Interview: Gentleman Jack’s Michael Xavier

PUBLISHED: 10:25 08 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:25 08 July 2019

Michael Xavier (photo: MUG photography)

Michael Xavier (photo: MUG photography)

MUG photography

A brave move from a career in musicals has rewarded Hitchin new boy Michael Xavier with roles in two major TV series. He discusses the two different worlds, working with greats and his new found love of Herts

Michael Xavier has an unstoppable energy and zest for life. When you look at his CV - a jaw-dropping, toe-tapping, jazz dazzling list of musicals, you might think that if it's all working so well, why not carry on doing more of the same?

But Michael, who has enjoyed floating on a lilo in his friend Glenn Close's New York swimming pool, is not one to lie back and settle for an easy life. After a zippy run on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close he segued (or rather soft shoe shuffled) into another musical, Prince of Broadway. He returned to Britain at the end of 2017, rave reviews ringing in his ears, only to find that things were a little quieter than expected.

When we meet at the Groundworks café in his new hometown of Hitchin, I ask him about how dealing with 'the quietest time' has led him to explore new areas of work. Michael says the advice from his new agent, Gavin Denton-Jones, was to take a year out of stage work and do something that he had been wanting to do for a while: have a go at TV and film work. Not working, and even turning down some stage work, was quite a challenge.

As John Wilkes Booth in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory (photo: Darren Bell Photography)As John Wilkes Booth in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory (photo: Darren Bell Photography)

'It is horrible and hard for anyone,' says the 41-year-old. 'Using up all of your savings to hang around and wait for the work. That is probably the hardest thing to do as an actor.'

It was a strategy, however, that paid off. What has followed, and in a remarkably short space of time, is an auspicious start to a new career in film and TV. He's just been in a film: Paris, Wine and Romance; he's appearing as Christopher Miles in James Spader's NBC TV crime drama The Blacklist, and also in Gentleman Jack, the current BBC One flagship Sunday night drama based on the story of the 19th century Yorkshire industrialist Anne Lister, described as a 'gender-nonconforming entrepreneur' on her blue plaque. It's directed and produced by Sally Wainwright and seems to have successfully filled the hole left by Jed Mercurio's Line of Duty. A second series of Gentleman Jack is already being talked about.

Sitting on the pavement outside the café in the sun, opposite St Mary's church, it reminds me of the time not so long ago when I watched scenes of Doctor Foster with Suranne Jones being filmed in neighbouring Market Place.

Michael with Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway (photo: Richard Hubert-Smith)Michael with Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway (photo: Richard Hubert-Smith)

Was it something she said about Hitchin that made him want to move here?

'We did talk about it,' says Michael, laughing, who moved to the town in February this year with his fiancée Carly who works as assistant head of wardrobe on Aladdin at Prince Edward Theatre in London. They're getting married next August.

'We were actually in the middle of buying our house when I was filming Gentleman Jack with Suranne, and obviously in between takes you get time to sit and chat. She spent a lot of time here and said that it was really gorgeous. She loved it here.'

And is Suranne really gorgeous to work with, or is she a bit of a diva?

He laughs again. 'You do wonder when you first go on set with someone. You don't want to cross the line too much. You never know.'

Hosting the Olivier Awards with Myleene KlassHosting the Olivier Awards with Myleene Klass

So how was she? 'She was absolutely adorable. We just sat and chatted like old friends. She's a lovely person and incredibly talented.'

And was she right about his new home town?

'I love the vibe of Hitchin, the whole feel of it. It's calm but vibrant.'

This is starting to sound like we are on Location, Location, Location, so it's time to talk more about Halifax, and Gentleman Jack.

At the time of writing, Michael has yet to appear in the series, but the BBC sent me a sneak preview. On screen he looks very different. In his first scene with Suranne Jones, he's sporting splendid sideburns and glossy curls. Screen work suits him.

Poster for West End production of The Pajama GamePoster for West End production of The Pajama Game

Being relatively new to screen, Michael tells me that some things are new and surprising. On his first day of filming, he was in his trailer, running through his lines; suited and booted and ready to go. But then he found out that they weren't actually going to have time to shoot his scene that day, and could he come back in a couple of weeks?

Despite the challenges, he clearly loves the newness of screen work, but is he missing the stage, and how do the two compare?

'It's a challenge but in a different way. On stage it's the idea that you don't get another take. When you've got a live audience, the performance you give is what they get. It's thrilling and there's nothing like it. I'm getting goose bumps now just talking about it.'

Michael has performed in so many musicals, and often as the lead, that it's hard to know where to start. Does he have a personal favourite?

'I used to say Love Story. It was a brand new show at the Minerva in Chichester. Emma Williams played the other lead; Rachel Kavanaugh was the director. It was just so beautifully crafted. It was very intimate at the Minerva with the audience on three sides. When the lights came up at the end you'd see a range of different people from all walks of life and ages, all in floods of tears.' He pauses for a moment. 'That's what theatre should do. That sense of movement is what art should do. That's what I'm in it for.'

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in the BBC One series Gentleman Jack (photo: Jay Brooks BBC/Lookout Point/HBO)Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in the BBC One series Gentleman Jack (photo: Jay Brooks BBC/Lookout Point/HBO)

So what replaced Love Story?

'Sunset. That has to be the highlight of my career now. Not only was it incredible having a 57-piece orchestra, but working with Glenn was just a dream.'

So she wasn't a diva?

He laughs again. 'We all know Glenn as these scary characters. You come in for day one of rehearsal and you're thinking.

"Oh my God, if she hates me, this is going to be the worst experience of my life".'

The reality was that they did a five-week run at the London Coliseum and then it transferred to Broadway with director Lonny Price.

'It was after the 'sitzprobe' - that's the first time you sing with the orchestra in rehearsals - when the producers came up to Glenn and said, "Well, we have to take this to Broadway", and Glenn put her arm around me and said "I'm not going without him".'

They've been friends ever since.

'It's lovely that we've been able to retain that friendship,' says Michael. He tells me that Carly went out to live with him for a while when he was working in New York and that Glenn Close would ask her PA to open up her house an hour out of the city so that they could use it at weekends while she was away.

'I remember lying on a lilo floating around in Glenn Close's swimming pool reading a book, thinking, "This is the weirdest thing ever! How did this come to be?".'

Michael was born in Liverpool and he first sang in the choir at school. The family then moved to Cheshire when he was 12, and it was there, he remembers, that he first discovered acting and performing. He was good at sport and played a lot of football. But when he got bronchitis he had to stop playing and a friend encouraged him to audition for the school production of Grease. It was the beginning.

'I am so grateful to Knutsford High school and to my drama teacher who encouraged me: Helen Mayne. She saw something in me and helped me to get into the amateur dramatics group Scamps in Alderley Edge. The minute I started there I thought: "This is it. This is what I want to do".'

He went on to study acting at Manchester Metropolitan University, moved to London and then while working at Ticket Master by day and in the bar at Porters English Restaurant in Covent Garden by night, he got his first job in Pageant at the King's Head in Islington, which later transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre.

But it was attending an open audition for Miss Saigon - which resulted in him being cast as Chris - that allowed him to give up the day job.

Think of a musical, and Michael will probably have been in it, and more than likely in the lead role. Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Sid in the Pajama Game, the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods. And so many more.

'One great thing about my career so far is that I've always had fun,' Michael beams. 'I'm so grateful.'

More fun is already being had with a new and secret project. 'I can't talk about it: I'm NDA'd up to the hilt.' Non-disclosure agreement acknowledged, Michael does let on that it's well known and he's playing a great role.

One of the things that is most important to him is that he wants to be 'learning, always learning'. A truth which also fuels the energy for his other major occupation: running a singing, acting and dance school that takes place every Sunday in Shaftesbury Avenue.

It's called MX Masterclass, and if you know anyone between the age of 10 and 25 - with theatrical ambition and talent - it's worth having a look at the website. You have to audition, and students travel from all over the country, and some from as far as Portugual, Poland and Guernsey, to attend the Sunday class. Carly helps him, and they've recently launched MX Dance too.

How does he fit it all in?

'I hire a team of brilliant teachers who I've handpicked. People who are currently in the industry and can give young people the best level of training.'

He's there as much as he can be, and recently flew back from a secret location where he's filming the new and secret project to be at the Sunday school. In addition to teaching the students musical theatre, Michael is keen to pass on many of the things he's learned along the way about the vagaries of the industry.

'It's about learning to be empathetic. And learning how you need to behave. What do you need to do when you're trying to sustain an eight-show week? Be careful what you put on social media. Don't swear. Don't be that kind of person.

'You can be as talented as anything, but if you're difficult, that's going to cause problems. Hopefully I'm encouraging a generation of nice people to work with.'

Michael is clearly a lovely person to work with and a brilliant mentor and teacher. I have a hunch that we'll be seeing a lot more of him on screen. Check him out in Gentleman Jack. And you might just spot him in Hitchin, sans sideburns.

Quick guide to Michael Xavier

Hitchin's award-winning actor Michael Xavier has spent 20 years honing his craft in musical theatre and has played leads in more than 20 West End musicals. He won a Broadway World Award for his role as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close, and has been nominated twice for an Olivier Award. He's currently appearing as Dr Steph Belcombe in the BBC Sunday night drama Gentleman Jack alongside Suranne Jones.

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