Q&A: Harry Shearer

Published July 2, 2014

If your child told you that when they grew up they wanted to be a writer, musician, actor, radio presenter, director, comedian, oh and a record company owner, you’d be forgiven for advising them to narrow their dreams down just a smidgeon. But this is exactly what Harry Shearer, the fascinating man behind This Is Spinal Tap and the voices of some of The Simpsons’ most popular characters, has achieved in his incredible career.

A new feat to tick off his impressive list is starring in a West End play. Following its critically acclaimed success at the Park Theatre, Oliver Cotton’s thrilling mystery Daytona is now playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with the writer and actor joined in the cast by Maureen Lipman and Shearer as a married couple whose lives are unexpectedly turned upside down.

To find out more about the show and what drew Shearer from his American home to the London stage, we challenged the star to complete our revealing Q&A. Read on to discover Shearer’s favourite London haunts and which of the capital’s most popular stage performers he is dreaming of starring with in Candide. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed…

Describe your character in Daytona in six words.
A Jewish husband living in Brooklyn.

What was it that drew you to London to perform in Daytona last year?
I read the play and loved it, loved the characters, and loved the idea of working with Maureen Lipman.

It was a huge hit at the Park Theatre. What do you think it is that has made it such a success?
The characters are extremely well-observed and well-drawn, and the story is an intricate onion, revealing ever more layers. Also, the acting was great.

Did you have to do anything special to prepare for the show?
Yes, overcome my embarrassment at attempting ballroom dancing. Then, second, actually doing it.

How do you feel about making your West End debut?
Excited, nervous, lucky, honoured.

What first sparked your interest in performing?
I’ve been performing since I was seven-years-old and got hired by Jack Benny [a legendary American entertainer]. The first time I got a laugh, I was hooked.

What do you look for when taking a role?
Do I believe the character? Is it free of gratuitous violence (really)? If it’s a comedy, is it funny?

What has been the proudest moment in your career to date?
Probably Spinal Tap at the Royal Albert Hall, partly because that was the first date with the woman who turned out to be my wife.

You’re a writer, musician, actor, radio presenter, director and record company owner amongst other things! What would you choose to do if you could only pick one?
Play music. It’s hard to choose, but there’s no feeling like that place you can go when you’re playing or performing music. My wife Judith described seeing her opera singer father entering “that hallowed place”.   

What is it like having one of the most famous voices in the world thanks to The Simpsons?
It occasionally makes me self-conscious, as when I was in Whole Foods in LA and the checkout clerk asked “paper or plastic?” I replied “paper” and the woman behind me exclaimed: “Principal Skinner!”

What is the finest performance you have ever seen?
Kelli O’Hara’s performance in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific comes to mind, because she was funny, sang beautifully and looked lovely. In a different vein, Zero Mostel in the original production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which I saw twice. Improbably graceful and light on his feet, Mostel was also impossibly funny and touching.

If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
Candide, definitely. I’d be Pangloss and I’d cast either O’Hara or Sheridan Smith as Cunégonde. It’s my favourite musical full stop. The first act alone is heart-stoppingly beautiful.   

Which living person do you most admire?
My wife Judith. Blessed with enormous talent and cursed with clinical depression, she has had the strength and determination to battle the latter and not lose touch with the former.

Comedy or tragedy?
In the words of A Funny Thing [Happened On The Way To The Forum] – comedy tonight!

Do you have any regrets?
Mainly that my father passed away too early in my life for me to have gotten to know him very well.

What are your favourite places to visit when you’re in London?
St Martin-In-The-Fields for lunchtime music, dozens of favourite restaurants (which I’d mention if they gave me free meals), the Tate Modern, the Royal Academy and Ronnie Scott’s.

Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
Too many to mention. It worked out okay, though.

What would you choose as a last meal?
Very likely the three-day roast duck at one of my favourite New Orleans restaurants, NOLA. With candied pecans, haricots verts and a hickory-cane sugar glaze.   

What will always, without fail, bring a smile to your face?
Laurel and Hardy. Bob and Ray.

What one book, film and album would you recommend and why?
Book: A Confederacy Of Dunces, the single greatest book ever written about New Orleans.

Film: To Be Or Not To Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s film starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, a movie which proves you can be funny about the darkest things.

Album: Wasp Star by XTC, a remarkable record start to finish. Great songs, great performances, great sound, on nobody’s 10-best list for the year it came out. What’s wrong with those people?

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