Dressed in his sparkly Abanazar costume, having just wrapped up the Wimbledon pantomime photoshoot along with Jo Brand, Matthew Kelly and Oliver Thornton, David Bedella certainly looks the part. And the US actor, now living in the UK, knows what he is letting himself in for, because he appeared in Robinson Crusoe in Cardiff two years ago with panto stalwart Christopher Biggins and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin.
“It’s a bit like childbirth – you forget how hard it is and all you’re left with is the fun memories,” he says, laughing. “But I can remember those long days; two shows a day, you think it’s never going to end and you’re playing all the way into January – it’s hard work.”
Having said that, Bedella relishes the chance to play the Aladdin baddie, because he thinks it’s the most enjoyable role. “You’re the driving engine who gets all the turmoil happening,” he says. “And to hear the kids booing you and yelling is just so fun.”
Bedella is used to making the turmoil happen – he appeared in the controversial hit West End musical Jerry Springer – The Opera in 2003/5, which was famous for its power to pull in fundamentalist Christian protesters as well as the audiences and awards. And rather than scurry past the placards to the dressing room on a daily basis, Bedella says he tried to engage the protesters in a serious debate.
“I actually tried to draw them into discussion because there are two major points to be made with that show,” he begins. “The first is that it is art – it’s not real life. It’s a depiction of somebody’s perception of something. So you have to keep that separate, otherwise you would only play good characters in life. And, secondly, if they had seen it, they would have known that it wasn’t anybody saying ‘this is who these religious icons really are’. It was saying ‘this is what Jerry’s imagination is taking him to at the moment of his death, because of the crazy life he has led as the head of a media circus’. So if they had known any of that stuff from seeing it, they probably would have protested less.”
Although it didn’t affect his performance detrimentally – he received the Olivier award for best actor in a musical in 2004 – Bedella admits that he found the protestors’ stance to be highly frustrating. “I offered them free tickets, I offered to get them taken up as a group and sat in the balcony so that they could watch it and know what it was they were talking about, and always the answer was the same, ‘We don’t need to see it to know that it’s evil’,” he recalls. “And I thought, well, you can’t argue with ignorance like that – you just can’t.”
Bedella had an extremely packed schedule at the time, filming Holby City during the day and performing in the West End of an evening. “I do remember it being almost impossible to survive,” he says. “For months I was filming Holby during the day and then doing Jerry Springer at night, so I would get home and have an average of four to five hours sleep before the car would be picking me up at 5.30am to go back to the studio. It was a heck of an experience, but I told myself over and over I’m not going to complain, not once, because this is every actor’s dream to be in a hit TV show and a hit musical.”
Bedella also made an impact in the BBC medical drama as plastic surgeon Dr Carlos Fashola, whose smooth American accent and exotic good looks made him stand out from the other, sometimes wilting, English roses in the cast. “I was only in it for about a year and that was coming and going – two months on and then a month off – but I learned a lot. If someone is bleeding I now know how to stop it and I know how to close up a wound. And my suturing is pretty good,” he says, laughing.
“Getting to grips with the medical terminology was the worst and, because I was a surgeon, I had a lot of scenes in theatre and you have to splice medical jargon with everyday conversation.
“My day always began meeting with a real surgeon – they had one on set every day – and before I would even go to make-up or do the line readings, I would go in for half an hour and they would take me through the medical procedures step by step. So they were very accurate.
Although he was in Holby for a relatively short time, Bedella admits he can understand the attraction of working in such a series long term. “It’s wonderful work,” he says. “You get to play dramatic scenes, you never get bored because you’re playing something new every day and you become a family – it sounds cliched but you really do. And, you know, the money is always good in television, so it’s a wonderful life if you get into it. There were friends that were there for five years or longer and it’s understandable.”
Not one to loiter in the corridors of Holby himself, Bedella moved next to The Rocky Horror Show, playing the iconic role of Frank N Furter. His experience in that show means he is now fully equipped to handle a rowdy audience. “It was difficult at first to get used to people screaming at you through your entire performance but we really did meet in the middle,” he says. “When I started the show in 2006, I don’t want to sound rude, but the fans had a misconception that it was their show and they had the right to do whatever they wanted.
“But through months of working together, we came to an understanding that we would give them a better show if they had some give and take – that it wasn’t just a free for all and they had to be respectful at certain times and they had to be quiet at certain times. It came to a great point about a year into the run where it was a perfect orchestration of audience and actors on stage. At that point you love it – once you reach that, the show can really soar.”
Far from finding a reserved audience, such as Oxford or Richmond, a problem, Bedella says he enjoyed the quieter crowds. “To be honest it was a bit of a relief,” he says. “It gave you an opportunity to play the show artistically. You would focus on what the scene was about and what emotions you were trying to evoke, rather than, ‘How am I going to shut up the third person in the first row who’s completely taking control of my show right now?’.”
Preparing for the imminent pantomime chaos, he says he will enjoy performing close to home and his only real worry is an uncontrollable attack of the giggles. “I’ve lived in London for 12 years and I got here [to Wimbledon] in 40 minutes on the train, so it’s going to be really easy,” he says. “Last time I had to up camp and move to Wales for two months, so it’ll be great to be at home for Christmas – I’m really looking forward to it. So much of my work has involved characters who interact with the audience from time to time, I feel relatively skilled at it. The problem with Jo Brand is that she makes me laugh all the time so I don’t know that we’ll ever get a serious moment.”
Aladdin runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London, from December 6 to January 12
David Bedella hosts a live chat show with celebrities from film and television, David Bedella and Friends, on the second Thursday of every month at the Alleycat club, 4 Denmark Street, London.