Andy Nyman is one of showbusiness’ real Renaissance men – a director, writer, voiceover artist and magician as well as an actor.
His stage acting credits include Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Call in the Night and The Merchant of Venice (all at West Yorkshire Playhouse), The Gingerbread Lady (Watford Palace) and A Slice of Saturday Night (Arts). On screen, he’s been seen in TV’s Peak Practice, New Voices, Birds of a Feather and The Bill, and the films The Brother’s Bloom, Wild Romance, Shut Up and Shoot Me, Coney Island Baby and the forthcoming Death at a Funeral, which also stars Matthew Macfadyen.
Nyman is also one of the creators of “mentalist” Derren Brown’s TV shows. He co-wrote three series of Trick of the Mind as well as the one-off specials Russian Roulette, Séance and Messiah. He also co-wrote and directed both of Brown's stage shows, both of which toured and transferred to the West End. The second, Something Wicked This Way Comes, had a sell-out season at the Cambridge Theatre in 2005 and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. Nyman is also a magician himself and a member of the Magic Circle.
After a nine-year absence, Nyman has now returned to the stage to play legendary Hollywood movie mogul David O Selznick in the British premiere of Ron Hutchinson’s comedy Moonlight and Magnolias, which was first seen at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2004. Selznick has just shut down production of Gone With the Wind. Determined to rewrite the script, he engages the reluctant services of “script doctor” Ben Hecht, who has never read the book, and director Victor Fleming, poached straight from the set of The Wizard of Oz. His reputation on the line, and with nothing but a stockpile of peanuts and bananas, Selznick locks the three men into his office and a marathon creative session begins.
Date & place of birth
Born 13 April 1966 in Leicester.
Lives now in
Hammersmith, west London.
Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
What made you want to become an actor?
Absolutely no idea. Something in the psyche somewhere, but I’ve no idea what.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
If I wouldn’t have been an actor - or a magician, a voiceover artist or a director - I’d have wanted to be a singing impressionist. I loved Mike Yarwood when I was a kid. Loved Joe Longthorne. I think it’s the most amazing thing, impressionism. I love the modern stuff too, but there’s something very showbiz about the old guys. The other thing I’d love to do is circus strongman. I’m very interested in that world of circus freak stuff is something I’m very drawn to – walking on coals, walking on glass, hammering nails up your nose…
Derren Brown has called you his “favourite mentalist in the world”. What’s the difference between a mentalist & a magician?
What Derren’s show is, that world of mind-reading and influence that Derren inhabits, is what mentalism is. I’m telling you, Derren is the best mentalist in the world. But I wouldn’t describe myself as a mentalist. I’m an actor. Acting is above everything else and always has been, always will be for me. The rest of it is just a fantastic, wonderful hobby that has allowed me the freedom that I think so few actors have, which is the freedom to be able to make choices in your career. Directing is something I’m very interested in, so winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment in 2006 felt like the nicest thing to happen to your hobby. I’m so, so lucky and I’ve always been aware of that. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I never ever take it for granted. I hate moaning, I hate actors who moan – it drives me mad!
First big break
To me, there are two types of big break. The first is what makes you famous and what puts you really up there for the public. I haven’t had that – no one knows who I am really and truly. In terms of what shifted my head into thinking I’ve achieved what I always wanted to achieve, that was the movie Dead Babies. It’s got cult status, in the States its kind of known, and in my head that was a huge thing for me because up until that movie, which was nine years ago, I’d really been a jobbing actor and I’d been doing a lot of okay parts, a few bits and bobs in the theatre and on TV. But I’d always wanted to play a lead in a film, and when that happened, that was a huge shift for me then in my head. I’d accomplished my goal in life so then I thought, “what do I do now?”. For me, working in film was all I wanted to do from then on.
Career highlights to date
I did a movie for NBC called Uprising, which won an Emmy. That was about the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. That was a huge thing. I got to work with Jon Voight, Donald Sutherland, David Schwimmer and Hank Azaria. I’m Jewish and my heritage is Russian-Polish. Filming in Eastern Europe about Poland and about what would have happened to my ancestors was a real highlight. That was extraordinary.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
A movie I’m in called Death at a Funeral opens here on 2 November. It’s already open in America and Frank Oz directed it. Working with Frank Oz was amazing. People who are truly legends - it’s great just getting to meet them, let alone become a friend and a colleague and someone you work with and collaborate with. I’m never ever blasé about any of that stuff. How lucky I am to do that.
I absolutely loved working with Matthew Macfadyen on my last movie. I just loved him so much. I did a film called Shut Up and Shoot Me. It did very well at the festivals and I won my first acting award for that. The guy who starred opposite me in that was called Karel Roden. He’s kind of like De Niro in the Czech Republic – he’s a huge, huge star there – he was also just phenomenal to work with.
Frank Oz on Death at a Funeral. Sean Holmes, on this, has been a remarkable director. So good he makes it look easy – just effortless. Nothing’s too much trouble, everything’s good natured, it’s good fun and somehow he comes up with endless good ideas.
I love David Mamet. Absolutely love him. I’m more sort of drawn to American playwrights than English playwrights. I did a play years ago called Lone Star – it’s just been redone at the King’s Head – James McClure is a brilliant writer. I also love Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets. And I love Arthur Miller – oh my god, love him!
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I just saw Avenue Q – really liked that. I’m going to see Parade just a week after I finish this. The last thing we saw that I absolutely loved was The Seafarer at the National which was superb. And I saw The Pain and the Itch with Matthew Macfadyen at the Royal Court and really liked that too.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Business-wise it was on the very first job a did, a play at the Watford Palace. An actor who was working with me said that I should keep a database of everybody who you ever meet work-wise, auditions and stuff, because within five years you’ll forget. I’ve actually done that, kept a database for 20 years now of anybody who I’ve ever auditioned for or met. That’s been so useful.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Bloody hell. So many possible answers, difficult answers. The one that keeps coming into my head that I can’t get out of my head is my dad, who has got Alzheimer’s. Because I’d be very frightened, but would love to know what he’s really going through. That’s my honest answer.
I’m a big fan of thrillers. James Patterson I really love, Harlan Corbin who wrote Tell No One I really like. There’s also a great book by Paul Arden called It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be.
Favourite holiday destinations
Los Angeles. I adore it. We have Green Cards so we will live there at some point. I have lots of friends there and will be going back after the play finishes.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m a member of Soho House so there I suppose, but I’m not really a late-night person. I’m married with two kids and just want to go home really. There’s nowhere nicer than home.
IMDB is always good. There’s a great one called MagicWeek.co.uk – it changes every Saturday and it’s all about what’s happening in the magic world in Britain. Play.com – God almighty, you’ve got to keep me off that because there are just endless DVDs to buy, good prices and it includes p&p. Oh and of course AndyNyman.com – who could resist!?
What made you want to accept the part of David O Selznick in Moonlight and Magnolias?
He’s an extraordinary human being, a massive control freak. I’m sort of obsessed with film, so I knew a little bit about him. This was a great opportunity to delve deeper into his world and the madness he inhabits. But it was the combination of the play being about Selznick and Ron Hutchinson as a writer. I remember seeing Rat in the Skull when I was at drama school and thinking, “my god, this guy’s amazing!” Also having the opportunity to work on a new play by Ron and to work with Sean Holmes were other factors which just made it irresistible. I love theatre, and I’ve done a lot of it over the years, but I haven’t done it for nine years because I’ve been involved in film. I get offered quite a lot of theatre though, but usually say no because I love doing film so much. This time my agent phoned me and said, “look, don’t say no, you have to read this play, because it’s amazing”. So I read it, and loved it, and went in to meet Sean and then went off to Los Angeles to work on Death at a Funeral, where I got a call asking me to play Selznick.
Have you seen Gone With the Wind?
I have seen it a couple of times, yeah. It’s not my kind of film, to be honest. The first time I saw it, I thought, “bloody hell”. This is the worst generalisation, but it felt like a woman’s film. What I was struck with was the sheer scale of the thing, the use of extras and the shots were just extraordinary. It’s unbelievable. One of the things that the play really goes into, which is terrific, is the point that they were making the biggest film Hollywood has ever made, the most expensive film that had ever been made, and a film about glorifying the South of America, which was clearly not a politically correct thing to do. This is the year before World War Two breaks out, and when you put it in to that timeframe, it just feels like madness. It’s extraordinary what an achievement the film actually is and how it’s survived the test of time, particularly with all the drama going on behind the scenes. Another remarkable thing about the play is that some points in the plot where you think “ah here’s Ron Hutchinson taking a few liberties” were real – they were exactly what happened. Selznick locked Ben Hecht and Victor Fleming, who he pulled off The Wizard of Oz, in a room for five days, acted out the book for them and made them rewrite it. Fleming burst a blood vessel in his eye because he was so stressed, Selznick went in to this catatonic sleep four days in, and they thought he’d died. None of them slept for five days! It’s amazing – the passion, power and madness of this world they were in. You can’t imagine that happening now.
What’s it feel like working on a stage premiere, where an audience is experiencing a show for the first time?
It’s very nice. I’ve done two British premieres before - a Bernard Kops play called Call in the Night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - that was ten years ago. I also did a Steve Martin play called Picasso at the Lapin Agile there too, which was a smash all over the world … but not here! The audience loved it, but the critics hated it. Moonlight and Magnolias, I have no idea about, but it’s always a little scary because you have no concept of what moments are going to work or not.
What’s your favourite line or moment from Moonlight and Magnolias? Truly, the whole thing for me. The script is 123 pages and I am probably talking for 80 percent of that. I looked at that just as a challenge of learning. So I don’t really want to pick any moments out because I don’t go off-stage from the minute I come on to the minute it finishes. I carry the whole thing in that respect.
- Andy Nyman was speaking to Tom Atkins.
Moonlight and Magnolias opened on 1 October 2007 (previews from 27 September) at the Tricycle Theatre, where it continues until 3 November.