Caroline Bishop meets current Legally Blonde star Lee Mead on the eve of his 30th birthday and finds a man with a lot of ambition and a very mature head on his shoulders.
For most people, turning 30 can lead to a spot of contemplation about one’s life. Achievements, desires, failures, successes, future ambitions; all these thoughts may swim in the head along with that fuzzy sensation that comes with a glass of celebratory champagne or two.
For someone who is reaching 30 as a West End leading man, with two solo albums under his belt, national and international tours on the horizon, homes in Hampstead and Kent and a wife and baby daughter to cheer him on, you might think there would be little said person would feel they still needed to achieve.
But Lee Mead isn’t the type to rest on his laurels. The man I meet at the Savoy theatre in the week he turns 30 (on Thursday, 14 July) is a serious contemplator. “I feel really pleased with what I’ve achieved and everything I’ve done so far,” he starts, “but I don’t know… you take stock of it and think okay, what else do I want to achieve with my life and where do I want to go going forward from this point?”
“I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to be finding new things to do,” he adds, “whether it be travelling or with work. There’s so much for all of us that I think we could [do]… read more books, see more countries…”
Yes, indeed there is, but I can’t help but feel that Mead is putting too much pressure on himself. If he hasn’t read all The Guardian’s top 100 books of all time (maybe he has, I didn’t ask) then he’s no different to the rest of us. Plus, he’s going to Japan in December for his first international solo tour, so that’s one country ticked off the list.
But Mead thrives on pressure. He certainly had it during the 2007 television programme that made his name – the BBC’s second casting show Any Dream Will Do – and when playing the high-profile leading role he won as a result, the eponymous coat-wearer in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He had it when facing the barrage of press that resulted from that experience, when he “pretty much did every magazine and paper in the country”. He had it when singing in front of 63,000 people at Wembley Stadium during the Concert For Diana in 2007, and again in Hyde Park a year later as part of Lloyd Webber’s 60th birthday celebrations.
“You take stock of it and think okay, what else do I want to achieve with my life?”
All that was several years ago. The dust has settled, life has calmed down somewhat but Mead is still in the business. Having returned to musicals in Wicked last year, he is now taking on the male lead in Legally Blonde The Musical. Unlike Joseph, which was heavily focused on his role, both of those shows are predominantly based around the female characters. Is it a relief, I wonder, to have the pressure off? “I prefer that though,” he smiles. “I do like a bit of pressure.”
That’s not to say he isn’t enjoying his time in Legally Blonde The Musical, the story of sorority girl-turned-law student Elle Woods. Quite the contrary; he has found the role of college boy Emmett enough of a challenge to satisfy his urge for pressure while also having “definitely the most fun I’ve had on any show before in terms of the story. It’s so camp in places and fun.”
He knew some of the cast before joining the show because his wife, actress Denise Van Outen, starred as Elle’s beautician friend Paulette in the show for six months until this April. But he stopped short of performing alongside her. “There were early discussions about us potentially doing the show together which could have been nice. But being a couple, living together, having a baby, and then working together as well, I think it’s important as individuals to have your own space and time. That’s the only reason really. It’s not a case of not wanting to do a show together.”
The couple famously met on Any Dream Will Do, in which she was a judge, he a contestant. They married in the Seychelles in 2009 and their first baby, daughter Betsy, was born in May 2010. “On a personal level for me that was the best part of auditioning for that show,” he says. “Not only was I lucky enough to have a career changing role, but to have met Denise as well… You never expect to find your wife on a TV show!”
He says he is “really proud and grateful” for the opportunity that Lloyd Webber and the BBC gave him through the programme which catapulted him into the public eye because “it gave me a real opportunity to show people on a bigger platform the things that I was capable of doing.” But there’s no doubt that handling the publicity that came with it was a hard experience, particularly given the interest in his burgeoning relationship with Van Outen. “I didn’t initially [cope],” he says. “I’m a very private person and can be quite shy as well. It was hard, all of a sudden being asked questions about my family or my personal life which I found really odd.”
He says this period of his life was “great fun” as well, but this is added as an almost apologetic concession, having just spoken at length about his dislike of the kind of interviews where he was asked about his underwear rather than his career ambitions. For someone as focused as Mead, the celebrity side of things was never going to sit comfortably. “The big thing for me is that it has always been about the work, primarily. I think a lot of artists tend to like the celebrity side of things and the photoshoots and the free gifts more than the actual work itself, and I think what drives me more than anything is the next project, that challenge.”
“Not only was I lucky enough to have a career changing role, but to have met Denise as well…”
After all, Mead had already worked professionally in the industry for five years prior to the TV show, so it is understandable that suddenly receiving such copious attention for doing exactly the same job felt a little surreal. After performing in several UK tours, he was in the ensemble of The Phantom Of The Opera in the West End when he applied for the programme. Prior to that, he began his career singing on cruise ships. “I loved that period as well, I was 18, 19, I was out there, I had my own band, I was singing and getting paid to perform, which was brilliant.”
It is this background as a grafter in the industry that meant Mead’s success on Joseph was never going to be a flash in the pan. After leaving the musical he turned down “three or four West End musicals” in order to take a year out and study acting in New York. When he returned to the UK he didn’t plough straight back into musicals but defied expectations by touring with an Oscar Wilde play, Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime. “To tour an Oscar Wilde play for four months while my wife was pregnant at the time,” he says. “I wouldn’t have made that decision unless it was something that I felt passionate about and thought was going to help my career. It was a real challenge; 130 pages of script. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
“I’m always very conscious of making decisions that are going to enhance me as an actor and enhance my craft,” he adds. “I think it’s very easy to go from job to job and have fun but not challenge myself.”
There is an earnest seriousness about Mead that, at times, makes me forget he is only 30 (compared to most 30-year-old British males I know, he’s a lot higher on the maturity scale, but maybe that says more about my friends than him). Not only is he extremely career-minded but he is a dedicated family man – “Being a father is just the best thing to have ever happened to me really” – and he takes his responsibilities seriously. When I suggest that it may be hard to juggle the demands of his career with family life, he is quick to reject the idea. “I’m a firm believer that it’s about quality time that you have with your kids rather than quantity. You could see your children all day every day and it not be quality time, so I’m very conscious of that, of making sure that the time I do have is real quality and I’m just focusing on her.”
“I think what drives me more than anything is the next project”
It’s no wonder that Van Outen, seven years his senior, has frequently cited her husband’s maturity in interviews. But when I mention how he comes across he replies, somewhat shyly: “I hope not too focused, because that could come across as boring. I do let off steam as well.” He proceeds to tell me about a planned birthday weekend in Newquay with his best friend, where they will “play snooker and drink beer for a couple of days”. I can’t help but smile when he adds: “It’s brilliant, you can fly from Gatwick to Newquay, takes about 45 minutes.”
He may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s okay. I can only admire him for his devotion to his family and his go-getting attitude towards his career. As the next decade approaches he has already laid the foundations for new achievements; he recently filmed his first television acting job for the BBC, to be aired in August, and there’s that debut solo international tour in December. Whatever else he chooses to do, it is certain to have his full commitment. “When I go out on stage or take on any project I want to make sure that I’m giving myself 100% and not think to myself I’ve chosen this job for 70% and the other 30 I’m doing it for the wrong reason.”
But part of me worries for him, too. I just hope that, when he gathers his friends and family together on Thursday night to celebrate his birthday, he can push aside the self-imposed pressures in his head, let his trademark curly hair down and make sure he has an awful lot of fun.