INTERVIEW: James Dreyfus (Bette Series) reveals the challenge of taking on iconic role in Harvey
By CLAIRE WOODWARD
PUBLISHED: 19:50, Wed, Apr 1, 2015
Harvey, the 1950 film starring James Stewart as amiable Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit, is a classic.
Its previous stage incarnation also won a Pulitzer Prize.
So re-creating the iconic role is a major task, but one actor James Dreyfus has relished taking on.
Meeting James in the play’s west London rehearsal room, it’s clear why he was chosen for the role; as well as a comedy pedigree as long as your arm (Absolutely Fabulous, Gimme Gimme Gimme, The Thin Blue Line, the British premiere of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers), the 46-year old also radiates a good-natured, rather cherubic charm, but is of course aware that the new production carries a certain amout of pressure.
‘James Stewart was one of America’s most handsome, popular leading men, with a dry sense of humour and had done everything, so I looked at myself and thought ‘I have to find a different way to do this’,’ he explains.
‘Our play isn’t like the film, but the feelings are very much the same, about love and being a good person, and being true to yourself.
‘The play was revived on Broadway in 2012 with Jim Parsons who plays Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory playing Elwood, which I only found out before I started working on Harvey.
I didn’t know the film very well, so I watched it again and realised what an opportunity for me it was to play a part that was totally uncynical, happy, hopeful and full of love, and that was probably the biggest challenge for me!’ he laughs.
‘In the past, I have played somewhat waspish characters.’
You could say that, but James’ line in outrageous comic characters has made his name as one of our most successful comedy actors.
Daft, camp Constable Goody in Ben Elton’s The Thin Blue Line, and tortured, unsuccessful actor Tom in Jonathan Harvey’s Gimme Gimme Gimme (opposite Cathy Burke‘s Linda) are some of the most memorable sitcom characters , and James has much praise for the other Harvey in his life.
‘Jonathan is an unbelievably talented writer; he came up with all three series of Gimme Gimme Gimme by himself, a huge thing when you think about the American sitcoms.
When I worked on Bette Midler‘s show, it had a team of about 24 writers sat all round a table , and every time they came out of the writing room it was like a scent from Twelve Angry Men’.
James played Midler’s musical director Oscar in the short-lived series of 2000 -2001, after being hand-picked by Midler for the role after seeing him in the movie Notting Hill, where he played Hugh Grant’s useless bookshop assistant.
‘I’d love to go back to work in the States, but not one of those things where you go over for three months to look for work – I’m too old for that and couldn’t take the rejection.
‘Even though Bette only lasted a short while I had a great time, and don’t regret a bit of it – I got to work with Dolly Parton, John Lovitz, Tim Curry; all these great people every week, including a little Lindsay Lohan who played Bette’s daughter, and was 12 at the time.’
James’ co-star in Harvey is comedy royalty Maureen Lipman, who plays Elwood’s sister Veta, who tries to have the easygoing, kind hearted Elwood committed to a sanitorium, as she’s embarrassed by his invisible rabbit friend, Harvey.
‘She’s a joy to work with, she can bring something to any part,’ says James.
‘The whole cast has been getting on like a house on fire.’
Which is a good job, as acting opposite an invisible rabbit that only Elwood can see is an added pressure.
‘In rehearsals, the assistant stage manager has been going round with a tennis ball on the end of a stick so I know where the rabbit is supposed to be.’
Not a stranger to playing animals himself, James played the cat in Puss In Boots in Harrogate in the early Nineties with an actor who’s also done rather well for himself, albeit in a slightly different role – Graham Norton.
Graham played the panto baddie, and James recalls singing Run Rabbit Run on the panto stage, with Graham adding his own, ahem, colourful lyrics to the song from backstage.
The pair of them clearly had a riot. ‘We were sharing digs and we celebrated Christmas Day by trying to cook a turkey in a toaster oven.
‘He’s one of those few people who’s exactly the same offstage, so quick-witted and generous and genial.
He can lash out with his tongue, but never at the expense of another person.
He’s at the top of the heap, and I’m so glad.’
James has worked alongside lots of big names, but stardom was part of the Dreyfus family from early on.
His mother’s sister Anne (the girls were twins, and both models) married the singer Paul Anka, and James and his siblings would spend summers with the Anka’s at Lake Tahoe.
James also got to meet another classic American entertainment star when he starred in The Producers as the flamboyant Carmen Ghia.
‘At the first night at Drury Lane, I got to meet one of my heroines, Mel Brooks’ wife Ann Bancroft.
We had a chat on the press night, one of the most fabulous moments of my life.
She was very down-to-earth, very touchy-feely, grabbed my face and she was gorgeous, and so kind and unstarry.’
As James himself seems. Passionate about both human and animal rights (as you can see from his Twitter account, @DreyfusJames), he is far from the manic characters he played earlier in his career, so the role of the gentle and good Elwood is perfect for him now.
‘At 46, I am calmer and more comfortable with myself than I have ever been.’
Harvey is at London’s Theatre Royal until May 2. Tickets 0800 912 6959/lovetheatre.com