Friday, 24 July 2015

Big Interview: Matt Cardle, starring as Huey Calhoun in Memphis The Musical

Matt Cardle recently took over from Killian Donnelly as Huey Calhoun in the West End production of Memphis The Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre, joining Beverley Knight as Felicia Farrell.

Inspired by true events from the underground dance clubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s musical follows the fame and forbidden love of a radio DJ who wants to change the world and a club singer who is ready for her big break.

Memphis marks Matt’s West End and acting debuts. Since winning the seventh series of The X Factor in 2010, Matt has gone on to become a multi-platinum recording artist who has sold over 2.2 million records in the UK and completed five sell-out tours. 

A talented vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, pianist and drummer, Matt’s debut single ‘When We Collide’ sold over one million copies and has just been named as one of the Top 40 biggest selling singles of the past decade. The song spent three weeks at #1 and was nominated for Best British Single at the 2011 Brit Awards. Gary Barlow wrote Matt’s next Top 10 hit ‘Run For Your Life’ which was followed by the release of his platinum selling debut album Letters. 

Matt’s other albums, which have charted in the Top 10, include The Fire and Porcelain. He most recently entered the Top 10 singles chart with ‘Loving You’, a duet with Spice Girl Melanie C. Matt completed his fifth sold-out UK tour in April 2014 and is currently writing and recording his fourth studio album which is due for release later this year. 

Yesterday I popped into the Shaftesbury Theatre and spoke to Matt about why Huey is a gift of a role, the supreme talents of Beverley Knight and why he found taking over from Killian Donnelly a little daunting…

A few months ago you got a call about Memphis, what happened next?
Well I came down and saw the show because initially it was just an invite to come down, see the show and see if I liked it. I took the evening out the studio, came down and saw it with my manager and was totally blown away by Beverley and Killian – they’re both just so ridiculously talented. The whole show and whole cast and everything and the music – I was like, how have I not seen this already and why have I not heard more about it?!’ Then it was a case of ‘Do you like it?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah I absolutely love it, who wouldn’t?’ So then it was a case of, ‘Well ok, if we send you through some scenes and a couple of songs would you learn a bit?’ So I did that and went and sang a couple of songs for Nick Finlow (UK Musical Supervisor) and did some script read-throughs with Tara Wilkinson (UK Associate Director). 

Did you go through it with Beverley?
A couple of days later I did another session, Tara said she wanted me to learn it a little bit more so I came back and they got Beverley in. They filmed me going through it with Beverley and sent it to the US directors and the creators and writers of the show… and they said, “Yes we’d love to have you play Huey” and one thing led to another… and here we are!

Matt onstage at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Huey is such a gift of a role – characters like this don’t come along very often. Coming into the show, was it important for you to put your own stamp on it?
Absolutely! There are certain things that have to come across with Huey, there’s certain things that have to be there and certain parts of the character that have to be consistent throughout whoever plays it. And yes, it’s totally a gift of a role... like 100%. The whole thing is like the golden egg, it’s one of the best roles in one of the best shows in town with the best cast and Beverley Knight… say no more. It’s amazing! It was very important for me to put my own stamp on it although look, if I could have been a carbon copy of Killian Donnelly, I would have been blown away that I’d managed to do that because his performance of Huey is incredible. If anyone had said to me, “You’re exactly like Killian” I would have been like, “Wicked, I’m exactly like the man I think is one of the most talented people I’ve met in a long time!” If I could have done that then great, but people are coming back and saying I’m doing it in my own way which is great. As long as it’s still Huey Calhoun and still making the show do what it needs to do but it’s my Huey then that’s even better.

And on top of everything you’ve had the accent to master!
To be honest I’ve always messed around with accents and stuff… like Irish, Scottish, scouse, American. I could always imitate people and I’ve always been able to imitate people vocally too. My American accent was very much more generic than this, so a dialect coach came in and we had a couple of hours to sit down and go through how they would say certain things. I mean, if you can do an American accent, if you play with it you can do a Deep South accent and do an impression of it – but whether it will be consistent enough is a different story. However, you’re learning a script so if I was to sit here and converse with you in a Deep South American accent some bits would come out ok and some things I’ve never said before would be a bit ‘not sure about that’. 

Matt performing ‘Memphis Lives In Me’
After going through the whole show you come to ‘Memphis Lives In Me’ which is such a huge peak. What’s that moment like for you each night?
It is! I just love the journey that Huey goes on, starting off as that scruffy little dude who comes rolling into Delray's… then he gets the number one radio show and becomes a radio star… then he’s a TV star… but then his world literally crumbles in front of him. He gets fired from the TV station and the love of his life leaves him. He goes on such a rollercoaster and then everything crumbles. I just love getting into that moment of ‘Memphis Lives In Me’. The tears come and I let myself get into a place I know I’ve been in before and conveying those emotions again and again and again every night is fun, although it’s also kind of upsetting because we’re actually crying and it’s horrible. It’s a great thing to be able to do, you give it ‘Memphis Lives In Me’ and then “Hey, it’s not all bad – I’ve still got one radio listener! I’m on WRKN – screw you!” [laughs] Do you know what I mean?! It’s kind of like you don’t hit rock bottom, you just hit a mattress. You kind of end up where you started which is great.

Are there any other scenes or moments that stand out for you? 
Well, do you know what? I always thought there would be some scenes I would be dreading… and for a while there were – ones which are a bit more wordy than others. The scene where he’s selling the DuPont beer was always a bit ‘ahh’ because there’s a lot of dialogue really quickly, but that’s one of the bits I’ve really drilled into myself. The one I really love, I think it’s scene three, is when he comes back into Delray's giving it, “I’m going to put your sister on the radio”. It’s just the way they wind the music into the dialogue – it’s just wicked! The song is broken up with really good dialogue and it’s fun, that’s real, real musical theatre right there! It’s just great!

Like you, Beverley also came from the music world into the theatre world when she made her West End debut in The Bodyguard. Has she taken you under her wing?
She totally has, she’s gone above and beyond for me. She has been absolutely amazing and so supportive, I couldn’t ask for a nicer co-star! She’s just incredible – she’s a superstar!

Matt as Huey Calhoun

I don’t know how she goes out on stage and performs like that every night!
I know! And do you know what? It’s a big sing for her – a huge sing – and her voice is on point every single night. It’s just amazing!

This is your acting debut, but did you ever do acting at school or anything like that when you were younger?
I didn’t, it’s one of those things which has literally come out of nowhere. It’s crazy to think that they let me do this [laughs]… with no training! I mean, it’s really mental that they obviously saw something in those audition tapes that they thought they could work with. I said to Tara straight away, “I don’t want to waste your time and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, money or effort. Do you think this is something I could do?” and she said, “With a little guidance this is definitely something you can do.” I was like, “Fine ok, if that’s the case then let’s do it!” And the reviews have been great!

Matt & Beverley Knight
It’s great to see a new buzz surrounding the show – it’s definitely going out on a high and I think Memphis deserves that.
I think it totally does as well, not that I thought that’s what I was going to give it. I honestly had no idea; I didn’t even know the show was closing! I just wanted to go in there and give it the best I can be and it has just been amazing. 

What can someone who knows nothing about Memphis expect from the show? What will they go through and how will they come away feeling?
You’re going to go on an emotional rollercoaster; there is no two ways about it! You definitely will laugh, you definitely will cry and it’s just such a great message that comes with the show. It manages to put the message across in a way that’s seamless – they’re not labouring anything. It’s so well weaved into the storyline and every now and again it just comes out like a dagger and stabs you in the heart and you’re like ‘Oh my god this is really serious! Gator’s dad was strung up in front of him – this s**t really happened and they would have killed people and, no, Felicia and Huey wouldn’t have been able to get married and, yes, they would have had the s**t kicked out of them.’ It’s really horrible, but at the same time it gives you love and keeps you smiling. It’s so fast paced as well, there’s not one point where you’re like ‘just get on with it’. It’s ‘bam bam bam’ and the set changes are incredible as well. When I was watching it on DVD at home I was like ‘Hold on a minute, we were in a TV set and three seconds later, through genius lighting and set design and staging, we’re somewhere else!’ The whole thing is so seamless.

The West End is incredibly disciplined; performing seven shows a week is tough! Have you had to change your lifestyle? Are you looking after yourself and steaming and so on?
We’ve been working with the best vocal coaches in England. It’s funny because I thought it would be all about steaming every night and this and that, but you do the bare minimum until you need any more – as in don’t steam until you have to steam because when you’re feeling it you can lean on steaming. If you’re already doing it all then when you start to struggle what else are you going to do? He’s like, “You warm up, you warm down and that’s that. If it ain't broke, don’t fix it and sing with good technique.” I mean, I sing completely differently in this show to how I sing on a record or on tour. It really is a different kind of thing.

Matt with Beverley Knight and Claire Machin in Memphis 

All of the people who have followed your career and bought your records and seen your tours are now coming to the Shaftesbury Theatre to see you in Memphis – that kind of dedicated support must be amazing?
Absolutely! It’s amazing, I had some fans in on opening night and on press night. It’s funny for them to see this side of me that they haven’t seen before… because I’m goofy like Huey! They usually see this part of me that’s serious on stage and singing songs about what’s happened to me and stuff and all of a sudden they’re just seeing me messing about – but that’s what I’m like! That’s me [laughs]!

And then on top of that Memphis has its own, amazingly dedicated bunch of fans who have welcomed you in too!
Yes! That was quite intimidating, I’m not going to lie! Just because Killian was so good at it… like I can’t explain how good he was – he was absolutely incredible! It was very intimidating to come in and for them to be like ‘replace him’… it’s like f*****g really [laughs]?! Seriously?! [jokingly] Couldn’t he have been a little bit s**t please?!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Memphis The Musical runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until Saturday 31st October 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1&2: Helen Maybanks
Photo Credit 4&5: Matt Crockett 
Photo Credit 3&6: Johan Persson

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