20 Questions With… Barnum star Christopher Fitzgerald

US actor Christopher Fitzgerald plays the title role in Barnum, which runs in the specially constructed Theatre in the Park at Chichester until 31 August

Christopher Fitzgerald in Barnum
Christopher Fitzgerald in Barnum
© Michael Le Poer Trench

When were you born?
I was born in 16 BC.

Ok, I was born in 1972 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

What made you want to become an actor?
I don’t really remember a moment, it was just something I always gravitated to. I think it was a bit of desperation on my mother’s part when she put me in clown class at age five to try and understand some of the insanity that was firing out of me. Ever since then it’s always been something I’ve done.

If you hadn’t been an actor what might you have done?
An explorer.

What was your first big break?
It was kind of twofold. When I was a kid I did a couple of television shows, but my first big break was at college in the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which is a similar place to Chichester, in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. I started there as an apprentice 20 years ago and gradually started getting larger and more interesting roles. I also made so many friends, who I still work with.

Career highlights to date?
Doing Oliver! aged eight at the Portland Players Community Theatre in Portland, Maine; Dead End, a 1930 Sidney Kingsley play in Williamstown with Robert Sean Leonard, Hope Davis and Campbell Scott. And I guess I have to say Barnum, right?

Any regrets?
No regrets.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Two things; one was a touring production of Peter Pan in Boston, I remember Peter flying over the audience. The other one, in terms of a big theatrical experience, was Les Miserables. My mum and I went down to Boston to see it, and it just blew my mind.

And the last?
The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, with Jim Norton at the Donmar Warehouse. Jim is a really good friend of mine and, for whatever reason that night, I was just really clicked in, I was really moved and I just thought it was a great tale.

What did you do to impress at the Barnum audition?
That’s a very interesting question because I don’t quite know. I was there auditioning for five days – I have a hat that I can manipulate to do hat tricks with, so I brought that along. And I maybe balanced a chair on my face.

Did you do a lot of research for the role?
I did a ton of research. There’s a lot of amazing information about him, his life and all the different things that he spawned; different acts and interesting people he discovered. So it was a really fun and fascinating experience to learn about him

Do you have a favourite song or moment in the show?
I love that moment when I finish that damn tightrope. I only started training about a month and a half before I came here and I’d never done anything like it. So I really didn’t have that many sessions on a wire and here I was trying to do it in front of 1400 people. It was really challenging but it’s been a really interesting part of the experience. Also I love my last scene with Tamsin [Carroll, who plays Chairy] on the bench.

What’s the secret to walking a tightrope?
To pretend that you have a £50 note in between your butt-cheeks. You have to keep your butt muscles really clenched and your hips really open. The other secret is to truly relax and let your body learn how to be on the rope, because when you get up there, your body is saying ‘this is not safe, I’m uncomfortable, I’m scared’ and wants to overreact on every small motion that you have – you’re in panic mode. So it’s about learning how to quiet that part of yourself and just be there. It’s like a parable for life; you just have to be very present and try not to look at the big picture, just go one step at a time and keep your butt-cheeks clenched.

How do you unwind after a show?
I have a lovely walk back to this little place where I’m staying with my family – it’s over a lovely field and I get to look at the stars. When I get home my wife is usually still awake, so we have a glass of wine and just chat about our days.

Does it help performing in an actual big top?
It informs the context for audiences and it’s a fun thing for them to come into, but I don’t know if it helps the actor. It’s a strange experience. I think the show was originally conceived for a proscenium stage; it has a vaudeville-like feel to it. But it doesn’t really feel like a tent, it feels like a theatre.

Would you like to perform in the UK more after this?
I’d love to. I’ve had a really amazing time with this company – it’s been one of the greatest I’ve ever worked with in terms of people’s desire to focus and to risk it all, and I’ve just found everyone really warm and welcoming. Cameron [Mackintosh]’s office has been particularly wonderful.

If you could swap places with anyone for a day, who would it be?
An astronaut. I think it would be really cool to spend a day on the moon.

Who are your acting idols?
I like people who are in it for the long-haul, career-wise, who are always after interesting stories and interesting work. Jim Norton, Paxton Whitehead, Bert Lahr are good examples.

Favourite film?
The Wizard of Oz.

What’s next?
I’ve got to get me and my family back to our country. It was possibly going to be Barnum, but it looks like that’s not happening in the West End now. I have a movie that just came out called Girl Most Likely that’s opening here soon.

Barnum continues at Theatre in the Park until 31 August