BWW Interview: Nathan Amzi Talks ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre
West End and The Voice star Nathan Amzi is playing Martini in Javaad Alipoor's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre this June.
When did you decide you wanted to be a performer?
It happened by accident. I was at a barbecue dancing around to Michael Jackson as a kid and a friend of my mum's who was working at a nightclub said "Wow, you like dancing!" and I was like "Yeah", but at that time it wasn't a thing I wanted to do - I just liked Michael Jackson.
She said she was going to London with this girl who was being auditioned for this big school and asked me if I wanted to go with her to check it out. My mum said "Go on!", so I did. It was very weird - people doing ballet and stuff, things I wasn't used to - but she asked if I would dance to Michael Jackson if she put it on, so I did, very innocently.
Long story short, she offered me a full scholarship, and at the time I wasn't sure. But my mum said "Look, they're going to pay for your education, and you get to go to London" - we were in Cornwall back then. "Try it, and if you don't like it you can come home."
It was something I'd always been interested in - my uncle played guitar, my mum had a degree in English; we always used to go to Stratford to watch the RSC, I had Shakespeare in my blood from a really young age. We even used to act stuff out, my mum and I! But it wasn't a career choice at that point - it was just something I loved doing.
What were your plans for the future at that point?
I don't think I've ever said this in an interview... I was going to be a ballet dancer. When I went to the Royal Ballet they offered me a place on a teachers' course, not the main dance course.
Then I got an imbalance from not eating properly. I wanted to conform and be what everyone else was - I was really, dangerously skinny. Basically, I messed up my metabolism, and as I went on through puberty later and grew up, I was never going to be a ballet dancer anymore.
Then I had to adapt with what I had if I still wanted to have a career. It was really interesting actually, because when I did Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh said to me "One day, you'll be a really interesting character actor".
I still wanted to be a dancer, but he said to embrace it when it came - you might get less jobs on the way, but when you do get to that place you'll be a more complete actor. And he was right! The moment I embraced not trying to stay skinny and obeyed my body instead and solved that imbalance, I was much happier.
Do you have a favourite play or musical?
This is really difficult. One of my favourite plays, just because of where it is in my life, is Much Ado About Nothing. It was something I shared with my mum because of her love for Shakespeare.
Then, recently, Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph - I think it's an amazing play, it's kinda got everything in it, it's really interesting. Musicals wise, it's difficult too. I don't know!
Has your time on The Voice changed your perception of the entertainment industry?
I was doing Rock of Ages at the time I went on The Voice, and I didn't realise that I was suddenly singing high-tenor rock. One of the guys in the show, called Oliver Tompsett, said to me "You can sing, you know! That's a really good thing!". I would never have gone on a singing competition. But he was like "Go for it! Push yourself out there!".
So I went into it just because of the experience. But also knowing that it was a Saturday night entertainment TV show and not really about a singing thing... if that makes sense! It was about a performance. What's amazing is that every single thing I took away from that show was actually not the airtime but the process, and being able to work with these incredible people. Ricky Wilson, who was my coach, and I are still really good friends - we see each other almost every week.
They develop you as you're going to be in the final from day one. You're working with a band, you're working out songs - they develop you as an artist to give you the best chance on the show. And then what happens during the show, that's out of your hands. Then, coming back to the industry was really striking because you know how things work.
Do you think you approach the work differently now?
Ultimately, no, because I think the goal is entertainment. My goal has always been to be the best version of myself I could ever be. So whether I'm doing a play or a musical or TV, I give my best.
The difficult thing about being on a singing show is, as my IMDb says, being "as himself", which is something you rarely get to do as an actor and performer. That was one of the hardest things. You're so used to playing a character that developing that side of yourself is really interesting, because when you're in a play, it's all about how much of you is in the character.
Tell us about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
A lot of people will probably know the film, some might have read the novel. What's really interesting about this production is that we're approaching the show in a way I haven't seen at all. We're not having any references to the film or the novel - we're just concentrating on the play and what's on the page.
Javaad Alipoor, the director, reminds me of another type of Jamie Lloyd. He's a brilliant, visceral director who wants to bring fresh ideas to the table.
We're basically in a mental institution; a lot of us are voluntarily committed, we've put ourselves in there. This character, McMurphy, enters and he's been committed. He's been on a work farm for rape and he was basically exhibiting signs of madness, but we don't know if it's true or not - to get himself out of the work farm and into this much-cushioned situation. It's about how this new energy affects all of us.
Nurse Ratched, who's the matriarch of our society, has often been played like a tough woman who is mean and cruel in her own way. Interestingly, in this production we're trying to show institutionalisation - the people above her, how these places run.
Who do you play?
I play Martini. He's voluntary, he's put himself in there. He hallucinates. He's got imaginary friends. Whereas you may think of mental institutions as somewhere dark where everyone bangs their heads against a wall in the corner, he's quite fun and charming and endearing and you kind of want to sit down and have a beer with him.
He obviously has this condition and he sees things that don't exist. But he's dealing with that - he knows something's weird and something isn't real, and when he really believes he saw something, people are calling him out saying nothing is there.
He might be there for comfort too - he can have an imaginary friend in a place like this when he probably wouldn't dare to have one outside. He was played by Danny DeVito in both the play and the film; he's the only character that was played by the same person, he was so in love with this character!
Do you feel any pressure following in those footsteps?
I think there's always pressure when you know there's someone who's come before and he was so well received. But what's exciting is that you get the chance to come at it with fresh eyes and not at all let his Martini be your Martini. We might find completely different things in him, and that's due to our process and direction.
I've tried not to watch the film or read the novel... I mean, I watched the film a long time ago but not recently, so I'm discovering what I'm discovering. And, you know, we might end up in the same place and it might come out similar... Or worlds apart!
I think it's also interesting for Joel Gillman, who's playing McMurphy. Jack Nicholson is iconic in that role! And for him to step into those shoes... He needs to bring what he brings to the table. And he's changing who we are as well.
Are you finding it difficult to get into the role?
Thank God for bluetooth headsets! So when you're walking down the street, talking to yourself, people think you're on the phone. You're in this world, creating. And what's really weird when you get there is that it doesn't feel that crazy.
And then you start questioning yourself because we're actors pretending to be others a lot of the time! I felt disconcerted about how easily getting in the head of Martini feels - it's too comfortable. You know, at drama school you play games imagining people who aren't there and at a certain point you go "Oh no, should I start seeing somebody?!".
What's really difficult is that it was written at a time which is not right now. It was the 1960s - attitudes and behaviours towards people were different at that time. How we take our medication is different, and you've got things like electroshock and lobotomy...
It was a crueler world in that sense. It's difficult, because you have to put yourself in that mindset and position. You have the danger of playing now and not then, and we're firmly setting it in 1961. That brings a lot to the table.
Why do you think it's important to tell this story now?
I think what's going to be interesting is to see how we're approaching this play and what Javaad has offered to us. The reason there's something else controlling a cruel woman and her methods.
What we've seen in the news recently with #MeToo and institutionalisation and places that have this dark vein running through them... I think it's a thought-provoking question to bring out, whether the person who's the antagonist or seen as the villain... Is she really? Or is she a product of institutionalisation and how the world operates?
It's an interesting discussion to have. It's also a fascinating play to watch in the sense that you're not sure who's side to be on, and that opens up a conversation about how we exist in real life society. What left or right or middle are, or what the right thing to believe is, what the right thing to do is in that situation.
What can the audience expect from the show?
I think they can expect a highly entertaining, visceral piece of theatre that's going to make people think. There are going to be a lot of questions raised.
It's also going to be fantastic that it's playing at the Crucible, which is an amazing space. It's in a horseshoe shape, so you're going to see a patients' ward from multiple sides. You can come back and see it a couple of times and never see the same thing.
It's such a large cast and there's so much going on! You can literally come one day and see a different person in the cast's perspective. It's a really compelling staging in that sense too.
Photo credit: Mark Douet