and sent on to New York. Several days later he was asked to fly there for the final round of auditions. It was then that he first saw the show on Broadway.
“I was blown away. I’d been sceptical about this thing from the beginning. I knew I wanted to audition but that was as far as I thought I’d get. To be honest I didn’t think I stood a chance in hell of getting this part. But then the band started and the guy comes out with the hair. By Living in Paradise it had me, and I really wanted to be part of it.”
Justin says both he and his character are dorks at heart.
“I think Drew wants to put on this persona that he’s this cool kid, but he’s not, and neither am I. I collect comics and watch science fiction. I’m a geek and proud of it. Everyone’s got their inner-rock star, everyone’s got their esteem waiting to come out. So it’s not just me, but everyone can relate to that.”
Thirty-three year old Burford grew up in Perth. His parents, who separated when he was five, were big music fans. He credits his pop education to his mother’s Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac recordings, and his father’s Beatles collection.
“Pop music clicked with me from a really young age. I understood how it was created, and what a middle 8 was before I knew what a middle 8 was.’
“I’ve always had a love and an ambition for acting. I remember saying to mum, when I was about 14, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a movie star or a rock star.
“School music wasn’t on my radar. I was too busy in my own head, writing, drawing, acting and pretending. I started on the drums in high school. I think my music teacher saw something in me because he tried to get me into singing. I remember learning some song from Les Mis and it was OK. But I was listening to Nirvana – that was my world.’
Burford was about 16 when he started own band, playing drums.
“We started, as many rock bands do, in a garage. I’ve been in rock bands for more than a decade, and in End of Fashion since 2003. We decided were getting too old to tour constantly.”
With Rock of Ages set to open in Brisbane on November 6, Burford says he is fitter than he’s ever been, largely due to the personal training, acting and dancing lessons that came with the role.
“About half way through last year I decided I was going to do away with my drinking and smoking and get really fit.”
While he’s not sure his future lies in music theatre, Burford concedes the show has solidified a passion for acting.
“What used to be the allure of acting was the glamour, but I think I can honestly say with pride that’s not what drives me now. I want to prove to myself that I can carry a performance without relying on my voice. I love singing but I’d like to know that I can be a dramatic actor.
“Part of the appeal of a rock band is a rough, raw, grungy image. The throw-away attitude. Not to say that I went out there prepared to put on bad shows, but it was mine and I was in control. This is bigger than me, and I have people to answer to.
“I’ll get up, have a shower and do my stretches, have physio 2 or 3 times a week, have vocal unloading massages. Every minute of every day is preparing for the show that night. With the band I’d warm up on stage.”
Burford is reluctant to offer advice for those starting out.
“You can’t replace hard work – the years I clocked up working out how to write songs. And rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. In the band we’d rehearse every day like a job. To a certain degree you make your own luck, but I’ve also been very lucky. I couldn’t have synthesised it if I’d tried.”
Justin Burford in 60 seconds
best thing since sliced bread – butter
in another life - I would draw for comic books
hero – way too many to mention
best gift you’ve ever received– love and opportunity
favourite item of clothing - sunglasses
worst chore – dishes
when all else fails - laugh
worst habit – biting my fingernails
biggest time waster - facebook
Images: Amy Lehpamer and Justin Burford, Justin Burford. Photographer: Jeff Busby.
Additional reading - our interview with Amy Lehpamer
The Brisbane season of Rock of Ages will now close on December 4, 2011, two weeks ahead of the originally scheduled December 18. This follows the earlier postponement of the Sydney season.