PAST: I started acting at the age of nine. I don’t think I could have done anything else except become an actor. I didn’t come from a theatrical background – just a humble north London family – but I guess my mum always wanted to be an actress herself and I think she could see that I had something about me at a very young age. They tell me I was quite a funny youngster and would come out with all sorts of stuff. Apparently the very first words I ever uttered were when I was in the back of the car and my gran jumped out to get some fish and chips. As she was walking back across the road I shouted out, “run nanny over, go on run her over”. I must have had something of Joe Orton about me even then!
Later I wanted to be Al Pacino in Scarface, or I’d do Kevin Spacey’s monologue in the back of a police car from the film Seven. But instead of just giving me a clip round the ear like some parents would, my mum sent me off to Saturday drama classes to test the water – and that was it. I soon started professional work in TV commercials, but then I got a scholarship to go to Sylvia Young Theatre School. I owe everything to Sylvia. I wish I’d appreciated then how much the school had invested in me. I almost got myself expelled a couple of times because I just wanted to do acting and wouldn’t turn up for the singing lessons. I hated dancing classes too, so it’s a bit ironic that I went on to do so well in Strictly Come Dancing.
Playing Deano Wicks in EastEnders was a fantastic experience. I was just 18 when I got the job, the scripts were always fantastic and I loved the character and working with really terrific actors. Some people in the profession look down on soaps, but I reckon you’ve got to be good to be able to get those characters across and make them real. I’ll admit I was disappointed when, after two years, the BBC told me I’d be leaving. But it just so happened that they couldn’t think of what to do with Deano. It’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes in this business.
I had no idea I would do as well as I did and reach the finals of Strictly Come Dancing, especially having spent my teenage years terrified of those dance classes. When the national tour came up, reliving the Saturday night final in front of huge audiences at places like Wembley Arena and the O2 was like unfinished business. Flavia Cacace and me won 35 out of 40 live shows. Holding up the winner’s trophy in front of huge screaming crowds is the closest I’ll ever get to being a rock star.
PRESENT: Loot is my very first stage production, and it’s been much more daunting than I thought when I first read the script and chuckled all the way through it. I’m sure most people just go, “Oh Matt Di Angelo was that bloke in EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing”, but I have been doing television and film acting since I was nine years old, so I don’t get nervous in front of a camera.
As soon as we began rehearsals for this play, I realised that stage acting is the same game but completely different rules. There are no cutaways. You don’t have to wait for hours between a delivering a couple of lines while they relight the scene, then go home and chuck a few of pages of dialogue into the bin. On stage, you get one two-hour take every night and that’s it. On film you rehearse as you go along, but in theatre you’ve got weeks to study the script and develop the characters and scenes with the other actors, and that’s been a fantastic new experience for me.
My character Hal is typical Joe Orton – gay, possibly bisexual, and charming. He has no qualms about committing a robbery and stashing the money in his dead mum’s coffin or moving her corpse around the house and hiding her false eye. I thought, oh this is very me, it’s my twisted sense of humour. But what I thought at first was just Orton being outrageous turned out to be the most difficult thing to get right, because Hal is totally amoral. He has no moral filter system whatsoever. I soon discovered that trying to find any logic in him was a waste of time. He’s constantly shifting and completely contradictory.
The one thing he cannot do is tell a lie, ironically because he’s a Catholic. My grandparents are Catholic so I know what it’s like. It’s that thing about committing a sin and getting away with it – you just go to mass, say a few Hail Marys and everything’s okay again.
Another challenge has been discovering how to deliver Orton’s comic dialogue, which is so subversive when you think he was writing in the Sixties when there was still censorship. You have to get the tone dead right, like when Hal talks about going to a brothel he’s discovered “run by two Pakistanis aged between ten and 15. They do it for sweets. It’s part of their religion. Meet me at seven. Stock up with Mars bars”. Orton was sticking two fingers up at the Sixties, but some things still shock.
FUTURE: When I left EastEnders, I told myself I wanted to do three things: a TV drama series, a film and some theatre. Well, I got the stage work with Loot. And just before we started rehearsing the play, the first ambition came true when I joined the cast of Hustle, playing a new character in the latest series, which will be screened by the BBC in early 2009.
I must be a lucky boy, because then a film came along with Rhys Ifans, which I’ll start work on when we finish Loot. It’s called Function at the Junction and it’s all about the 1970s Northern Soul scene. I play a fantastic dancer who is also into martial arts. It’s a bit like Saturday Night Fever meets Enter the Dragon set in Wigan, with lots of soul, funk and Kung Fu and Mark Ronson doing the soundtrack. I gather the director had trouble finding an actor who could dance. His wife forced him to watch me in Strictly one night and he thought, let’s give him a whirl. Two weeks later, we were having coffee and reading the script.
So I’ll be swapping Sixties clobber in Loot for Seventies gear in the film. After that, depending on how Loot turns out, I’d definitely like to do more stage work. But isn’t it funny that dancing – the one thing I hated so much as a kid – also got me my first movie lead?
Loot opened on 15 December 2008 (previews from 11 December) at the Tricycle Theatre, where it continues until 31 January before visiting the Theatre Royal Newcastle from 2 to 7 February.