HE’S landed his dream role on the stage in The King’s Speech, now all Jason Donovan wants is for audiences to come and see it
JASON Donovan is a very happy man today. He’s bouncier than Skippy and perkier than Sir Les Patterson in a Thai rub-and-tug shop. He’s landed the role he’s been dreaming of his whole career and if there’s one thing he wants to get over in this interview, it’s “come and see the show”.
The show in question is the stage production of the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, in which Donovan takes a starring role as Lionel Logue, the upstart Aussie speech therapist who helps the future George VI to overcome his stammer. Donovan would love to see the tour, which will take the cast round 14 UK theatres over six months and comes to Glasgow next week and Edinburgh in May, lead to a West End run.
“I have waited a lifetime for a part like this,” he says. “It’s weighty, it’s fun, it’s positive, it’s eccentric, it’s Australian, it’s everything. It’s a really wonderful piece to be part of. It’s been a difficult birth because the bar is high, but it’s such a great piece, I want to make it great.”
Donovan, 46, stars opposite Mr Selfridge’s Raymond Coulthard as George VI, and it does seem as if the role of antipodean interloper was tailor-made for the actor and singer. According to reviews, Donovan is making it his own, with The Stage noting he “revels in the role”.
This is high praise indeed because Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are a hard act to follow. The 2010 film became the most successful independent British production ever at the UK box office and banked £250 million worldwide, as well as carrying off Oscars for best picture, best actor and best director.
No pressure then.
“I’m enjoying it,” says Donovan in his relaxed, mellow, Melbourne accent. “I have really embraced this role and there’s nothing in this play that I feel I can’t do. I have done a lot of musicals and there’s always that song you don’t enjoy singing or that note you’re building up to every night. I enjoy singing, but that’s fear… It’s not that I don’t get nervous, I do, but I’m not locking myself in the dressing room.
“With this role I wanted to be there from the point go. It’s empowering and I think I’ve got the rhythm of the character. Will it go to the West End? That’s the million-dollar question. I’m aware people like the show and I believe some of the reviews have been good. It’s got a great chance and I would like to show it off. So come and see it!”
Is it any easier for Donovan to play the part, given he has the accent nailed already?
“Well, it’s probably a bit easier to understand the psychology of the character if they’re from somewhere you know, but I’m an actor and performer and you’re used to taking on different roles. It’s more the nuances of the character that matter. Logue’s father wanted him to be a doctor but he couldn’t face cutting flesh. He was a good talker, though, and started helping the First World War soldiers get over their disabilities through speech therapy. That became his vocation, but he really wanted to be an actor and it was a great Australian pilgrimage for him to come to mother England to realise his ambitions.”
A bit like Donovan, who came to launch his music and stage career, I suggest. “No, it was never the great Australian pilgrimage for me because I had 20 million people asking me to come over. I came over on a red carpet. I was never a struggling actor. If anything I was trying to avoid the whole media frenzy while at the same time slightly cash in on it,” he says.
Today’s Donovan is bright-eyed and bouncy-tailed, a father of three who makes his living from musical theatre, acting and a Sunday radio show of 1980s hits for Heart FM.
It’s a far cry from the struggling Donovan of a few years ago who fell into what he has called a “black hole” of addiction. It takes some doing to be the biggest party animal at Kate Moss’s 21st at the Viper Room in Los Angeles back in 1995, but Donovan managed it by suffering a cocaine-induced seizure. It didn’t put him off though and his drug use continued.
Everything had started out well for Donovan, the Melbourne-born son of actor Terence Donovan and Sue McIntosh. He kicked off his acting career at 11 in a daytime drama, Skyways, then won the part of teenage heartthrob Scott Robinson in Aussie hit soap Neighbours straight out of school in 1986. He could do no wrong as 20 million viewers in the UK alone tuned in to watch his romance with grease monkey Charlene, real-life girlfriend Kylie Minogue, culminate in an on-screen wedding.
“I never came into the business to be famous but I got a buzz from Neighbours because I wanted to be an actor. I liked the idea of being on a set and mixing with older and younger people. I don’t believe in luck. I think you create your own, but I was in the right place with the right talents at the right time. Soaps are a wonderful place to launch careers and train. Russell Crowe was in Neighbours, so was Guy Pearce. It didn’t used to be cool, but I think that’s changed now.”
As soap’s golden boy, the offers rolled in and his pop career took off when his 1988 duet with Kylie, Especially For You, topped the UK charts, the first of four No 1 singles for Donovan. But Minogue left him for Michael Hutchence and Donovan left for Blighty and Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Between 1988 and 1992, Donovan garnered 16 Top 40 hit singles in the UK and two albums.
“There was an opportunity here. When you make a wave in Australia it doesn’t spread so far, but here it does. There was a viewing audience of 20 million and it would have been crazy not to have capitalised on that so I took a trip over. Now I’ve spent more of my life in Britain than I have in Oz. When you have family in school, it’s difficult to see it any other way, but I love it here and I think living here has helped me achieve things. People in Australia work to live but in this country you live to work. I’m not saying one’s better, and I was lucky to grow up in Australia. It’s a wonderful country but our geographical position is our greatest asset and worst enemy.”
And Kylie, we’ve got to ask. Does he see her these days at all?
“I see her professionally occasionally, but not socially. We’re just different people, but when we do see each other it’s warm and happy, friendly. We all have exes but I want to show respect to my wife. It’s not something either I or Kylie think too hard about but there’s goodwill both ways,” he says.
Another woman from the past that Donovan doesn’t see is his mother. His parents split up when he was small and his father was awarded custody, but he declines to talk about her other than to say: “We don’t have contact. It’s something I wouldn’t discuss. You would have to chat to her about it.”
Has his parents’ divorce affected his view of marriage and family life? “Well, I’m not divorced, so that probably answers your question,” he says. “And I didn’t get married without knowing it would work. We were together for seven years before we got married. It’s not always perfect, but not many marriages are. I’d like to spend more time at home, but in my business if you don’t travel you don’t move forward. I have a lot of respect for people in soaps but I don’t want to be Ken Barlow stuck in a soap for 30 years. I could have stayed in Australia and done that.”
Music led back to the theatre for Donovan and the lead in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, with the single from the show, Any Dream Will Do, reaching No 1 in 1991.
Despite a fan backlash when his decision to successfully sue The Face magazine for suggesting he was gay backfired and he was accused of homophobia, the work kept coming and musicals piled up with lead roles in the West End with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, War Of The Worlds, The Sound Of Music and Sweeney Todd.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
While he was playing the lead role of Dr Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, he met stage manager Angela Malloch, who was to become his wife. When she became pregnant with their first child, she gave him the ultimatum that led to the end of his drug abuse. The couple now have three children – Jemma, 14, Zach, 13, and Molly, three.
“I’m not a preacher but it wasn’t what I wanted to do any more. I created a new story. I wanted to change and saw a moment when that was possible, and took it. A lot of people don’t get that moment unfortunately. You have to have other passions. My children are important. I replaced drugs with other things. But I love a glass of wine. Or a bottle of red,” he laughs.
Invited to join I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! in 2006, he came third after winner Matt Willis and Myleene Klass and, once out of the jungle, promptly released a greatest hits album. “I loved that show and it was my own backyard. It’s pantomime really but it was a good leg up for my career.”
Would he do it again? “For the right money, yes.”
Then it was dust off the bugs and get back on stage in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert in 2009. When he played the role of drag queen Mitzi, on a transgender road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs, Donovan was unaware he was a descendant of the pioneer William Cox, who built the first road across Australia’s Blue Mountains. It was the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 that supplied the family history.
“People like him are why Australia is Australia,” says Donovan. “A combination of captains and convicts. That’s why we are the wonderful nation we are. We are all immigrants except for the Aboriginals. My mother’s side were a mixture of Jewish immigrants from London’s East End and dad’s side were English and Irish. It’s a meritocracy,” he says.
Donovan might be a fan of a meritocracy but he’s also a fan of monarchy and Britain’s royal family, a bit like speech therapist Logue. “I think it provides stability. I don’t see a better system. Otherwise what have you got? Look at the US, they’ve got Oprah.”
When the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing came calling in 2011, he was in. “Strictly is far more enriching an experience than Celebrity. You come out with a skill. I’d never had formal dance training so it was facing up to a fear for me; going out there in front of 11 million people. But you get out what you put in.”
As ever Donovan put a lot in and when he came out in third place, capitalised on the attention with another album of covers, Sign Of Your Love, the following year. Now the versatile performer is back on stage with The King’s Speech. “I’m an actor that sings, not a singer that acts. I have to do a bit of Shakespeare in The King’s Speech, a bit of Caliban’s speech, and I love that.
Would he like to do some Shakespeare? “If that came my way, as long as I could bring something to it, my book is open,” he says. “I’m not someone who is searching for the ultimate role. I don’t have an agenda. Things come along and I do them. There are no guarantees as an actor. In my mind it was always a hit and miss business. One minute I’m singing pop songs, the next I’m in a musical, the next I’m doing a radio show for Heart FM. It’s great. Happy days.”