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Andy Nyman

Published 2 July 2008

Andy Nyman’s name does not immediately bring a face to mind. Yet the talented actor has spent the last decade playing film leads and being the creative force behind Derren Brown. He also has enough enthusiasm for a small nation, finds Matthew Amer.

“Film was always my first love as an actor, that’s what I always wanted to do and I still am obsessed with film.” Andy Nyman, it is fair to say, likes movies. He likes them a lot. But then, he likes most things. He is passionate about theatre. He adores magic. Even the bagged Caesar salad he is tucking into during a break from rehearsing Moonlight And Magnolias gets his seal of approval. His glass is half full, even when it is empty.

Having stayed away from the stage for the best part of a decade while he built a career on celluloid, it took a film about the golden age of Hollywood, Moonlight And Magnolias, to draw him back to the theatre last year. The production was so well-received – writer Ron Hutchinson described it as the definitive version – that it has been revived again a year later, with Nyman returning to the Tricycle to reprise his performance as David O Selznick.

“She was so right,” he says of his agent, who convinced him to take the role of the movie producer charged with reviving a flagging Gone With The Wind. Initially, Nyman wasn’t convinced that it was the right time to tread the boards again. His film career was in full bloom, with a string of lead performances to his name, and the thought of three months on considerably lower wages did not appeal. The script and the opportunity to work with director Sean Holmes convinced him to take a risk. “It was just a joy, an absolute joy. The play is just so brilliant; the part is just magnificent. It’s a wonderful, exciting thing to do every night. It’s exhausting physically, but brilliant as well. I feel so energised when I’m finished.” To be honest, it is quite exhausting just listening to Nyman talk about it, such is his energy and verve.

Selznick, says Nyman, is “a bit like Alan Sugar. He’s kind of a barrow boy who’s slumped his way from nothing to millions and millions of dollars that he then loses again, and then gets again through nothing but his own drive and foresight.” With his hair gelled back and greying beard, Nyman does not look dissimilar to the former Amstrad boss turned television star, though I have a hard time imagining him firing anyone Apprentice-style, he just seems a little too nice for that.

He has good words to say about almost everybody and everything. He lays a lot of the production’s initial success at the feet of Holmes, who he thinks has brought traits and nuances out of the show that other directors have missed. He is complimentary about his new co-stars Nicholas Woodeson and Rebecca Calder, who have brought their own style to the show. And he revels in writer Hutchinson’s ability to create two totally different plays in Moonlight And Magnolias and previous Tricycle production Topless Mum. He even sings the praises of the Tricycle’s large-windowed rehearsal room, which is flooded with sun this early summer’s day.

“The play is just so brilliant; the part is just magnificent. It’s a wonderful, exciting thing to do every night”

The play, which focuses on the true story of the re-writing of Gone With The Wind, offers an insight into the world of film, and in particular the golden age of Hollywood. Farcical in its nature, it also tackles themes as serious as Judaism at the start of World War II – both producer Selznick and ‘script doctor’ Ben Hecht (played by Woodeson) were Jews, but of very different ilks. “Within the madness and the comedy,” says Nyman, “it’s those arguments underneath all of that that are really interesting and really make the play such a rollercoaster. I think it takes audiences by surprise, and audiences just love it.” To illustrate exactly what he means, Nyman launches into an onomatopoeic explanation, full of ‘boofs’, ‘bangs’ and one ‘hrrrrreeeerrreerr’, which is impossible to recreate in text. It is, however, almost as amusing as the show itself.

When Nyman talks about theatre, which he does with passion, he speaks from a most knowledgeable position, not just as an actor or director, but as a theatregoer himself. He was brought up “in a lovely, safe, middle-class family with two brilliant, supportive parents” who used to take him to both the theatre and the cinema regularly. He has continued the tradition: “We go, with my wife and kids, certainly once a week. Oh yeah. We see everything. We spend a fortune on theatre tickets, and we love it. But I get frustrated with theatre because there are times when I sit there and I think ‘You would never get away with that in a movie; you’d never get away with the pace of this or the lack of entertainment.’ And yet, when theatre’s brilliant, it wipes the floor with anything. There’s nothing like good theatre, it beats good film hands down because it’s live and it’s exhilarating and it’s amazing and it’s just fantastic.”

Appropriately, one of Nyman’s recent theatre trips was to see Trevor Nunn’s musical adaptation of Gone With The Wind, which closed abruptly at the New London. His assessment of the tuneful adaptation is the first time in the interview that he does not have something positive to say. He is adamantly supportive of the now defunct Dickens Unplugged though, which had a similarly short stay in the West End.

With the West End transfer of Moonlight And Magnolias still very much on the cards – the production is waiting for a suitable theatre to be come available: “It’s like being in a holding pattern above Heathrow” – Nyman is acutely aware of how tough it is to be successful in Theatreland. “It’s so complicated, all of it. You realise that the more you do. One thinks, naively, it’s so easy; you put the play on, if it’s good audiences come and see it. F**king hell, if only.”

Before returning to the stage, Nyman had been living his dream appearing in a clutch of films over the last decade. That safe, middle-class upbringing found him drawn to the silver screen by two particular and very different moments. The first, which Nyman describes, laughing, as “horrendously camp”, was realising the immortality of cinema when watching a young Judy Garland, who he recognised as Liza Minnelli’s mum, in The Wizard Of Oz.

The second came when he first saw Jaws on the big screen: “The experience of being so properly scared and moved and sucked into a film was amazing. And then seeing Richard Dreyfuss for the first time as well, and thinking ‘Oh my God, you can be a leading actor; you can be a small, curly haired Jewish guy and play leads in films. You don’t have to be Robert Redford. That’s amazing! So, being a short, curly haired Jewish guy I think the combination of those things made me suddenly think that that excitement, that dream was something that I could aim for. And then I didn’t stop aiming.”

“You can be a small, curly haired Jewish guy and play leads in films. You don’t have to be Robert Redford. That’s amazing!”

In 2000, Nyman scored his first lead, in the adaptation of Martin Amis’s Dead Babies. He describes its reception as his “baptism of fire”. The film, which was being talked up as the hottest script around, bombed. Though not ideal, it cemented Nyman’s view about his industry. “It’s just about doing the best job,” he smiles, “just enjoying it and loving it. Whatever happens afterwards happens.”

“It’s so easy, as an actor or as a freelancer, focusing on the negative,” he continues, “focusing on how hard it is or how you’ve f**ked up an audition or were s**t in that or the review was bad. And I really try to do the opposite, I always try to do the opposite, because it’s about what you focus on, I think. You never know with [films] what they’re going to end up like. You do ‘em, you love it, you move on. And if they’re great, they’re great. And if they’re not, you did it, it was fun, you’ve just got to move on.”

As a case in point, Nyman cites the 2007 dark comedy Death At A Funeral in which he starred opposite Matthew MacFadyen, Keeley Hawes and Kris Marshall. “There’s a brilliant script, a brilliant film that’s won heaps of awards and made $60 million around the world, it’s been number one in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Italy… Died a death here. You wouldn’t even know the film had been and gone.” I’m sure that at some point, in some way, Nyman was upset about it, yet he doesn’t let it show. He is just happy to have been directed by the legendary Frank Oz, director of Little Shop Of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, voice of Muppets, Sesame Street characters and Yoda, and “the nicest, funniest, cleverest gentleman”, who, having directed Nyman, is now a close friend.

I want to know the secret of what makes Nyman such a happy chappy. He has the kind of endlessly enthusiastic nature that is invigorating. Walking down Kilburn high street after the interview, I want to stop, say hello to people and shake their hands, but cynicism gets the better of me, and instead I just smile inwardly to myself.

The secret might lie in the second, hidden strand of his career. When he is not appearing on stage or on film, he is directing and writing with the UK’s most famous mental magician and psychological phenomenon Derren Brown.

“Magic became my painting and decorating,” says Nyman, explaining how he became associated with Brown. “That’s how I would make a living when I wasn’t acting.” This is understating the truth a touch. Nyman was one of a handful of magicians taking psychological illusion, or ‘Mentalism’ as it is known, seriously. In fact, it was Nyman who was approached first by production company Objective Productions to star in a new series. “It sounds like lies,” he laughs. “I swear to God it’s not.” Preferring to concentrate on acting, he turned them down, but offered to work with the magician they found. That man was Brown, and the pair has been working together for the last nine years.

“I just try to stay excited by stuff, because otherwise you just become f**ked up and bitter”

“It’s amazing how rarely we piss each other off,” Nyman muses. “I spend probably more time with him than I do with my wife and kids. It sounds stupid, but if it felt like work, I wouldn’t do it.”

Nyman is at the very top of the game when it comes to magic. He has been awarded the MIMC (Member of the Inner Magic Circle), the highest accolade that can be given by the famous magicians’ society. His work with Brown has won him a Laurence Olivier Award for Something Wicked This Way Comes, a show which they worked hard on to ensure it didn’t feel “like you’re seeing a magician doing a series of tricks. To win the highest theatre award for that,” Nyman beams, “really felt like it had cemented what we’d wanted.”

Despite all the accolades, he doesn’t count magic as a career. That title is solely set aside for acting. “As ridiculous as that sounds, in my head, that’s how I compartmentalise it. That’s my great, wonderful, exciting hobby, but it’s a hobby, that’s it. This is my job.”

Magic, I think, intrigues people with inquisitive minds, people who want to learn something new, something different, something wondrous. But also, at the back end of the 20th century, when it was a dying art, it must have attracted people who weren’t afraid to be different, who were comfortable enough with themselves to go out on a limb and do something unfashionable because it seemed like fun. Nyman, with a string of independent, low budget but successful films to his name, seems to fit that bill.

“I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate,” he says, quoting George Burns. “I really try and live by that. I don’t want to do stuff that I don’t enjoy, that I don’t like, just because I’ll be successful. I just try to stay excited by stuff, because otherwise you just become f**ked up and bitter.”

I’m a journalist, it is in my job description to be f**ked up and bitter, cynical at the very least. If it wasn’t, I would be sorely tempted to take a leaf out of Nyman’s book. If the acting, the magic, the voiceovers, the work with Brown all dries up, he says, he can always eat glass or walk on hot coals. It sounds painful to me, but I bet he would enjoy it.

MA

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