From “terrible” stand up to television presenter to West End star, Justin Lee Collins tells Caroline Bishop how one thing just keeps leading to another…
So well does Justin Lee Collins fit with new musical Rock Of Ages that some presumed he was in the cast even before he knew of its existence. He was on a plane to Miami in March when one of the cabin crew asked if he was an “actor or something.” Collins told her he was a television host. “You look like you should be in Rock Of Ages,” she replied, going on to explain to the uninformed Collins that this was a musical on Broadway. “And what a weird coincidence,” he tells me now, “because within a month after that lady on that flight had said that to me I got a phone call about being in Rock Of Ages.”
Even without having seen the Broadway show, which is being recreated for London audiences at the Shaftesbury theatre from 31 August, I can see what the flight attendant meant. With his shoulder length, thick blond hair and dark moustache and beard, and sporting a ring and bracelet fashioned from silver skulls, Collins looks just the sort of guy to star in an 80s-set musical featuring a soundtrack of classic rock tunes. When you factor in his radio show for rock station XFM and his love of REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other such “cock rock” as he puts it, Collins seems made for it. “I seem to be synonymous with that kind of 80s rock and roll,” he smiles when I meet him one summer afternoon prior to the start of rehearsals. “I don’t think it was too great a leap of the imagination to envisage me in the show.”
The musical’s producers obviously felt the same, and so it is that the big-haired Bristolian, to date known more for his hosting duties on comedy chatshow The Friday Night Project (and its Sunday night reincarnation) than for any musical theatre pedigree, finds himself playing his first professional role in a West End musical. As his catchphrase goes, good times.
He plays Dennis Dupree –“he’s a bit like The Dude in The Big Lebowski” – the owner of an LA nightclub which faces being turned into a fast food joint by two German (naturally) developers. The Bourbon, as the place is called, is also the setting for a love story between wannabe rock star Drew and small town girl Sherrie. Plot aside, Rock Of Ages is a great excuse to hear some of the 80s’ most famous rock tunes being played out on stage, including anthems such as The Final Countdown, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Don’t Stop Believin’ and Can’t Fight This Feeling. This afternoon, I’m lucky enough to have Collins sing me the opening lines of his own personal favourite rock tune (which isn’t in the show), REO Speedwagon’s Take It On The Run.
“If everything else dries up and nothing else happens then maybe I could make a living as a celebrity impersonator”
That’s another – and surely, the main – reason why Collins is able to reinvent himself as a musical theatre star: he can sing. Like many, Collins’s striking voice piqued my attention when I heard his rendition of Tom Jones hit Green, Green Grass Of Home on Chris Moyles’s Breakfast Show for Radio One in 2008. It was a strong, tonally rich voice which floated from my radio that morning, a voice I hadn’t expected to come from a stand-up-comedian-turned-television-presenter known for his irreverent banter with bespectacled co-host Alan Carr. It turns out I wasn’t the only one to be surprised. “That was the first time that people thought ‘oh my goodness me, he’s alright’,” says Collins. “As a result of that, two songwriters got in touch with me and I ended up making an album. I had a record deal with Universal Records!” He laughs, his face a picture of incredulity. “I ended up making an album which exists, my mum and dad have got it on their jukebox!”
Due to various factors, which Collins goes into at length – I reckon he could rival Carr for Chatty Man status, though his words are delivered in an endearingly eager-to-please manner which his former co-host lacks – the album never saw the light of day, but no matter; the experience had helped him fulfil a long-held, latent aspiration to be a singer. “I do love to sing and that was always a really quiet ambition, I was always kind of embarrassed about it,” he says. “I don’t have a trained ear so I would sing to myself and think ‘that sounds alright’, but no one ever said ‘ooh I think you could do that’.”
His rather sudden leap from embarrassed singer to recording artist is one example of the haphazard yet almost fateful path his career has taken. That spontaneous early morning radio serenade came on the back of a documentary he filmed for Channel 4 which charted his attempt to become a Tom Jones impersonator at a convention in Florida – he liked it so much he would even consider doing it properly: “If everything else dries up and nothing else happens then maybe I could make a living as a celebrity impersonator” – and it was another similarly wacky programme which led to Collins’s first experience of musical theatre. In 2008 he filmed a series for Sky in which he was challenged to conquer different skills, including Mexican wrestling, ballroom dancing and high diving. But his love of somersaulting off diving boards – he “really took to it” until he perforated his ear drum – was trumped by the next challenge, to star in a West End musical. After rehearsing with the cast of Chicago he performed three performances as Amos Hart in December 2008. It was, says Collins emphatically, “the best working experience of my life. I absolutely loved it.” Later, he adds: “When I took to the stage it absolutely made sense. It felt like, yeah this is it, this is the thing that I wanted to do.”
“I don’t think it was too great a leap of the imagination to envisage me in the show”
Again, though it took a rather unusual project to achieve it, this foray into stage acting fulfilled an ambition he had held since childhood. “When I was a little boy I wanted to be an actor. It was mostly acting and radio, those were the two big things, never stand up.”
Yet it was stand up comedy that kick-started Collins’s career and which has resulted in all these latent ambitions being realised. As he says, everything he has done to date – from hosting The Friday Night Project to reuniting The A Team for another Channel 4 programme, to learning to high dive, impersonating Tom Jones and recording an album – “started with me getting on stage in Jongleurs and dying on my ass.”
Surely, I say, he must have been vaguely good at stand up in order to have secured the opportunities that came after? “I’m very hard on myself when it comes to stand up and if I’m ever asked about it it’s my default to say I was terrible. That’s because I feel like a charlatan.” He never earned a living from stand up, he explains, instead it was a learning process: performing at open mic sessions led to compering, from which he realised being a host suited him better than being a performer. “But I suppose I was just good enough in order for it to be a shop window for me,” he adds. “So people could go, ‘oh ok he may have died on his ass but I saw something that I quite liked’.”
It is a lesson he would give to any young wannabe, that good things come to those who are willing to die on their arse enough times. But there must be more to it than that. In embracing his eclectic back catalogue of challenges, Collins has shown he has the drive and necessary work ethic to succeed, and his attitude towards Rock Of Ages is no different. When we meet, he hasn’t yet begun rehearsals, but he has already spent “the last couple of months” learning his lines, so that he can go into rehearsals off book. It is an unusual experience for him: “I never have to learn lines. Usually I say the first ridiculous thing that comes into my head.”
He is expecting the whole experience to be hard, but of the numerous tests contained in his transformation into West End star, he is particularly nervous about the choreography, despite the experience of his ballroom dancing ‘challenge’: “I said [to the choreographer] ‘I can Paso Doble’, but I don’t think the Paso is really called for in this particular show.”
“When I took to the stage it absolutely made sense”
However he has given himself a good start, having stopped drinking at the beginning of the year. “I’ve lost loads of weight. So I’m taking good care of myself, I exercise, I eat well and I don’t really drink any more.” Indeed, when he mentions it and pats his stomach somewhat proudly, I notice that the ample belly that seems as much a part of his persona as his hair and his Bristolian accent, is no longer in evidence.
“I just got tired of it,” he says of his decision to jump on the wagon, “and I’m not very good on it. I’ve never been able to handle my drink particularly well. Bad hangovers and things that you don’t remember and waking up in strange places and places where you shouldn’t really be waking up… It wasn’t healthy for me. It wasn’t a problem in the sense that I had a drinking problem, it just became a problem in the sense that it wasn’t good for my everyday life, my personal life, and I just felt it was time to stop.”
It will certainly stand him in good stead for the demands of appearing in a West End show eight performances a week. “I don’t want to miss a show,” he says earnestly. “I might not get this opportunity again and I don’t know whether I’m going to be any good or not – audiences will decide – but I’m loving it and I want to be my best in it. So when the show’s finished I shall jump in a cab and go back home and hopefully get some rest because I have to come in the next day and do it all again.” He may look the part of a rock star, but for as long as he is in Rock Of Ages, he won’t be behaving like one.