Theatrical jack-of-all trades Julian Ovenden is known to West End fans for Merrily We Roll Along and Annie Get Your Gun, to British music aficionados for his concerts with every major U.K. orchestra, to TV lovers for the popular mini-series Foyle’s War and Cashmere Mafia. New York theatergoers were introduced to Ovenden in his debut performance opposite Nathan Lane in Butley, and now he’s back starring in the Maury Yeston musical, Death Takes a Holiday. Ovenden is playing the title character, who arrives at an Italian villa disguised as a Prince determined to experience life for the first time. Broadway.com caught up with the actor to chat about this massive musical undertaking, how New York makes him less cynical and the challenges of being a stage star and new Dad.
What attracted you to Death Takes a Holiday?
It was like nothing else I’d ever read. On the one hand, it’s a very old-fashioned tale and musical comedy, and but it also transcends that old-fashioned sort of drama. The plot was intriguing and I thought it would be great fun to try and pull off. There is a certain frisson in working on something new. It’s great to see things work with an audience—or fail, actually. It reinforces your faith that the theater is a living, breathing thing.
How did you feel about playing Death?
It’s a real challenge to try and get the audience to try and invest in a character that both doesn’t exist and people have such an innate fear of. I was sort of scared of it, but it was also one of the things that really attracted me.
Antonio Banderas played this part in workshops of the musical, and Brad Pitt played him in the movie. How flattering is that?
Yes, both very, very unattractive men. I don’t know whether they offered the role to Brad before me. I’m flattered to be given the opportunity, that’s all I’ll say.
This score is very vocally demanding; is your background primarily in music?
Yes, I went to Oxford as a musician before I took a left turn and went to drama school.
Why the left turn?
I guess I could have pursued a singing career, but I’d been in educational institutions for what seemed like 40 years, so I just wanted to get out and start working. It’s great to be using my music in this piece, but I love doing straight plays and TV, and try to give myself as broad a base as possible with which to work.
Any TV favorites?
I did a World War II BBC drama that seems kind of popular here called Foyle’s War, but other that that I’m kind of an unknown presence here, which is actually quite good for playing a role like this. I mean, I guess it would be nice for that to change, but we’ll see.
Any Human Heart was popular stateside recently. Was it a cool experience playing Ernest Hemingway in that?
It really was very exciting, and I keep seeing projects with him in it! He turns up in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Clive Owen has just been playing him somewhere. It seems like he’s a character du jour. It was great fun and a great cast of actors.
I didn’t even recognize you in it.
Why thank you. I’d love to say that I was a mercurial, genius, transformative creature…but I think it was just a good costume. Or maybe a nice hat.
And a very good moustache.
That’s it! If in doubt, always wear a moustache.
Is that your advice for young actors?
Oh yes, of course. That’s what Mark Rylance says.
How do you like living in New York again?
I love New York. I like the energy here and I totally buy into the American dream. When I’m in England, I can be quite cynical.
Wait. You come to New York and get less cynical?
I feel like I am actually. So much is happening here, everyone’s got a good attitude, the theater scene is alive and buzzing and there’s a real community feel here. That’s not to say that I don’t like London; I love London as well.
Is London home?
Yes, but I like to think that New York is a second home.
Are your wife [opera singer Kate Royal] and son here with you?
They certainly are. I couldn’t do it without them.
How old is your son?
He’s 21 months old. He gets up at 5:30am. I do eight shows a week. It’s, what’s the word…challenging? And we’re expecting another child in November, actually.
Congratulations! Another boy?
I don’t know. We’re going to wait and see! It’s like a present, and I don’t want to find out ahead of time what the present is. I don’t understand this, “Oh, we want to paint the nursery, we want to buy the clothes” thing. Come on! It’s just so impatient. I guess I can understand why people want to know, but I like the surprise.