Actor Danny Mac’s Strictly success has led to a number of West End leading roles. He talks to Theo Bosanquet about being bullied at school, serving burgers in GBK and tackling a role made famous by Richard Gere
Mention Danny Mac to most people and the word ‘Strictly’ will likely follow close behind. That’s because his partnership with Oti Mabuse in the 2016 series was one of the most acclaimed in the show’s history, and he remains the highest-scoring male contestant.
But there is more to this Bromley-born, Bognor-raised actor than nailing a Samba on BBC prime time; he is fast developing into one of Theatreland’s most reliable leading men.
His latest role is Edward in the musical adaptation of Pretty Woman, first played by Richard Gere in the 1990 film. “When I first got approached for the role it was daunting,” Mac says. “I mean it’s Gere, no one else can take that. I just thought: ‘What can I bring to it, how can I make it mine?’” He adds that part of the challenge with any screen-to-stage show, particularly one of this profile, is that “people are expecting to see the film live, but we have a duty to give them something extra”.
The show, like the film, centres on the relationship between a wealthy businessman and a sex worker. As such, it has come in for no shortage of criticism regarding the storyline’s gender politics.
When it premiered on Broadway in 2018, the Guardian labelled it “deeply offensive”. Recently Sandi Toksvig, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, said in a Sunday Times interview: “I wonder if the all-male creative team that produced Pretty Woman have had much experience of being prostituted? If not that may explain why their dance moves leap so nimbly over the links with trafficking and abuse.”
When I first got approached for the role it was daunting – I mean it’s Gere, no one else can take that
Mac admits it is problematic, but points out the show is set 30 years ago. “I’m sure people will find fault in it, but that’s not a flaw of the piece, it’s a flaw of the time.”
He is also keen to emphasise that director Jerry Mitchell and the rest of the creative team have worked hard to “empower” the character of Vivian, portrayed on screen by Julia Roberts and in the West End by Aimie Atkinson. And he suggests that the closer age gap between himself and Atkinson – they are both in their 30s – makes it less problematic than the screen relationship. “It means the only thing that separates us are our circumstances – she doesn’t need to be saved by him.”
The show has been reworked since its Broadway premiere, and now includes Roy Orbison’s iconic title song, which was originally omitted. The other numbers – and there are more than 20 of them – are written by Canadian pop star Bryan Adams and his songwriting partner Jim Vallance. Titles include Luckiest Girl in the World, Never Give Up on a Dream and Together Forever.
“They’re all fantastic songs,” says Mac. “He knows how to write songs that you think you already know. They really lift those key moments in the show.”
Although the story stays faithful to the film, several minor characters have been embellished, notably the homeless man, who appears only briefly on screen and in the stage version morphs into Mr Thompson at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Mitchell described him in an interview as a “fairy godfather” character. “It’s really clever how he links everyone together,” says Mac, “and he gets some really great songs as well – it’s a real standout performance from Bob [Harms]”.
As with any Mitchell-helmed production it requires performers with ‘triple threat’ capabilities, and Mac certainly has those. He made his debut as a 10-year-old playing Gavroche in a production of Les Misérables in Southampton, after getting an audition via his weekend drama club. But far from being a “stagey” kid he says he was a shy child, who was kept firmly grounded by his family. He ascribes much of his success to having parents who encouraged, but never forced, his talents.
The appearance in Les Mis led to bullying at school, where he had kept his involvement in acting a secret. He subsequently left the drama club and started focusing on football, until at 16 he realised his aspirations to be a goalkeeper were limited by his average height.
So drama came back into focus as he started to “accept himself”. He moved away from the school and studied acting at Chichester College, where he was told on his first day “none of you will make it”, which only fuelled his will to succeed. “I worked my backside off. I just got stuck in and loved every minute of it.”
At 18, he auditioned for three drama schools and was offered two scholarships, opting for Arts Educational Schools London in Chiswick, London. After graduating he served his professional apprenticeship in the ensemble of Wicked for nearly two years, before leaving to join the cast of Hollyoaks in 2011, making his debut as Mark ‘Dodger’ Savage by stripping down to his boxers.
It’s ironic that he became so heavily associated with light entertainment considering as a child he “hated cheese”, preferring “gritty dramas” and aspiring to be a character actor.
Since leaving the soap – which he affectionately calls “Oaks” – he had a brief quiet period before Strictly came knocking. Did it change his career? “It made my profile match my cast type, in that it helped me to get leading roles.” Since then he has cemented this status in productions including On the Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2017 and a UK tour of Sunset Boulevard, which won him a Manchester Theatre Award.
The latter role helped him to realise that leading men don’t always have to be archetypes. “Sunset Boulevard was a game-changer for me, because although Joe [Gillis] is a leading man and in a sense a romantic lead, he is still troubled, confused and manipulative. I want to find the darkness in every character – it’s all the stuff we don’t see, that we suppress, that makes us who we are.”
I want to find the darkness in every character – it’s all the stuff we don’t see, that we suppress, that makes us who we are
He never takes his success for granted, he says, and still finds it hard to fully identify as a West End leading man in a bracket with the likes of Hadley Fraser, Michael Xavier and Oliver Tompsett, whom he once served burgers in Gourmet Burger Kitchen before joining him in the cast of Wicked. “I’ll always have respect for my peers, I’ll never stop putting people on a pedestal. It keeps you grounded.”
Theatre is now a central part of his life, not least because his wife is fellow musical theatre actor Carley Stenson – they met when she was starring in Legally Blonde and he was filming Hollyoaks. They now plan their schedules carefully to ensure they make time for each other alongside their work. “We never think: ‘I’m going to do this because it’s the best thing for me,’ it’s about asking: does this work for us?”
He admits they’ve both been so busy – Stenson recently finished a two-year stint as Fantine in Les Mis – that they haven’t had time to plan what he terms a “safety net” career, a reminder that even West End leads are never able to completely relax about their prospects. But while the offers are coming in thick and fast that doesn’t seem to be an urgent concern.
Pretty Woman is at the Piccadilly Theatre, London until January 2, 2021. Details: thepiccadillytheatre.com