|Lee Evans in The Dumb Waiter|
20 Questions WithÖ Lee Evans
Date: 12 February 2007
Comedian & sometimes actor Lee Evans Ė who returned to the West End last week in The Dumb Waiter - explains why Pinter is a natural progression from Beckett, the source of his fear & why heíll never do another musical after The Producers.
Since winning the Perrier in 1993, comedian Lee Evansí hugely successful stand-up career has included several TV series (World of Lee Evans, The Lee Evans Show and Lee Evans Ė So What Now), chart-topping DVDs and two sell-out West End seasons six weeks at the Lyric Theatre in 1996, ten weeks at the Apollo in 1998).
In 2002, Evans became the first solo comedian to play Wembley Arena, where he returned in 2005 to play to more than 60,000 over six sell-out nights. On the same 2005 tour, he broke the Guinness world record for the biggest solo comedy audience ever - 10,108 at the Manchester Evening News Arena, which topped Eddie Izzardís previous achievement of 8,700.
Evansí zany energy has also won him acting roles in feature films including Mousehunt, Thereís Something About Mary, The Fifth Element, FreezeFrame, The Medallion and, airing on ITV in April, HG Wellsí period drama The History of Mr Polly.
Evans made his West End acting debut in 2004 starring opposite Michael Gambon in Matthew Warchusí revival of Samuel Beckett classic Endgame, which he followed up later the same year with his musical debut in the original cast of the multi award-winning West End production of Mel Brooksí The Producers. For his performance as timid accountant Leo Bloom, Evans was nominated for the Laurence Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Theatregoersí Choice Awards for Best Actor in a Musical, but lost out in both to his co-star Nathan Lane, who replaced the initially cast Richard Dreyfuss as Max Bialystock and later had to withdraw himself due to injury.
This week, Evans returns to the West End stage to star opposite Jason Isaacs in Harry Burtonís 50th anniversary revival of Harold Pinterís one-act two-hander The Dumb Waiter, in a limited season at the Trafalgar Studios.
Date & place of birth
Born 25 February 1964 in Bristol.
Lives now in
Iíve just moved to Billericay in Essex.
Why did you want to become an entertainer?
It was an accident actually. I havenít quite found my job yet. I keep having this discussion with my wife Molly. One day Iím going to get a job, a job that I was meant to have. Iím not sure anyone knows what job they do really.
First big break
Winning the Perrier Award I think. And then I did a film with a good friend of mine, which was Funny Bones and then some other films came along like Mousehunt I did with Nathan Lane and Thereís Something About Mary and Fifth Element. That all just came about really, I didnít set out to do any of it. I went to LA because a friend of mine who Iíd met doing the Just for Laughs Festival in Canada said come down and do some gigs. He allowed me to do an hour every weekend in LA and then Dreamworks came down and Fox and all these movie people. So I said yeah okay. I met up with the Farrelly brothers and had a lot of fun. We wrote the bit I did in Thereís Something About Mary in a bar, we just got really drunk. My remit for that film was ďyouíre an idiot, we know youíre an idiot, so just do your thingĒ. We were all told, ďthereís a beautiful woman and we donít care what you do but youíve got to try and get this womanĒ. So I did this sort of Hugh Grant, English architect and went for the sympathy thing too with the wheelchair.
Career highlights to date
Iíve got a great biography in me that I never wrote about working with Mel Brooks. That was phenomenal, I loved it so much, heís such a great man. And working with Michael Gambon. And I think the last stand-up tour was quite good. We got in the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest-ever comedy audience attendance. That was great. Iíve always wanted to be in the Guinness Book of Records. I think Molly has a copy of it somewhere. And then winning quite a few awards for The Producers was great. As a kid when I came into the West End, I never dreamt that Iíd be actually performing in the theatre with all the lights and all that. My dadís a musician so heíd bring us into the West End now and again. We couldnít afford to go to any shows alas, but itís still such a magical place to be. I never thought Iíd actually be here. Itís great.
Do you consider yourself an actor or comedian first?
I'm not an actor. I come to plays from the angle of naÔvety, and it could be a bad thing but I have my own process. I spend many hours on my own going through the text and my character and every aspect. I have to be left on my own for some time. Thatís the only way I can do it. I find rehearsals shocking. Actors are really out there, but I've always been quite reserved and shy. So to be in the presence of actors and watch them work is phenomenal but terrifying. I've still got a lot to learn.
Which actor have you learnt most from?
Michael Gambon was brilliant (on Endgame). He has an unbelievably powerful voice, heís found some sort of base dynamic in the building. I was talking all high and he was down here. He was inspirational, he became like a father figure to me. Every night before curtain-up, I would be pacing and doing press-ups and other exercises behind Michael, who was just sitting still in this chair. Heíd say, ďwhat are you doing?Ē. And I'd say, ďI'm really worriedĒ. And he'd say ďthis is a play, this is magic.Ē And I'd say, ďit's not magic where I'm fromĒ. He would sit there dead calm, not an inkling of nerves, and heíd concentrate on the text whereas I was concentrating on trying to survive.
Why were you so nervous?
I come from an environment of fear. With stand-up, the whole evening is spent just trying to survive in front of people who are drunk and getting restless. Youíre always looking at your notes that were written in a hotel room and youíre worrying: although they worked yesterday, they may not work tonight.
Other favourite co-stars
Christopher Walken I found brilliant to work with (on Mousehunt). And Oliver Reed was brilliant (on Funny Bones). Like Michael, he looked like he wasnít taking it too seriously and he made it a joyous experience. Some people they look as if theyíre not taking anything seriously and itís not meant to be like that. But what they are doing in effect is actually taking it very seriously. They seem to know instinctively exactly whatís required. I suppose that comes from experience.
I do like Beckett and Pinter a lot. Beckett is very philosophical, examining oneself and the world outside that, and yet being completely and utterly pointless. I donít want to put a downer on things but basically thatís life, and in between itís what you make it presumably. Also Tom Stoppard, I like. With all these things, if youíre given the chance and they come up maybe one day youíll be able to do them.
After your experience with The Producers, would you consider doing a musical again?
That was odd. I rehearsed with one bloke (Richard Dreyfuss), and subsequently I went through five more! I never had a day off in sixth months, and afterwards I broke, I was exhausted. I only did The Producers because I wanted to work with Mel Brooks. If youíre a comedian, youíre going to be a fan of his. Then Nathan Lane, who Iíve known for many years (from Mousehunt) and love dearly, said he was going to come over and do it and that was great. Iíd like to be part of a brand new one, but other than that, no, I wouldnít do another musical. Itís extremely hard work.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the first?
I took Molly to The Sound of Music. I thought it was brilliant. The first show I remember going to was my dad playing at Talk of the Town. I think itís now the Hippodrome. I had quite an eccentric imagination as a child and I found the whole experience magical and unbelievable.
If you could swap places with anyone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Whoís the new guy at the UN? Probably the head of the UN because Iíd gather all the people in the room and lock the door and say, ďyou know what, leave us out of it and just fight amongst yourselvesĒ.
John Steinbeckís Of Mice and Men. I just think it sums life up a bit really - that aspiration that life is going to be brilliant but you have to struggle through all this stuff to get to it and then maybe it might not be quite like that when you get there.
Favourite holiday destinations
I really like Southend-on-Sea. I lived there for many years. I like Brighton too. I donít like going abroad. Iíve tried many holidays, and whether itís my own fault I donít know, but I find it difficult to relax. Iím not a beach man. I canít put a pair of shorts on, I feel such a complete idiot. And also I tend to sit there and think I should be doing something else more constructive. My writing partner Stuart lives in Brighton. I go down and see him every weekend and itís lovely - I donít have to take any of my clothes off because itís too cold. And I can quite happily look at the sea knowing the coast of France is the other side and if you turn right a bit youíll come to America. I like knowing thatís all out there.
Favourite after-show haunts
I donít have any. I go straight back home and try to work out what that was all about. I need to get out much more. I know itís a bit sad I donít do enough, but I think itís because I have a family. I feel really guilty if I go out to the pub and get pissed.
Why did you want to accept your part in The Dumb Waiter?
I pleaded to do it. I wanted to gain what knowledge I could from doing a Pinter play because I admire him very much. Itís an old play, but I tend to ignore what's been done before. I don't care. What interests me is what I can contribute. What the play is about is the struggle with power and status and where you are in the pecking order. There's a big organisation in the outside world controlling these two insignificant people locked in this room. Thereís Ben and thereís my character Gus, whoís even more insignificant.
Tell us more about Gus.
Heís trying to figure out what's going on outside that room and what that means to him and he struggles and pushes against Ben to try and gain some sort of status. But he's always crushed down because Ben appears to hold all the knowledge, and Ben meanwhile is trying to figure out why this man is always questioning his authority.
Why do you admire Harold Pinter?
He's a great writer and a very courageous person. I was fortunate enough to do a bit of Beckett a couple of years ago with Endgame, which I really enjoyed. Pinter seems a natural progression. I didn't want to meet Harold because I was too scared. They said, ďHarold will come down tomorrow if you likeĒ, and I said ďplease noĒ. But he phoned, he was on speaker phone. I just shut my mouth. "It's nice to have you doing the play," he said. And all I could say was, ďyes sir".
Do you have a favourite Pinter play?
The Caretaker is a great play. Harold is always concerned with the power of the individual and the loss of control against authority. They're quite political in a way, his plays, and I kind of like that aspect to his writing. People who come to the play can see a little bit of themselves in there because theyíre probably struggling to find out what the system is all about too. You know, why do we go to work and work for this big organisation every day, what have they got planned for me, how can I get some small inkling of benefit for meÖ? Itís that everyman thing going on.
Bill Bailey is also tackling Pinter in the West End this month in Pinter's People). What is it about Pinterís work that appeals to comedians?
The intense blackness of it and the desperation and hopelessness of the characters. I find it very funny because it just sums life up, being completely, utterly pointless and at times ridiculous. The mistake you can make with Pinter and Beckett to some extent is to take them too seriously. They were inspired by vaudeville and that sort of comedy. Iíll try to put plenty of physical stuff in. There are some opportunities for that, but already the director is calming me down - I get a lot of that!
Whatís the best advice youíve ever received?
The best advice I ever received is not to listen to any advice. And donít give ever give any. Mel Brooks used to say that as well. Just do what you want. I think thatís the best way because you need to stop worrying so much about what other people think. This play Iím doing is never going to be good enough. I was up worrying about it last night. In a seven-week run, I think maybe in about the middle of week seven I might think one night, ďyeah, that was okayĒ, but Iím never going to think itís perfect. I donít like that pressure. But I donít ever give up on something. Whatever you see is always 100 percent of what I can give right then.
What are your future plans?
Iíve just finished a film script and Iíve got to give it a quick re-write. Before this play, I was sat in a darkened room for five months doing that. Itís called Hitlerís Weatherman. Thatís what itís about, a weatherman in the Second World War. Itís based on true events. No leader or head of a country at war would ever make a decision without consulting his weatherman to see if conditions were good or bad to attack or be attacked. Unfortunately for Hitlerís weatherman, he gave slightly dodgy weather predictions, which actually changed the Second World War. Yes, meteorologists can change history. I would like to be in the film, but we havenít taken it to anybody yet. Mainly my plan for the future is just to learn more. I want to be able to contribute, not in some big meaningful way just as an individual not wanting to waste everything I might have gained over the years.
The Dumb Waiter opened on 8 February 2007 (previews from 2 February) at Trafalgar Studios, where its limited season continues until 24 March 2007.