Past/Present/Future for … Phill Jupitus
After years of stand-up and punk poetry, comedian Phill Jupitus became a household name as a resident panellist on BBC Two music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks and presenter of the BBC Six breakfast show from 2002 to 2007. He makes his West End stage debut this week in the title role of the world premiere comedy Lifecoach. His ambition is to make his musical debut, possibly taking over from Michael Ball in Hairspray.
PAST: “I basically became a performer because I hated being a civil servant. I quit my day job back in 1985 and I haven’t worked PAYE since that day. I’ve made quite a good living, bought a house and generally done my own thing - it’s terrible to think that your career choices are just born out of laziness and curiosity! I started out doing performance poetry and stand-up, where you kind of subliminally learn stage craft because you’re completely on your own and doing it from a very visceral place internally. I’ve got stage craft but not stage skills; I’ve got stage ability but I can’t name it or nail it down. The only acting direction I’ve ever had previously was on the film Mike Bassett. Steve the director would just look over the camera at me and bring his fingers together saying ‘smaller, smaller’ - the only note I ever got from him was ‘smaller’, all the time.
“Stand-ups often utterly feed off the audience - we are an interactive entity, which kind of limits the emotions that we deal with. When I speak to actors all they say is ‘I don’t know how you can do stand-up, that to me is the most difficult thing in the world’ and I say ‘I don’t know how you can act, that to me is the most difficult thing in the world because you have to say it exactly the same way every night’. There’s a precision to acting, you have to create that same mood every day, whereas with stand-up, if I was in a good mood that day I’d be bubbly and if I was in a bad mood, the audience would get it in the neck. You can’t do that when you act.
“I haven’t done stand-up in about six years now. After I quit, I did BBC Six music which was a breakfast show so the hours were pretty unsociable. When I finished that last year, the first thing I did was write and perform a play at the Edinburgh festival (last year’s Waiting for Alice). Theatre was something I really wanted to do.”
PRESENT: “What’s interesting about Colin, my character in Lifecoach, is that life coaches are a bit like comedians. They can take control of the room, they can work an audience or they can work individually, so they’ve definitely got a kind of stand-uppy vibe to them. Any sort of guru or therapist has an aura around them, a confidence that isn’t necessarily externalised. What’s different about this character is that he’s created this persona for himself of a life coach to basically shore up the fact that he’s emotionally unbelievably immature.
“It’s weird now as we live in an age where people take counsel with these strangers who have just taken the place of our relatives. It makes me realise how families have got more disparate. You used to get advice from your nan or your aunties if you didn’t want to ask your mum and dad. Now, people take all their problems to strangers, which some think is brilliant as they don’t have anything emotionally invested with these people - it won’t upset them if you say ‘I’m a sex addict’ or something.
“My wife thinks it’s absolutely hysterical that I’m playing a life coach because I’m so disorganised. I never make plans whereas life coaches thrive on plans and strategies. I’m joyfully putting myself in my director Nick Reed’s hands, and just being in the room with (co-star) Amy Darcy makes me up my game – she’s a brilliant actress, and Nick writes for actors really well. In rehearsal, he often makes us do impro as the characters. I do impro with the comedy store players but this is ‘grown-up’ impro which is fantastic. He made us do this scene together the other day and he said ‘I don’t want you to think about where the play is going, think about your feelings’. I didn’t quite get it right but the by the fifth time, it was like I was becoming the bloke and it’s quite scary. You can see why Kenneth Branagh does it all the time because it’s a great feeling.”
“I went to see Equus and saw Richard Griffiths, which really spurred me on to do this. I think if I hadn’t seen that show I’d be absolutely terrified about doing this whereas once I saw the kind of ramshackle charm that he brought to the psychiatrist character, I realised I could do something similar with Colin. I quite like the fact that I’m already becoming a bit of a luvvie!”
FUTURE: “I went to audition for the dad in Hairspray and I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted a part more in my life. It was a bit ‘Jim’ll fix it’ as I was auditioning in front of Broadway people, so at least I can say I’ve done that now. I saw Michael Ball in the role of Edna and I thought he was great. I don’t know how long Michael is going to play the part, as that would also be a giggle. It’s one of those dream roles.
“I went to see the panto at the Old Vic and thought I would love to do that as well. I’m doing Q.I. next week so if Stephen Fry’s doing another one I might just say ‘let me know when they’re doing the casting’. I really like what they’ve done at the Old Vic. I think more theatres should think about doing slightly more upscale pantos. I’ve never really planned anything in my whole career. I usually just follow my instinct. But I do know that I want to be involved in more theatre work in the future.
“More immediately, I’m doing The News Quiz on Radio 4 the Thursday after I finish Lifecoach. If you want to hear what mental state I’m in, it will be an interesting contrast between now and eight weeks’ time when I will either be frazzled or enlightened beyond measure.”
- Phill Jupitus was talking to Theo Bosanquet
Lifecoach opens this Thursday 22 May 2008 (previews from 20 May) at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 2, where it runs until 14 June 2008.