The Phantom Of The Opera is one of musical theatre's most iconic roles; the white mask one of the most memorable of theatrical images. It would be easy, as a child, to be enchanted by the thought of playing the theatre-haunter. It is harder to make that dream come true. In becoming, at 29 years old, London's youngest ever Phantom, Ramin Karimloo has achieved just that dream. Matthew Amer spoke to the newest incumbent of the world's most famous mask.
Karimloo's story is something of a theatrical fairytale. A school trip to see The Phantom Of The Opera when he was a disinterested child had him so inspired by the character and the story that later in his academic career, when asked to write a report about his vocation in life, he cited playing the Phantom as his goal and job-shadowed Peter Karrie, then playing the Phantom in Toronto. Karrie's advice to Karimloo was to "stick with it", advice the Iranian-born Canadian took to heart; just over a decade later that dream has become a reality.
The road to playing the Phantom had other bystanders offering their thoughts and encouragement as well. Though a less obvious source of inspiration than Karrie, Karimloo is indebted to a bar owner he used to work for, who gave him the confidence to continue chasing his dream. "One thing he said to me," explains Karimloo, "was 'Why are you thinking of a fallback plan? If you're thinking of a fallback plan you're going to fall back.' I remember he introduced me to his girlfriend and he forced me to say what I wanted to be. I was so embarrassed because at that point I was playing hockey and American football, the last thing I wanted to tell people was that I wanted to be what I thought was an opera singer. He made me say it, but he said it in a proud way. I thought 'maybe it is kind of cool'."
Kind of cool it might be, but being the Phantom, it turns out, is not particularly sociable. Real phantoms, of course, are generally found lurking in shadows waiting to spook unsuspecting passers by. While Karimloo does less lurking in reality, the shock of being separated from the rest of the cast – caused by generally being off stage when most of the ensemble are on it, and spending a large amount of time in make up – has hit him. He admits, somewhat sadly, that he doesn't know half of the new cast, as the standby Phantom has been doing most of the rehearsing while he, who knows the role from acting as standby for the last year, has had a break.
His previous credits, in Les Misérables, in which he played both Marius and Enjolras, and Miss Saigon, where he played Chris, were very much the opposite of the situation he finds himself in now: "[In Les Misérables] there's a camaraderie with all the students and all the guys on the barricade, and in Miss Saigon with all the GIs. In Phantom you're in the lair by yourself all the time."
I speak to Karimloo just after he has had his hair cut in preparation for his first night as the official London Phantom Of The Opera. Although he has been on as standby before, this will be the first time he has played the theatre ghoul as the recognised lead. He tells me he is excited more than nervous, saying "I think nerves is a sign of not being prepared."
"I don't see how a Phantom Of The Opera would fit in with the Iranian army!"
The new haircut, however, will be missed by the audience at Her Majesty's, as, when playing the Phantom, Karimloo's coiffure will be covered by a less-than-attractive bald cap. His matinee idol looks, which saw him previously play the show's romantic lead Raoul, will also be hidden under disfiguring prosthetics and that iconic white mask. For some, the idea of acting with such barriers between themselves and the audience is a daunting and off-putting idea, but for Karimloo the experience of donning the apparel is quite the opposite. "I found it easier once [the make up and mask] was on," he says, "because in rehearsals the stuff the Phantom says, 'This face which earned a mother's fear and loathing', I don't believe it without the stuff on because I don't have those sorts of disfigurements and I don't have to live with what a character like the Phantom would have to live with. So once the stuff goes on, the method is there."
It is interesting that an actor with no formal training should talk about method. Karimloo has learned his trade purely by working, leaving home to entertain on cruises and moving into stage work from there. His secret, it seems, is simply to continue learning from those around him. "I like to think of myself like a sponge," he explains. "Even coming into Phantom and playing such a big role, people say 'Do you think you've made it?' I don't think I would ever like to think I've made it because does that mean you stop trying, does it mean you stop bettering yourself and putting in the effort? I'm always full of questions and I would like to stay that way."
Karimloo's journey to the West End stage has been both long and winding. Born in Iran in 1978, he left the troubled country early in his life, fleeing with his family to Italy before emigrating to Canada where he grew up. Having cut his teeth on the cruise ships, he decided to make the move to Britain, which he saw as a land of opportunities. "My blood is Iranian, my heart is Canadian and my home is British," he says. "Home is here now."
That said, with a burgeoning reputation as a star of musical theatre, he would like to spread his wings a bit. A trip back to Iran is not on the cards – "I can't do that because I'd have to serve my National Service. I don't see how a Phantom Of The Opera would fit in with the Iranian army!" – but the possibility of performing in Canada or on Broadway both appeal to the young star.
Youth, of course, is on his side, but that same youth was also a complication to his performance as the Phantom when he spent last year as standby. "I kept thinking 'Am I playing him old enough?' and then I thought 'you know what, it doesn't refer to age at all, so let's just hit the truth. If we hit the truth then everything else will come into place."
Age wasn't the only facet of his performance as the Phantom that gave Karimloo initial problems: "I didn't think the Phantom was actually that hard," he laughs, "and then the first time I did it I was like 'where did it suck the energy out of me, I don’t get it!' It's actually a lot harder than I expected, which is great because it's so fulfilling; it's just everything you want in a music theatre role."
The 'truth' of the Phantom is important to Karimloo and his performance. It is a phrase we come back to time and again. He won't consciously take anything from the performances of the two previous Phantoms he has worked with – he was Raoul to John Owen Jones's Phantom and standby to Earl Carpenter – as their 'truths' will be different to his. What is his 'truth'? Part of it comes from trying to make the supernatural Phantom as human as possible: "I've studied a bit of Aspergers, the form of Autism, and I think it strikes a lot of chords with the character. If I keep that back story in mind, even just for myself, I just believe him more; he has more heart."
"I didn't think the Phantom was actually that hard"
Karimloo's life seems to be wrapped in a Phantom Of The Opera shroud; inspired by it as a child, playing first Raoul and then the Phantom on stage, and he was also cast as Christine's father in the Joel Schumacher-directed film of the musical. It was an experience that he clearly enjoyed – "I had my own Mercedes chauffeur driven car for the five days I worked on the film. I felt like such a star." – but Karimloo is a theatre man through and through, and the stage won't be losing him to the big screen any time soon.
Though it must be fantastic to be cast in one of musical theatre's most recognisable roles, there is an interesting contrast between his last year's work as standby on the production, and this year's as the full-time Phantom. "When I got my last pay cheque," he says, referring to his time as the standby, "I looked at it and thought ‘'Man, I was home every day and I earned that much money?! What was I thinking? Why would I change that?'"
They are fair questions to ask, as these days Karimloo's everyday life is geared around his demanding performance schedule. "For me, with how much energy I expel on stage, you've got to live for the role in some way – what I eat, how I work out, how much I rest – but at the same time, I don't want it to be my life either. I want to honour it and make sure I do a great job every show, but it's just part of the day. There's more to life, which is something I'm realising more and more every day."
It is a surprising response from someone who has just achieved his childhood dream, a target the majority of the world never gets close to. But then Karimloo is incredibly grounded. He must have an abundance of self-belief to chase down a dream without despairing, yet he never strays anywhere near arrogance. Though he has achieved what once was his ultimate goal, he now sees it as one step on a long career path, and at no point, with his name in lights, donning the historic mask and playing a character so loved that it celebrates 21 years in the West End next month, has he lost sight of what really matters in life: "I want to be grateful for everything I have, the friends and family that are around me. I don't want to take any of that for granted." em>MA