Matt Ryan: Broadway's Sexy Leading Man

Matt Ryan: Broadway's Sexy Leading Man

Matt Ryan as Laurent in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of “Thérèse Raquin.”

You only have until Jan. 3 to see Broadway’s newest red-hot leading man. So, what are you waiting for?

When Keira Knightley, she of Academy Award-nominated fame, and Matt Ryan, he of heartthrob “Constantine” fame, first embrace in “Thérèse Raquin” at Studio 54, their characters—a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage and her seducer—combust. This is hot stuff. And neither Knightly nor Ryan takes a stitch of clothing off. Not once in the play’s two and a half hours does this illicit twosome disrobe. Of course, lust like theirs cannot last. Murder. Guilt. The ending is tragic. But what a ride, for them and the audience.

Let’s face it: When you talk to Matt Ryan over the phone, as I did, you immediately fall under the spell of his mellifluous Welsh voice. You can imagine why Thérèse would succumb. He’s the kind of man every woman wants and the kind of man every man wants to be. Born in an unpronounceable (unpronounceable to anyone not native to Wales) small town outside Swansea, the actor exudes a Richard Burton-type charm and enviable ease with words.

But Ryan leaves that voice in the dressing room once he steps on the Studio 54 stage. Playing Laurent, a Frenchman, he adopts a more mid-Atlantic tone, refusing to even attempt phony French speak. And rightly so. For this 34-year-old actor, the sex is in the facial scruff and smoldering, dark-eyed gaze.

Physicality apart, his qualifications for the part are rock solid. He’s acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company and with Jude Law in “Hamlet,” in London and New York. His 5-foot-11-inch frame nobly carried a network TV series, “Constantine,” before its cancellation last year. The role of Laurent in Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1867 novel for the Roundabout Theatre Company is yet another “extraordinary” (his word) journey.

“Laurent is a survivor,” he told me when the show was still in previews in October. “He was brought up in the same village as the Raquin family. His father owned a large farm, but he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He went off to college, but he didn’t want to do that. Then he became an artist. What’s interesting is he didn’t want to become an artist for the art. He wanted to become an artist because it was the easiest thing to do. He just wanted to have an easy life. That’s his problem: He’s looking for the easy. He doesn’t earn much money. He doesn’t live in a plush place. He’s an opportunist.”

At the beginning of the play, everyone likes Laurent. “He’s charming,” Ryan continued. “He’s outgoing, he reads a situation well, he knows how to work a room and we like him.”

But Laurent doesn’t end where he began. Enter Thérèse Raquin.

“The whole thing about the play is what happens to people when they give in to their basest urges and just go with what they feel. The results can be catastrophic.”

And they are. This is no happily-ever-after show.

Just as Laurent is different at the end of the play from the man he was at its beginning, so Ryan imagines he will be different when ”Thérèse Raquin” ends its limited engagement. And that’s a good thing for this serious-minded actor.

“As an actor, you’re constantly adapting and changing and adjusting and experiencing each job that comes your way and trying to grow all the time and find something that makes you grow as a person within that job. As an actor, I get to go through something and experience something that I would never get to experience in my life. That’s thrilling, man.”

To prepare for the role, Ryan read Zola’s novel, of course. And boned up on 19th-century France, what it looked like and even how it smelled. But he also drew upon his early life in Wales.

“My town in Wales is not far from the river, not far from the beaches. It’s a small town, not unlike Laurent’s. Like Laurent, I don’t come from a particularly well-off family. The images I have in my head might not be specifically those of Laurent, but they are things I draw upon, use and link to.”

No surprise then that, during the run of “Thérèse,” he’s staying in Manhattan’s small town: the West Village.

“Fantastic,” he calls it. “I’m very lucky because I have a friend who’s putting me up here.”

And while he is more familiar with the city now than he was in 2009, when he came here for the first time with “Hamlet,” it’s his initial reaction that he’ll always remember.

“When I first came to New York, all the cast jumped off the plane, went to where we were staying in Midtown and then to the pub to have a drink. Kevin McNally, who played Claudius, said, ‘Let’s go to Times Square.’ We were all jet-lagged and had had one or two beers. We walked into the square. I looked up, and my head just spun. ‘What the hell is this?’ I thought.”

“Thérèse Raquin,” Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., 212.719.1300. Thru Jan. 3