Actor Martyn Ellis is best known to West End audiences for his musical credits in the likes of Lennon, Les Miserables, The Lion King, Grand Hotel and, most recently, Michael Grandage’s revival of Broadway classic Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre, for which he won the 2006 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his role as small-time gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson.
Ellis’ other theatre credits include the Rhino in Just So (Tricycle), Robert in Boeing-Boeing (Wolsey Theare, Ipswich), Mr Biggins in Moll Flanders, Roger in Grease (tour), Dromio of Ephesus in The Boys from Syracuse (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield), Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cafe d'Amour at the National.
Ellis has recently taken over as one of the clowns, reuniting with original cast member Simon Gregor with whom he appeared in The Lion King, in comic thriller The 39 Steps at the West End’s Criterion Theatre. Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of John Buchan’s whodunit, memorably filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, started life at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (in June 2005), then had its London premiere at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn before opening in the West End on 20 September 2006 (previews from 14 September). Earlier this year, it won both the Whatsonstage.com and Laurence Olivier Awards for Best New Comedy.
In The 39 Steps, four actors play “150 roles” between them to tell the tale of London bachelor Richard Hannay fleeing to Scotland and breaking a spy ring to prove his innocence after a woman is found murdered in his home. Simon Paisley Day (as Hannay) and Josefina Gabrielle complete the current cast. Maria Aitken directs.
Date & place of birth
Born 30 November 1960 in Swansea, South Wales.
Lives now in
Central School of Speech and Drama.
What made you want to become a performer?
When I was at school, I played the guitar. There was a school play going on and I was asked if I wanted to be in it. I expected an easy little part with some guitar playing, but it was the main part. I was only 13. After that experience, I got involved with the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre. I loved it. Godfrey Evans ran it and he was such a wonderful man. A lot of people I met at the Youth Theatre were auditioning for drama schools so I thought I would give it a go. I did and I got in. I went from there really. All of a sudden I wanted to be an actor. There are probably hundreds of people from that youth theatre or choir who are now professional actors and singers. They have a fantastic set up for getting kids into the arts in West Glamorgan. I owe a lot to the youth theatre mainly. Without that I would be working in a shop somewhere, and I would rather do this. A few of us went back recently and did a concert to raise money for the theatre to take a tour to South Africa.
If you hadn’t become a performer, what might you have done professionally?
I think I would have been a professional musician. I play lots of instruments - the bass guitar, the piano, the banjo, the ukulele and double bass. I’ve done a few shows where I act and play music. Some friends and I had our own band which came out of the Buddy Holly show. It was called Buddy Holly and the Cricketers. It still tours now but with a new cast. It was an improvised comedy and rock and roll show which is quite unusual. I did that for four years because I just fancied it. The cricket part was a bit of a scam so we could get involved in charity cricket and get onto the pitch at Lord’s. We managed to live out our childhood dreams and play on first-class pitches. In Canterbury I made 32 with a rubber Elvis wig on. We were playing against the boys from Emmerdale. So yes, I would have been a full-time musician if I hadn’t been an actor. Or maybe I would have been a teacher. I thought about it for a while. My brother is a professor, but I’m not as bright as him.
First big break
My first job was in Ipswich. I got discovered after a performance in Chicago at drama school. I was doing rep for a few years after that, which stood me in good stead because you have to learn your lines really quickly. My first real break was Lennon at the Astoria which was directed by Clare Venables. She was a wonderful person and a great director. She offered the part to Neil Morrissey, who’s a friend of mine. Neil really looked like Paul McCartney when he was younger, it was extraordinary. But he had to say no because he couldn’t play all the instruments. You had to do it left-handed like McCartney. After that Clare asked me to do it. That was great. It was like being in the Beatles for a year. Yoko Ono even hung out with us for a while. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. After that I got a reading part in a BBC TV series called Rock This Baby which I did for two years. It was the last of those old-fashioned TV cop shows, then The Bill came in with a lot of wobbly camera angles. So I had this fantastic experience in the West End being a Beatle and then I got this lead in a television series. Things like that have kept cropping up along the way.
Career highlights to date
Les Miserables was great because I was only the fifth and the youngest Thenardier. I was only about 30 and usually it’s played by someone a bit older. I did it for a year and a half. Barry James did it for three, and I hear he’s going back. He’s the best. Grand Hotel I loved, and Guys and Dolls. I filmed a series in Lithuania for four years, it was a Warner Brothers series called The New Adventures of Robin Hood. As soon as I came back to England I did The Lion King which was another highlight. Of course, The Lion King was a big production, and it’s always nice to be involved in something which is talked about and anticipated. It was a bit like the hype Hairspray has at the moment. It was nice to come back to the country after four years in Eastern Europe and go straight into such a massive show. I would love to do something like The New Adventures of Robin Hood again. It has a bit of a following and it’s still repeated all the time. It was very tongue in cheek - we had Elvis on it, and aliens. Usually Robin Hood just robs from the rich and gives to the poor so turning it on its head was fun.
Do you prefer doing plays or musicals more?
I don’t mind really. If you’ve done a lot of musicals on the trot, it’s nice to do a play or some TV. You can’t always choose exactly what you do unless you’re very well known. If you’re a jobbing actor, like I am, you don’t really choose. It depends what’s available at the time and what you get seen for. Sometimes things clash so someone will want to offer you the greatest job in the world but you’ve already accepted something else. But you just have to get on with it, and enjoy what you’re doing.
All of them. Simon Gregor who I work with on The 39 Steps is one of them. I have great friends that I keep in touch with and I can’t single them out as they are all so fabulous. Jenna Russell who I worked with in Guys and Dolls is great. Adam Price, who’s in Hairspray now, is one of my great mates and Simon Fielder who was in the Buddy show with me. He now runs that as a company. I am really loving the actors I am working with now. I am working with nice people. Neil Morrissey has been a friend of mine for 20 years. In Guys and Dolls, we had such a laugh. He’s one of the nicest blokes and so generous and lovely. Okay, I think he would have to be my favourite.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Hairspray. I’d already seen the show in New York, I went with my family last time I was there, but this production is amazing I have to say. The energy and commitment of everybody, but especially the ensemble, is extraordinary. I was exhausted that day and wanted to go home, but I went to see it anyway and loved it. It got a standing ovation and deserved it. It’s nice for the Shaftesbury to have a big success. Even though it’s really near the rest of the West End, it tends to get left out. The great thing for Michael Ball is that he plays a woman so well you forget it’s him. When you’re well known, your image can get in the way, but because Edna Turnblad is such a different character for him, it works really well I think. The same was true of his role in The Woman in White. The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on stage was Nathan Lane in The Producers. That was the most extraordinary performance I have ever seen and I’ve seen a few. Every detail, every turn of the head was immaculate, nothing was wasted. It is probably like people who talk about seeing Judy Garland, or Ethel Merman. It was one of those performances, never to be seen again.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It was probably from my father who used to be a cabaret singer. The last line of his show was "It’s nice to be important but it is more important to be nice." It's a bit naff and cheesy but it's completely true.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Probably my son, Oscar, who is 12. He has a trampoline and fabulous parents!
I really enjoy everything I've read by Joseph Connolly, especially Summer Things. I don’t have a favourite book but he’s my favourite author. He's very funny. I’m surprised more TV series have not been made out of his work. I also really quite like The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. I love Ian McEwan as well, I read one of his short stories and was bowled over by it. I also have a book of short stories by Brecht which is very good.
Favourite holiday destinations
We have just come back from Mombasa in Kenya. It was so fabulous to go on safari and see the animals in the wild. You go round a corner and all of a sudden there are 20 elephants standing there looking for water. We were in the car and a herd of elephants crossed in front of us and then a herd of zebra - a zebra crossing! We stayed in a place that was on stilts and 27 elephants came to the watering hole at night. We saw lions too. A lioness had just killed a buffalo and we saw her trying to entice the male to mate with her by presenting this kill to him. We also saw cheetahs and a giraffe and I even got to see a warthog - which is what I played in The Lion King. The African name for warthog is Pumba. The guide was going "Pumba, Pumba!," I didn’t actually realise that that was the Swahili name!
Favourite after-show haunts
The Hurst House in the West End is really good fun and reasonable. I used to go to the Arts Club in Frith Street. Normally I don’t go out, though, as I live in Sussex and have to catch the last train. I used to go out all the time, but time takes its toll on everyone. Sometimes I go to Hurst House in the afternoon for sandwiches. I normally meet Neil Morrissey there for a cup of tea and a laugh.
Whatsonstage.com! I really love it. I look at it every day when I get home. Facebook too, I have just got into that. National Rail Enquiries is marvellous. And Kelkoo, the comparison site, is fantastic too - it's the only way to buy electronics!
What made you want to accept your part in The 39 Steps?
My friend Simon Gregor has been with the show since the start. I worked with him in The Lion King, we played Timone and Pumba. The news that they were recasting The 39 Steps came suddenly out of the blue, so I went to see it and loved it! I thought it was fantastic and then, lo and behold, a few months later I was in it.
Had you seen the film or read the book of The 39 Steps?
There have actually been three versions of the movie, including one with Robert Powell and the Kenneth More one. In each, the 39 steps is a different thing, but the play is based on the original Hitchcock version. I love Hitchcock. I knew Patrick Barlow, the writer, had worked with the National Theatre and done epic things like the history of the world with two people. I like the challenge of doing this with four actors who play all the parts. And it is a challenge, I can tell you that right now. When you’re acting you want to do different things. I have done some telly, some radio, I do voiceover stuff regularly and a couple of kids’ programmes recently. The last thing I did in the theatre was a big musical, Guys and Dolls. It’s nice to do something more intimate and with no singing in it for a change. The Criterion seats about 500 so it’s a lovely little theatre to play, and it’s beautiful. We get great audiences, including a lot of kids. That’s great as they really enjoy it and it’s often the first time they’ve seen a play.
What specifically are the challenges of four actors playing “150 characters” between them?
There are lots! It’s very confusing. When you’re off stage, you have to change costume and then you have to change the set, get your props and get back on stage, then the lights go up and you have to remember that you’re on a moving train and you have to act and calm down. That’s what I find difficult. You bring that energy that you have off stage when you’re changing back on with you when you should be calm, so it’s just getting your mind around it. It’s sense memory. It’s like learning choreography. You’re trying to think of your character, remember your lines, remember the steps and do a number. Normally with a show you do a number for 20 minutes and disappear, then you might wait for 20 minutes before you go on and do another big number. With The 39 Steps every scene is a big number. You haven’t got time to think. Once it starts, I do the 25 minutes before I can even pause for a sip of water. It’s so full on.
The 39 Steps is now in its second year in the West End. What do you think makes it so successful?
It’s fun. The spirit of the show is fabulous. I think The 39 Steps is a show everybody can go and see, like The Lion King. My son is 12 and he can come and see it. There aren’t a lot of shows you can go to as a family. Some people might come expecting a thriller, like An Inspector Calls or The Mousetrap. But this is a bit of a comedy thriller and a spoof as well. There’s nothing serious about it!
What’s your favourite scene in The 39 Steps?
I think it’s all fabulous. One of my characters is a George Sanders style professor; that’s good fun to play. I like watching the other actors doing their scenes. The lamppost scene at the beginning is very fun. The way it’s set up is great. When I was watching the play, that was the first moment where I felt I really "got it".
What was the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened in rehearsals?
I do this hat routine and I kept putting on the wrong hat and having to take it off. It was infuriating in rehearsals, I thought I knew it and then I just wouldn’t. It was all so crazy because we only had three weeks. Two weeks with the assistant director and then one week with Maria Aitken because she was in Boston with another show. We have only had seven days of rehearsals with the director!
What are your future plans?
You can’t plan too much as an actor. What I would like to do very rarely happens. You have to be a big TV, film or musical star like Elaine Paige or Michael Ball to be able to plan ahead.
Martyn Ellis was speaking to Tom Atkins
The 39 Steps is playing at the West End’s Criterion Theatre, where it’s currently booking through to June 2008.