Life is a little hectic for Jake Maskall at the moment. After being killed off in EastEnders at the end of March, the actor has embarked on three plays in a row, the latest being Faustus, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus by Headlong Artistic Director Rupert Goold. Though he’d surely rather be spending the time having a much needed kip, Maskall took a break from reciting lines to talk to Caroline Bishop about devils, damnation and Debenhams…
Jake Maskall has extremely white teeth. He also has vivid blue-green eyes, a wide grin, an unruly mop of dark hair and, given he was up until 03:00 the previous night learning his lines, an off-kilter conversational style brought on by tiredness. All of which lends the actor a slightly wild – you could say devilish – demeanour, which is appropriate for the role he is currently preparing for – that of Mephistopheles, servant of Lucifer, who leads Faustus down the path to eternal damnation.
Maskall is finding being devilish pretty knackering so far. “My neighbours must think I’m absolutely barmy,” he says of his night-time line-learning. “I’m pacing up and down, going through the moves, falling on the floor. They must hear me and think what is going on!”
He’s been at home learning lines all day too, and seems to have forgotten to eat; hence he installs himself at a table in the Hampstead foyer and tucks into a sandwich (cream cheese and smoked salmon, since you ask) with gusto. “I feel a bit like a headless chicken,” he tells me between bites. “It’s a mad old play, and it chops and changes, modern and 16th century.” He’s tired, bless, and his convoluted description of the plot of Faustus is produced in sentences that don’t always finish. What can be garnered though, is that the story combines Marlowe’s 16th century tale of Dr Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of instruction in the dark arts, with a narrative following real-life artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who are preparing a controversial new work in modern day Hoxton. “It ties in beautifully. I’m a big fan of the Chapmans actually, I find [their work] very evocative; it can disgust but it does something to the viewer,” comments Maskall.
As Mephistopheles, Maskall is the devil sent by Lucifer to serve Faustus before the latter’s descent into hell. The 35-year-old actor has been enjoying exploring his devilish side, including playing around with eye makeup and getting fitted with coloured contact lenses. “I’ve been having a lot of fun really. He’s very open to interpretation because he’s not of this world. You’ve got the stuff you can go with that’s in the text – he’s a fallen angel and he’s wicked. We’re still discovering him, even to the point of costume and stuff. I’ve been playing around with a look.”
"I’m cheeky and old Meph is a little bit cheeky too"
Maskall strikes me as a man with many devilish qualities. “Definitely!” he agrees, flashing a grin and pausing, hesitant to elaborate. “I guess I’m cheeky really, and I’m a terrible flirt and I think Mephistopheles has those…” his sentence trails off as he ponders his explanation. “I guess it’s [about] seduction; I’m cheeky and old Meph is a little bit cheeky too. As an actor, to be able to enlarge and exemplify little human characteristics…it’s like having a carte blanche to be really naughty.” He laughs, a cheeky glint in his eye, and takes a sip of tea.
Tiredness aside, Maskall is obviously relishing his current project, and is eager to talk about it. He puts much thought into his answers, often pausing and mulling over the words before he says them, trying to find the right way of expressing how he feels about director Goold’s way of working, about Marlowe, about the unfathomable nature of the themes in the play: “Heaven and hell, eternal damnation, it’s a massive thing, how do I relate to that, how do I make the audience see the consequence of selling your soul to the devil and indulging in these deadly sins, the consequence of that being eternally damned?” Does he think you have to believe in heaven and hell to believe in the play? “I don’t think you have to at all, no,” he pauses for one of his ponderations. “We have hell on earth, look at Palestine, Iraq, the sorrow, the tragedy… you pick up a paper, look at the news and there’s hell on earth. So I don’t think you have to be religious; it helps to have an understanding of what it means. You know, hell can be so different for so many people. For some it would be solitude. It’s the whole eternal thing about it… Faustus has this constant battle going on – does he, doesn’t he believe in God. As the play evolves he comes to realise the mistakes, how much he’s crossed the line and what hell for him will be. It is a moral tale.”
As well as his enthusiasm for the story, he’s a big fan of Marlowe’s writing, having worked earlier this year on another play by the Bard’s contemporary, Dido, Queen Of Carthage, with site-specific theatre company Angels In The Architecture. Maskall played Aeneas to Sarah Thom’s Dido in this promenade production directed by Rebecca McCutcheon, who at one point had the pair consummate their relationship while a cupid poured water on them from a watering can overhead. “I was thinking it’s either going to be a really bad student production or it’s going to be great. I couldn’t quite see her vision, but I think she did a brilliant job,” says Maskall. Goold obviously thought so too, as it was Maskall’s performance in this play that prompted the Headlong director to invite him for an
audition for Faustus.
“Marlowe, he’s so muscular, I love his language, I find it very raw,” muses Maskall, launching into an attempt to deconstruct the playwright. “I don’t think it’s beautiful like Shakespeare… it’s like saying French compared with German. The German is Marlowe. I don’t prefer it but it’s got direction.” He pauses before laughing at himself. “Ok, not German, that’s a really bad one ‘cause a lot of people don’t like German do they, ‘cause it’s hard on the ear. Shakespeare and Marlowe are very different. Marlowe is much more direct, Shakespeare is more flowery…” he loses his train of thought, flops his weary head on the table and grins at his muddled speech. “God, what am I saying!” He starts again. “It’s the drive, I find it’s beautiful. There’s a darkness to it, that’s my point. Marlowe puts his finger on it and he’s willing and brave enough to pen it and put it down, and an actor gets these words and you think ‘Wow, that is something else!’ There’s always this underlying sexuality, eroticism with Marlowe. It’s that darkness, a little bit naughty.”
"I really loved playing Danny. He had a Mephistophelian trait, he was a bit of a nutter"
So we’re back to naughtiness again. It’s a characteristic that seems to sit well with the actor. After all, his face is best known as that of Danny Moon, cheeky chappy, gangster-wannabe, ladies’ man and slightly mad younger brother of Jake Moon (Joel Beckett) in the soap EastEnders. Danny met a grisly end in March this year – after a prolonged absence – at the hands of his brother in revenge for bumping off Dennis Rickman. It was a controversial axing of a popular and short-lived character in the show and a premature end of soap life for Maskall. Shane Richie (who played Maskall’s soap cousin Alfie) and other cast members were so incensed about the decision to axe the Moons that they petitioned the show’s producers. “It was a bit of a shock decision,” says Maskall. “I don’t think it was the right decision, because I think the Moons were a very, very popular family, there was a huge amount of potential there, and they had class actors, Joel and myself,” he chuckles. “I think it was the wrong decision, but for me, thank you very much, it was the right decision.
“I learnt a lot on the show, met some great friends, but I was scared of getting stuck in there, hence I spent this last year trying to push Danny Moon out and say actually it’s Jake Maskall not Danny Moon,” he continues. “I was very sad to leave his character, I really loved playing him. He had a Mephistophelian trait, he was a bit of a nutter.”Since his ‘Enders days he has thrown himself right in at the deep end by doing three plays consecutively, the first being a tour of Kind Hearts And Coronets, in which he was constantly on stage and had just two weeks of rehearsals. Though at times the pressure had him “on the verge of tears”, it ignited his passion for the theatre once again. “It absolutely did. Theatre is the place I think you really learn. The place that I’ve learnt and I’ve improved as an actor. I love the theatre, there’s something electrifying about it, magical about it.”
Maskall became enthused by acting from a young age, due to an overactive imagination which had him turning rockeries into spaceships and submarines in the garden of his family home in Essex (“the neighbours must have thought I was mad then as well”). But he almost scuppered his own acting dreams with self-doubt; at 17 he flirted with the idea of applying for drama school, but was too scared to go for it – “there was this huge fear looming that if I failed my life would be void of something”. Instead, he shoved his acting desires under the carpet and spent several years working in shops, restaurants and at one point a crêperie in Montpellier, France, where he spent 18 months studying French at university. His mind though, was obviously on other things: “I was c**p at crêpes,” he laughs. “It’s an art form. With omelettes I was alright but with crepes, my mind would drift away somewhere else and then… s**t!”
"There was this huge fear looming that if I failed my life would be void of something"
At 24 he finally woke up, realised it was time to confront his fear, and forced himself to apply for three drama schools, one being the Drama Centre in London. He didn’t actually want to go there as friends who had gone through it dubbed it ‘Trauma Centre’, but it was the hardest audition and therefore the best way of confronting his fear. Unexpectedly, they accepted him. “I got a place and I was like ‘Oh no, this is all wrong, it’s going against my game plan!’” But he went, had an “amazing” three years being taught by “inspirational” tutors and came out with a parent-pleasing first class degree. In retrospect he feels the delayed start to his career was very beneficial. “I think if I’d gone at 18 I’d be a very different person; I’d be really precocious, I wouldn’t be very nice, and I don’t think I’d have survived the Drama Centre. But leaving it later in life I coped, I dealt with it and I had that little bit of experience, and my drive was there. At 18 you expect all these things to come your way, and I knew that they wouldn’t, I knew that they’d be very hard.” His biggest fear now is having to go back and work in a restaurant.
That’s not looking likely though; offers of work are rolling in to the extent that he good-naturedly moans he hasn’t had a holiday since last April. Following Faustus he’ll be kept occupied by some work in TV and film, and he’s eager to do more adverts for department store Debenhams, which is understandable given the last one had him on location in Lisbon working with Ridley Scott’s daughter Jordan. “I love Debenhams; everybody’s favourite!” he says as if to camera, beaming cheekily.
If he did have the time however, his holiday destination of choice would be Borneo, to “have an adventure and go and visit some orangutans” which seems particularly appropriate for a man with an overactive imagination and a distinctly naughty streak.
Faustus runs at the Hampstead from 20 October to 19 November.