The former Hustle star, now appearing in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, doesn’t like doing interviews, he tells Matthew Amer.
Actors, it would seem obvious to say, are not the same as the characters they play, so you should never ever expect them to act as if they were. But there is something about Marc Warren, that hint of naughtiness in his icy lagoon blue eyes when he plays Danny Blue in Hustle, or his mischievous grin, that had me convinced his onscreen persona was less of a stretch for him than it could be.
I was wrong. Warren is, in fact, a marvellous actor. In person, he is quiet and distanced; not the cheeky monkey I had expected, rather an interviewee reflecting the autumnal weather – slightly frosty – and confused by why anyone should be so interested in his job.
“I’ve never enjoyed publicity,” he very honestly tells me, “But hopefully it helps to sell tickets.”
The show he is hoping to convince theatregoers to purchase tickets for is the first major London revival of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Jim Cartwright’s award-winning play about a young girl, LV, with an astonishing talent for impersonating famous singers who is exploited by her drunken mother’s new boyfriend.
Warren is taking on the part of exploitative club promoter Ray Say, a role originally played on stage by Pete Postlethwaite and on screen by Michael Caine. While he admits to being a big fan of both actors, the thought of following their performances doesn’t bother him in the slightest. “Different actor does it,” he simply states, “it’s a completely different thing.”
"[Diana Vickers is] a natural actor and the singing is just extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary"
It certainly helps that in the hands of director Terry Johnson, the piece has been recast in a younger fashion than when it premiered in 1992. The eternally youthful looking 42-year-old Warren replaces Postlethwaite/Caine, with Lesley Sharp playing LV’s mother and the X-Factor’s Diana Vickers taking on the role originally played, both on stage and screen, by Jane Horrocks.
The casting of Vickers, known for her distinctive vocal talents but unproven as an actress, in a major West End play could be viewed as either a masterstroke or an enormous gamble. While her singing ability is unquestionable, no-one outside the production knows whether she can impersonate the required performers or even whether she can act. Those requirements alone would be enough pressure for any 18-year-old newcomer, but she is following a performance which, until this new production, has been intrinsically linked to the role of Little Voice, that of Horrocks.
The suggestion that it is a particularly tough ask of a complete stage newcomer is met with the defensive challenge to “Come and watch her do it. She’s a natural actor and the singing is just extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary.” While Warren seems a little ruffled, there is a sense of awe in his support of the young singer that suggests his challenge is born out of more than mere protectiveness. Vickers, he says, doesn’t need any looking after; she is the real deal.
As we chat about the rehearsal process, Warren is brief in the descriptions of his co-stars and creative team, but universally sings their praises. “My main concern,” he explains, “is about what I’m going to do. That’s where the buck stops, that’s where my concerns and fears are, just getting it together, getting a performance together. You’ve caught me at a point where I’m at a crux. I just kind of think ‘Can I do it, am I going to pull it off or is it all going to go to s**t?’”
This is not the cocky, confident screen Warren whose mercurial expressions could save him from any situation, this is a Warren who doesn’t want to admit quite how talented a performer he might be. He can just about be pushed to admit that the evidence suggests he will deliver a strong performance in the end, but can’t shift the feeling that there is always time for something to go wrong.
"What we do here and what happens on stage is a completely different kettle of fish"
Warren is even wary about saying that rehearsals are going too well, dancing around the point like an 80s clubber around her handbag before concluding that: “It’s on the right lines, but what we do here and what happens on stage is a completely different kettle of fish.”
While his timid side, which lacks confidence and belief, prevents him from making any wild claims about the production, there is another, businesslike, dry side to Warren that keeps him from even raising an interested eyebrow at making his West End debut. “It’s a talking point,” he says, “but that doesn’t really play on my mind. I’ve got a job to do and that’s it. Wherever it is doesn’t concern me, to be honest.”
Compared to many interviewees, Warren seems rather reluctant to chat, ill at ease with the situation. It is hardly surprising if he doesn’t enjoy giving interviews. In place of florid paragraphs of rambling prose, he offers brief, to-the-point replies. He is not unfriendly, not discourteous, rude or brusque, just not particularly interested in chatting to a man he has never met before about his current job. And for Warren, that is exactly what acting is: “I put my heart into it, I give it all I’ve got, but it’s a job. All the extra baggage that comes with it and what people spin on being an actor, I have never got. I don’t really understand all that.”
He never has. Of the fame that came with starring in Hustle, the BBC con drama that shot him from being a regular performer to a headline actor, he simply says: “The billboard is great for the two minutes that you’re looking at it, but for the rest of the time it doesn’t play any part.”
The series saw him playing a cheeky con artist in a band of high stakes hustlers – which also included Adrian Lester, Robert Glenister, Jaime Murray and Robert Vaughan – getting into and out of all manner of scrapes and shenanigans. It looked as though it should have been a riot to film. Again Warren fooled me. “You make it look that fun. What it actually is is hard work and very, very long days for three or four months. That’s the reality of it; a huge group of people working really long hours and you make it look fun.”
"I put my heart into it, I give it all I’ve got, but it’s a job"
Though he says it was a great job, something doesn’t ring entirely true. Maybe it is because he left in less than ideal circumstances, the producers not offering him a contract extension.
He sounds more hurt, however, when we talk about the cancelling of comic drama Mutual Friends, in which he starred opposite Alexander Armstrong and Keeley Hawes. “I would have happily done that for four or five years,” he says in a rare moment when he lets slip a little emotional truth.
The same happens minutes later when he offers an insight into his past, admitting that he can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be an actor: “I used to go and see films with my Dad when I was younger, something like The Land That Time Forgot. I used to be blown away by it. My earliest memories really are of me listening to Sergeant Pepper in the car with my parents and leaning forward and telling them that I was going to be an actor. The rest of it was just the pursuing it and the passion and drive.”
That drive took him to drama school for all of six weeks, before a lesson in which he was expected to be the colour orange was the tipping point that pushed him to leave institutionalised training behind in favour of learning on the job. He has been living the dream ever since, making notable screen appearances in Oliver Twist, The Vice, State Of Play, Dr Who, Dracula, Life On Mars and Ballet Shoes. His stage outings have been rarer – his last coming at the newly re-opened Leicester Curve, where he appeared in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman – and he admits that he prefers working in front of a camera.
Currently he has no idea if that is what he will be doing when the curtain comes down on The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, and, for the moment, that is just the way he likes it. “One minute you’re sitting at home watching box sets of DVDs of American shows and the next you’re in the desert in Morocco with camels.” I imagine it is just one of the places he would rather be than sitting talking to a journalist.