Why take on one role when you can play four? Sweet Charity actor Mark Umbers likes to have something to get stuck into, finds Caroline Bishop.
Such is Mark Umbers’s dedication to his multi-faceted role in musical Sweet Charity that at the end of its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory he lost his voice. A trip to a specialist revealed that he had strained the muscles around his larynx due to the hunched-up physicality he gives nervous, neurotic Oscar, the main love interest in the show.
Luckily a trip to a physiotherapist, a holiday in Italy and a month’s break from the stage has returned Umbers to tip top condition for the West End transfer of Sweet Charity at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where I meet him for a chat in his dressing room.
Losing your voice would be a disaster for any actor, but for Umbers it meant not only leaving Sweet Charity without its male lead, Oscar, but without Italian stallion Vittorio and swindling love rat Charlie too, because Umbers plays not one but three characters in the show. Actually, he plays four: “There’s a guy at the end as well – a soldier who comes on and lights a cigarette.”
Such is Umbers’s talent that at first I didn’t realise, when watching the show at the Chocolate Factory, that it was the same actor in all those roles, and I’m not the only one. “I was told that some people didn’t know that it was me. I only found that out because I was coming on for the curtain call as the soldier and people would be sort of looking at me going ‘why is that person taking the second to last curtain call, he’s only been on for two seconds’?”
“Finals were such a nightmare I thought I’m not preparing audition speeches while trying to learn the whole of the Iliad”
Playing multiple characters may have taken its toll on his voice – “usually I think your voice just gets into a muscle. But when you are jumping around so much in different registers it never knows where it’s supposed to be” – but Umbers was more than willing to suffer for his art. When he was first called up to read for the part, “I didn’t realise that what they were asking was for the same person to play both [Oscar and Vittorio]. And then when I read it I thought, well what I want to do is play both because that would be more fun, so when I found out that’s what they wanted to do, I got really excited.”
In fact, it is the first time in the musical’s professional history that the same person has played both the principal male characters and Umbers has relished the challenge. “I really enjoy changing the physicality of them. It’s surprising what a pair of glasses can do or a moustache.”
Not only are they physically different but Umbers must capture the stark personality contrast between Vittorio, the suave, confident film star who charms our unlucky-in-love heroine Charity, and down-to-earth, conservative Oscar, who ultimately holds Charity’s future happiness in his hands. Both of them are characters to relish and neither of them is your typical insipid romantic leading man. Not to give too much away, Oscar’s somewhat controversial decision at the end makes that crystal clear.
Set in the 1960s, Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical about a taxi dancer at a seedy New York dance-hall who dreams of a better life highlights the male hypocrisy of the era, epitomised by Oscar’s attitude towards Charity’s less than wholesome job. “You do have to be a bit of a defence lawyer for your character in a way,” says Umbers. “I know it sounds odd in this day and age, but American men – some of them still do I think – have this notion that a good woman will come along and pull them out of themselves and make them a better man. The onus was always on the woman to do that, in that period. So I think it wasn’t that unusual.”
Playing a flawed character like Oscar will always appeal more to Umbers than taking on a conventional leading man. In fact his recent stage roles in The Glass Menagerie in the West End and Funny Girl at Chichester Festival Theatre saw him playing men facing similar dilemmas. “I’m really not good at playing a conventional leading man,” he says. “That’s not to say I like playing b*****ds, but I always have to have something to play, whether it’s a matter of fooling the audience into thinking you’re one kind of person and then you turn out to be another. If I’m ever asked to just put on a suit and stand there and look nice, I kind of go completely crazy really.”
“I really enjoy changing the physicality of them. It’s surprising what a pair of glasses can do or a moustache”
It would have been easy for Umbers to make a career of sitting around looking pretty; his classically handsome looks have attracted two swooning Facebook fan sites following his appearance in TV’s Mistresses. He makes a face and laughs uncomfortably when I mention this internet attention; it doesn’t sit well with someone who professes to be more like inhibited Oscar than egotistical film star Vittorio. “I’m not neurotic like that but I guess I’d be more like [Oscar]. I’m pretty shy I think, that would be the main similarity.”
Instead of pursuing Hollywood heartthrob status, Umbers has trodden a balanced career path since finishing his Classics degree at Oxford University, taking in both musicals and dramas on stage, a smattering of television and cameos in films by Woody Allen and Steven Soderburgh. How has he managed to avoid being pigeonholed? “I don’t know,” he says brightly. “I was thinking the other day how lucky I am to have done that as someone who’s not a famous person. Especially in this day and age, there’s a terrible pressure on you to become a celebrity if you want to further your career, which has never interested me. I don’t know how I’ve done it. I think it’s just in the way you approach the work. I think especially in musicals in this country, you can get completely pigeonholed and it’s very difficult to get out. But I’ve always just approached a musical in the same way that I would approach a play.”
He had a good start, joining Trevor Nunn’s ensemble at the National Theatre, where he got to work in both musicals and plays, starting as a spear-carrier in Troilus And Cressida – he actually “stood there with a spear at the back” – and going on to slightly bigger roles in Candide, The Merchant Of Venice and Nunn’s hugely successful production of the musical My Fair Lady, which he transferred with to the West End. “Actually he [Nunn] was very influential on me because he makes no distinction between a musical and a play, and thrives on the notion that he can do Shakespeare one night and a big Broadway show the next with the same cast who all approach it in the same way.”
Working with former National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Nunn was an enviable training for the young Umbers and preferable, he thinks, to going to drama school, which he had initially intended to do. “My degree at university was four years. Finals were such a nightmare I thought I’m not preparing audition speeches while trying to learn the whole of the Iliad. And by the time I had finished I was kind of through being a student really. So to get that job was absolutely my training.”
Nevertheless it is clear Umbers was chomping at the bit to play meatier roles; he says he “went slightly nuts” playing the supporting role of Freddy in My Fair Lady for so long. Luckily his work at the National led to a part in Michael Grandage’s debut production as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, The Vortex, in 2002. “I remember being absolutely terrified because I’d been in My Fair Lady for so long that I honestly thought I couldn’t do anything else. But it was great to bridge to the next thing.”
“If I’m ever asked to just put on a suit and stand there and look nice, I kind of go completely crazy”
But it wasn’t until he played Jim in Rupert Goold’s production of The Glass Menagerie in 2007 that Umbers experienced a “bit of a watershed”. “Getting to do Tennessee Williams on Shaftesbury Avenue with Jessica Lange and Ed Stoppard and Amanda Hale who was amazing in it, with that writing, it was just an incredible experience. For me personally that made me feel, not that I’d arrived or anything, but I’d almost got to the point where I thought ‘I can do this.’”
In the meantime his stage work had caught the eye of the film world and he was cast opposite Scarlett Johansson in 2004’s A Good Woman, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan. Small roles followed in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream and the second part of Soderbergh’s Che Guevara biopic. “You just end up on someone’s list I guess,” he says by way of ultra-casual explanation for how he came by these roles.
It’s a funny old life, that of an actor called upon by internationally renowned directors. He laughs to recall the Soderbergh film, which his agent rang him about in the middle of the night. Jude Law had dropped out at short notice and the director needed Umbers – they had Googled him apparently – to go to Spain the very next day to fill in. They neglected to tell him the film was in Spanish. “Never spoken a word of Spanish in my life,” says Umbers. “I had nine hours to be off-script. That’s when having a musical ear comes in handy because I could literally just learn it like a piece of music.”
So one day he was in bed in London, the next he was speaking Spanish “in a jungle with Benicio Del Toro looking spookily like Che Guevara and then all these Latin Americans in guerrilla uniforms sitting around with guns, smoking and giving you funny looks. It was very peculiar.”
His film roles have, to date, been low-profile enough to keep him happily under the fame radar, though appearing in TV series Mistresses gave him a taste of the world he wishes to avoid. “It didn’t occur to me how much exposure you would get from something like that til it was on TV. I’d never ever been recognised or spotted by anyone and suddenly I was being harangued by middle aged women on the street.”
Good job he is back in theatre now then. He has committed until January, which should keep him busy. But if it doesn’t, he has projects on the side too, namely writing screenplays, of which he says: “I love it and I have to do it. I think sometimes I kind of need to use my brain in order to keep functioning as a person.”
Let’s just hope all this activity doesn’t make him ill again. Does he eat properly during a run?, I ask maternally. “I’m really, really bad at it,” he smiles. “It sounds pathetic and like I need my mother but actually I just don’t eat properly. I go to Pret A Manger, do a show and then wonder why I’m feeling a bit low on energy the next day.”
A few days after the interview I see him at the show’s opening night party. Did he manage to eat a decent meal today? “I had a three bean salad and a banana,” he says sheepishly, eyeing up the canapés. I shake my head disapprovingly. Maybe I should call his mother.