After landing his first television role at the age of 12, actor Joe McFadden went on to several other TV jobs, including a five-year stint from the age of 15 in the series Take the High Road, which was popular in his native Scotland.
It was his subsequent starring role, as Prentice McHoan, in the TV mini-series The Crow Road, based on the Iain Banks novel of the same name, that brought him wider recognition in the UK.
McFadden’s other screen credits have included: on television, Bumping the Odds, The Law, The Glass, Sparkhouse, Raphael and Sex, Chips and Rock ‘n’ Roll; and on film, Small Faces, Dad Savage and The Trouble with Men and Women.
On stage, McFadden has appeared in productions of Entertaining Mr Sloane, A Christmas Carol, Fifteen Seconds and A Life in the Theatre. He made his musical theatre debut in the West End production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent.
McFadden is currently taking the title role in Aladdin at the West End’s Old Vic, where the rest of the all-star cast includes Roger Allam, Maureen Lipman, Sam Kelly and, making his pantomime debut as the dame, Widow Twankey, Ian McKellen.
Date & place of birth
Born 9 October 1975 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Now lives in…
Highgate, north London.
I didn’t train. I did my first telly when I was 12 and then I just getting more roles. I started Take the High Road, which is what I’m probably best known for in Scotland, when I was 15 and did that for five years. Sometimes I do miss not having the training, but you can learn yourself on the job.
First big break
I guess it was getting the job on Taggart when I was 12. That’s when acting became a possibility. I never thought again about what I was going to do with my life. I did The Crow Road when I was 20 and that was a whole new ballpark. After that, I moved down to London and got an agent here.
Career highlights to date
It was a big thing doing Rent in London. That opened up the world of singing to me. It was something I really enjoyed and people were willing to employ me to do it. I did that show for a year. That was an education in itself, figuring out how to make something work for that amount of time.
In January 2004, I was in A Life in the Theatre, the David Mamet two-hander which they’re about to do in the West End. It’s about two actors and there are lots of excerpts from different types of plays within the play – Restoration comedy, drama, farce – which made it really interesting. I did it with Jimmy Chisholm, the fantastic Scottish actor, at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. I’ve done a few plays in Scotland now. I also did Fifteen Seconds at the Traverse. I’d definitely like to do something at the National Theatre of Scotland once that opens. There’s a real buzz about it.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
That was at the Theatre Clywd in Wales. I was in the first repertory season Terry Hands did there. I played Sloane in Terry’s production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. For an actor, that’s a fantastic play to do. There are only four of you on stage. Technically, it’s difficult but very rewarding.
Sarah Smart (from At Home with the Braithwaites) is a good friend of mine. We did Sparkhouse together on telly. Doing Aladdin now with Ian McKellen is fantastic, too. He’s such a lovely, generous man. It’s a real education, and a privilege, to learn from someone who has such enthusiasm for the work.
Roxana Silbert, who directed Fifteen Seconds at the Traverse. She has such a light touch. With her, work isn’t an effort. She’s very guiding, clear and concise.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Ones that make me rich! (laughs) I just feel lucky to do what I’m doing, which is a wide range of parts. There’s nothing worse than playing the same thing over and over again.
What differences do you find performing on stage versus film or TV?
It’s a completely different style of working. The lovely thing about film and TV is that it’s so fast and you’re doing different things every day, but you don’t have much control. With a play, it’s great to chat to the rest of the cast and decide your characters’ backstories. And performing live in front of an audience every night … well, it’s terrifying but really exciting at the same time. Every actor should do theatre. It’s the purest form of acting.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don’t know. Give us more money? Encourage more new writing? That’s what’s so great about the Traverse in Edinburgh. I think it’s very exciting what’s happening here at the Old Vic. It’s really shaking things up in the West End. And it’s fantastic to do a panto in London.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I think I’d be Robert Burns for a day. Lots of drink and nice women. He knew how to live. Just don’t ask me to write poetry.
Favourite holiday destinations
Just before Aladdin, I went to the Dominican Republic. It was amazing.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. It was so shocking because it was told from a child’s point of view.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
No idea. I have no skills whatsoever apart from acting – if I have any skills in that area! Maybe a chef. I do like cooking.
Why did you want to accept your part in this production of Aladdin?
I never thought I’d do panto again – never say never! This was too tempting an offer to resist because of the strength of the cast alone. And getting the opportunity to work in this building was a big attraction.
Why do you think pantomime is important?
It’s important because it’s the first time that a lot of kids go to the theatre, and it’s light-hearted family entertainment. The first panto I saw was Mother Goose at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. I was 14, which is quite late really, but my family weren’t at all a theatregoing family.
How would you describe pantomime to a foreigner?
I honestly don’t know how to describe it. It’s uniquely British, isn’t it? Would a foreigner who hadn’t seen it understand? I think there’s something in it for everyone – comedy, romance, music. What I’d say is, if there are aspects of panto you don’t like, don’t worry, they’ll be over in a flash.
What’s your favourite line from this new version of Aladdin?
There are lots of great lines. I couldn’t say a favourite. My favourite song is “I Believe in You”, which the Princess (played by Cat Simmons) and I sing together. Elton John wrote it especially for the show.
What’s the funniest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals of Aladdin?
Nothing I can repeat! Rehearsals were hard work. It was like putting together a whole new musical – lots of dancing and singing – in three weeks. Myself and Ian get to have a bit of jig at one point in the show. That’s fun. It’s also good that we’re all using our own accents in the show. The Princess is from Manchester, Ian’s Widow Twankey is from Wigan and my Aladdin is definitely Scottish. It’s a diverse mix. I like that. It gives the production a real London feel.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a show on BBC1 in February. It’s an afternoon play, a little comedy called Reverse Psychology.
Aladdin continues at the Old Vic until 23 January 2005.