Matthew Beard: A Star Is Born

Matthew Beard: A Star Is Born

Matthew Beard in Skylight on Broadway (©John Haynes)

When I spoke to actor Matthew Beard several months ago, he was just coming down from the high of all the Oscar buzz surrounding The Imitation Game, the 2014 film in which he played opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, and getting ready to gear up for his Broadway debut in the revival of David Hare's Skylight, acting opposite Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan.

"It's very good to be back doing something that slightly more resembles what you consider your job," he told me, "rather than going around from party to party and being on something that more resembles a presidential campaign than acting."

Well, little did he know then, as I warned him: Tony Award season was fast approaching, and Skylight was coming to Broadway trailing clouds of glory and high expectations. Sure enough, Skylight was nominated for seven Tonys, including one for Beard for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. And so, no sooner had the 26-year-old jumped off one merry-go-round than he was jumping onto another. His handsome face was everywhere, attending this or that pre-Tony function. That his performance as the 18-year-old son of Nighy's character was well-deserving of recognition is beyond question: His is one of the most memorable turns of the past season. And even though he lost the Tony to fellow Brit, Richard McCabe in The Audience, Beard left audiences clamoring for more in the future.

So, I can't let the guy leave New York—the show ends its limited engagement on June 21—without sharing some memorable moments from the interview, in which he is gracious about his co-stars but hard—very hard—on himself.

Francis Lewis: So, what's it like being Bill Nighy's son eight performances a week?

Matthew Beard: To play Bill Nighy’s son is great fun. He's indescribable but fascinating and hypnotic to watch onstage. Bill is always moving in this kind of dance he does across the stage. So I get to channel some of that energy. We made a decision early on that my character, Edward, would be like his father, Tom, because that raises some interesting questions about him. I was encouraged to channel a bit of what Bill was doing with Tom. And also, offstage, he has been incredible because he is so, so caring, so nice and is always looking out for everyone. He has a hatred of anything that is unjust and unfair. He doesn’t like to see people being treated badly at any level around him, whether it’s me or anyone working in the theater. He cares passionately about justice in that sense. It’s great to know he’s got your back all the time.

FL: Nighy is very loose onstage, as if he's ad-libbing a great deal of the script.

MB: He has this amazing ability to convince you he’s going off script, but he never is. That’s a fascinating thing to be able to do. I helped him learn his lines. My job was obviously to be looking at the script and check that he was word perfect. I would sort of be listening to him and was sure he wasn’t saying it right because it seemed too natural, too spontaneous, too as if this has just come from his mind at the moment. But sure enough, he was always word perfect. He is a huge fan of David Hare. They’re very old friends. And he loves David’s writing and will absolutely adhere to his words because he values him so highly. I’m sure many people think he’s just riffing, but he’s totally not. It’s just an incredible skill he has to take dialogue and make it seem that way.

FL: Carey Mulligan is the still presence onstage, a wonderful counterpoint to father and son. And while Bill prowls the stage in their first-act scene together, she goes about making dinner.

MB: She cooks a spaghetti Bolognese from scratch. It’s a very impressive thing to watch actually. In the previews, she took so many cuts on her hands [from cutting up onions]. Trying to act, do your lines, run through all the notes you’ve been given in previews and cook a Bolognese in front of a thousand people isn’t the easiest of tasks, but she manages to do it every night. But the great thing is I get to enjoy the Bolognese during intermission backstage. I have my dinner every night, so that's nice. Although there have been a few nights when after I’d eaten it, I’d see Carey and she’d say, "Oh, I know, I cut my hand really badly tonight. There’s blood all in the Bolognese." [laugh] Too late now!

FL: Skylight is the first stage work you've done after working extensively in TV and film in Britain. How would you compare the mediums?

MB: Everyone said to me, not having done a play before, it’s great you’re going to have your days free. Yes, on paper, you do have your days free. But when you have an impending appointment with a thousand people at 7 p.m., it weighs on you. You’d have to be made of something pretty special for it not to be in your thoughts. It gets to the point that you think: Oh, I don’t know if I should eat that for lunch because then I’m going to feel sleepy. Or I shouldn’t have that extra coffee because then my energies are going to be badly timed. Your whole day does sort of center around that point. Now, for me, at my stage in my life, that’s great having that point to work towards every day. What I’m not so good at, and I think other actors are much better at, is leaving a performance at the stage door and just going home or going out and being happy and going on with your life. I’m quite sort of self-flagellating, I’m quite punishing. I quite like to beat myself up about a performance all the way home. On a film set, if you don’t like the take you’ve done, you can say, "That was terrible, can I have another take?" And straight away you have another take. Onstage, if you say, "Oh, that was terrible, can I have another go?" Yeah, in 24 hours. So you go home, and you have to wait for 24 hours until you get to have another take, and that I find difficult to deal with. I just know I really enjoy this company, this text, this play …

FL: And being in New York?

MB: I walked off into Central Park with my camera and got lost and had no phone and sort of strolled around. That’s a great thing to be able to do. It’s very hard for me now to get lost in London. I like places where I’m able to just sort of vanish a bit. At the minute, New York is still that for me. I’ve done the touristy stuff. I’ve been to New York before, so I’ve done all the galleries and all that kind of stuff. I think there’s something about living here, though. There’s something about the pace of it. Something about opening your door and stepping out onto that sort of conveyor belt of a sidewalk where everyone’s moving incredibly fast and all with places to be. So it’s joining in with that flow and feeling a part of that flow that is incredibly exciting and that’s what I like here.

And New York obviously likes having Matthew Beard here. So, come back soon.

Skylight, John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200, thru June 21