Harry Shearer, veteran actor and voice of many characters from The Simpsons, tells Francine Wolfisz about his West End stage debut in Daytona
American-Jewish actor Harry Shearer is well-known for providing character voices for The Simpsons, as well as co-creating and starring in the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. The multi-talented entertainer, who began his career as a child actor appearing in The Jack Benny Program, is now set to make his West End stage debut.
Originally performed last year at The Park Theatre, Shearer reprises his role as Joe in Daytona opposite Maureen Lipman and Oliver Cotton at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, which runs from 30 June.
Jewish News: Together with Maureen Lipman, who is reprising her role as Elli, you represent a loving (and bickering!) Jewish couple from New York. Do Elli and Joe remind you of anyone from your own Jewish upbringing? How do you bring across their Jewishness on stage?
Harry Shearer: I think the writing does it for us. Oliver Cotton has always perceived them as loving through the bickering, or bickering as an expression of the loving. Interestingly, there’s zero reference in the play to temple or rabbis, so he seems to be presenting them as what we in America, at least, call “cultural Jews”. Although I think Joe would say, as my mom would, when the Nazis come around, they’re not interested in how often you go to shul.
JN: Joe and Elli love ballroom dancing – are you a fan of dancing off stage and we will see you next on Strictly Come Dancing?
HS: You will not. Carve that in stone. Put it in neon above Piccadilly. Na Gonna Happen. I’m not a fan of dancing, although I did see Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words a couple of years ago, and it totally floored me.
JN: What was it about Daytona that attracted you to the role?
HS: The characters are brilliantly observed and drawn and the story is potent and real. And it’s about the difference between passion and love, and about how traumas and horrible behavioru echo inexorably down through the years. Fun stuff.
JN: In what ways will the show hopefully resonate with audiences?
HS: Well it is of course up to them, but audiences in our first run at the Park Theatre invariably told us (at the bar afterwards) that they were still thinking about the characters, about what they were going to do next, after the play’s ending. So I conclude that it struck a powerful chord with them. I hope it does the same at Haymarket.
JN: Away from the stage you are known for your voiceover work on The Simpsons, which has been renewed for a 26th season. Has the enduring popularity of The Simpsons surprised you and why has it been such a hit?
HS: It has surprised anyone who’s not lying. When we started, the Fox network didn’t have much of a long-term prognosis, let alone a cartoon show on that network. Frankly, I think its vast international success over decades has been due to one thing: exemplary acting.
JN: You are known for providing the voice of Mr Burns, Principle Skinner, Ned Flanders and Kent Brockman among others. Do you have a particular favourite?
HS: Oh, I like ‘em all, but C.M. Burns is my fave, because, as an evil dude, he doesn’t get caught up in trying to dilute his evil one whit.
JN: This year also marks 30 years since This Is Spinal Tap, which you co-created, co-wrote and co-starred in. Do you think it could ever be recreated with a mock band today, or did it capture a very specific moment in time during the 80s?
HS: I think creatively it could be done. Given the huge and repeated obstacles we had to overcome to get it made back then, somebody trying it now would have to replicate our amazing luck.
JN: What other projects do you have in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
HS: I have a musical comedy, which I co-created with Tom Leopold, about the life of J Edgar Hoover called Here Comes J. Edgar! It’s a lightly fictionalized story of his fascinating life—he started much of what we take for granted today, like intrusive government surveillance— seen through the prism of his lifelong love story for his aide, Clyde (really). My current plan is to try to get it made as a film, since I’ve noticed that original stage musicals now only get made if they’re based on old films. So I’ll make the film, and then let someone else come along and make the musical.
Daytona runs from 30 June to 23 August at Theatre Royal Haymarket, Suffolk Street, London. Details and tickets: 0207 930 8800 or www.trh.co.uk