The new Rhett Butler in Trevor Nunn’s Gone With The Wind gives Caroline Bishop a lesson in self-confidence.
Darius Danesh has had to take a break from his life in Los Angeles, where he lives with his Canadian model-turned-actress girlfriend Natasha Henstridge and hangs out with Hollywood pals like Robert Duvall, to come to London to star as Rhett Butler in Trevor Nunn’s musical stage adaptation of Gone With The Wind in the West End. It’s a hard life.
Glasgow-born Danesh has come a long way since his somewhat unique leap into the public eye on reality show Pop Stars in 2001, and it is no wonder he is “on cloud nine right now” when we speak on the phone just prior to the opening night of Gone With The Wind at the New London. The cast and crew have been working 16-hour days during the two weeks of previews to adapt the show after reports of audience members leaving the four-hour marathon early to catch last trains home. By press night, the show is still running at around three and a half hours, but any criticism to that effect is likely to have been water off a duck’s back to Danesh, who has a steadfast faith in the project.
“D’you know, there’s such energy and such a camaraderie with this incredibly talented cast. We’re just very lucky to have such a great ensemble and it’s a story that needs depth and range of an ensemble to be able to…paint all the colours that Trevor has managed to draw out of Margaret Mitchell’s novel,” he waxes lyrical.
Danesh, I quickly discover, has a polished, self-assured conversational style that would be worthy of any good PR professional. From his opening gambit – “We are just about to embark on the opening of a historic West End show and I have the pleasure and privilege of taking the role of Rhett Butler” – and continuing throughout our conversation, Danesh displays a smooth-talking, superlative-filled enthusiasm for the show, his colleagues and everyone he mentions, all delivered in his deep, rich, Scottish timbre.
"The way people perceive me is something I can’t control"
That is not to say he is insincere. Rather, this enthusiasm seems to spring from an innate confidence that has no place for negativity. This confidence – which belies his 27 years – is perhaps a necessity, given he has stepped into such an iconic role in a high profile new musical with little prior stage experience and no formal training. To the suggestion he may feel pressure he responds: “I’ve been lucky in that I think just other life experiences including a love of sports like sky diving and scuba diving and racing fast cars around race tracks – doing those things allows you to be able to perceive pressure in a different way. In the mind’s eye I see pressure as self-created.”
Thankfully, he seems slightly more human when he admits the presence of his friends and family in the audience will make him nervous: “On those nights my palms are sweating.”
Anyway, his self-assured demeanour is apt for the man he embodies on stage, Rhett Butler, the suave, rakish ladies’ man made famous by Clark Gable in the 1939 film. “I like the idea that he is a man who sees things for what they are,” says Danesh about his character. “He’s an optimistic realist who hides behind a dry wit and there’s something very charming about that, in that he is a rough diamond who enjoys a whiskey and a cigar in the company of a woman, but he also has an awareness of the world and the politics of life and the reality of the political situation in the 1860s in the south. He has a very compassionate and tempestuous relationship with the character Scarlett O’Hara. It’s hard not to admire and love both of them.”
So how did Danesh, reality-star-turned-singer-songwriter, end up playing the romantic lead in this stage version of Mitchell’s epic, much-loved story? The simple answer is, he auditioned. The creative team had been looking for an actor to play Rhett for over two years, according to American producer Aldo Scrofani, and Danesh was cast just two weeks before rehearsals started. Last December he appeared in the 10th anniversary gala show of Chicago, in which he had twice played another roguish ladies’ man, Billy Flynn, when musical supervisor Gareth Valentine suggested he audition for Nunn. “I was meant to be flying back to LA, but of course when I heard this I jumped at the chance, postponed my flight, walked into the audition cold, didn’t think I’d done anything that was worthy of a recall, and then got called back.”
"He is a rough diamond who enjoys a whiskey and a cigar in the company of a woman"
Several auditions later, Danesh got the part. “I was overwhelmed and couldn’t believe that a director who has been somewhat of a hero of mine from when I studied English Literature at Edinburgh University and would come down to watch his productions, a man that I respect and hold in such high regard, I couldn’t believe that he had cast me as his lead,” raves Danesh.
Though he had starred as Sky Masterson in a tour of Michael Grandage’s Guys And Dolls in 2007, in addition to his stints in Chicago, Danesh’s fairly limited stage experience meant his casting as Rhett was a surprise to more than just himself, particularly as he is still most widely known for appearing in Pop Stars and the subsequent Pop Idol, in which he came third. “I’m sure I would have had the same reaction had I been on the other side of the fence,” he says mildly, before continuing: “I think generally, particularly the media…have a wonderful way of… an ability and a desire to pigeonhole anybody, and although I did an audition almost eight years ago – my first audition which was broadcast on television – and it was seven years since Pop Idol, it’s a while. Beyond that I’ve released two albums, I’ve had success with five top 10 singles, a number one [Colourblind in 2002], a platinum record; I’ve been on a world tour with Shakira… I’ve managed to do things that, beyond an audition that was on television, have really fulfilled me and taken me in different directions…”
He says acting was always on his agenda, ever since appearing with the Scottish Opera as a child, and it was “a childhood dream of mine to go and study at RADA” but Pop Stars came along instead, while he was studying English and Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Life, he says, “threw at me an opportunity to pursue my love of songwriting and singing. I embraced it with gusto, with gumption, because life’s too short not to.”
However, his audition for Pop Stars – a typically enthusiastic and somewhat unusual rendition of Britney Spears’s Hit Me Baby One More Time – gave him an unfortunate public image that has lingered. Danesh is unperturbed: “The way people perceive me is something I can’t control, and I can only put my heart and soul into the performance [as Rhett] and if people like it, great, and if they don’t well… I can’t apologise for it, I’ve just got to get on with what I’m doing. Because I’m enjoying it, to me that’s the main thing.”
So all pre-conceived perceptions aside, what is Danesh really like? On the phone it is hard to tell beneath that layer of buoyant patter. While relating the “character arch” of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind he is earnest and serious, though flashes of humour come through when he breaks off his own sentences to advise co-star Jill Paice, hovering in the background, about the dress she should wear to the press night after show party – “well done you” he says to her at one point, sounding strangely like Lorraine Kelly.
"I was overwhelmed and couldn’t believe that a director who has been somewhat of a hero of mine…had cast me as his lead"
In person, when we meet at the opening night, Danesh is friendly and warm, with that confidence evident in his steady gaze. He seems an altogether old fashioned sort of man, with a dashing old-school charm unusual in a British man of his generation, which matches the cravat and slicked back dark hair, and the whiskey he asks for on arrival. Perhaps this is why he is not always taken seriously – he belongs in 1940s Hollywood rather than the 21st century Britain that praises grit over glamour, self-depreciation over confidence.
His co-stars and colleagues certainly have a lot of love for their Rhett. Leading lady Paice praises Danesh as “such a gentleman” who is a “terrific actor because he has natural instincts”, while producer Scrofani is heartfelt in his opinion: “We’ve become dear friends. I don’t know why people don’t like him, why they don’t just think of him as the most sensational human being on the planet.”
What Danesh’s polished demeanour makes you forget is that he is relatively new to all this. Before Gone With The Wind came along he had been making up for his lack of drama school training by taking lessons in LA, and getting tips from veteran actor Robert Duvall – “an incredible actor and a wonderful man and a great humanitarian as well”. Vocally, adapting his voice to the demands of eight shows a week has involved training with “one of the top vocal coaches in Britain, if not in the world” Maureen Scott. “Although I haven’t been formally trained, it’s something I’m fitting in as a crash course and it’s something that’s been part of the challenge I’ve had to face. With any luck if I do all the things that Maureen tells me right, then I won’t fatigue,” he says.
Now he is a West End leading man, what of his singing career? Danesh says he doesn’t have a future plan, other than to be positive and see what happens, an attitude he credits to his doctor parents, who “taught me always to live for the day and to enjoy what you have and to embrace life’s opportunities as they arise and to go with the flow”. He adds: “I realise that if you’d asked me four months ago what I’d be doing I’d tell you I’d be at the studio recording my third album. That didn’t happen. It’s often the case that those people I meet that have had wonderful careers, when I ask them ‘so what was your plan?’, they say well we didn’t have a plan, we just wanted to work hard, enjoy the world while we had it and really just to embrace every opportunity to learn and to further yourself as an artist and a human being. So certainly that’s my plan.”
If all else fails, I’m sure he would have a fine career as a life coach. Right now, however, for West End actor Danesh, “it doesn’t get much better than Rhett Butler”.