He has worked with the likes of David Jason, Rhys Ifans and now Roger Lloyd Pack, he was personally recommended for his current role in Dealer’s Choice by the playwright Patrick Marber, and in December he won the Best Newcomer Evening Standard Award – and he is only 27. It has all come as a bit of a surprise to Stephen Wight, he tells Caroline Bishop.
Stephen Wight had never played poker. In fact, he didn’t agree with gambling and always said no to his friends’ regular Sunday night card games. Now, however, he is organising poker nights at his London flat, has bought a brand new poker set and, in his own words, “can’t get enough of poker”.
It would have taken a will of iron to resist the lure of the game given his current job: playing the role of Mugsy in Patrick Marber’s 1995 drama about poker, Dealer’s Choice. The production, currently at Trafalgar Studios after transferring from the Menier Chocolate Factory, is directed by Samuel West, who has long been part of Marber’s poker-playing circle, and Wight’s five male co-stars include the professional poker player Ross Boatman. Add the fact that Wight says he has an “addictive personality” and it is no wonder his fictional pastime has become a real-life passion.
But his parents and girlfriend needn’t worry that he is turning into an obsessive – the young actor is determined to keep his new hobby as a thing of fun and leave the serious playing to Boatman, of whom Wight laughs: “You might as well just give him a fiver at the start of the night and just enjoy yourself!”
It seems very typical of Wight, though, to immerse himself in a role to such an extent. A chatty, upbeat 27-year-old with a wide grin, Wight nevertheless takes the profession of acting very seriously – he calls it “serious fun” – and brings a strict professionalism to each role. “For me, it comes hand in hand, I think when you take a role on, you should find out as much about that role as possible,” he tells me, when we meet in his dressing room at the Trafalgar Studios. “The more you learn about the character you’re playing, whether it’s written or you invent it yourself, the more prepared you are and the easier it is to let yourself go, because you know that it’s all there and it’s coming from a truthful place. It’s a great excuse to learn a skill like poker. I enjoy very much doing stuff like this.”
"You might as well just give him a fiver at the start of the night and just enjoy yourself!"
Though he wouldn’t go so far as to say he is a method actor, Wight, perhaps unusually, feels a certain merging between art and life is a good thing. When the six cast members – who all “get on brilliantly” went out for a meal recently, Wight was aware that the personalities of their on-stage personas could well echo in their off-stage relationships. “I could be the butt of the gags, the mug of the group, and Malcolm [Sinclair, who plays restaurant owner Stephen] is very much the leader. I always find that very fascinating and I always think it’s the sign of a good show that those relationships begin to almost blur into the personal.”
As the “mug” of the group, Wight’s character Mugsy is the comic role in Dealer’s Choice, one of six men whose character flaws and relationships are revealed as they play a game of poker one night. Wight sees Mugsy as a “loveable, unaware character”, whose dream to build a restaurant out of a public toilet is founded on the “naivety of youth”.
Being just 27 himself and looking younger, despite the stubble he sports today – “When I shave most people think I’m about 21” – Wight identifies with Mugsy’s blind naivety, a sort of blinkered determination which he feels is a necessary shield for any young actor entering the notoriously risky profession of acting. “No drama school, no training, no amount of education will prepare you for the business in a way. Everyone knows the pitfalls – whatever that statistic is that are unemployed – and you’ve just got to go in, try and enjoy yourself and do this. And I think that that naivety is something that you have to have. Definitely I identify with just, follow your dreams and believe in yourself – believe in what you can achieve.”
So far, just six years out of Drama Centre, where he trained, Wight has achieved a great deal indeed. He has toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company, worked at the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse (“three huge things that I’ve been able to tick off my own list”), appeared with David Jason in television series Diamond Geezer and, late last year, won Best Newcomer for his twin roles in Marber’s Don Juan In Soho, in which he played Rhys Ifans’s sidekick Stan, and Dealer’s Choice.
Modestly, Wight says he “has to pinch himself” to believe that he has achieved so much. “I’m thrilled to think that a dream that I’ve pursued has actually turned into a career,” he says. “It’s amazing to be able to do what you want to do in life, to be able to say I love my job and I’m successful, in a sense, at it.”
He may feel his success has an unreal quality, but, given his obvious dedication to each role, it is clear that his success is a reward for his hard work. It is also recognition of his talent, which Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Michael Grandage and playwright Marber noticed early on, even though Wight, endearingly, was surprised by the opportunities they offered him. He was surprised “that I even got an audition” for the part of Stan in Don Juan In Soho at the Donmar in 2006. “I’d done really nothing of any note for the industry at that point, so I didn’t really expect to get it, I just went in there and tried my best.” Then, a year later, he was surprised once more when Marber personally put him forward for the role of Mugsy in this revival of Dealer’s Choice.
"I always think it’s the sign of a good show that those relationships begin to almost blur into the personal"
“I really do owe him a great deal of gratitude,” says Wight. “It’s a confidence boost and a huge compliment. I respect Patrick not just as a writer but as a performer. To have someone who likes your work and appreciates what you do… it’s another part of my personal success – you’ve got to take a moment to step back and kind of pat yourself on the back and go ‘that’s really nice’, and don’t just take that for granted. It’s a real nice buzz.”
Winning the Evening Standard Award was another surprise for Wight. “I just thought I was going to get a free meal and get to wear a suit,” he says of the ceremony at the Savoy. “That was a very surreal moment, accepting the award and in such accomplished company as well. It was almost embarrassing. I didn’t feel that I didn’t deserve it, I was really proud of myself and what I had achieved and it’s wonderful to have that recognised, but I still really can’t believe that I was in front of a mic holding an award, giving a speech; it was a bit bizarre.”
Wight, clearly, has the ability to remain firmly grounded and modest while also being justifiably proud of his achievements. Perhaps this is down to his close network of family and friends, who both give him ample support and yet don’t let his success go to his head. He says he feels “blessed” to have the level of support that he does; friends who once watched him in amateur dramatics on the Isle of Wight, where he grew up – he changed his name to Wight from Gray when he joined Equity – now regularly come up to London to see him in plays.
They may be wondering quite how their old schoolmate has ended up on the London stage. In fact, if it wasn’t for a hefty dose of luck and some fateful meddling, who knows what Wight may be doing now (working in Curry’s on the Isle of Wight is his standard response). His induction into acting came at age 14, quite by chance, after he and some school mates, eager to use their lunch hour to play football, jumped the lunch queue by claiming they were going to audition for the school musical. But they were promptly busted by the school’s drama teacher, who took them at their word and forced them to audition. Wight got a part in the chorus of Greek musical The Frogs and loved the experience. This, and a mistake in the school timetabling which meant he ended up doing drama GCSE despite not choosing it – he “couldn’t be bothered” to change it – started Wight on his eventual career path.
Again, it appears that others recognised Wight’s ability before he did. He credits great drama teachers as guiding him through GCSE and pushing him to take A Level; they approached him first when someone else dropped out of a school musical, and they asked him to mentor younger students. But still Wight was not as clear about his direction as his teachers seemed to be. Leaving school and going to Drama Centre because “I just thought this is the only thing in my life that if I wanted to pursue higher education I thought I could have a crack at”, it took until his second year to really get the acting bug, again encouraged by teachers who took him under their wing. “All these things now I look back and see there were little pointers in my brain to feed me and excite me about this career,” he says. “It has been a strange path and a lucky one.”
"I just thought I was going to get a free meal and get to wear a suit"
Lucky, too, that on his first day as a charity campaigner on the streets of Oxford, a post-drama school temporary job he found “absolutely horrendous”, his agent called with the news he had got his first acting job, a tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the RSC. “So I knew I only had to campaign on the streets for four weeks before I started a seven-month stint on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I tell you what, I was probably the happiest campaigner!”
Some more campaigning and call centre work followed the tour, but Wight, typically, has turned that somewhat depressing experience into a positive. “You’ve got to be willing to find yourself in this position. I suppose if I came out of drama school and had it all laid on a plate maybe I wouldn’t be as grounded as I think I am. If there’s ever a time you think ‘oh I can’t be arsed to do a matinee’, go ‘well, try sticking a thing in your ear and a mic round your face and pressing numbers’, and that’s a nice pick me up; you’ll always give a good show then I think.”
With that in mind, he says he will never rest on his laurels, but is nonetheless enjoying the new audition opportunities that are coming his way thanks to his growing profile in the business. While he says all his best experiences have been in the theatre, Wight is feeling the lure of the screen and hopes to focus on film and television following Dealer’s Choice, though he is level-headed enough to wait for the right time to dip his toe in the waters of Hollywood. “I think it’s just important, if I’m serious about trying to break the States, to get a much bigger and more exclusive body of work over here.” As for what that work should be, he says “Anything, as long as the work’s good,” before adding with a grin, “Obviously if Spielberg wants me then that would be huge!” Given how his career has panned out so far, that wouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Dealer’s Choice plays at Trafalgar Studio 1 until 29 March. em>CB