Leona Lewis’s first screen turn has her in a sun­shine state of mind, she tells Tara Brady,

Leona Lewis, plat­inum­selling for­mer win­ner of The X Fac­tor, takes on her first film role in the ’80s juke­box mu­si­cal Walk­ing on Sun­shine. It’s ap­pro­pri­ate, Tara Brady finds, given the singer’s sunny per­son­al­ity

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - WALK­ING ON SUN­SHINE ★★★ Di­rected by Max Giwa, Da­nia Pasquini. Star­ring Leona Lewis, Gi­ulio Ber­ruti, Katy Brand, Greg Wise, Han­nah Arter­ton, Annabel Scholey 12A cert, 97min

Leona Lewis has a four-oc­tave mezzo-so­prano vo­cal range. Why can’t she try a lit­tle harder at be­ing a diva? She ought to stick her nose in the air and use an an­tibac­te­rial handi-wipe when she shakes hands with jour­nal­ists. But no. In­stead she thanks you over and over for “tak­ing the time to talk” to her.

She ought to rack up florist bills with more ze­roes than the GNPs of smaller World Cup qual­i­fy­ing na­tions. But no. She spends her money on Brent­wood’s Hope­field An­i­mal Sanc­tu­ary in Es­sex. She should, af­ter eight years in the lime­light, have man­aged a cou­ple of sub­stance abuse or sex scan­dals. But in­stead, she is fa­mous for veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, mind­ing her Ps and Qs and turn­ing down a seven-fig­ure sum from Mo­hamed Al Fayed to open a Har­rods sale; well, they are the only Bri­tish depart­ment store tacky enough to still sell an­i­mal fur.

What’s wrong with you, Leona Lewis? Are you bro­ken? Why won’t you let fame go to your head? Just a lit­tle bit?

“It’s a mix­ture of my mum and dad,” she laughs. “I never for­get how hard my mum and dad worked to give my brother and me the op­por­tu­ni­ties that we had. It’s nor­mal and nat­u­ral for me to be po­lite to people. That’s how I was brought up. I al­ways re­mem­ber where I come from. It would be stupid of me to for­get that.”

Leona Louise Lewis was born and raised in Is­ling­ton by mul­tira­cial com­mu­nity-minded par­ents. Her dad, Au­ral Lewis, of Afro-Guyanese de­scent, worked with youth of­fend­ers; her mum, Maria Lewis, is a so­cial worker and bal­let teacher with Welsh, Ir­ish, and Ital­ian an­ces­try: “I had an Ir­ish grand­fa­ther, ” Lewis notes, “but I never knew him.”

As any­one not lately es­caped from a clois­tered silent or­der will know, Lewis first came to fame as the win­ner of the 2006 X-Fac­tor fi­nal. She re­mains the show’s most un­touch­ably suc­cess­ful ex­port: her de­but al­bum achieved plat­inum sales 10 times over in the UK; she was the first Bri­tish fe­male to top the US Bill­board 200 al­bum chart in more than 20 years; she has hit the num­ber one spot in more than 30 coun­tries; she sang Whole Lotta Love with Jimmy Page at the 2008 Sum­mer Olympics clos­ing cer­e­mony in Bei­jing,

She must have very dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions with fans depend­ing on where she is in the world?

“I’m used to hav­ing con­trol over ev­ery­thing when I’m mak­ing my mu­sic. And I had to let go. It was a good les­son for me”

“Def­i­nitely. In the UK and Ire­land people come up to me and call me Lee, my nick­name. They know me. They feel closer to me. They have a claim. In the US it’s a bit less fa­mil­iar. Only real, real fans will ever know I was on The X Fac­tor. They don’t have that prior re­la­tion­ship. So it’s a dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion.”

Her overnight suc­cess does not seem to have gone to her head –per­haps be­cause it wasn’t re­ally overnight. Long be­fore Si­mon Cow­ell, she had al­ready trained ex­ten­sively in opera and jazz at all the right stage schools: the Sylvia Young Theatre School, later the Italia Conti Academy, the Raven­scourt Theatre School and the BRIT School for Per­form­ing Arts and Tech­nol­ogy. Be­fore The X-Fac­tor she had turned down the lead role in the Parisian pro­duc­tion of The Lion King and had recorded two al­bums, both of which failed to make a commercial splash.

And still she beat on against the tide: “I like to keep my head down,” she says. “I like to keep work­ing on things. I also know that – es­pe­cially with mu­sic – you have to ex­pe­ri­ence life to have the in­spi­ra­tion to write. But keep­ing that fo­cus is im­por­tant. I al­ways feel like there’s more out there. There’s no ceil­ing.”

Sure enough, Leona Lewis is branch­ing out. Her first film role – ex­clud­ing per­form­ing that Golden Globe nom­i­nated theme song from James Cameron’s Avatar – is as part of the en­sem­ble in Walk­ing on Sun­shine. An un­abashedly cheesy ’80s juke­box mu­si­cal set in sunny Puglia, Sun­shine fol­lows two sis­ters – in love at Italy’s heel – as they and their gal pals belt out such beloved karaoke stan­dards as Rox­ette’s It Must Have Been Love and Madonna’s Hol­i­day.

Leona Lewis has, over the years, had plenty of of­fers from Hol­ly­wood. Why did she plump for the vin­tage cheese?

“It was just such good tim­ing for me. I had just fin­ish­ing tour­ing. I wanted to do a mu­si­cal. I wanted to try act­ing. I wanted to get into film. So this came along and it was per­fect. It was just the right bal­ance of singing and act­ing. And also it wasn’t a huge role. So it wasn’t too much pres­sure. And not too much dancing.”

Re­ally? Isn’t her mum a for­mer bal­let teacher? Shouldn’t she be an ex­pert hoofer?

“Hmm. You know what?” She drops to a comic whis­per: “I don’t ex­cel in it. I just get by. There is a rea­son why I didn’t be­come a bal­le­rina. We had a great team. I needed them.”

She is said to be a per­fec­tion­ist in the stu­dio who will de­lay an al­bum if it isn’t quite ready. With that in mind, I won­der how she man­aged in a much more col­lab­o­ra­tive en­vi­ron­ment?

“That’s ex­actly right. That was a big thing. I’m such a con­trol freak.” Hmm. Re­ally? “You’ve no idea. And that was re­ally tough about the film. That was one of the chal­lenges. I’m used to hav­ing con­trol over ev­ery­thing when I’m mak­ing my mu­sic. This film be­longs to the di­rec­tor and the pro­ducer and to other people. And I had to let go. It was a good les­son for me.”

Walk­ing in Sun­shine feels like a non-stop karaoke hen party. It can’t have been as much fun as it looks, can it?

“Ob­vi­ously you have to think about your char­ac­ter and hit­ting your marks. But it was the most amaz­ing beach. It looked like the Caribbean. Stun­ning. My char­ac­ter works at the beach bar in the film and a lot of my scenes were shot there. And be­tween takes I would just have lit­tle lie-downs in the sun. It was a re­ally pleas­ant shoot. And there were some good nights out with the cast. And now I see the poster and I can’t be­lieve it. I’m so proud.”

Only Leona Lewis, one sus­pects, could get so ex­cited about see­ing her­self on a film poster. Surely, by now, she’s ac­cus­tomed to see­ing her im­age tow­er­ing above cities in the man­ner of a North Korean leader?

“No! I keep hav­ing to pinch my­self. I’ve never been on the side of a red bus be­fore. It’s to­tally dif­fer­ent kind of advertisement. And then my friends sent me a pic­ture of the trailer when it came on in the cin­ema. It’s so crazy.”

If Leona Lewis’s hu­mil­ity is an af­fec­ta­tion, she’s do­ing one hell of a job. A charm­ing everygirl, she talks about how much she en­joys club­bing with “her girls”, how much she loves

Grease, and how much she ad­mires Cyndi Lau­per. Re­gard­less of how Walk­ing on Sun­shine plays with the crit­ics, she has al­ready re­ceived what she calls “the ul­ti­mate thumbs up”.

“My dad is a DJ,” she says. “He loves mu­sic. But he does not love mu­si­cals. So when he said that the songs work re­ally well in the movie that’s the best re­view ever.”

We say good­bye and I leave Lewis to go and be sunny and per­son­able with some­body else.

“Thank you so much! I re­ally, re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it!” she gushes.

She re­ally must try harder at this diva thing.

Bor­row­ing a plot­line from Jane Austen (or, pos­si­bly, Byker Grove), Walk­ing on Sun­shine fol­lows two sis­ters as they hol­i­day around the glo­ri­ously sunny parts of Italy.

The tack­ier of the sib­lings, Mad­die (Annabel Scholey of Be­ing Hu­man) has dragged the less chav­ish Tay­lor (Gemma Arter­ton’s l’il sis Han­nah) to meet Raf, her new lu­di­crously hand­some fi­ancé (Gi­ulio Ber­ruti). Var­i­ous hi­lar­i­ous gal pals are al­ready en­sconced at a pala­tial villa for Mad­die’s sur­prise whirl­wind nup­tials. But there’s a big­ger sur­prise in the off­ing: Raf and Tay­lor were once in love.

Will Tay­lor’s friends – among them beach bar­maid Leona Lewis – re­veal the truth? Will Mad­die’s smooth-talk­ing ex- boyfriend (Greg Wise, hav­ing a ball) win her back? There’s some pretty scenery and a bunch of 1980s tunes – Wild Boys, Eter­nal Flame, Don’t You Want Me – to en­joy un­til the plot re­solves it­self.

Whither the mar­garita movie? Whither the nights of tee­ter­ing heels at the mul­ti­plex? Box of­fice stats sug­gest that the days when the guys stayed home for the World Cup while the gals gig­gled in gag­gles to­ward How Stella Got Her Groove Back Part 6 are no more.

This is hardly earth-shat­ter­ing news. Ev­ery­body knows that Sex and the City 2 was a flop. Ev­ery­body knows that the rom-com was long ago killed off by the burlier, gen­der-bend­ing bro­mance. Ev­ery­body knows that women ac­count for more than 40 per cent of re­ceipts for su­per­hero movies.

Con­sider too, the fraught re­la­tion­ship be­tween cin­ema and mu­si­cals: for ev­ery Les Mis hit, there’s nine Nines. That goes dou­ble for juke­box mu­si­cals: Sun­shine on Leith was a splen­did film that found only a niche au­di­ence. Can this de­lib­er­ately daft, sunny, silly ’80s mu­si­cal buck the odds and be­come the first karaoke hit since Mamma Mia!?

Maybe so. One couldn’t say Walk­ing on Sun­shine was nu­anced. But if there’s an award for Vin­tage Cheese, then noth­ing will come close to this non­stop hen party from the mak­ers of Street­Dance 3D. If be­ing force-fed Camem­bert with Straw­berry Daquari chasers to the strains of Cher is your idea of fun, then this is for you. Here come the girls.

Sun­shine state of mind: Leona Lewis and Han­nah Arter­ton in Walk­ing on Sun­shine

Sex and the sib­lings: Han­nah Arter­ton and Annabel Scholey in

Walk­ing on Sun­shine

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