Since first coming into the public eye with appearances in Green Wing and I’m Alan Partridge almost 10 years ago, Stephen Mangan has become one of Britain’s best loved, luscious-locked comedy performers, starring in TV series including Free Agents, Dirk Gently and, most recently, BBC’s LA-set Episodes.
His latest challenge sees him take on something few men – well possibly none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger – can ever have been asked to do before; give birth, playing a man in labour in Joe Penhall’s surreal new comedy Birthday at the Royal Court. We challenged the actor to 20 questions to discover what ambitions, after bringing life into the world live on stage, an actor could have left to fulfil.
What first sparked your interest in performing?
I’ve been into it for as far back as I can remember. My sisters and I used to write little plays together and we had a well-used dressing-up box.
A teacher called Peter Nixon really fired up my interest at junior school, his enthusiasm and passion for theatre meant that very quickly acting became ‘my thing’.
In Birthday you play a pregnant man. What do you wish men could do that women can?
I wish they could give birth. I’m jealous of the capacity to create life. Not so jealous of the pain of childbirth though.
How are you finding wearing a fake pregnancy belly every night?
It weighs in at a fairly hefty two stone and it gets extremely hot in there under stage lighting, but I mustn’t grumble, I can take it off after each show.
Did your wife [the actress Louise Delamere] give you any advice about how it feels to be pregnant?
You learn that not only does everyone react to being pregnant in a different way but that each individual pregnancy feels completely different. I remember her itchiness the most; [it] used to drive her mad!
What is the finest performance you have ever seen?
Wow, tough question. Mark Rylance in Jerusalem at the [Royal] Court takes some beating for an individual performance. And for an all-round company performance I remember being unable to get out of my seat after seeing All My Sons at the National (with the late James Hazeldine) some years ago.
If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
Well if it’s a fantasy I can do the impossible, yes? Has to be Hamlet – what actor doesn’t want to play that part? – Peggy Ashcroft as Gertrude, Richard Burton as Claudius, Arthur Lowe as Polonius, Mark Rylance and Daniel Day Lewis as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ian Charleston as Horatio, Donald Wolfit as the Ghost, Peter O’Toole as Laertes and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia. Let’s get William Shakespeare to direct, while we’re at it.
London or LA?
London every time. LA has glamour, money and the weather but you can’t beat London for the sheer range and strength of cultural talent and opportunities.
Screen or stage?
Both. They both essentially require the same thing; the ability to deliver truthful and interesting performances, but the means of doing that are very different. However, when you do as much comedy as I do, it’s nice to actually hear an audience respond so stage has the edge.
Would you like to swap comedy for tragedy at any point?
The best scripts often contain elements of both but, yes, I consider myself an actor not a comedian. Birthday certainly has elements of both and is therefore a joy to perform.
Do you have any regrets?
Not regrets but [I’m] constantly aware of the infinite scope for improvement as an actor. You can’t deliver a faultless performance, you never come even vaguely close – fail better etc.
What advice would you like to impart on the world?
Absolutely none. Anyone got any for me?
What do you do when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
I like to re-introduce myself to my children.
What could you not be without?
Aside from the obvious – my family, oxygen etc – I think music. Who can live without music? It speaks more directly to us than any other form.
Tell us about The Wizard’s Dream. Can we hear this album anywhere?
Ha! Recorded by my school band, Aragon, when we were 14 or so, it includes the 15 minute epic The Dragon. Delighted to report you can’t find it anywhere.
Do you have any passions in life people might be surprised to hear about?
Mathematics. Wish I’d read it at University instead of Law. I find it fascinating and beautiful.
Where do you head after a performance?
Normally the bar. You have to decompress, don’t you? And acting is a social business.
What ambitions would you like to fulfil?
Too many to list here. Mainly to do with writing and creating my own projects.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’m not bothered for myself, I’ll be dead, but in a way that brings pride, or at least no shame, to my family.
What would you choose as a last meal?
Can I swap the last meal for a stay of execution? I don’t want to die, life is too much fun.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?