Two hours after I’d spoken to Lewis Reeves during a break in technical rehearsals for My Night With Reg, controversy breaks. His bare bottom has been deemed unsuitable by TfL and banned from the underground.
It’s an unusual uproar for an actor to find himself at the centre of, but one that I have no doubt that Reeves would have seen the funny side of. Keen to tell me all about how it feels to strip on stage – not to mention for the promotional posters advertising the show – the rising star is taking what he first describes as the thing of “nightmares” in his stride. And, let’s face it, nudity is probably the least interesting thing about the late Kevin Elyot’s drama. A seminal piece, it expertly treads the line between tragedy and comedy to tell the heartbreaking and often utterly hilarious story of a group of men whose friendship group is torn apart during the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
Following his professional London debut in the West End hit Our Boys, 26-year-old Reeves is back in the Donmar Warehouse’s acclaimed show for its Apollo Theatre transfer. Keen to find out more about Yorkshire-born Reeves’ career to date, the infectiously enthusiastic actor filled me in on how an overenergetic youth led to a life in the spotlight and how the passing of Elyot prior to the Donmar’s 20th anniversary revival of his most famous play brought home the importance of his breakthrough role.
CV in brief:
2012: Makes professional London stage debut in Our Boys at the Duchess Theatre
2014: Appears in the BBC drama Our World War
2014: Makes Donmar Warehouse debut in My Night With Reg
2015: Reeves and the full Donmar Warehouse cast, including Julian Ovenden and Jonathan Broadbent, take My Night With Reg to the West End for a run at the Apollo Theatre
What first got you interested in acting?
I actually started off as a dancer. I used to like doing martial arts, then I found dance and it was a great expression for me. I had a lot of energy as a kid and basically I just liked showing off! So my mum chucked me into it. I ended up [at] the Royal Welsh School of Music and Drama where I did a BA in acting and it was the absolute best thing for me. I became a lot more well-read and found out how I wanted to be as an actor. It was one of the best times of my life and gave me a good foundation to prepare me for the trade.
What first attracted you to being part of My Night With Reg?
The Donmar title always brings you in! I’ve been there as a fan watching pieces for years, so to get a chance to play in the space is brilliant. I hadn’t actually heard of the play and then I read it and loved it. When I meant Rob [Hastie] the director and Kevin Elyot the writer, I realised what a special piece it was and what a great part Eric was as well. He goes from a boy to a man on stage and finds his own little area in the world and who he is. It was such a great arch to have as a character, so that was exciting.
Tell me about Eric.
He’s a young gay lad from Birmingham and he’s come down to London. He’s living with his aunty and doesn’t have any friends around him. He’s picking up part time work wherever he can, and one of the places is a local pub of Guy’s and Guy asks him to do some painting and decorating work at his flat. It’s from there that Eric gets accidentally sprawled into this world of guys and this amazing friendship… all the lust and lies and infidelities that are happening [go] over Eric’s head, he’s sort of oblivious to it. As the years go on and things are revealed, he becomes much more emotionally involved with Guy and John, and the people who enter and pass through their lives.
How are you feeling about moving into the West End after the intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse?
That was probably one thing I was a little bit worried about because it’s such a different space to the Donmar; it was in that traverse, almost quite film-like [set-up]. There’s a quality to it which is very close and intimate, and now it’s about opening it up a little bit more and being caught in that almost picture frame on a classical stage. I thought it was going to be harder than it was; it’s actually been quite fun finding new ways to do things.
Will it change your performances?
Only in the stage craft sense of it, of being aware of where the audience is and inviting them into Guy’s little flat. The story should be as funny and moving and intimate as it was in the Donmar space.
At what point did you find out you were going to have to bare all for the production?
When I got [the script] through from my agent, Ben said ‘Okay, there are two things…’ You generally get, you know, ‘There’s stunts involved’ or ‘Are you okay to do this…’ sort of thing, and [with this] it was ‘Birmingham accent’ and ‘the character has full frontal nudity’. For some reason, the thing that fazed me more was the Birmingham accent! Going on stage naked, even though that’s a classic nightmare, wasn’t too hard.
The hard thing was – no innuendo meant there… – was doing it in the rehearsal room, that was quite tough. Being on stage is fine because you’ve got lights and there is a slight distance – you can’t really see the audience – but when it was on a dreary day in a cold rehearsal room and they say ‘Yeah we’re going to go for it’… But it was a closed set and Rob made me and Julian feel very comfortable. But doing it for the first time was when the reality kicked in. The scene went about 20 times faster than it had before! It was quite scary. But once we got that out the way, it was fine and I’m used to taking my clothes off now!
Do your friends and family get a kick out of the poster?
Oh yeah. I get plenty of stick for it, that’s for sure. But you don’t really mind because it’s such a good play and the nudity is tasteful and it feels like you’re not just doing it for the sake of it or for putting bums on seats.
The play is set around the time when you would have been born. Having not experienced the period yourself, did you have to do any research?
Oh yes, totally. I have a few friends who are gay and went through that time period, so I spoke to them and asked them about their experiences. I had to be quite delicate because it was such a harsh time, there was terrifying disease and no one really knew about it. [It] completely took out friendship groups, so I knew I had to be quite sensitive when asking people about it.
The brilliant thing was we had almost six weeks in rehearsal and the first week was all pretty much around the table, reading the play and picking everything out and see if there was anything that we needed to explore. We put out a timeline so we knew what was happening and when and how that would affect our characters. So in that respect I felt the most prepared for a role than I’ve ever been. It was such a good way of working, everyone was very generous to me, and the older members of the cast shared some of their stories, so I just tried to sponge it all up as much as I could.
It takes on a very serious subject but it’s also incredibly funny. How do you tread that line between tragedy and comedy?
Kevin leaves nothing to chance. Even now, coming to it a second time round, you end up going ‘Oh God, isn’t that funny?’ Every nuance and beat is put there for a reason. I think he knew exactly what he was doing… A lot of the humour comes from the awkwardness of a situation and I think everyone will be able to identify with that, and that’s where the laughter comes from. It’s quite quintessentially British in that sense.
How did Kevin Elyot passing away affect the production?
It made me realise how important the play was. I met Kevin just the once in the audition room and he terrified me! I was very scared of him. He hardly said anything.
Why were you scared of him?
Well he had this great presence. I think he was very ill at that time, but he just had a great, regal posture about him and he studied everything I did. I think he only said hello to me and at the end, as I was leaving, he leaned slightly over the table and said ‘And are you actually from Birmingham?’ I tend to talk a lot in these slightly stressful situations, and I really wanted the job, so I said ‘No, I’m from Yorkshire originally, I’m from Doncaster, but my mum moved up and down with the pub trade so I’ve moved around the country, I’ve got a really good ear for accents’, really trying to sell myself. And you could sort of almost see a smirk behind the stern glare. And that was that. I shook his hand. But I think Kevin loved it. I spoke to my agent and he said ‘They really want you’ which is what makes it feel very special, for me, that Kevin did want us.
Me and Jonny Broadbent also had the great honour and privilege to do a reading at his funeral after that. We did a small section of the play at the Actors’ Church, which was mental because that was even before rehearsals. It was only then and hearing the eulogies and all the people who had been associated with the play or with Kevin that I saw this huge community and how important [My Night With Reg] was to them. I had this great sense of pride to be involved in it and I kept the memory of that alive, but also tried to tell the truth of the story so I didn’t get too precious with it. But I held what everyone said, all their words, close to my heart. It was very moving and lovely.
You made your professional London stage debut in Our Boys in the West End. How was that?
It was nerve-racking but David Grindley was great on that and there were some great actors and they gave me advice and helped me through it. It was a lovely time; I look back on it with fond memories.
Both of your two West End productions to date have been with all-male casts. I presume that hasn’t been a deliberate move?!
Not at all, it’s just completely coincidental. Maybe that’s my thing?! Sticking with the boys!
Do you think it changes the dynamic in the rehearsal room?
I don’t really know. I think we have our own little world, I suppose, and like anyone and in any situation you have to be respectful of what you say but there’s certainly a lot of banter around and everyone thoroughly enjoyed getting into our characters, so it might be different if there were other people in the play, but I don’t think so. I think it all depends on the work that you’re doing. If I was doing a tragedy, it would probably be slightly downbeat. I’ll have to let you know when I start working with women!
Stage or screen?
I love doing everything, I don’t tend to say no that much because I think everything’s a great challenge! I want to be as versatile as possible. My ideal dream is to be that guy that someone goes ‘Who’s that guy? Oh yeah, he was in that thing.’ No one ever really knows his name, but he’s known for loads of different things. That’s my dream.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
There was a time about a year and a half ago when I had six months out. There wasn’t much [work] going around for me and I decided I wanted to do something a bit nicer with my time, and take my football coach badges and work with kids teaching them football. Things picked up for me and I haven’t done it, but I think I probably will at some point when I get some spare time.