*Update – The Stage Review recently announced that Michael will be reprising the role of Joe Gillis on Broadway in 2017*
It’s the role every West End leading man wanted: On 1st April 2016 Michael Xavier will step onto the stage of the London Coliseum to play Joe Gillis opposite Hollywood Icon Glenn Close in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Sunset Boulevard. We joined this most charming of West End heart-throbs for lunch to talk Hollywood legends and life-changing moments.
Hi Michael. Thanks for meeting us in the thick of rehearsals. How is everything going?
Really great. Rehearsals are full-on at the moment – I’m in nearly every scene so I’m rehearsing from 10am-6pm every day and then at the gym in the evening. I go home, I eat, I go to bed, I wake up and press repeat.
And working with Glenn Close – has that been intimidating?
I don’t get too star-struck. Of course I’m aware I’m working with one of the greatest living actresses but I see it as a great opportunity. I’ve never been nervous or tongue-tied – we’re all just human beings who work hard to be good at what we do. It’s an absolute joy to work with Glenn and she’s delightful, very generous and great fun.
What was your most recent role?
Immediately prior to this I was playing Gaylord Ravenal in Showboat at the Sheffield Crucible. It’s transferring in to the West End but they needed to recast because of the timing. It’s an amazing production – Daniel Evans directed and it was great to be a part of. If you buy tickets for Showboat there are so many numbers where you’ll think “Oh, I didn’t know this song came from Showboat”.
Do you recall the first show you saw in the West End?
I saw Les Miserables when I was about 14. I just remember being so moved by it and I thought “I want to make audiences feel like this, like I’m feeling now.” I just loved it.
Had you done much acting yourself by that age?
Although my grandparents were quite theatrical, there was no showbusiness in my family. I did do Grease at school playing Vince Fontaine/Teen Angel which was great fun. I hadn’t done a huge amount on stage by then, although I could sing so I was always put in choirs.
How do you approach rehearsals?
The starting point is always the text. Some people will watch a movie to see what a character is all about but I find that really unhelpful. I like to delve into the text to find things which will work for me and not have a memory or a ghost in my mind of somebody else playing the role.
What can we expect from a semi-staged vs. full production?
The reason it’s semi-staged is simply because the orchestra takes up so much of the space. There are pieces of set and furniture which fly in and out to represent full scenes. There’s something great about that because in the same way that when you read a book you allow yourself to use your imagination, you get carried away with the story –that’s hugely powerful.
Who do you feel is the biggest victim in Sunset Boulevard – Joe Gillis, Norma Desmond, Betty Schaefer…or Max Von Meyerling?
I think they’re all victims of the industry, of LA itself. Norma suffers most because she’s been sucked into this world, been hugely successful and then the industry changed and left her behind. That plays with her mind…and that’s fuelled further by Max trying to feed this alternate reality. He engineers what’s happening, trying to make her believe she is still a star. Essentially I think Max is trying to create a mental bubble in which they can both feel safe and secure in this world of movies and success and dreams. Max loves Norma – he knows that she suffers from depression and has made attempts on her life. Then Joe arrives into this bubble and reignites a flame in Norma and so Max is happy for him to be around – so long as he’s playing by the rules.
I think that Betty comes off best in a way. Joe acts quite gallantly in saying to her “you should not be a part of this, you don’t want to get sucked into this world. Choose the simple life – go back to your fiancée. This place will chew you up and spit you out.”
Do you think that Joe could ever have stayed with Norma or Betty…or do you think he would have always turned his back on everything that reminded him of Hollywood?
I think he was done with this life, and doing Betty a favour by leaving. He was done with Hollywood completely, going back to a quiet life in Ohio writing a Newspaper column: The very thing he once said he didn’t want. He comes to realise “my life is worth more than this”. Very possibly if Joe had never met Norma, he might have made a life with Betty – but of course he did and was trapped.
So do you see Joe as very much a lone spirit?
Actually I think he really falls for Betty and I think he feels love on a level that he has never experienced before. He knows it’s wrong because she’s his best friend’s fiancée he doesn’t want to see her hurt. But I think if they had met on set and never had anything to do with Norma they may very well have had a life together.
If you could play any Musical Theatre role in the future, what might you choose?
I’ve always had an eye on playing Petruchio/Fred in Kiss Me Kate because it’s a fun role, full of comedy. I love musicals, they’re great fun (and hard work) but I also love being able to drop in and do lots of different things. I think every actor wants to do some film, some TV, some radio, some Shakespeare…whatever they can do to create a diverse CV.
You’ve previously presented the Covent Gdn stage at the the Olivier Awards? Are you presenting again this year?
Yes. The first year was with Claudia Winkleman, the next with Myleene Klass and last year with Alison Hammond. I’m presenting again this year – right in the middle of Sunset opening. We’ll have just done tech week and then we open on the Friday night, two shows on the Saturday, the Olivier Awards on Sunday and then Monday is Sunset’s Press Night! It’s going to be exhausting but it’s such a great opportunity to do it again…it’s the 40th anniversary and I just couldn’t say no.
Do you ever get nervous presenting?
Yes. Probably more so than in a show, because there are no rehearsals. You’re given a script to read on the day and it’s always nerve-wracking having to be yourself. And if something goes wrong or someone arrives late you have to fill – and that’s the most terrifying feeling in the world!
How did you get into presenting?
Julian Bird who runs Society of London Theatre asked me to present an award at the UK Theatre Awards and he liked what I did. On the back of that he sent me an email saying “we’re looking for a West End leading man to present on the Covent Garden stage with Claudia Winkleman – would you be up for it?” You can’t say no to that!
Joe is a writer – do you harbour any ambitions in that direction?
I haven’t written a full script but I do have two ideas, one a musical and one possibly a film or TV script. I’ll go back to them at some point and I’d love to find a songwriter/pianist to work with. I really like writing. I have a fantasy of locking myself away in a cabin in the highlands of Scotland just typing away.
If you were Joe Gillis in real life, who would be your Norma Desmond?
If you’re asking who do I look up to from the really classic actresses of the past, then I’d have to say Audrey Hepburn – she was just so beautiful.
Michael Xavier opens in Sunset Boulevard at The London Coliseum on Friday 1st April until 7th May 2016.
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4ES
You can still buy tickets for Sunset Boulevard here but don’t hang around – it’s a limited run and seats are selling out fast.
If you think life on the West End Stage might be for you and you want the chance to work with Michael, sign up for West End Masterclass. Classes give young people who haven’t been to drama school preparation and training to enter further education. There are six different age groups from 12 to 30 running on Sundays in term time for 33 weeks a year with an hour each of Singing, Acting and Dance. Michael teaches about half the time and there are different guest teachers every week from the West End.