SXSW Interview: Matt Lucas on ‘Small Apartments’ and Creating Characters
Matt Lucas is one of the most versatile character actors working today. If you’ve seen his work on the brilliant Little Britain, Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland (Tweedledee/Tweedledum) and as Gil in Bridesmaids, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
With all of his amazing work, it’s surprising (at least to me) that Small Apartments, the Jonas Ackerlund film that premiered at SXSW this year, was his first starring role. The film, about a guy named Franklin Franklin (Lucas) who may or may not have killed his landlord, is loaded with quirky characters, one of them being Franklin. The film sports a great cast including James Caan, Billy Crystal and Johnny Knoxville.
As Franklin, Lucas spends most of his time in his underwear and he’s not disguised in makeup or prosthetics, like we’re used to seeing him. “That’s quite an experience,” he told me. In his own skin, he gives a great performance. He’s funny and in some scenes, really moving. If you’re a fan of Matt’s, you’ll definitely have to catch this.
I talked to Matt at SXSW the morning after the film screened for the first time where we talked about auditioning, how he creates his characters and watching himself on-screen. And don’t miss out on his great advice to actors!
Matt Lucas: Well, it’s very strange watching yourself on screen, and I mean, no one wants to look at a photo of themselves. Well, not many people do. Some people do I guess. I struggle with it just as much as the next man. So usually, I’m very disguised with makeup and prosthetics and beards and mustaches and all sorts and in this movie, I’m not so disguised. And also, I’m wandering around in my underpants for much of it. So, that’s quite an experience.
This is such a great interesting cast. How did you get the part?
Matt Lucas: It’s very, very strange. All of the movies that I’ve done, I didn’t have to audition for. It’s really weird. Whenever I audition I don’t get a role.
For Alice in Wonderland, for Bridesmaids and for this, I just got asked to come do it. So when it came to this, you know, I got sent the script and asked to do the movie. I was excited because obviously I know Jonas’ work, I’m a big fan of that, and kind of everyone is really. All the amazing people he works with and the extraordinary concepts he creates. And also in features, I enjoyed Spun. And I read the script and I could never really figure out what was going to happen next. It was a real page turner for me. I enjoyed the challenge of having to attempt a different dialect to one I’d done before and to play the same character for the duration of the shoot, which is not something I do all that often. Because sometimes I work largely in sketch comedy in the UK and I often will be playing three different characters in one day. So, it was kind of interesting. I co-write a lot of the stuff I do and now I produce it. So it was a good experience to not have to worry about any of those other things and just think I can come aboard as an actor and just play one character, which is not something I have done that often.
I love Little Britain.
Matt Lucas: Oh, thank you.
I just think the characters you create are so unique. How do you go about that process? When you do the sketch work, do you create the character from the sketch idea or is it the character first?
Matt Lucas: They all come from different places, you know? Sometimes you have a concept of the character from a writing point of view. You think, a hypnotist who uses his powers off stage for very small gain, and that’s the kernel. And then you work out who the character is and what the performance is going to be. Other times you come up with a voice and you work out a kind of concept for that voice. But they can be quite oversized those characters.
For something on film you have to tone it down a little bit I think. Also, you know, I couldn’t give as broad of a performance in this because it wouldn’t of matched what everyone else was doing. I don’t think it would have rendered the script properly, either. I think you just have to serve the material and you act to the best of your ability to serve the material.
So something like Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain is a much broader character and much more grotesque. But this character is still quite grotesque in this movie. I don’t really have a lot of vanity. I don’t’ really have Channing Tatum’s’ problems. I don’t have that to lose. I already look like, kind of Uncle Fester’s brother, so you know, what difference?
Do you stay in character the whole time?
Matt Lucas: No, I don’t stay in character at all. It’s not for me, it’s not appropriate. The one thing I did during this shoot, for better or for worse, is try and stay in dialect because it was a very unfamiliar dialect. But in the UK, I can be doing four different dialects a day, but they are fairly familiar to me and I hear them a lot, so I would never stay in dialect there and I would certainly never stay in character, no.
You mentioned insecurity, do you still get nervous?
Matt Lucas: I have like very little self belief, I would say, as a performer.
Matt Lucas: Yeah, but I just try and act like that isn’t the case. I always feel like a fraud, but almost everyone I know feels the same way. It’s very common to feel that way.
Auditions – do you still audition a lot?
Matt Lucas: I do, I definitely audition. Less so in the UK because probably my profile is higher there, and people have generally made up their mind about me so they will generally approach me. I’m certainly not adverse to auditioning and definitely in the United States.
I write a lot and I like to audition people rather often for a part usually, because I need to know that they’re right for the role. I would not expect somebody who has been working on a screenplay for many years to not want to audition me for something. So, I don’t take it as an insult if someone asks me to audition, generally. Especially like in this case, if it’s very different territory for me as a performer. Well, actually, in this, I didn’t audition really.
I find auditions really hard. They are hard. It’s not so easy to learn lines when you haven’t rehearsed a scene because you can’t learn the performance rather than just learn lines. But that’s part of the job, you know. Just shut up and get on with it and stop complaining because there are plenty of people who have harder jobs, you know? There are nurses who are saving lives, so if you’re problem is just auditioning then deal with it. It’s not that important.
Do you recommend writing? It seems like a huge part of your success.
Matt Lucas: You know, for me, I wanted to be an actor and I was 16 and I was in the National Youth Theater, and before that I had been in the National Youth Music Theater at 13. I sensed that my own physicality, you know, I already had no hair, meant that I was unlikely to get work. So I thought that I should probably write some stuff and that I would be able to act that. Do you know what I mean? So, I wrote purely so I would have something to act, because it didn’t occur to me that anyone else would ever hire me, so that’s why I started writing.
Did characters come naturally to you at first?
Matt Lucas: I think at first I had a kind of need to perform and express myself because I was an angst ridden teenager. But later on, when some of that stuff kind of calmed down, I began with David Walliams… We began to kind of tune into what worked best for us and then we became more adept at creating characters and writing and we just became kind of better at it and more skilled.
We would take a kernel of something that amused us and then create a whole character you know, that was an exaggeration because it was just one kernel, but it would become the defining aspect of their personality.
What’s your advice to actors?
Matt Lucas: I guess, the advice I was given, and I think it was good advice. Two things, one is to study your craft but also learn other things as well. Just because I think, just don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And that doesn’t mean prepare to fail as an actor. It just means get as much life experience as you can.
You know, the profession is intoxicating and seductive, but there’s nothing worse than those people, I think, who just breathe theater and film just all day long, everything, you know? You just think like what else is there when you meet those people. I think that the best actors are the actors who have some other life experience, that’s what I would guess.
But, my main advice would be to see acting as one facet of your creativity. I know actors who, when they’re not acting, are photographers or website designers and that is still a creative outlet for them. Because the likelihood is that you’re not going to be acting all the time. And to say that that’s okay.
I had a friend, Luke Evans, who is doing really well now in Hollywood, he is in The Hobbit. We did a play together 10 years ago and he was the lead role in the show and he was well reviewed and then things went quiet. He got bar work, and would do things like take understudy jobs and would take far less glamorous work. Now, he’s a big star in Hollywood. He’s in tons of movies and doing really well. When I look at him, I always remember his humility. I always remember his willingness and that self respect that said, “I’m not going to sit home and procrastinate just because I’m not working. I’m going to go out and get a bar job.” And yeah, it’s frustrating because it’s not how you want to be earning your living. But I think there’s a lot more self respect in any job than there is in no job. I know that’s weak, because it’s not really about acting, but it’s about keeping yourself sane.
And actually the actors that do best in auditions are the ones that keep going to classes and that keep sharp, rather than just, they haven’t had an audition for six months and suddenly they have got one and they’ve got to remember what it is to audition. It’s a bit like being an athlete. Keep trim, keep mentally trim and keep up with what’s going on around you. You know, because acting styles change, and film styles change. I remember when we were doing work in Britain and we were auditioning people and some actors in their 50s would come in and they would be doing a whole style of acting that no longer existed in sketch comedy. I just thought, “I wish you were more aware of the culture around you to know that things have moved on, because other actors of that generation were coming in and they were totally in tune with what was going on.”
But, have a life outside of acting is what I say.