After leaving drama school, actor Giles Terera joined the special ensemble company set up at the National Theatre by then-artistic director Trevor Nunn. During the 1999/2000 season, the NT Ensemble presented six new productions, with Terera appearing in three of them: Troilus and Cressida, Candide and Darker Face of the Earth. He followed this up by taking the title role in the Olivier Award-winning NT production of Stiles and Drewe’s musical Honk! The Ugly Duckling.

Terera’s West End musical credits include Rent, 125th Street, Jailhouse Rock and The Rat Pack, the last two of which both earned him Theatregoers’ Choice Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical (for his performance Quickly Robinson) and Best Takeover in a Role (for his Sammy Davis Jr), respectively.

Elsewhere, Terera’s other stage credits include The Tempest, Six Degrees of Separation, Bill Shakespeare’s Italian Job, Demon Headmaster, The Animals of Farthing, You Don’t Kiss and Up on the Roof.

Terera is now back in the West End, playing one-time child star Gary Coleman from TV’s Different Strokes in the West End premiere of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical comedy Avenue Q.

Date & place of birth
Born 14 December 1976 in Hackney, east London.

Lives now in
Alexandra Palace, north London.

Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I don’t know really why I wanted to be an actor. It was something I always did as a kid, doing school productions and everything. But it never entered my head until I left school that it would be something I could do professionally.

First big break
That would be at the National. I was about 22. I’d just left drama school for a couple of months, I’d done one job, and then I got an audition at the National. I went along and auditioned for Trevor Nunn, John Caird and Peter Darling. I was really nervous. They were doing the whole Ensemble ‘99 thing with 50 actors. I got the job. We spent the year doing six plays and I was in three, working with people like Simon Russell Beale, Roger Allam, Dennis Quilley, Henry Goodman and Patricia Hodge. It was 50 of the best actors in the country, so I had a good schooling. I was the youngest. I made lots of really good friends, and worked with lots of great people. It was an amazing year. At the end of that year, they added two more productions, Honk! The Ugly Duckling and The Villains’ Opera. Julia Mackenzie was directing Honk!, which I auditioned for. The part of the cat was the one I really liked when I read it, but some friends of mine said “no no no, you have to go for the part of the ugly duckling”. So I went for it and got it. Up until that point, when I joined the National, it was completely as ensemble spear carrier. Then, at the end of the year, I got my first lead in Honk!. So I guess that’s my big break.

Career highlights to date
That year at the National was pretty special, really special. Playing Ariel at the RSC was also great. Shakespeare has always been my first love, it’s what I am most passionate about. So to do that and perform with Philip Voss, who is one of the best I think, and travel the world with it… great. Performing in Las Vegas two years ago was really, really crazy. When I was doing Jailhouse Rock, they sent me and the guy who played Elvis out for a couple of days to do a half-hour promo. I’d never been to Las Vegas before. We flew out, stayed in Caesar’s Palace and performed there, and then we flew back. That was the craziest thing ever.

Do you have any difficulty switching from Shakespeare to musicals?
The way I look at it is that both are storytelling. The basics are the same and apply to both, a character is a character: a story is a story, wants are wants, needs are needs. People will pigeonhole you in acting. It’s so compartmentalised. If you stay too long doing one thing, people won’t look at you for anything else. I try to make different choices all the time, and I try to maintain contact with people who aren’t in musicals. It is difficult, though, it’s something you have to concentrate on.

Favourite co-star
Denis Quilley (who died in 2003). I absolutely loved him, he was just the best. At the National, he was the oldest member of the Ensemble and I was the youngest. He took me under his wing, he was just really good to me. We would chat and he would tell me old National Theatre stories. But more than that, he was a professional who I really looked up to. He’d been doing it all his life and his professionalism was what struck me most. I learned so much from him.

Favourite directors
Trevor Nunn is brilliant. I’ve worked with him three times now, I like working with him. He’s tireless for a start. And I’ve never heard him raise his voice – he doesn’t have to, he can command a room of 50 actors without any effort. His notes as well… he’s just brilliant, I love the way he works. James Macdonald I really like working with. He did The Tempest, and I’ve worked with him a bit this year at the National Theatre Studio. He’s great.

Favourite playwrights/musical writers
Shakespeare’s got everything, his well never runs dry, is what I always think. No matter who you are as an actor, you can always find it in Shakespeare. I like Harold Pinter as well. For musicals, Stephen Sondheim because he’s just amazing.

What roles would you most like to play still?
In musicals there’s nothing that I feel I’d really like to play. There are some play parts, though. I did Six Degrees of Separation at the Sheffield Crucible, and I’d like to have another go at that. Also, I’d love to play Belize in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. And of course, there are lots of Shakespeare roles: Romeo, Mercutio, Hamlet, and the fools. I like the fools, particularly the one in King Lear.

What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact? And the first?
I saw Hay Fever with Judi Dench last week and thought it was very well done. The last thing I really, really enjoyed was Doubt with Eileen Atkins on Broadway in February. The first thing I saw was… well, actually it was sort of two things. When I was a kid, my mother took me to the Palladium to see the comedian Russ Abbot, who was massive at the time. I remember going and just the entire building rocking with laughter. That made a big impression on me. But the first thing I went to see on my own was Five Guys Named Moe, which was here (at the then Albery). I’d just gone to drama school and I got a ticket up in the gods. Sometimes even now in the warm-up I look up and try to see which seat it was I sat in and I think I can pick it out. So coming to perform here was a big old hair-raising experience.

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I’ve no idea. I don’t think I’m good at anything else. I’d probably busk somewhere, take my guitar and busk. I have recorded some stuff, but I don’t think there’s enough material for people to buy. I used to have a band called Giles and the Stand and we used to gig all round London.

What would you advise the government – or the industry – to secure the future of British theatre?
We could do with a stronger actors’ union. Sometimes I look at how strong the musicians’ union is and I wish our union was better at dealing with the problems that actors face, especially in the West End. There’s a situation I’ve been aware of recently where a touring production has come in, it hasn’t been Equity contracted and people haven’t been paid. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen. It shouldn’t be the case that performers are performing and not being paid - management companies shouldn’t be able to take such liberties, especially not in a West End production. That’s a rare incident, but it still happens.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
George Bush, just to hear what was said behind those closed doors. I think what’s actually said off the record, not what the public hears, must be quite terrifying… and probably hilarious. Which is why Michael Moore is so good, because he captures that terrifying hilarity of the whole situation.

Favourite books
Their Eyes Were Watching God by an American writer called Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote in the 1930s. That’s my favourite that I read at least once a year, it’s just brilliant. Also The Catcher in the Rye, The Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick and Frankenstein. They’re all sort of journey books. My favourite books are all novels, but I don’t really read that much fiction. It’s mostly non-fiction stuff for me unless someone recommends something.

Favourite after-show haunts
Joe Allen’s. The pianist Jimmy never lets me leave without singing something.

Favourite websites! You can always rely on it. The crazy people on the Discussion Forum make me giggle, it’s so gossipy. But the thing I love about your site is that it’s done with love, it’s all for the good of theatre, for theatre lovers by theatre lovers, and it’s informative. Other favourites? Anything involving porn! (He laughs, in reference to Trekkie Monster, in Avenue Q.) I’m going to join the 21st-century soon and get a laptop. I log on every day at the internet café, but I need a laptop.

Why did you want to accept your part in Avenue Q?
It made me laugh out loud, which things don’t do – or very rarely do. My agent said, “there’s this thing called Avenue Q”. I’d sort of heard about it from friends, but then I went and got the cast recording. I listened to it and I loved the material, I loved the writing, I thought it was very funny, very fresh. And then I heard who the character was.

How familiar were you with the real Gary Coleman?
I watched Different Strokes like everyone else as a kid. I loved it because of this little black kid, and you didn’t see many black kids on telly at that point. And it was funny. But, unlike in America, we didn’t get what happened to Gary Coleman after that. We saw Different Strokes and that’s it. If you told most people here he was dead, they’d believe you. But in America, it’s been quite public how he’s gone on to have this non-career. Initially, when I accepted the job, the character I was going to be playing wasn’t Gary Coleman at all. On Broadway, Gary Coleman was played by a woman and they weren’t quite happy with that for some reason. They wanted to completely change things and have it played by a man, so that’s when I got on board.

How did the part come back to being Gary Coleman?
First my character was going to be Job, then it was just Gary with a similar trajectory to Gary Coleman but it wasn’t specifically him. And then during week two of previews, the director Jason Moore said “okay, we’re going to try something, we’re going to try having him as Gary Coleman”. And I said “yes, great!” Because up until that point it had been a bit weird and the audience seemed confused by the whole thing. Most people here know who Gary Coleman is, and if they don’t, they at least know Different Strokes because loads of people watched it. Once we changed it back to Gary Coleman, it worked better from then on. The audiences laugh so they obviously know who he is and they get the joke.

You’re one of three human characters in Avenue Q. Are you jealous of the puppeteers?
At the end of the first week, the others put their puppets on and demonstrated what they’d been doing in puppet school the week before, which was miming to “YMCA”. It was absolutely brilliant and hilarious and touching. I bought into it straight away. They were saying “yeah well, we’re not great at it yet, we’ve only had a week”, but they had it immediately and I just thought wow, what a great skill to have. And for a few seconds, I was jealous – until they all started complaining of shoulder ache! The puppeteers have to have physio once a week. I love watching them but it’s very hard work and I don’t know how good I’d be at it. These guys sort of make it look easy but obviously not everyone can do it. They must have seen hundreds of people for these parts and they’ve really picked the best ones for it. I’ve got nothing but admiration for them. They each do two or three different puppets as well, which is really hard.

What are your future plans?
I’m contracted here until next year. After that, I’d like to do a good new play. I’ve been saying that for a while. I did some radio recently and I’d forgotten how much fun radio was, so I’d like to do some more of that, too. I’d also still like to have a crack at LA some day, but who knows.

Avenue Q is at the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre (formerly the Albery).