That Face actor Matt Smith tells Caroline Bishop why he loves playing a posh teen with an unhealthy addiction to his mother.
Most actors think about the back story to their character; Matt Smith has obviously put great thought into the future story of his current character, too: “Do you know a band called Antony And The Johnsons?” he says enthusiastically. “I think Henry will probably turn out making a pained musical album like that. I don’t think he’ll have sex for a long time. I think Henry’s in trouble, he’ll have a lot of therapy, and I think he’ll struggle with his future relationships.” He pauses. “But then, I don’t know. We’ll see. Maybe Polly will write a sequel. Fingers crossed she does. She’s only 21.”
For Henry’s sake, hopefully playwright Polly Stenham, who created the dysfunctional character in her debut play That Face, will move on to other subject matters after becoming one of the youngest ever playwrights to have a piece staged in the West End. And Matt Smith, who has embodied Henry both at the Royal Court, where That Face premiered last year, and now at the Duke of York’s, where it opened last Friday, can leave this distressingly damaged 18-year-old to his imagined future.
But, when we meet amid rehearsals at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 24-year-old Smith seems in no rush to shake off the teenage Henry. In fact, he is relishing stepping into his character’s shoes once again, a year after the cast’s Laurence Olivier Award-nominated run at the 80-seat Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. This time around, Skins actress Hannah Murray replaces Felicity Jones as sister Mia, joining Smith and the other original cast members as they adapt their performances to the considerably more sizeable Duke of York’s – or, more so, says Smith, start afresh. “You can slightly feel sometimes like you’re inheriting something and actually it’s more interesting and rewarding, I think, to do it through innocent eyes, as it were,” he comments on the process of re-rehearsal. “You sort of question the new choices you’re making because you think, actually it worked like that, so why is it not like that now? Obviously we’re in a new space and that makes it completely different.”
"I think Henry’s in trouble, he’ll have a lot of therapy, and I think he’ll struggle with his future relationships."
Nevertheless, the characters remain the same. Within the upper middle class family that is the play’s focus, Martha – played by Lindsay Duncan – is the alcoholic, drug-addicted mother of Henry and Mia. Businessman father Hugh escaped long ago to a second family in Hong Kong, leaving 15-year-old Mia to freely drug her classmates at boarding school, while Henry remains at home, stricken by his mother’s behaviour and yet feeding off his unhealthy, incestuous relationship with her. “In big, broad, dramatic terms it’s about co-dependency and addiction,” says Smith. “They’re [Martha and Henry] completely intertwined together, they are completely united. And it’s about that separation and it’s about the bombs that go off in this family home that shatter all the relationships. I sort of view it as you would do a man who is addicted to crack, cocaine or heroin, whatever – with Henry and his mother, it’s that obsession. Their world is kind of defined by each other.”
Smith couldn’t be further from Henry, not least because the actor grew up in a stable home in Northampton. Unlike his unsmiling alter-ego, today Smith is upbeat, open and chatty, with a goofy smile, dishevelled clothes and a tendency to fidget that makes him seem like a slightly nerdy younger brother all grown up. He has a genuine enthusiasm for everything he talks about, including the people he works with – Duncan, she might be glad to know, is “cool, she’s rock and roll”; Stenham, whom Smith has become good friends with, is “a good egg”. What’s more, Smith, who was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Evening Standard Awards last year and has already worked with Christian Slater in the West End, seems on a distinctly upwards spiral in life, unlike his fictional counterpart.
However, stepping into someone else’s life – even one so harrowing – is exactly what Smith loves about acting. “I quite like the transitions of being an actor, because you get to explore these little pockets of life. So if you’re playing a builder you get to know about building, if you’re playing a scientist or a physician or something you get to know about physics. And similarly with this world I like exploring their culture, that very sort of upper middle class, addictive… that’s part of the reason I love it.”
In order to get inside Henry’s head, Smith and the cast researched addictive behaviours and alcoholism by speaking to recovering addicts and help groups, as well as talking to someone from the Priory. “At first, I couldn’t get my head round it. I was like, why doesn’t he [Henry] leave, why doesn’t this character just leave? Because it’s hell for him, obviously. But in fact it’s not, it’s hell and it’s heaven at the same time. This is what’s so difficult, this is why it’s so interesting, because it’s a complete contradiction. It’s their relationship; it’s like, actually she drives him mental but he can’t leave her because he’s addicted to her and the love he gets off her, and the type of relationship they have. It’s fascinating. So to understand it I’ve really had to look into that area of life.”
"I quite like the transitions of being an actor, because you get to explore these little pockets of life"
Playing an addictive personality night after night takes its toll though. Smith says it is “a bloody nightmare” to extricate himself from Henry’s head. “Me and Lindsay… we did a run through yesterday and we come out and even now we look dazed. You have to take a deep breath, because you have to invest so much of your body and your heart and everything into it for it to work, you know, so it is tough, but I like it that way.”
It is not the first intense scenario Smith has played on stage. Among his other credits – primarily at the Royal Court and the National – the young actor made his commercial West End debut in Swimming With Sharks at the Vaudeville in December last year, playing Guy, eager assistant and general dogsbody to Slater’s ball-breaking producer Buddy Ackerman in this mercenary tale about Hollywood. The final showdown saw an enraged Guy turn the tables on Buddy and torture his bullying boss after tying him to a chair. Rather than finding it daunting to be inflicting pain on a Hollywood star, Smith said working with Slater was “great fun. He’s cool as f**k. He’s all about the work; he’s really focused on the work. He made that whole transaction very easy. He’s a nice man, a good all round bloke.”
I can’t imagine Smith not getting on with any of his co-stars. Duncan positively beams when she talks about him, saying: “Oh there just aren’t enough good words to say about Matt. He’s amazing, and he’s the most gorgeous person, and I will really treasure being on stage with him, always, because he’s so special.”
Smith’s route from Northampton schoolboy to co-star of Slater and Duncan wasn’t exactly pre-determined. “I sort of fell into acting really,” says Smith mildly. A teacher at school first persuaded him to give it a shot, but it wasn’t until he joined the National Youth Theatre that he really thought about it seriously. He credits the late Edward Wilson, former Artistic Director of the NYT, who directed Smith in Murder In The Cathedral in 2003, for spurring his career on. “He was a delightful man, he really gave me a springboard and the confidence and the courage to go on and do it. So I owe him a lot.”
Smith went on to study drama and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, but the NYT had got him noticed – and an agent. Following his first job, in Fresh Kills, staged Upstairs at the Royal Court, Smith’s short career to date has included two award-winning plays, On The Shore Of The Wide World and The History Boys, both at the National, before the similarly acclaimed That Face came his way. In between, he has fitted in work on television (including Party Animals, The Street and Secret Diary Of A Call Girl) and has just made his big screen debut in “a very small, tiny, insignificant role” in Martin McDonagh film In Bruges, along with, incidentally, his new That Face co-star Murray.
"You have to invest so much of your body and your heart and everything into it for it to work"
While acting is no doubt a passion, Smith’s enthusiasm extends to numerous other interests. Right now, he is into poetry, saying self-consciously, “I realise that sounds w**ky but I am. I love a poet called Carol Ann Duffy at the moment, she’s rocking my world.” He loves photography, and has just taken “6,000 crackers” on a recent six-week trip to Brazil, and has a passion for listening to and playing music, particularly the piano. “What’s nice about the music stuff is it’s just a release, it’s just something I enjoy. It’s a way to do something else creative with my brain. You know, learn some lines, play the piano, learn some lines, play the piano. It works for me!”
His passions aren’t unrelated, either. The thrill he gets from music is something he wants theatre to be able to transmit. Of his favourite band, Radiohead, he says, with typical exuberance: “That’s it. That’s what I want when I go to the theatre, when I’m in a play, is them, and that experience that I get from them. I admire the musicianship, I admire the soul that goes into it, and the execution and the work, the preparation. Everything is done right, I think, and done with good intention and soul and heart and good spirit. They are a lesson to us all.”
With such an array of interests, it is not surprising that he would like his future career to encompass them all. “I see myself maybe moving into film, behind a camera as a director, because I have a real interest in photography and pictures and I like telling stories through pictures,” he says, before adding, “Or a musical realm… maybe both.”
That’s not to mention continuing to act; having a stab at the “Scottish man”, as he says superstitiously, is one of his future aims. Smith’s talent and infectious enthusiasm should certainly take him a long way, but there is one kind of role that I just can’t quite see this gentle, mild-mannered young man playing: “I’d quite like to play a right bastard, you know, a real mean bastard at some point,” he says. “That would be nice.”