Recently, actor George Asprey has been carving a bit of a niche for himself playing the bad guy – and he is thoroughly enjoying it too. After a year’s stint playing slick lawyer Billy Flynn in a UK tour of Chicago, last month the 41-year-old joined the cast of The Lion King to play dastardly lion Scar.
Based on the hit 1994 Disney film, with a score by Elton John, The Lion King is now in its ninth year at the Lyceum theatre. Using elaborate costumes and staging, it tells the story of young lion cub Simba, who is heir to the throne of the Pridelands, ruled over by his father, King Mufasa. But unbeknownst to Simba, his envious Uncle Scar engineers the death of Mufasa in order to claim the throne for himself. Feeling responsible, Simba flees his home, until years later he finds the courage to return and face Scar once again.
Though Asprey admits he does have a thing or two in common with the evil Scar, luckily, found Caroline Bishop when she chatted to him about his new role, the nastiness is all an act.
How has it been going since you joined the cast in April?
GA: It’s going really well, it’s great fun. I love playing a baddie, absolutely. When I get booed at the end it’s like music to my ears!
Was that the attraction of the role, playing an evil character?
GA: Yeah pretty much. I’d seen the film and Jeremy Irons gives such an iconic performance in it, so there’s no way you can replicate that. But as soon as I got the script I got a feeling for it really, I was really looking forward to doing it.
Describe Scar – what is he like?
GA: He’s just misunderstood really I think! Scar is the King’s younger brother. I think in every way he’s always been beaten by his older brother. His older brother is the one who was always good at sports, who was best at hunting class, had won all the medals, while Scar sort of lagged behind, had a slightly dodgy hip from birth, maybe a touch of children’s arthritis or something. But the one thing he does have is a fantastic brain, and when his brain gets used… he gets excited by little mental challenges and stuff like that. But when he’s left to his own devices, he gets very maudlin and feels very sorry for himself. Life’s dealt him a very bad hand as far as he is concerned, despite the fact that he is the King’s brother. But unfortunately he’ll never be King, which is what he really, desperately wants.
Do you feel any sympathy for him?
GA: Yes sort of. Not really from my own personal experiences but I think probably Mufasa beat him up a couple of times when they were kids – not meaning to, but Mufasa is so bull-headed he probably didn’t know his own strength and gave Scar one clip round the ear too many. It doesn’t really excuse me killing him, I suppose, but it goes some way to [explain]. Scar has a wonderful line – ‘nobody loves me, there’s the rub, even as a cub’ – and I think that’s probably how he feels. He feels a bit sorry for himself and so you know, it’s other people’s fault what’s happening. He is a result of his conditioning, no more.
Is playing a baddie more enjoyable than playing the goodie?
GA: Much more enjoyable! There’s so much more to it. The way my career has gone, when I left drama school I started playing really nice parts, the good boy, and now I’m playing more the bad man which is great fun. I’ve just spent a year playing Billy Flynn [in Chicago].
Does Billy have any similarities to Scar?
GA: Well sort of. I mean they both have very quick minds and they are both intellectually quite strong. But obviously [there is] the difference between the brash American and the upper class Englishman – because that’s what Scar is really, he’s royalty. But Billy is much quicker, everything is going 100 miles an hour, which actually is a nightmare on stage when you’re doing your lines that quickly. And Scar’s much more laconic. But both [are] great fun to play. Both [have] similar intentions, but their inner tempers are diametrically opposite.
Is it a challenge to act within the masked costume of Scar?
GA: Well the costume weighs about 35 pounds. I’m wasting away as we speak! Mind you, my wife says I needed to waste away a bit so that’s ok!
In a way the constricting nature of the costume helps, if anything, with Scar’s inner demons and his battle – well, he doesn’t really have a battle with his inner demons, he just gives way to them implicitly!
I cannot dress myself, I have to be dressed, so there’s that ritualistic aspect to it, like the Samurai warrior being dressed for battle. If you look at his costume, there’s a cage and a masked helmet and the ribs… he almost wears armour. All the other characters are very sort of free moving and their costumes allow them to move quite freely. Scar’s is the only one really which…has armour.
How long does it take to get into costume?
GA: I start my makeup at 18:30 and I just about finish getting ready just before we go on stage at 19:25, so the whole thing takes nearly an hour.
In rehearsals, how did you go about getting into the character of a lion?
GA: What they’ve done now, when they were rehearsing the new cast change in, is to sort of incorporate a lot of Balinese movement into it. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting at all, it’s much more interesting and much more multi-layered.
I have to say, me trying to do this Balinese dance was probably one of the more absurd things I’ve seen. But eventually you get it. We had six weeks’ rehearsal – at the beginning I thought, why do we need six weeks? Normally it’s four weeks at the most. Then after the fourth week I was going oh my God we’ve only got two more weeks’ rehearsal! So it’s quite a process to get everything. I’ve got a mechanical mask, as well, to use, which is operated by a finger control lodged in the palm of my hand that I use with my thumb and fingers. So to coordinate all that with the movement and costume, and you’ve got to remember to say your lines as well, and sing!
How does it feel coming into such a long running show?
GA: It’s been running ages but I’m only the third Scar. Rob Edwards did it for five years. James Simmons who’s just left did it for three years, and then me. I mean, you can see why, it’s such a fun part to play, and it must take you two years to get it right! But it’s so much fun and I so look forward to going on stage. We’ve got a matinee [today] and I’m really excited about doing two shows today, which for me is pretty unheard of! It’s a great job, I’m very lucky.
Can you see yourself staying for a while then?
GA: We’ll see what other things come up. The problem is I’ve been out of the TV loop for a couple of years now, because of Chicago and now this. I did a bit of TV in the interim period between the two, so we’ll see how it goes. That’s mainly where my bread and butter has been, film and TV. At a push, I could probably see myself staying a couple of years, just because it is so much fun. And also, my second daughter’s just been born, so for me to be at home the whole year really helps my wife out. If my wife had her way I’d be doing Lion King for the next 10 years! When the last one was born, I literally went away on tour the day she was born, pretty much. That was very hard for both of us. But my wife is an actress as well so she knows what the score is and it’s our job and we have to work.
Does it get wearing doing the same thing night after night?
GA: The funny thing about Chicago was, the first four months were fine, but then after a while you get so complacent with a role that you start making stupid little mistakes on stage because you’re not concentrating. And when that happens suddenly you start getting this cold sweat and you start thinking about every line, and that makes it even worse. I don’t think that’s going to happen on this because there’s just too much to occupy my brain. I don’t think I will ever become complacent on this.
Although, Billy Flynn is a fantastic part as well, it really is. It’s something I’d love to go back to, I wouldn’t mind going back and doing a little stint in the West End as Billy, but not another year.
Do you have your eye on any other baddies you would like to play?
GA: Well, I’ve always seen Sky Masterson [in Guys And Dolls] as a baddie. He sings My Time Of Day, that song – ‘you wouldn’t like to walk around with a guy like me’, basically, is what he’s saying. But I always see him played as this nice guy, which I kind of disagree with. So I’d love to play Sky and give a real edge to him.
When you aren’t plotting to kill your brother and become king, what do you like to do to wind down?
GA: What I’d like to do and what I do do are completely different things. I’d love to spend my entire life on the golf course. When I went away on tour I played a lot of golf then, so I’m making up for it, reminding my daughters they actually have a father at the moment. Also I’m rationed by my wife about how much golf I’m actually allowed to play. I’d probably be far too irresponsible if I had my own way – a bit like Scar really!