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20 Questions: Michael Xavier - 'My West End debut was playing a gawky farmgirl'

The star of Love Story, Into the Woods and Assassins talks Sondheim, Metallica and his audition nightmares

'I very rarely leave an audition thinking I did my best' - Michael Xavier
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

1. What were you like as a kid?
Cheeky, happy and a bit of a show-off. I used to dress up as an 80s rocker and get my brother to video me miming to his Metallica albums. My dad accidentally taped over this evidence with Coronation Street some years later - we've never forgiven him.

2. What made you want to become an actor?
When I was young I just knew it's what I wanted to do. I always liked pretending to be someone else. I was about six when I told my mum that's what I wanted to do. She said "go on then, do some acting for me now." I got shy and refused. She replied "then you'll never make an actor." To this day I still can't 'perform' in front of my folks on cue. I find it incredibly cringey. We're not a 'stagey' family at all!

3. If you hadn't become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
Probably a photographer. Everyone in my family is good with a camera. Otherwise, I'd have been a quantum physicist or something easy like that.

4. First big break?
Bill Russell (writer of Sideshow and Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens) cast me in a show called Pageant (another of his) to play Miss Great Plains. Yes, my West End debut was playing a gawky farmgirl! It was hilarious and I learnt a LOT about the industry from my older fellow cast mates including the BRILLIANT Miles Western, who incidentally won best supporting performance in a musical for his role as Miss West Coast. I watched him every night from the wings. It was a comedy masterclass.

Michael Xavier in Into the Woods
© Open Air Theatre

5. Career highlights to date?
Being nominated for an Olivier award twice in the same year (2011) for Oliver in Love Story and Wolf/Cinderella's Prince in Into The Woods. Clang! I haven't topped that yet.

6. Worst ever audition?
ALL my auditions seem awful! I very rarely leave an audition thinking I did my best. Trying to sing the Michael Bolton version of "Go The Distance" (from Hercules) at 10am with a cold was memorable. I sounded like a 13 year-old boy being tortured with a chainsaw! At the end of this cacophony I grabbed my music and ran out of the room before the casting director had finished the sentence "...that's all we need to see today." Epic fail.

7. What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
As cheesy at it may sound now, Les Miserables. I was profoundly moved by the telling of the story with such evocative music. I remember thinking 'Woah, I want to do what he's doing!'

8. And the last?
The Nether. Profoundly disturbing and thought-provoking play in equal measure.

9. Who are your idols?
Too many to mention. I idolise so many people in different walks of life for their variety of talents/abilities/qualities. As for actors? Well, I'm a huge fan of Sean Penn, Imelda Staunton and Mark Rylance.

10. Do you read reviews - and if so, any memorable ones?
Foolishly I do. I'm too curious to know if they think I stink or not. Call it actor's paranoia. Luckily I've been very fortunate so far but, you only ever remember the bad ones! Here's my best slating: "...sings well, acts well but has the charisma of a haystack." - Oklahoma (CFT). I won't say who wrote it but someone very close to this establishment (cough cough).

11. On Sunday you're hosting the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize - tell us more?
It's a contest to find the 'best' performer of a Stephen Sondheim song and an original song (written by members of Mercury Musical Developments) out of all the UK colleges. There is also an award for the 'best' song which is the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Prize. I'm very proud to have a student of mine from West End Masterclass as a finalist but I can't say who as I don't want to sway the judges' opinion!

12. What's your favourite Sondheim number?
Favourite serious number: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd".
Favourite comedy number: Well, it's got to be "Agony" hasn't it?

13. What advice do you have for those taking part?
You've done so well to be a finalist so just enjoy every second and every lyric. Sondheim is our musical equivalent of Shakespeare. Don't waste his words!

14. You recently appeared in Assassins - how was that experience?
The craziest four weeks of my life. Myself and the wonderful Anna Francolini had just five rehearsal days on stage and had to join the most insanely talented cast of the most sensational production (directed by the faultless Jamie Lloyd) and I had to take over from the brilliant Aaron Tveit. It was the most intense stage experience I've ever been through and playing John Wilkes Booth was a gift. I feel genuinely sorry for those who missed it.

As John Wilkes Booth in Assassins
© Nobby Clark

15. What do you enjoy most about acting?
Being someone else for a few hours. Immersing yourself into the mind and emotions of a man (or woman - see Question 4) to take a journey which will affect an audience is powerful stuff. I enjoy that responsibly.

16. And least?
Learning my lines. I'm RUBBISH at it.

17. If you could go back in time and see a single production, what would it be?
It'd have to be the first performance of the Scottish play (no, not Brigadoon), Macbeth in 1606 at The Globe.

18. How do you unwind?
I take holidays! Otherwise I can't relax. OK, in London I go to the gym to let off steam and I watch films/plays/shows to escape my head.

19. Who are your dream three dinner party guests?
Laurence Olivier, Florence Nightingale and Elvis. I'd just sit and listen to them swap stories.

20. What's next?
Well, there's a couple of smaller things in the pipeline that I can't talk about yet but I'm definitely doing Sweet Charity in August at Cadogan Hall with Denise van Outen, Kerry Ellis and Kimberley Walsh. That'll be great fun. After that, I presume I'll get snapped up by Hollywood..!

The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year, which also features a performance by Elaine Paige, takes place at the Garrick Theatre on Sunday (17 May) - tickets available here