Reece Shearsmith takes a very different view of himself to much of the entertainment world. As a member of The League Of Gentlemen he created one of the most lauded comedy series of recent times, he has written and starred in a League Of Gentlemen film and made his West End theatre debut in 2002, along with his League cohorts, as the final cast of long-running three-hander Art. He has also played Jacques in the star-studded production of As You Like It at the Wyndham’s last year. He hasn’t, though, ever starred in a musical… until now. Matthew Amer spoke to the ever-youthful star as he joined the cast of The Producers.
“I always find it weird when I get asked about my 10 favourite films; who cares what I’m thinking?” Being interviewed is not the most natural thing for current star of The Producers Reece Shearsmith, who admits, “I don’t regard myself as any kind of entity.”
Yet entity he is, as, in addition to his multitude of television credits, he is now starring in a West End musical, having taken the role of hapless lawyer Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. “I took it on thinking it would be a challenge,” Shearsmith explains. “There are many boxes that I’d not ticked before doing this.” The ‘boxes’ he refers to are singing and dancing, two relatively important aspects of starring in a musical, and the two aspects of starring in a musical of which Shearsmith has no previous experience. Not one to let small things like that deter him – “if you put your mind to something, I think you can do it” – Shearsmith auditioned and was offered the part. As he says: “They must have seen something in me to be able to do it. They wouldn’t have dared throw it at someone they thought was incompetent.”
"I don’t regard myself as any kind of entity."
Sitting in the corner of his dimly-lit Drury Lane dressing room, Shearsmith seems slightly tense and is very softly spoken. He does not impose himself, but rather sits quietly and chats away at speed. He comes across as someone who, like the shy child at school, just gets on and works hard without drawing attention to himself. This work ethic was certainly apparent while he was learning The Producers’ dance routines. Shearsmith diligently filmed his sessions with the choreographer, and then worked hard at home, embarking on what he refers to as “24 hours of dancing”.
“The kids were learning it!” he says, with a smile, while contemplating his dance training. “They can do it. They’ve got their own little canes and top hats, and we were all doing it together in the front room.”
The process of being directed in The Producers is different to anything Shearsmith has ever experienced before: “batting by numbers,” he calls it. He was literally taught to move with numbers on the stage, leaving very little room for manoeuvre in his interpretation of the role. “That was a bit scary for me,” he says, “because I thought ‘Is there any reason that it should be me doing it? Could it be a robot? Can I make Leo a thing I’ve done?’ Initially I didn’t like it that it’s so rigid, but it’s kind of good that it is, because you’ve got to hit all the marks, and if you tick all the boxes as you go along it’s alright at the other end.”
You could be forgiven for reading a touch of anxiety into a lot of what Shearsmith says about The Producers, but then, if you were an actor with limited singing and dancing experience joining one of the West End and the world’s most popular musicals, you’d probably be anxious too. Still, having settled into the role, everything is starting to get easier. Shearsmith is “more assured and less panicky about it now”.
"It’s like a job! Imagine that!"
This is fortunate, as he is contracted to stay with the production for 11 months, longer than Shearsmith has ever committed himself to any one project before, other than The League Of Gentlemen. As the proud father of a young family it is great for him, as he can spend all day with his children before heading off to work as they head off to bed. There is, however, one drawback to this long-term situation: “It’s like a job! That’s what it feels like. Imagine that! It’s not like picking up bricks, but nevertheless…”
After three West End appearances in four years, Shearsmith is becoming a regular feature on the London stage, which suits him. A graduate of Bretton Hall, which is now part of the University of Leeds, with a degree in Theatre Arts, he is a fan of theatre life. “I enjoy the live aspect of it; how you get the reactions and can slightly change it depending on how it feels,” he says. “When it’s going well, it’s great and there’s nothing like it; it’s a real privilege to be onstage.”
Live theatre really does sit well with him: the tone of his voice lifts as he talks about it and he would “go back above a pub and do a little experimental piece that no one would see,” if the work interested him. He does worry about audience reaction, particularly as just setting foot on stage during live League Of Gentlemen shows sometimes elicits as much raucous laughter and applause as when he feels he has given his all in a performance.
There is also the anomaly of the unreadable audience to contend with. While some will laugh uncontrollably in all the right places, others might not. This is not always a bad thing: “The most silent audience, which you think has been quite quiet, will give a massive reaction at the end like they’ve really enjoyed it. You can’t measure smiles; you can’t hear smiles,” he philosophises.
"I find it very hard because I’ve got no fake teeth, wig, contact lenses or false noses."
Shearsmith’s League Of Gentlemen colleagues Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss haven’t been as prevalent in the theatre world, preferring to utilise their talents elsewhere. He jokes that when they were appearing in Art the other two couldn’t understand why they had to keep coming back and performing the same show night after night. Pemberton, though, did recently appear in The Exonerated at Riverside Studios. This rare outing onto the stage gives Shearsmith the opportunity for a cheeky poke in his cohort’s direction. “He did it because he knew I couldn’t go and see it,” Shearsmith delivers in a typically deadpan fashion, “otherwise I’d have been laughing at him; so worthy sat on his stool, sat in his own clothes with a script on his lap for a maximum of 10 minutes’ work. You couldn’t get closer to the absolute opposite of what I’m doing!” he laughs.
The League Of Gentlemen became famous for the antics of the villagers of Royston Vasey, a horrific place where horrific things happen, but in a darkly hilarious way: Gypsy minstrels steal wives, the butcher sells special ‘under the counter’ sausages, the vet has a deathly touch and shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs will do almost anything to keep the village ‘local’. The entire community is played by the three actor members of The League Of Gentlemen – fourth Gentleman Jeremy Dyson prefers to stay behind the camera – with varying degrees of prosthetics mutating their features. This, of course, gives them a certain anonymity, which Shearsmith welcomes. “I could never do stand up or anything where you’re yourself,” he explains. “I find it very hard, even in [The Producers], because I’ve got no fake teeth, wig, contact lenses or false noses.”
Fans of The League’s macabre brand of humour need not resort to stealing women for fun just yet, as Shearsmith promises the four have not gone their separate ways. Following their film, The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, they have taken some time to pursue their own projects, all the while mulling over their next joint comedy creation. “Oh yeah, we’ve got some ideas,” Shearsmith says with a knowing nod and a smile that sends a shiver down my spine. The new series won’t take place in Royston Vasey, though, as, for Shearsmith and co, that village of the damned has run its comedy course.
For the moment he is content with his lot. He gets to live a theatrical lifestyle, entertain live audiences and spend his days with his children. He even outbid his friend Derren Brown at an auction recently, which gives him a little smug satisfaction. But for the quiet, unassuming master of macabre merriment, the lure of The League will pull him back soon: “You can’t beat creating your own thing,” he says, “doing it and putting it on; having your own vision executed. That’s best of all.”