Toddlers across the land instantly recognise her as mum Jess in CBeebies’ newest hit series Waffle the Wonder Dog, but former Felsted student Andrea Smith Valls (bn06-11) is really making a name for herself on the small screen.
Co-starring with a red miniature poodle is perhaps not what every aspiring actor expects as their big break.
“Working with children and animals at the same time is challenging,” admits Andrea Smith Valls, “but it’s also so rewarding. Things take longer than they might on any other set, but that just builds an atmosphere of patience and learning, which we all benefit from intensely.”
In her first major role for television, Andrea is making the most of the experience. She plays the part of Jess in CBeebies’ latest must-watch series for children aged four to seven, Waffle the Wonder Dog, which focuses on the adventures of the blended Brooklyn-Bell family – Mum Jess and daughter Evie, and Dad Simon and son Doug – who move in together, only to find they’ve somehow acquired an extra housemate – a curly-haired pooch named Waffle. This is no ordinary pet, however, as Waffle can talk and has magical powers, which gets him into a few scrapes, but ultimately helps the family to learn valuable life lessons, bringing them closer together.
“I absolutely love working on Waffle the Wonder Dog,” she says. “Our crew is amazing and our set is such a fun one to work on. The production company who make Waffle, Darrall MacQueen, are an amazing company to work for. They really look after us and every day is a joy.”
The daughter of two Felsted teachers, Andrea felt destined for a life in the spotlight and was inspired by visits to Felsted’s drama productions from a young age.
“It sounds like a huge cliché, but honestly I’ve always known I wanted a career as an actor,” she explains. “Even when I was tiny, I would dress up like my favourite Disney character and copy the film as it played word for word, song for song. My parents always encouraged this creativity and sent me to stage school at the weekends and later when I was a student at Felsted, supported my desire to perform.”
Felsted’s commitment to the arts and the impressive stage productions put on by the drama department gave Andrea plenty of opportunity to indulge her love of the stage. She threw herself into drama productions and spent as much time as possible performing, touring America twice with the shows A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum and Joseph. The drama staff helped her to refine her acting skills and also encouraged her to take on new challenges.
“The wonderful teachers worked tirelessly to make theatrical life at Felsted rich and vibrant,” she remembers. “Charles Lee’s energy and enthusiasm was infectious and his ability to broaden our minds through travel, experiences and performance will always stay with me. I’m so lucky to call him a very good friend even years after finishing my school career.
“Hannah Grace, our theatre manager and technician, was the ultimate inspiration as a teacher and as a woman. Her ability to meet every crazy idea with ‘Of course! Let’s do it!’ taught me that creativity will get you so far, but hard work and attention to detail is what makes an idea come to life. Martin Homer was a fantastic acting tutor, helping me to explore the ideas and teachings of practitioners, such as Stanislavsky and Brecht.”
Andrea’s talent for acting began to attract serious attention when she took the lead role in Evita in her final year at school. Rising to the challenge of a part most experienced actors would find testing, her powerful vocal performances, backed by a live orchestra, and convincing portrayal of a complicated and passionate character, were received to great acclaim.
“Conveying the swift deterioration of such a powerful woman as Evita wasn’t ever going to be easy for a girl of 18,” she admits. “It was a huge learning curve.”
When Andrea left Felsted in 2011, she spent her Gap Year assisting in Felsted’s Drama department. She taught private drama lessons to students and assisting in teaching A-Level Theatre studies. She also had the chance to direct her my first play, Teechers by John Godber. At the same time, she applied to several drama schools and was accepted into East 15 Acting School in East London on the BA Acting degree program. Andrea received a first class degree and gained her first professional credit for the BBC’s Bitesize revision learning videos.
“I really think that hard work and generally being a good person to work with will get you really far,” she says. “I was grafting for a long time, applying for countless unpaid jobs, keeping on top of connections made and when I did manage to get a role, I made sure I was always smiling, happy and willing to do the best job I possibly could. I think people respond to this energy and therefore have a real desire to work with you again and again.”
The highlights of Andrea’s career pre-Waffle were playing opposite comedy actor Jessica Hynes in the Fullscreen series Jack & Dean of All Trades, taking the lead role in a comedy musical short for Sky Arts and appearing in a commercial for Batiste Dry Shampoo. Andrea enjoyed them all and was recommended for the role of Jess by one of the directors with whom she had previously worked.
“My advice to anyone wanting to pursue a career in this industry is to be that person everyone wants to work with after the job is over,” Andrea offers. “This industry is run on word of mouth and reputation, so make sure that when you leave the room, people are not only impressed by your talent but by your energy and work ethic.”
Nominated for a BAFTA in the Children’s Pre-School - Live Action category and with a third series on the cards, Andrea hopes Waffle the Wonder Dog will be entertaining young children for some time to come, but where will Andrea’s career take her?
“In the future, I honestly hope to have a varied career that spans across mediums and genres,” she says. “Sometimes I have a real burning desire to have my own comedy sketch show and another day all I want to do is be on stage at the RSC performing a beautiful Shakespeare play.
“That’s the beauty of this profession, there’s no such thing as the mundane day-to-day routine - it changes constantly and you’re always learning!”