Hollywood actor Matthew Lillard was waiting tables when he got his first big break, playing the son of crazed killer Kathleen Turner in John Waters’ 1994 black comedy Serial Mom. Two years later, Lillard picked up the knife himself in the film that brought him widespread recognition, Wes Craven’s spoof slasher flick, Scream.

Amongst the other 30-odd movies Lillard has made to date are: Mad Love, Hackers, Dead Man’s Curve, Senseless, SLC Punk!, Wing Commander, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Perfect Score and Scooby Doo as well as its sequel, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

Despite his screen acting success, Lillard’s real passion is for the stage. He’s helped to form several theatre ensemble companies both in New York, where he studied at the Circle in the Square school, and in Los Angeles.

Lillard came to London to make his professional stage debut in the Almeida’s 2000 production of Neil LaBute’s Bash. He returned to the UK this year for the European premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers, which has now transferred to the West End’s Arts Theatre following initial dates in Birmingham. Directed by Angus Jackson, the offbeat comedy is the first offering from Sam Mendes’ post-Donmar Warehouse production company, Scamp Ltd.

Date & place of birth
Born 24 January 1970 in Lansing, Michigan.

Trained at…
American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, California, and Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York.

Lives now in…
Pasadena, California. While I’m in London, I’m staying in a very nice area, though I’d rather not say where. Let’s just say, I don’t think I’m going to be mugged on the way home.

First big break
The third audition I ever had was for a movie called Serial Mom, a John Waters film with Kathleen Turner. The next day I went into my job waiting tables, quit and never went back – yet. Be sure to add the yet at the end of that sentence!

Career highlights to date
The first one was Scream because nobody expected that movie to be anything of anything. The second was an independent film I did called SLC Punk!, which was great because I was carrying the movie and it went to Sundance. And then, Love’s Labour’s Lost with Kenneth Branagh. Those have been my three film highlights. Fuddy Meers, being on stage in a West End premiere, has been a great experience too.

Favourite stage productions you’ve ever worked on
I don’t do a lot of stage so both of the professional plays I’ve done, Fuddy Meers and Bash, have been favourites. They’ve been the chances in my life to go back and do something I love. It’s really the difference between your day job, which for me is film, and your passion, which is theatre.

Why do you prefer theatre to film?
At the end of the day, in film, you have no control over your performance. They can cut things or put things together to make you look any which way. Ultimately, they’re in complete control. The great thing about theatre is, whatever happens, from when the curtain goes up until the curtain goes down, you know it’s just you and your ensemble.

In terms of Hollywood movie stars - not that I’m a big Hollywood movie star - going back to the stage is not something that all of them can do. Movie stars generally are good-looking, they hit their mark and they make the right face. But when you get on stage, all of that pomp and circumstance, all the spin and all the publicity that’s behind making someone a movie star, really it goes out the window when you have to stand up and say a line every night and convince people that you’re in the world of the play. And that’s the thing I love about going back to the stage. It’s the challenge.

As an American, what, if anything, is special about performing on the London stage?
The West End has a prestige about it, but to be honest, it’s the same with Broadway. It just so happens that the only two times I’ve ever been paid as an actor on stage have been in London – with Bash and now Fuddy Meers. But Broadway, I feel, would be just as big an accomplishment.

Favourite co-stars
In this play, I have a puppet called Hinky Binky. He upstages me a lot, but that’s okay, I’m getting used to it - I worked with a CGI dog named Scooby Doo for six months! It’s definitely a challenge working with them. You have to use the imagination - all the tools you knew as a kid and that you learned in acting school - but in a different way. With Scooby Doo, it’s an $80 million movie, and you’re basically squinting and using your imagination. It’s a very funny experience.

Favourite directors
Kenneth Branagh was great, I love him. And Angus Jackson has been probably the most exciting director I’ve worked with since Branagh.

Favourite playwrights
I’ve always been a big fan of Christopher Durang, David Rabe - I’d love to do Hurlyburly - and Athol Fugard. We produced Fugard’s Statements After the Arrest Under the Immorality Act in Los Angeles with a theatre company I was a director of.

What stage roles would you most like to play still?
I’d love to do Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice and, at some point, I want to play Katurian in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which I saw at the National. David Tennant was unbelievable in that. My big dream has always been to be on that first page of a play – you know, “first performed by such-and-such name at such-and-such time, such-and-such place”. I’d like to be that guy.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I don’t get to see much theatre. Los Angeles is pretty much devoid of any true theatre. I make a pilgrimage once or twice a year to Broadway to see plays and I see pretty much everything every night. When I got to London at the start of rehearsals, we tried to see as much as possible. We saw a lot including The Pillowman, Jerry Springer - The Opera, which was funny, and Festen, which I thought was probably one of the best plays I’ve ever seen in my life.

What would you advise the government – British or American - to secure the future of theatre?
Well, if you don’t do something, then movie stars are going to take over and we’ll just be doing rehashes of big hit movies in the theatre. And that’s not what it’s about. Theatre’s always been a place where you challenge society and you change things. And yes also, included in that, is escapism. What it shouldn’t be is a place where When Harry Met Sally gets remade.

Look, Fuddy Meers is a great example of the problem. We have a new play, it’s from New York where it was a big hit, but here the critics hated it and we’re getting shut down. It’s a shame because the play’s great and people love it, but because of the culture and how it is right now, both in the West End and on Broadway, it’s impossible to keep a play open. So what’s going to happen is theatres are going to keep turning to bigger and bigger stars like Madonna. It’s not a slam on Madonna but, I mean, that’s not how great theatre is borne. Britney Spears is just not going to bring you Mother Courage in the same way somebody else will. The writing’s on the wall. Commercialism is going to destroy the arts unless governments do something. Boy, I can get really angry really fast. Sorry.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d have to say Martin Luther King during the famous march on Washington DC in 1963. To be there on that extraordinary “I have a dream…” day.

Favourite holiday destinations
Santa Barbara, California. It’s an hour from LA and, when you have a kid, it makes all the difference to be able to get away to a beautiful place without having to get on a plane. My daughter is two and my wife and I have another one coming in October.

Favourite books
In no particular order: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

Favourite after-show haunts
In London, Joe Allen’s and the Century club.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
A teacher, probably teaching acting at college level.

Why did you want to accept your part in Fuddy Meers?
I was looking for an ensemble piece. I didn’t want go back to the stage for the first time in four years and have it be “Matthew Lillard in …”. I wanted to be surrounded by great people. So when this came along I realised it wasn’t the biggest part but it was a great part that would give me a great opportunity every night to play and have fun in an ensemble experience where it wasn’t just me carrying the show. And my character, Millet, is a trip. He’s a guy that was abused as a child and has this very un-PC hand-puppet that says all the things he can’t say. There’s something nice about playing a character who’s really vulnerable but with a forked tongue. Yin and yang. He’s both.

What’s your favourite line from Fuddy Meers?
“Fuckin’ nuns, I hate ‘em.” Actually that’s not true, that’s my favourite line that I say. My favourite line in the whole play is probably: “Your cousin introduced us at Zippy Burger”.

What are your plans for the future?
My wife is having a baby in October. Otherwise I don’t know. The challenge as an actor is just to keep working. The goal right now is endurance: stick around and do good work.

Is that likely to include more theatre in the near future?
I’d love to do more theatre, but the reality is it’s hard to climb the ladder of success in Hollywood so to take time out for yourself and do theatre is difficult. Every time you get out of Hollywood – out of sight, out of mind – it feels like you fall five rungs on the ladder.

- Matthew Lillard was talking to Terri Paddock

Fuddy Meers is now playing at the West End’s Arts Theatre, where it opened on 25 May 2004 (previews from 12 May), following an initial run at Birmingham Rep from 16 April to 8 May 2004.