Interview: Matt Smith
Published in The Stage, 01.05.2008
Looking at Matt Smith’s CV, it is hard to believe that only a year has passed since That Face first held a mirror up to its Chelsea audience at the Royal Court. In twelve months, Smith has co-starred opposite Christian Slater in the West End, made his feature film debut, and starred in Party Animals and BAFTA-winning The Street for the BBC. Not to mention visiting Brazil, falling in love and taking up photography.
Nonetheless, the 25 year-old is relishing the chance to return to That Face for a West End run: “I think it’s one of the best pieces of work I’ve done. Polly has something instinctual about her. Her writing is remarkable: it’s so honest. It’s a splurge of her heart, of her emotions, and it makes wonderful material.” He sees the reprisal not as a return, but as a fresh challenge, a chance to renew and reshape. “It’s almost like you’re dealing with an ex-girlfriend’s past, because you’ve got all these original choices that came before. So part of the journey for me is allowing myself to rediscover it in an innocent way.”
Smith once again plays Henry, the artsy school dropout, to Lindsay Duncan’s Martha, his alcoholic mother. “He’s addicted to Martha as any addict would be to their drug of choice, because his whole identity has been formed in this room with his mother. He has no real contact with the outside world. As an actor, you have to get your head round this difficult concept of addiction, because it begs the question, why doesn’t he just leave.”
“Addiction is a real, real thing for people; it can damage them and affect the way they communicate and act in the outside world. It can manifest all sorts of horrible traits in a person. That’s partly why I’m so pleased that a play like this is in the West End, because it has a real resonance to it. It’s got that oomph factor.”
After a back injury ended his football career before it could begin, a drama teacher persuaded him to audition for the National Youth Theatre, for whom he played Thomas á Beckett and to which Smith feels he owes everything: “It was invaluable. You learn about being an actor, because they allow you to be an actor. They don’t put any constraints on it, they find a stage in London for young actors and they let them express themselves.”
At 18, he auditioned unsuccessfully for drama school, before attending the University of East Anglia. “I had an odd time there. I think I met some of the most stupid people in my life at university. My heart was never completely in it.” It was after small breaks at the Royal Court and the National Theatre that his real education began. “You’re constantly moving from moment to moment and treating it all as tuition, learning and absorbing it all.”
This attitude still prevails in the self-effacing and grafting young actor. He talks of acting as both a craft and an art, a subject for enquiry and a passion, discipline and freedom. “I watch Lindsay Duncan with great intent and consideration. She’s just a whirlwind; the most extra-ordinary actress I’ve ever worked with. She has huge consistency.” His desire to improve and challenge himself is pervasive and praiseworthy.
Despite having one eye on the future, Smith is wholly focussed on the here and now. “I think as an actor all you can ever do is live presently,” he muses, “There is always that sense of the past there, but it’s fruitless to dwell on it. If I can keep improving, head down, fingers crossed, then who knows what will happen.”