NIGEL LINDSAY (SHREK)
Were you already a fan of Shrek the movie?
Has there been a movie? I didn’t realise. (Smiles) I absolutely loved it. Even before I knew there was going to be a musical, I thought it was a deliciously ironic, fun film for all the family. It’s one of those films that adults and kids can watch and both get as much enjoyment from. There are so many different layers – like an onion!
How did you hear about the musical?
I got a phone call from my agent but I didn’t even realise it was my agent, because she was just laughing on the other end of the phone. I said: “Who is this?” and she said, “Sorry, it’s me. This is a good one, they want you to go up and play Shrek.” I’m not sure whether she was laughing because the similarities were so obvious or because it was such an opportunity. She said: “How do you feel about going in for it?” And I said: “Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back? Of course, I want to.” How can an actor say no to playing Shrek in Shrek The Musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane?
What was the audition like?
I was in the middle of rehearsing for another play about boxing called Sucker Punch at the Royal Court so my head was somewhere else. I genuinely thought, “I’m just a long shot, they’ll get someone else. I’ve only been in one musical in my life.” But a nice way to spend an afternoon.
So I cycled in, opened the door and thought, “Thank god, I don’t have to sing, there’s only a few people.” Then I turned round and the piano was behind the door and I thought, “Oh dear, I’m not going to get away with this!”
But you did. So how does it feel seeing your name up in lights in the West End?
It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. When I come and stand on stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and see how big it is, it’s definitely the biggest theatre I’ve ever played. And when I walk past the theatre and see this huge picture of Shrek and my name up there, Nigel Lindsay, I just think: “Oh my god!”
Are your children excited?
My kids are over the moon, I’ve got two little girls. And as I walk into the playground I can hear the other girls say; “Here comes Shrek.” Everyone’s running up to me and that’s before I’ve even put the make-up on. I did a film with Richard E Grant last year and he said, over his long career the only time his daughter realised he was an actor was when he did the Spice Girls movie. I don’t know what they think I’ve been doing, going off at 6.30 every evening, but finally I’ve got job they get a bit of kudos for in the playground.
What gives Shrek such a wide appeal?
Like The Simpsons, it has jokes for everyone but it’s not trying too hard. I watch The Simpsons with my little girls and think: how did you get that joke? And then I realise they’re laughing at something completely different. That, and the fact they think I’m Homer Simpson. Shrek has jokes for people who like the movie, jokes for musical theatre fans and most importantly, characters the kids can relate to. I went to see a cartoon the other day which didn’t work at all. It was almost too knowing, like they were doing it for the adults. What’s great about Shrek is that you have the buddy-buddy stuff and the romance, but also a great big fairytale and a farting, burping ogre so the kids are in heaven too.
It’s also got a very British sense of humour, hasn’t it?
I think it was Jeffrey Katzenberg from DreamWorks who said: “Britain is the home for Shrek.” The Americans are aware that a lot of the humour is very British and they have even rewritten bits to make it appeal even more. I think audiences are going to be pleasantly surprised.
How have you researched the role of Shrek?
I’m not really a method person. It’s important to say I’m playing my Shrek, not Mike Myers’ Shrek. I’m starting from scratch. For me, acting is fooling myself that I’m not Nigel Lindsay for two hours on stage. I’ll use anything I’ve got to help me switch my brain.
What was the fitting like for your green ogre suit?
I’m amazed some people enjoy the life-casting. They cover your whole face in this blue goo and it hardens and warms up and becomes this latex mask. Then on top of this mask, they put Plaster of Paris like when you’ve broken your arm and wrap that round you like a mummy. The only thing from the neck up that’s visible are your two nostrils and you’re sitting there for 15 minutes and you can’t move an eyelid. At one point, there was complete silence and I thought everyone had gone to lunch. This big tattooed guy was holding my hand, saying: “It’s okay, just two more minutes, Nigel, two more minutes.”
Do costumes help you get into a new character?
It’s a godsend. There are actors like Olivier who always needed a prop, the forked nose for Richard III, and then others like Gielgud who shied away from these things. Some people work from the outside in, others from the inside out. I’m in the first group. It was actually me who suggested to Chris Morris that I shave my head to play Barry in Four Lions. I’d forgotten until he phoned me up the night before we started, saying: “I’ve decided to take you up on your generous offer.”
It’s quite a big step from playing a white Muslim fundamentalist to playing a big green ogre.
But I think you can draw parallels. Barry and Shrek are both outsiders and I think they both have a hatred of themselves that fuels their anger. You can draw parallels with me as a person as well. In order to play a part you have to give something of what’s inside you otherwise it doesn’t work. And there’s certainly a part of me that doesn’t like myself. Don’t we all have that?
How have you managed to have such a varied career, spanning TV, radio, film and stage?
I’m not the conventionally good looking guy so I don’t have to be the cool leading actor type. And I find that a liberation. There are so many actors who are phenomenally good looking and always play those leading roles. But if you have a character actor’s face you get different parts. And because I’ve managed to fly under the radar, the public don’t know me for anything specifically.
Have you deliberately avoided the limelight?
The press don’t care if I fall out of a nightclub at three in the morning and neither would I ever dream of doing so. I certainly don’t do the celebrity stuff. When I walked onto the red carpet at the Baftas this year, I knew I wouldn’t be troubled, that I could walk serenely in without anyone going, “Nige, Nige, over here.” Ten years ago, I would have probably stood there thinking, “Come on, someone take a photo.” But I so don’t mind these days.
You weren’t always an actor, were you?
No, I used to be a stockbroker. That was many many years ago. It’s quite a jump, let me tell you. But I was a very bad stockbroker. I hated every minute of it. And I don’t think you can be good at something you don’t like doing and I realised unless I got out now, I would never be able to leave. So I applied to drama school and I thought, if I get in, I’ll go. And I did. And the rest is history. I’d hardly done any acting before and I was of the opinion that acting was about whoever had the biggest mouth and the loudest voice in the room. And it’s actually the complete opposite. But it sustained my career for about 10 years! (laughs). Now knowing what the business is like, I’m not sure I would have had the bravery to become an actor. But when I was that young, it wasn’t a question of bravery, it was just a question of what shall I do next? Luckily for me, things have fallen into place.
Is it hard to believe you’ve come so far?
I spoke to my agent last year and she said: “Nigel, when are you going to stop thinking you’re a stock-broker and start realising you’ve been an actor for 20 years? This is what you do for a living.” After I picked up Chris’s BAFTA for Four Lions, I was having my photo taken between Christopher Lee, JK Rowling and Aaron Sorkin thinking: “This is surreal. I’m this nice little boy from suburban Harrow. Pinch me!” You have to have a certain arrogance as an actor to survive in this business. But you also have to have a vulnerability to play different parts. I really do vacillate between the two.
What’s it like being reunited with Nigel Harman on this show?
It’s just great. We were in Guys and Dolls together. He played Sky Masterson, I played Nathan Detroit. He’s a fabulous performer and we get on very well together. The directors Rob and Jason and the producers have not bowed to convention in choosing this cast. They’ve been very brave and chosen the cast they want to be in it.
Shrek has a bromance as well as a romance. Will you enjoy your double act with Donkey?
A bromance? I haven’t heard that term before. For me, the best moments in theatre comes from two people having a conversation. When I’ve worked with Jim Broadbent, someone like that, it’s the lack of ego. I knew I could look into Jim’s eyes every night and he would be looking right back at me and we could have this thing going. I really hope that Richard and I have that rapport because it’s integral to this show. Although I’m sort of the straight man and I’m going to have to get used to that!
What makes musical theatre such a great art-form?
There is something life affirming about doing musicals. Audiences tend to be different, not so bound by the conventions of straight theatre. When I did Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing, which won lots of awards, it got very polite applause in London and sometimes even three or four people might stand up. When we took it to Broadway, they went bananas. Doing musicals is like being on Broadway every night. We used to walk down the length of the Piccadilly Theatre every night in Guys and Dolls and 2000 people would be standing, cheering, dancing, music playing. It’s the nearest to being a rock star you’re ever going to get. I realise why the Rolling Stones go on and on and on. It’s like an endorphin, it’s fantastic.
But also tiring. So how are you getting into shape?
I couldn’t believe how physical Guys and Dolls was and I think it’s probably got nothing on Shrek. Apart from the fact that I’ve got an hour and a half of prosthetics every night before I’ve even gone on stage – I’m told the guy who plays Shrek in the America lost three stone and that’s just sitting in the suit. Sounds good to me. I’m going to have to buy some belts for my trousers. But I keep myself pretty fit. I’ve run the marathon and I keep in good shape. But however much I steel myself for how difficult it’s going to be, I know it’s going to be really demanding. It’s a young man’s game, musical theatre. I think the producers think I’m about 35 and I’m not about to disabuse them of that!
Why should people come to see Shrek?
People spend quite a lot of money going out to the theatre, particularly in the West End. So they expect a show. And the one thing you’re going to get from Shrek is a show. It’s a multi-million dollar musical so you’re going to get all the smoke and bangs and whistles from a fantastic spectacle. At the same time, if you can’t relate to the characters, you’re lost. And what I think is the ace card for Shrek is that you’ve got characters that everyone knows already, that everyone likes and can relate to. So you’ve got the best of both worlds.
What is the message of the story?
It doesn’t matter what you look like, who you think you are, even if you feel like the smallest, loneliest, ugliest person, you can get by in the world as long as you can relate to other people.
And what about the farting and burping? Does it come naturally?
If there was a world championship of farting, I would certainly be in the Olympic Team, let’s put it that way. But I will be practising hard in rehearsal, don’t you worry about that.
29th April 2011