Interview with Storme Toolis
✨ LUCY EATON
I'm currently performing in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg on the West End, with the formidable and incredible (and all the other -dible words) Storme Toolis. Storme is the first disabled actress to ever play the role of Joe in Peter Nichols' classic masterpiece, and she is an all-round generally fascinating and inspiring woman. I sat down with her in-between performances on a dreaded 2-show day to eat a Pret dinner and learn a bit more about how her career in acting started and how it's transformed since then.
Lucy: To start with a question that was asked of me in a drama school workshop and made me cringe: Why acting?
Storme: To be honest, it's because I was really pissed off doing a university production of Macbeth and thought I could do better! I was playing the porter.
Lucy: A classic role.
Storme: A weird role! I didn't like the porter. I'd always sort of flirted with the idea of being an actor but not seriously; I knew it would have been a lot of work. I definitely thought about applying to drama schools when I was doing my A-levels, but my mum and teacher encouraged me to have a more traditional university experience and just study drama. So I went to the University of Kent to do Drama and English Literature, and I did a few extra curricular bits there.
Lucy: Which is where Macbeth came in...
Storme: Exactly. I thought "I want to be part of something better than this" and I literally googled "disabled acting" and this woman came up, an agent called Louise who is still my agent now. I phoned her and said "I'm 19 and I don't have a lot of experience but I would quite like to be an actor!" She asked me to send her some pictures and we went from there. I definitely didn't wake up thinking "I'm born to be an actor" - I've just been really really incredibly lucky.
Lucy: So what was your first professional job?
Storme: I got my amazing first job, which was New Tricks, whilst I was still at uni and that lasted 2 years. It was a very weird student experience. When you're studying drama at university a huge percentage of the students want to be actors, and I was doing it and performing with these quite well known people off the TV and I had real imposter syndrome. Like I shouldn't be the one being in those rooms.
Lucy: Do you still get imposter syndrome?
Storme: Oh my god yes! Huge. I'm sitting there, holding Patricia Hodge's hand during the curtain call for Joe Egg thinking "is this my job?!" But when I did New Tricks that feeling was harder to deal with. I was very young, I was 19, I was just moving away from home, I had money that I didn't know what to do with, I'd never dealt with press... I was at university in Canterbury, which is a tiny town, but all of a sudden everyone wanted to talk to me and wanted to know who Storme Toolis was. It suddenly became a "thing".
Lucy: Did you have anyone guiding you? Helping you through that?
Storme: No, not really. My mum would try to help me, but no, I didn't know a lot at all or have any guidance. And honestly, that made me not like it. I loved being in New Tricks, but all of the stuff that came with it, particularly because I'm disabled, was hard. All anyone wanted to talk about with me was disability and suddenly I became this spokesperson. There's nothing wrong with that and I know other people who do that wonderfully, but it wasn't what I signed up for; it wasn't something I expected or was ready for. That's still something I struggle with, I don't know where I sit on being a spokeswoman for disability generally.
Lucy: You must have had to talk a lot about disability for Joe Egg press though?
Storme: Well, this job is so completely different. I am totally humbled and grateful to be involved and I can talk about Joe Egg until I'm blue in the face because it's a story and play and narrative that happens to be about something that I've lived through (to a lesser extent - the character of Joe is much more impaired than I am, but still). So I don't mind talking about a specific project, but sometimes it's weird when people go "but we need to know what you think about buses". And the short answer is "I don't care!" Maybe that sounds awful, but I actually don't think about it that often. I'm still trying to work out how I feel about being outspoken about my condition generally and I'm still making peace with being a spokesperson for disability as well as just an actor.
Lucy: Where did the idea for Redefining Juliet come from then, because that seemed to be a big statement regarding disability?
Storme: I did a Maltesers commercial that I really liked; it was funny, they made a joke about sex, and I thought "this is really good!". We had loads of conversations on set about why certain actors don't get to play those roles or say those lines: Why are certain actors not deemed appropriate for characters of desire? So I made a little project called Redefining Juliet, which was about looking at who gets to play Juliet, and why the casting for beautiful, sexy women doesn't include anybody disabled or trans or over a size 16. I wanted to question why the box was so small. But I didn't want the project to be exclusively related to disability. I very much thought "Let's do the whole thing!" so I was working with actors who were size 24, actors who were really tall, actors who were trans. We did it at the Barbican and the RSC, and it lasted from 2014 to 2016. I was really proud of it but we were forever doing R&D on it, it was one of those shows that stayed in R&D forever.
Lucy: Why did you do decide to train to be a teacher after that?
Storme: I loved acting but all the stuff I touched on earlier, everything that came with it, made me think it was probably best to try stepping away, getting a "normal" job. I hoped that maybe I wouldn't be asked all these questions that I didn't really know how to answer yet. You have to bear in mind that I was still so young when all this started. I was doing New Tricks, Redefining Juliet and my other acting from age 19-24, which is an age where you go through so much other stuff: your first massive break-up, moving away from home...
Lucy: You basically learn how to be a person in your early 20s.
Storme: Yes, suddenly you go "Oh this is why you can't have an overdraft!" I was finding the attention and expectation that came with acting hard and I needed to find a way to see what else I could do. So I went back to University to do a masters. I spent the last year training to be a school teacher, which felt like a completely other life. I went to UCL and did my teacher training, then I came out and tried to get a job, but I couldn't. I was the first disabled teaching graduate to have come out of UCL and no-one would employ me.
Lucy: So you've had more trouble getting into teaching than in acting?
Storme: I went for 18 interviews for teaching and didn't get a job. 18 interviews in Central London, as a mainstream English teacher. And I definitely felt like that was because I was a disabled teacher and perhaps people weren't ready for that. I've always said, the arts is absolutely the most liberal place. So despite planning to step away from acting, I found myself doing a couple of corporate films here and there, because I was trying to find rent money and that was the industry that still welcomed me. And then suddenly Joe Egg happened!
Lucy: You've told me in the past that you really hesitated over whether to take this part. Why was that?
Storme: In order for me to play Joe, I have to project the version of myself that scares me the most; in terms of my physical vulnerability, my spoken vulnerability, the image that you see of Joe... It's everything that scares me to my very core. So it took me a few days to feel cool about it. I told Simon Evans (the director) how I felt and luckily he was incredibly kind. He said "I've got your back completely and we'll do all that we can to make this process as easy and comfortable as possible." And he did. I really wanted to do it but it just freaked me out.
Lucy: In the future, what parts do you really want to play?
Storme: I'd quite like to do Desdemona. I'd like to be Elizabeth Bennett but I don't think I'll ever be Elizabeth Bennett. Maybe someone in Downton Abbey? Or a nice Tudor princess! I love a good period drama. Something with great costumes. Maybe I could be an ice queen on Game of Thrones! There are limitations obviously (Elizabeth Bennett being one of them) and I'm aware of those limitations but I think I'm quite pragmatic. I don't go out with a raging fire of bullets if something doesn't go my way. I just do what I can and I'm grateful for the good things that happen to me.
Lucy: Favourite film?
Lucy: Favourite actor/actress?
Storme: Maybe Helena Bonham Carter. She's quirky and fun and interesting. I like that about her. Adrian Lester too - I have an unbelievable crush on him and he's incredible. Oh and Maggie Smith!
Lucy: Do you see Maggie in Toby's face when he's carrying you on and off the stage?
Storme: No I don't actually!
Lucy: I'm sure he'll be relieved to hear that.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg runs at Trafalgar Studios until November 30th.
Tickets can be booked here.