David Hunter has understudied the last two guys to play Guy in the West End incarnation of the hit musical Once—but earlier this month, he nabbed the starring role for himself. The new leading man plays opposite American actress Jill Winternitz (Dirty Dancing) as Girl at the Phoenix Theatre. He’s best known as a semi-finalist in the 2012 TV reality competition show Superstar, and superstardom may not be too far off for the warm and chatty 29-year-old Englishman. Broadway.com caught up with Hunter to find out more about the new Guy in town.
From understudy to leading man—you must be thrilled to now own the role of Guy for yourself.
I am! I’d probably done about 40 performances or so in the time that I was understudying first Declan Bennett and then Arthur Darvill, so it absolutely helped with first-night nerves knowing that I wasn’t going to fall flat on my face. [That performance] instead became about knowing that the show as a whole worked well and that Jill [Winternitz] felt comfortable and supported by the rest of the cast.
I think it’s wonderful when such dedication to a show ends up rewarded.
The truth is, I was nervous about taking an understudy job in this production because I didn’t want that stigma attached. I had absolutely heard that people in that position do then tend to get overlooked when it comes to the leading part. But Guy is such a phenomenal role in my absolute favorite musical that I made it clear I wanted to be considered as more than the understudy, and fortunately, I was given that opportunity.
That must make you unusually sympathetic to your own understudy.
His name is Jack Beale, and he’s a great guy. We have neighboring dressing rooms, so it’s been wonderful listening to him rehearse, and he’s going to get his chance to play the part when I’m on holiday—or if he pushes me down the stairs! [Laughs.]
Were you well aware of the show before it got to London?
Let’s just say that the soundtrack from the film never left my car stereo for four or five years: It was on constant loop! And although I never saw the show on Broadway, I obviously YouTube’d the hell out of it and was just so excited when the production came over. The timing also was ideal because if it had been 10 years later—or earlier—I wouldn’t have had a look in.
It presumably was useful watching two other men play Guy when it came to defining your take on the part.
The great thing about watching both Declan and Arthur was that each was so far apart in his approach from the other, which in turn opened up this huge scale of things to do with the character. I think my Guy is quite warm underneath all the bitterness and anger, and once you start to scrape that away, you see what a huge heart he has.
I’m intrigued that the leading characters are called Guy and Girl—which suggests that they exist to some degree as archetypes.
Yes, in that they speak to anyone who has been in love or ever longed for someone. That said, we had a funny situation at the stage door where a woman came up and said, “I really liked the main guy, Stephen,” so she at some point must have heard something or decided that my character's name was Stephen [laughs].
Well, maybe it is.
We’ve actually done that in rehearsal: We’ve named our Guys, but that all remains a closely guarded secret. And because we’ve named the Girls, as well, that’s been helpful to me given that I’ve now performed the show opposite five different Girls—that means it’s really alive every time.
How was it being guided by Tony winner John Tiffany, who is in talks to direct the stage adaptation of Harry Potter in London?
We see John fairly regularly. He likes to pop his head in to see if the show is in safe hands but often when we least expect it. There are nights when he will come up to me afterwards with an assessment and I think, “I wouldn’t have done certain things this performance if I’d known John was there!” [Laughs.]
The ongoing success of Once is itself remarkable given how fundamentally quiet and unforced the show is.
That’s what I love so much about it—it's almost an anti-Broadway musical and yet has won all those Tonys and now a few Oliviers. Its gentle nature means that you engage with it in a different way. Instead of throwing itself at you, the piece draws you in and requires you to pay attention.
Before Once, you were best known for rising through the ranks on a reality show to cast the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Yes, and I got to the semi-finals, which was an incredible experience. The truth is, prior to Superstar I had looked down on those sorts of programs. But I had auditioned for Rock of Ages and come down to the last two and not gotten the role, so my fear was that the show would come around again and there would be 10 Jesuses lined up before me so I had better get in there!
In other words, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
In a way, especially since my agent said to me, “If you ever feel uncomfortable [on Superstar], walk away from it, there is no pressure.” But once it started, it kept getting better and better and turned out to be a wonderful, incredible roller coaster. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of and enjoyed thoroughly, though at the same time, I do think I’m David Hunter now. I don’t think I carried the Jesus brand very long.
One interesting thing is that as far as I can tell, there has yet to be a Guy who is actually fully Irish, even though it’s an Irish role.
Now that you say that, I don’t think there’s a single Irish person in our entire cast at the moment. I’m from Warrington in the north of England, about half an hour from Liverpool, so the style of folk music in Once has never been far from my ears. I feel such a deep connection to this music—and this material—without being Irish.
This gig means the world to you, doesn’t it?
It’s been the absolute highlight of my life so far. At this point, I can’t imagine what will top it. That’s not me being negative—it’s that I can’t imagine something grabbing me in quite this way again.