Rees, who rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s with credits including the RSC's legendary production of Nicholas Nickleby, is now based in the States, and returns to the West End following his appearance alongside Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2010.
He has appeared on Broadway in shows such as Uncle Vanya, The Rehearsals, and Indiscretions. His other theatre credits include the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Cymbeline, The End of the Day, and A Man of No Importance; while on television he has appeared in Cheers, The Ebony Tower and The West Wing.
Rees also recently co-directed the Tony Award-winning play Peter and the Starcatcher, written by his partner Rick Elice, which has been tipped for a West End transfer.
Where were you born?
And where do you live now?
I live in New York City
What made you want to become an actor?
Seeing a photograph of Lawrence Olivier and Ralph Richardson in a production of Henry IV: Part One showing Falstaff carrying the dead body of Hotspur back to his encampment to claim that he'd killed the boy. I saw it in the 1950s and it was a production that was done in 1945 I think. It changed my life.
If you hadn't been an actor what do you think you might have done professionally?
My grandmother and my father's side were people from the countryside. My brother and I would go back to Wales every summer and live with my grandmother and sleep in the kennel in the garden next to an orchard with a boxer dog. I’m really a country person so I’d probably be running a garden centre or something. I’m a great gardener; I love plants. I’d like to live somewhere deep in the woods with some dogs and a cat or something.
What do you identify as being your first big break?
I was painting scenery and it was in the days when it wasn't so difficult to make the leap to acting. I was just a 17-year-old boy painting scenery and I got offered the chance to be in a play. Suddenly I was in a play, suddenly I was an actor; it was an extraordinary thing. I’d never acted before, I just watched other people. The great break was a person who just thought, 'I need a young boy, let me look around - oh, there’s a young boy, I’ll have him'.
Who were your early influences?
Ralph Richardson was one of my favourite actors; he had that extraordinary ability to be able to give a joke to an audience and then just retire upstage while they laughed and get on with his own life until they’d finished and then come down and carry on with the play.
Who have been your favourite co-stars?
I can’t really say because they'd be scratching my eyes out. I’ve acted with some of the greatest women; Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Allison Janney - it’s just incredible, the women I’ve been lucky enough to work with. The great Kirstie Alley in her time was one of the great actresses - a fantastic actress and a wonderful woman. But I mustn’t say who’s my favourite because I’ll be getting poisoned apple pies through the post.
What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Oliver!. I saw the original run at the New Theatre with the Sean Kenny designs, and it was really eye-opening.
What was the last thing that had a big impact on you on stage?
I was in a musical called A Man Of No Importance by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and the book was written by Terrence McNally. It was at the Mitzi E. New House Theatre here in New York, and it was greatly liked; it didn’t transfer, although I think it should have because it was a very poignant story. An amateur company in Brooklyn was doing it about six months ago, and on the same night I went to see it Lynn, Stephen and Terrence were all in the audience because we just loved this show. It was the most wonderful night because this company in Brooklyn did such a great job. It’s such incredible music.
Do you often get recognised, and if so for which roles?
I’m sort of in the middle. I think people see me but they don’t know my name. The most frightful times are when somebody comes up to me with their wife standing slightly behind them and they go, "what’s your name?", and I say "Roger Rees" and they go, "oh yes, that’s it", and he turns to his wife and he goes "Sheila, it’s Robert Rees, I knew it was!"
Cheers (see clip, right) is the one most people in America know though more universally it’s Robin Hood: Men In Tights, which everyone seemed to enjoy a lot. I like it when people don’t know who you are. I can still go to the supermarket; I think Sting can no longer go to the supermarket but I can.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young, aspiring actor what would it be?
I think it’s to answer this one question in your mind: Do you need to be an actor more than the person next to you in line? You’ve got to know that your need is greatest. And if it’s not the only thing you think you can do with your life then you should step aside and let someone else do it.
What’s your favourite book?
The Once and Future King by TH White. The descriptive passages are thrilling.
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
We don’t ever go on holiday; we live in a building with doormen and they can’t believe we’re still here in the summer because everyone else goes to the Hamptons. But we are always here because we always decide to work; our work is our holiday in a way. If I could go anywhere I’d love to go to India.
How would you describe What You Will in a nutshell?
It’s not calculated. I think at the end of the evening hopefully I would have put a little bit more humanity on stage for the people who might be frightened of Shakespeare. I think he endures because he’s the most wonderful human being; he’s a man first and foremost and then a poet.
And what’s your favourite soliloquy?
I get to do Richard II's "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground" and I also get to do The Nurse from Romeo and Juliet, which, even though it’s written in verse is actually the most colloquial, vernacular expression of a peasant woman.
The show promises accounts of the funniest disasters ever perpetrated on the stage.
Anecdotes are handed down generationally from actors; they were all about Maggie Smith but in recent years they're about other people; you just change the name of the actor in the anecdote. There are only about three funny stories that have happened on stage and you’ll be hearing them in the show.
What’s your favourite anecdote?
You’ll have to come to the show. It’s people exiting through the fireplace if the door gets stuck, that sort of thing - people trying to cover at the last minute. I remember once a character had shaved his moustache off, but the actor forgot to take it off, so he walked on with his moustache still on and said, "Oh, I’m growing it again!" It’s marvellous. I’ve got another programme coming on about acting which is full of stuff I couldn’t get into the Shakespeare show.
Any fabulous mishaps you can recall?
In that very famous Macbeth I did with Judi Dench directed by Trevor Nunn where I played Malcolm, I remember when I'd broken my foot in The Winter’s Tale and that night I had to go on as Malcolm. I was told I couldn’t walk and had to be in a wheelchair. The wheelchair they gave me was bright blue - the one colour you wouldn’t want to have on stage due to the colour scheme. Judi and I looked at each other and could barely keep it together.
What's your take on the US election?
I love Barack Obama. He’s a really good man and I think he’s up against a lot of troubles. I certainly wouldn’t want to endorse anyone who wants to become president who wants to close down any artistic enterprise because I think the imagination is the soul of the country; I believe the Republicans want to take all the money out of the arts.
Do you think Peter and the Starcatcher will transfer to the West End?
I think it’s going to go all over the world. People are very excited about it; it’s really thrilling. It’s a play that doesn’t patronise its audience - it absolutely asks them to join in. There are two songs in it like a Noel Coward play or a Brecht play and people come out and they say, “I feel like I’ve seen a musical”. It’s because it’s a really theatrical thing, and it flatters the audience because it asks them to join in, so I think that’s an irresistible concoction that people want all over the world. I think it’s a universal attraction. Peter Pan is one of our artefacts; it’s within us all. There’s a Peter Pan syndrome. He belongs to everyone and he’s there in our lives; we associate with him.
To hear more from Roger, come on our hosted Whatsonstage.com Outing on Thursday 27 September 2012 and get your top-price ticket and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with Roger Rees - plus a signed poster with each booking - all for the INCREDIBLE price of just £27.50! (Normally £41.85 for ticket alone). Click here for details.