The Big Interview: Nigel Lindsay

Published April 17, 2008

Michael Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse production of the 1950 musical Guys And Dolls opened in the West End earlier this year. Now, replacing Douglas Hodge, and treading carefully in the hallowed footsteps of Frank Sinatra, comes Nigel Lindsay, playing New York man-about-town and leader of the crap game, Nathan Detroit. Caroline Bishop went to meet him to find out what it’s like to bag the role you’ve always wanted…

Nigel Lindsay is a very happy man. “I got to stand behind four silver-thonged dancers while Shirley Bassey came up through a trap door. I dipped my toe into the water of light entertainment – it was a marvellous thing!” Not only did he get to experience the delights of appearing on the Royal Variety Show 2005 a few weeks ago, but he is also, when we speak, three nights into playing crap-shooting, commitment-phobic Nathan Detroit in Guys And Dolls at the Piccadilly theatre. And he’s absolutely loving it.

“I’ve always wanted to play Nathan Detroit. It’s a great part. So when the part came up I jumped at it, without really thinking about the fact I can’t sing or dance. I’m really loving the dancing, it’s an exuberant thing to do,” says Lindsay. He’s sitting in his dressing room at the Piccadilly, swigging a McDonald’s cola. A huge bouquet of first night flowers adorns the floor in the tiny room, and Nathan’s coat and hat hang on a cupboard door. He’s just finished his first matinee performance since he took over the role on 6 December, and has time for a brief chat, followed by a kip, before Nathan gets his second outing of the day.

It’s not hard to understand why Lindsay should love his new role. Michael Grandage’s production of the feelgood musical Guys And Dolls is the first in London for 23 years. Set in 1940s New York, the story revolves around Nathan Detroit’s attempts to set up a crap game (a dice gambling game) while thwarting both the local policeman and Nathan’s disapproving fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (played by Sarah Lancashire). To raise the $1,000 he needs to host the game, Nathan bets the smooth womaniser Sky Masterson (former Eastenders’ smooth womaniser Nigel Harman) that he can’t take puritanical missionary Sarah Brown (Jenna Russell) to Cuba the next day. Comedy, frolicking and some cracking musical numbers ensue.

Though an experienced stage actor, Lindsay has never been in a musical before, but he is stepping up to the challenge with boundless enthusiasm – in fact, he can’t stop talking about how much he loves it. It’s a physically demanding part, with Nathan involved in several big dance numbers (including the showstopping highlight Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat), and not getting much of a breather between scenes. Luckily though, Lindsay ran the London Marathon this year (3hr59 – “I’m very proud of this”), which has come in handy for the dancing. The singing he admits to being more nervous about. “The part of Nathan was originally written for a guy called Sam Levene who was a New York stand up comic, and from what I hear he couldn’t sing at all. So the two or three songs I have to sing aren’t too taxing,” he says. “Frank Sinatra sings it in the film, so nothing to follow there really!”

“My sharp compared to Nigel Harman’s sharp is never going to match up”

Not only does he have Frank Sinatra looking over his shoulder, but the current cast is following on from Ewan McGregor (Sky), Jane Krakowski (Adelaide) and Douglas Hodge (Nathan), all of whom (plus Russell) are award-nominated for their run in the musical. Lindsay, however, doesn’t find this a burden. “When I saw his [Hodge’s] performance I knew that it was absolutely nothing like what I was going to do, so I wasn’t daunted by it,” says Lindsay. “He played Nathan as more of a loser, it seemed to me – he may disagree. But that’s not how I see Nathan at all. Sky Masterson is a god to them, but Nathan has a bit of status in his own right. So I’m playing him a bit sharper. And also,” he continues, with a wry chuckle, “my sharp compared to Nigel Harman’s sharp is never going to match up, so I can be as cool as I like because I’m never going to be that cool. A certain gaucheness comes out and that’s how I wanted to play it.”

Harman may be sharper, and certainly more recognised, but it’s Lindsay who has the most stage experience of the three new cast members, meaning the two former soap stars look to him for advice. “Sarah hasn’t been on stage for 13 years; Nige has come out of Eastenders and you only realise when you walk down the street that he’s a big player to people. But they pander to me in a way because I’ve been on stage so much and they haven’t. They’re looking at my stuff on stage and I’m looking at them and thinking they’re the big stars.”

 

He says they all get on “absolutely brilliantly,” and that the whole ensemble cast has been very supportive – including Assistant Director Jamie Lloyd, who he “predicts big things for” (Lloyd is at the helm while Grandage directs The Wild Duck at the Donmar). Lindsay talks about his relationship with the cast with characteristic humility, describing himself as “some idiot [who] comes in and starts hoofing all over the place,” as opposed to the “proper dancers” of the ensemble. This modest opinion of himself is certainly not warranted – sporting an impeccable New Yorker accent that presents more of a challenge to some other cast members, and a great rapport with Lancashire’s Adelaide, his Nathan almost steals the show.

“Poker – I suppose it’s the equivalent of golf for business people isn’t it?”

Perhaps his humility comes from the fact that working with Harman and Lancashire has introduced Lindsay to a kind of fame he’d never experienced before. “The first night we did it I had to speak over the screaming when Nigel walked on, which was quite bizarre,” he says. “Afterwards, Grandage came into my dressing room and said ‘you look like you’ve been hit by a car’ and I said I’ve never ever been on stage in 15 years where that’s happened. The screaming… it makes you feel good. Everyone should experience that.”

It seems strange that this should be a new experience, given his long career. Lindsay’s substantial CV covers film, television and theatre, he’s performed at the Royal Court, the National, the Old Vic, and been directed by Michael Rudman, Howard Davies, Patrick Marber and Robert Delamere. He’s been on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning The Real Thing, appeared in countless television dramas and bagged a role in the new (still under wraps) Woody Allen film. Despite all this, it’s clear that the very commercial Guys And Dolls occupies an altogether different side of the theatre world, and is introducing him to the kind of screaming fan that wouldn’t normally set foot in the National.

Lindsay is revelling in the experience, and so, it seems, are his friends. He finds it both amusing and frustrating that despite a 15-year-long, successful career, it’s only now that his non-theatre mates realise what he does. “They think you do adverts on TV,” he says. “As soon as I say I’m doing Guys And Dolls everyone says ‘Oh thank God, Nigel’s alright.’ It’s hysterical. Actually it’s very egotistical to think they’re thinking about what you do for a living, but sometimes you want to bang your head against the wall and say I’m fine, I work all the time, I have a really nice life. But as soon as you do something commercial they suddenly realise what you do.” They might actually come and see it this time too, he adds.

The role of Nathan is certainly very different to Lindsay’s recent roles. In the autumn he appeared in David Mamet’s courtroom farce Romance, and in 2004 he put on weight and grew a “huge beard” to play William Morris in Peter Whelan’s dark drama The Earthly Paradise, directed by Robert Delamere at the Almeida. “William Morris is completely different to me. He was a very socially inept man, a very violent man to himself, and an amazing genius. I really had to research him,” he says.

Nathan, however, is a man after Nigel’s own heart: “I just identify with Nathan because he’s urban and urbane, and there are some parts that you just go, ‘yeah, I know this guy’. With Nathan I really felt like I was putting a coat on – though sometimes that can be dangerous…”

“Actors are real whingers. All of us are doing pretty well and we always moan”

The two men have another thing in common – gambling – something which Lindsay can even credit a role to. In 1995 he played Mugsy in Dealer’s Choice, Patrick Marber’s first play. “The reason I was in that was because Patrick and I used to play poker together,” he says. “I played poker for 10 years at Sam West’s house every Monday night. In fact, I met many great people from the theatre – Sam Mendes used to play, Tom Hollander, Patrick… I suppose it’s the equivalent of golf for business people isn’t it?”

Poker nights, screaming fans – it’s a nice life indeed, and right now, Lindsay is determined to enjoy it. He’s in Guys And Dolls until March initially (though the show itself has just extended until September 2006), but, for once, he’s not thinking about what comes next. “Actors are real whingers most of the time. All my mates, all of us are doing pretty well and we always moan. It really is a tricky business to make a living – that’s why some actors seem ambitious or pushy, because it’s quite scary you know, there’s no safety net. But sometimes,” he continues, “it comes to a stage when you just think why don’t you, instead of looking for the next job, just enjoy the one you’re in? And that’s what I’m doing on this one,” he beams. “It’s fantastic.”

CB