What's On stage 20 questions with Philip Quast, 24/12/01

Australian actor Philip Quast, currently starring in the National Theatre revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's wartime musical South Pacific, would have preferred to be a palaeontologist but enjoys playing angsted males.

Although Australian actor Philip Quast is an accomplished all-rounder on stage and film, he is best known - and loved - by British theatregoers for his musical theatre.

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His UK musical credits include: the RSC's Les Miserables; Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George at the National, for which he received the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical); The Hunting of the Snark; the Donmar Warehouse's The Fix (for which he received a second Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical); Hey, Mr Producer!, a tribute to impresario Cameron Mackintosh; and, in 2001, The Secret Garden (for which he has been nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Award for, guess what, Best Actor in a Musical).

Quast's other theatre credits include Saint Joan, Love's Labours Lost, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida and The White Devil; and in Australia, Into the Woods, The Mystery Plays, The Threepenny Opera and No End of Blame.

Amongst his TV and film credits are Me and Mrs Jones, Colour in the Creek, Cleopatra, Inspector Morse, Ultraviolet, The Fall, Fields of Fire, Brides of Christ, The First Kangaroos and Around the World in 80 Ways.

Quast is currently starring as French planter Emile de Becque in Trevor Nunn's revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific at the National Theatre.

Place of birth

Tamworth, New South Wales, Australia 1957

Lives now in...

Southeast London

How did you come to be living in the UK?

I first came in 1986 to do Channel 4 co-production for TV called The First Kangaroos. Then, in 1989 I came back to to do Les Miserables, expecting to stay six or seven months, the length of my contract. But when it ended, I was offered Sunday in the Park with George, so I stayed longer than I thought. I went back to Australia after that and it was so nice to be home, but then gradually the whole process of going back and forth started. That becomes harder and harder to do, especially with three sons (aged six to twelve). So we bought a house here, as well as one in Sydney that we rent out. It feels more like home here now, possibly because I'm so ashamed of our ultra-conservative leaders in Australia. I almost can't stand the thought of living there.

First big break

I don't have that sort of vocabulary, it denotes that you have an ambition for fame and I don't have it. They're all breaks as far as I'm concerned because I look at my career as long-term. If you say you have a "first big break", that means you could have a "first fall from grace", too.

Career highlights

In a way, all of them, as long as it's something new and different. I love the little tiny jobs that have taken me to other countries, and I still love meeting famous actors, people who have been my mentors. My highlights have also been when I've been able to work with my close friends. In this business, you make very close bonds with people because you go through a lot together. You get to know someone far better in the rehearsal room than you would in a normal job - people are vulnerable, they're crying, they're angry and emotional in rehearsal. And sometimes, if it doesn't go well, productions can be absolute hell. You don't make very many friends in the theatre, but the friends you make you become very very attached to. Trevor Nunn's always a highlight, as is everything I've done with Gale Edwards, who is one of my best and closest friends.

What do your various awards mean to you?

I don't keep them, my parents back home in Australia have them all. So much of my time is spent away from my parents, which is painful because we're a very close family. So those things are good for them because it gives my parents something to hang on to.

Favourite productions you've worked on

The White Devil (directed by Gale Edwards for the RSC in 1996). And the very first cast of Les Miserables in Australia was a very special time. The 10th anniversary concert was amazing too. Everyone was so scared, partly because it was being filmed, but also because you realised that half the people behind you had sung the same role before. It was wonderful, though, because everyone there were friends, fans and family.

Favourite directors

Trevor Nunn and Gale Edwards. And that's just in theatre. Also, Jerome Ahearne (Ultraviolet) and Denny Lawrence who I worked with years ago in films. I owe a lot to Denny, he was the first person to cast me as assholes and darker characters.

Favourite choreographer

I can't dance, I haven't ever had to do it. I feel a bit old and lumpy now, and just try not to limp across the stage. I do think Matthew Bourne (who choreographs South Pacific) is incredible, though. I just love watching him work.

Favourite composer/lyricist/librettist

Sondheim is extraordinarily moving to perform. He touches subtext and subject matter that others can't - you can't believe that someone could actually have that kind of understanding of human nature. I also love classical music, such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

Gustav Mahler - The Mahler WWW Pages & Richard Strauss and The Richard Strauss Page

What role would you most like to play still?

I'd like to do Leontes pretty soon, some Chekhovs - though I may be a bit old for Trigorin - and a few Brechts in the next few years. I'm much more of character actor than a leading man. I'm not at ease being a leading man. I'm better at tormented individuals. I do angsted males very well - they're more complex and much more psychologically interesting.

What advice would you give to the government to secure the future of British theatre?

I feel funny at the moment about the theatre, with musicals closing and the West End saying it's struggling. That makes me a bit angry because I feel the industry has a lot to answer for. Theatre tickets are so dear; producers have been a little too greedy for a few years. Now suddenly they're "struggling", which means they haven't looked after their domestic audiences. I've always believed that Mondays and Tuesdays should be cheaper. There are definitely performances, regardless of whether the show's a sell-out, that tickets should be cheaper. And there should be reduced prices for children. They are the audience of the future and you have to invest in that. I also think it's time for some shows to come off. I'd like to see Les Miserables have rest for say three years. Then it can be reworked and reopened in the future. On the positive side, the current situation does mean more new shows are getting a go, whether they succeed or not.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?

I'd swap places with myself when I was a younger. If I had my life to do over, I would have done things differently. I would love to have been a travel writer, or a palaeontologist or archaeologist. It's not to say that I regret it being an actor. But I'd prefer a life that was a bit more solitary and private.

Favourite book

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

An excerpt from the book and you can order from Random House online catalogue listing

Favourite holiday destination

Antarctica. I haven't been but would love to go more than anything, just to see light. I'll go one day.

What did you want to accept your part in South Pacific?

Partly it's because of Trevor and it suited to me vocally. It's a really really interesting role, too, and we've had a different interpretation of it here, which has been criticised by some. I had a slant on the part that was like Trevor's. Emile de Becque is a bit like me - solitary, slightly misanthropic, something of a loner. He's not the suave Frenchman, he's not the romantic, he's not experienced with women, how could he be. I found those things interesting.

Why do you think South Pacific resonates so strongly today?

I have the line, "I know what you're against, what are you for?", which says it all. I've always found it fascinating that you can be put in prison and electrocuted for murder and yet hundred of thousands of young men can go to war and kill people because their government says they have to. That doesn't make sense to me. But it's a universal theme and it's gone on forever.

What's your favourite number from South Pacific?

I love it when the five girls come on at end of "Honey Bun". It's a triumph. I'm not in it, but I wish I was. That's the thing about leads - you really wish you were part of the ensemble. It's quite ironic, because people in the ensemble think it's all deliciously wonderful being a lead. But it's lonely, I miss being part of company.

What's the funniest thing that has happened during the run to date of South Pacific?

I complained about the windows in the dressing rooms being dirty. When I got the firehose out to clean them, I got a warning. But consequently, the windows have been cleaned. At the National, there's a courtyard and all the dressing rooms face onto it. Everyone can see each other getting dressed for the different productions and we wave at one another. It's a wonderful scene. During Humble Boy's run here, Simon Russell Beale was in the dressing room downstairs from mine. I had a plastic thermos with a handle and would lower it down to him on a string, with messages and pieces of fruit. It was fun. I was very sad when he went.

What are your future plans?

I'm doing the Diva season at the Donmar Warehouse in August. The programme is 90% original songs which have been written for me. I'm hoping to do a live recording of it. Otherwise, I don't know. There's always the possibility of ducking home to Australia to do a film.

Philip Quast was speaking to Terri Paddock



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