Birmingham-born actor Matt Rawle’s extensive work in the West End includes Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Martin Guerre at the Prince Edward Theatre; and Hard Times at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
At the National, he has had roles in Mother Clap's Molly House and Almost Like Being in Love, while his other London credits Hello Again at the Bridewell Theatre, Into the Woods at the Donmar Warehouse, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Camelot at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, Treasure Island at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Go Between at the Pleasance Theatre. Elsewhere, he has appeared in Putting It Together, South Pacific, Alice in Wonderland, Les Miserables and Carmen.
Rawle is now starring in Assassins, directed by Nikolai Foster at the Sheffield Crucible. Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical comedy is set in Dallas, November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald, panicking and alone, lifts a gun to his own head and prepares to die. Everyone who has ever tried to kill the President of the United States appears to try and change his mind.
In June, Rawle will star in Michael Grandage’s much-anticipated West End revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, playing narrator Che alongside Philip Quast as General Juan Peron and Elena Roger as Eva Peron.
Date & place of birth
Born on 10 March 1974 in Birmingham.
Lives now in
North London. I’ve been there for 15 years. I live with my partner (The actress Julie-Alanah Brighten).
Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.
What made you first decide to become an actor?
I didn’t want to be an actor at first. I wanted to be musician because I played piano from a very early age, I think from when I was about four, so that’s what I wanted to do before sixth form. I was a very keen musician and I played in bands, but in the sixth form I sort of drifted into acting. I did theatre studies and performing arts at school and had a very keen and exciting and inspirational teacher who taught me singing at the time and I got turned on to it that way. I had drama school auditions and got in - I only applied at a couple – and when I got in I thought, "I might as well do that, then". It wasn’t any kind of epiphany. I am glad I’ve done it now, though. I never thought seriously about anything at that age so I guess whatever I ended up doing I would have drifted into it.
First big break
My first job was when I was still at drama school. I was about to leave and I was starting to go to open auditions and went to an open audition for Miss Saigon. A good friend of mine rushed up onto the stage and was rather positive about what he’d seen in my audition, so I left drama school early to go for that. And I went to work in the West End, which was very lucky, really.
Career highlights to date
Meeting Julie in Chichester. We met five years ago doing Putting It Together and had a torrid affair – no, we didn’t really - but we’re getting married next year.
If you hadn’t become involved with theatre, what might you have done professionally?
I don’t know. I could probably see myself working in fashion or something like that, I’d love to own my own shop. My mum’s a florist. She used to own her own shop and I used to work there and help her out with flowers and fruit - it’s very rewarding working for yourself. I think I’ll end up doing that instead of acting at some point in the future. I’d love to set up a shop, probably somewhere like Bristol or Oxford. You can’t work these things out, though. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that life never happens the way you plan and expect, especially if you’re an actor.
Apart from Julie… I once worked with a parrot. I did Treasure Island at the Lyric Hammersmith and he used to sit on Long John’s shoulder. He was well behaved all through rehearsals, but when we started previewing the show he started swearing and shitting everywhere - so the parrot got fired and we ended up with a stuffed one! I guess he must have picked the swearing up from the cast.
Declan Donnellan, without a doubt. He’s a complete inspiration to any young actor. I worked with him about ten years ago. His way of working and his philosophy on acting has been absolutely invaluable to me. Also, you can learn a lot from working with other good actors and he seems to attract some really good ones.
Favourite playwrights or musical writers
Tennessee Williams is my favourite and I also like Arthur Miller. I suppose the heat and the heart, it’s quite passionate and fiery, is what I love about their writing. I just relate to it and find the text really rich.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’d love to play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. I love Marlon Brando in that film. You can never emulate what he did, but I’d love to play the role; and it’s a great piece. I don’t really have any ambitions or desire to play Hamlet. I’ve seen it done lots of times already by extremely good actors. Although I’d quite like to play Julius Caesar, that would be cool. I would like to do more Shakespeare.
What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford was the first. We used to go there quite a lot as it was round the corner from us when I was a kid. I do remember enjoying it. It wasn’t life-changing or anything, but I did really enjoy his performance, that’s probably my earliest memory of theatre. Recently, I really enjoyed Death of a Salesman, which blew me away.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give the film and theatre industries more money and backing because they have nothing to work with. And encourage young writers and give them more money. The National Theatre does that, but we need to do it more. I wouldn’t have been able to get to drama school if I hadn’t had a grant from the government - my family didn’t have enough money to get me through drama school - and they don’t give that sort of money to people any more so actors from less well-off backgrounds are not able to go, which is ridiculous.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would like to be a surgeon. I think, being an actor, I’m quite self absorbed and I’d like to be completely selfless for a day and give someone something as important as that. A lot of people make what we do as actors more important than it actually is; we’re just entertainers and to be something like that, to be a surgeon or a nurse and support people through their most difficult times, is invaluable. People’s health is so important.
I’m a terrible reader. I start to read the first chapter of most books and then get bored! I have been reading a book recently about Che Guevara and his revolutionary life and that was probably one of the thickest books I’ve read, but I managed to get through that one because I’m researching the role for Evita. It wasn’t really a page turner. I read the first two chapters of The Da Vinci Code which seemed pretty entertaining. And I read a Bob Dylan biography… but I tend to start things and move on.
Favourite holiday destinations
Italy. I went there about two years ago and we went to Florence and had an amazing time and the art and the culture there is just amazing. Tuscany is beautiful, the wine is good and it’s a thrilling place, I really enjoyed it. For our honeymoon, I want to go to Cuba, but Julie doesn’t really want to go because she thinks I’ll get a bit involved in research and stuff for Evita. So Italy is an option, but we’ll chew it over - it won’t be until next year so there’s no rush at the moment!
I use Ebay to buy all sorts of nonsense and I use a lot of music websites and fashion websites - I’m terrible for buying clothes.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be nice to people. I know that’s an obvious thing, but good manners go a long way. If you’re nice and polite to people, the world is a slightly better place.
Why did you want to accept your part in Assassins?
I’d seen the show twice before and enjoyed it. I saw it at the Donmar when I was a student. The reason I so wanted to do it now, apart from the fact it’s a good piece, is that it fits in perfectly with my next job! And I do like Sondheim. Also Nikolai Foster is meant to be pretty good so that’s another reason to do it - if it’s a good director it’s more than likely going to be a good experience.
This is your third Stephen Sondheim musical - after Putting It Together & Into the Woods. What do you think makes Sondheim so popular?
I actually don’t think he is that popular, only amongst actors and actresses, because he’s not really a commercial writer, I don’t think. I like him because his lyrics and music are always very rich, and his shows are really good to get your teeth into. That’s why actors like performing Sondheim, because it’s very well written and thought-out musical theatre.
How would you describe the character of the Balladeer? How did you research the role?
He’s sort of based on American singer-songwriters like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and more modern-day ones too like Rufus Wainwright. America has this great history of singer-songwriters who used to sing about American history. My character is sort of the narrator, talking about the Vietnam War and up until the Twin Towers fell, so he comes at it very much from today and the songs span that entire time. It’s important to know about each of the assassins, and then you can have a take on them, whether you like them or not, and inform the audience with your opinion… but you could spend eight weeks talking about history and still need to actually do the play. So you read about these things and try and forget about them at the same time. Ultimately, it’s about how you feel in that moment.
What are your plans for the future?
Evita. That came about from auditioning for Michael Grandage on many occasions in the past and not getting the job. They were seeing people for Che. I presumed someone like Will Young had got it, I thought it was going to be a ‘name’. But Michael is a bit classier than that. I presumed it was cast and they weren’t interested, but I wrote to Michael anyway, and three auditions later I got the gig! I don’t usually do that sort of thing, but if you know the director, that’s a way in. When they were casting, I thought, "that’s a part I’m really right for". I had an idea of what it should be. If it hadn’t gone my way, I wouldn’t have been gutted but I thought at the time, "yeah, I can do this". If you’ve got that kind of feeling, you know it is right. Sometimes I go in and think "I’m never going to get this", and I usually know if I’m right for a part. If I think I won’t get it, then I usually won’t. Other than Evita, my only plans at the moment are getting married and having children.
- Matt Rawle was speaking to Caroline Ansdell