Mathew Horne: ‘Me and James Corden went through a tough time, but we got through it’
By his own admission, Mathew Horne isn’t a big sleeper. By the time most of have arisen, bleary-eyed, he’s often been awake for several hours, getting things done.
There’s a caffeine-fuelled energy about him when we meet at 9am on a Thursday morning. He expectantly flicks the pencil he’s holding when I enter the room between his fingers. His smile is quick, his laughs sudden. The actor might share a face with his best-known character – the affably bewildered Gavin Shipman in the hit TV comedy Gavin and Stacey – but, somehow surprisingly, that’s about it.
That’s arguably a testament to the 38-year-old actor’s mastery of playing the endearing everyman on screen during his career. Horne’s been the comic foil to James Corden’s wisecracking Smithy in Gavin and Stacey, and to the deliciously foul-mouthed Nan (as her hapless grandson) in The Catherine Tate Show. It’s a pivotal, sometimes under-appreciated talent. His skill as a ‘reactor’ is often what lands a joke. Horne smiles. “It’s what I’ve been hired for – a lot.” It’s about being “a generous actor,” he says. “If you make somebody else funnier,” he continues, “you reap the benefits, because the whole thing is funny.”
The Catherine Tate Show thrust Horne into the public eye, after he impressed Tate with his comedy chops at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of a comic duo with actor-writer Bruce Mackinnon, a friend from Manchester University’s drama course. Tate offered him a role in her sketch show in 2004, which proved to be Horne’s gateway into TV-land. It led to a part written especially for him in black comedy Teachers, to some Agatha Christie suspiciousness in ITV’s Miss Marple, and to Gavin and Stacey. With Corden, he’s also co-written a sketch show, co-hosted the 2009 Brit Awards and co-starred in a film.
However, since stepping into the shoes of the eponymous sociopath in Nick Bagnall’s West End revival of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, in 2009, where he acted alongside Imelda Staunton, Horne has also been forging onwards in earnest with his stage career.
Moliere and mechanics
We’re meeting because of his latest theatrical foray – one, it transpires, that circles back to Tate. He’s playing the man-servant Valere, opposite Griff Rhys Jones’ tight-fisted Harpagon, in a new production of Moliere’s bawdy 17th-century comedy The Miser. The play has been freely adapted by Sean Foley, who directed Horne in 2016’s touring The Catherine Tate Show Live. Horne first heard about The Miser – which Foley is directing, after adapting it with regular collaborator Phil Porter – when the director excitedly told him about it over lunch during The Catherine Tate Show Live rehearsals.
“He got up and just started loosely playing all the characters,” recalls Horne, with a grin. “It was really making me laugh. It sounded like a really interesting, funny and exciting project.”
After what Horne makes sound like a bashful courtship (he didn’t want to ask to be in Foley’s next project while they were still rehearsing The Catherine Tate Show Live), Foley turned up at his dressing room. At first, Horne feared he was in trouble. “We’d just done the tech, and techs are hard. I thought I’d dropped the ball,” he explains. But Foley sat down and said, “ ‘I was just wondering what you were doing in January?’ ” He then offered him Valere.
Now well into rehearsals and, as instructed, already off book, Horne has discovered that The Miser – which he hadn’t known before – is “a fantastically brilliant comedy. It’s plotted so neatly, it’s almost perfect in terms of a comic play”. For someone so interested in the mechanics and dynamics of comedy, “that’s a great place to work from”. His character has a pivotal role in terms of the plot, he says, so Horne has been focusing, “as any actor should, approaching this play”, on storytelling.
Nonetheless, whereas Horne had seized the chance to perform in Entertaining Mr Sloane because he’d been a fan of Orton since university, it’s clear that Foley was the major hook here. The pair had had dealings a few years ago, about Horne potentially taking over a role in Foley’s Jeeves and Wooster. While that never happened, “I’d seen his work and I’d seen his rise through the West End,” says Horne. He’s enthusiastic about Foley’s “comedic nous”, singular vision and process as a director. “He’s meticulously cast The Miser specifically for these people to bring more material.”
Collaboration is important to Horne. Praising his cast mates – “we’re a close company already” – he reveals, admiringly, that Foley isn’t precious about his script for The Miser. “He’s excited about new ideas and additions,” he enthuses. Horne, a big fan of physical comedy, is relishing Foley’s skill with slapstick. There’s a sword fight, with “just another layer on it” he’s enjoying rehearsing. “It’s exciting working that way,” Horne says. “It’s been like adding layers rather than… peeling an onion.” He laughs at his escaping metaphor.
Tellingly, Laurel and Hardy are Horne’s slapstick heroes. The tradition of the comic double act has been an actively important part of his career, from Mackinnon through to Corden.
Part of the reason, explains Horne, is also what so engages him about Foley’s collaborative style. “I’m not precious about my work,” he says. “I actively encourage notes and other ideas. I see them as positive and constructive.” He pauses. “Also, there’s just that insecurity that your work is not enough. It’s good to have someone to be a sounding board.”
Horne’s replies often end in these moments of exposing honesty. He can laugh at himself, but he holds himself to a high standard. He takes what he does seriously, which entails some fairly blunt self-critique when discussing his development as a stage actor.
Looking back at Entertaining Mr Sloane, he says: “It probably wasn’t a good enough performance. For Charley’s Aunt [which he appeared in subsequently at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012], I learned a lot from Sloane.” He’s quick to smile, but (you suspect) very hard on his work.
It makes sense, then, when Horne says he’s “much more interested in actors that develop and grow than in those who just go, ‘Here I am – I’m brilliant and I don’t need to do anything else.’ ”
That urge to keep diversifying is obviously something he also feels. He’s incredibly proud of Gavin and Stacey – “it’s more than 10 years since we started shooting that, but the response I get from the public is as if it were yesterday,” he says – and grateful for its impact on his career. But, he adds, while “it’s a wonderful thing, it can tie you a bit as well”.
Horne acknowledges that Gavin and Stacey’s enduring popularity is useful for PR and posters, to promote projects such as The Miser, “where the work itself allows me to explore other things.”
In general – and in contrast to TV, where he says “it’s absolutely true” that he tends to be offered the same type of role – theatre grants him more freedom. He points to The Pride, which Jamie Lloyd directed at Trafalgar Studios in 2013. “I played three distinctively different characters,” Horne says. These ranged from a rent boy to a psychiatrist. “On telly, I would not necessarily have been allowed to do that.”
Mathew Horne’s top tips for aspiring actors
I don’t especially feel in a position to be doling out tips. However, as broad as it seems: listening solves most problems in the theatre, both on and off stage.
Partly, Horne attributes this to “the fact that TV, film and theatre are such different worlds”. He recognises there’s a crossover, but “the type of people who go to the theatre – who are passionate about it – are not necessarily the same audience that watch the telly.” Basically, there isn’t the same expectation of seeing Gavin.
The TV role he’s most proud of is Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, in BBC’s Boy George biopic Worried About the Boy (2010). “That was my most enjoyable job, and my biggest challenge as an actor,” he reflects, “playing somebody who was still alive. I mean, Boy George didn’t like it very much. But I think I did Jon justice”.
Horne’s enjoyment of doing Worried About the Boy goes hand in hand with his memories of its “really brilliant director”, Julian Jarrold. “I think we all really loved him,” he says. Establishing creative relationships is key – alongside being able to explore the work. This, as much as anything, distinguishes theatre for him. “On telly, you don’t get any rehearsal time – even more so nowadays,” he says. “You learn your lines, you go through it once, block it once – in three or four minutes – and then they shoot.”
When he looks back over his career, Horne reflects that making his name on TV was – in some undeniably great ways, thanks to The Catherine Tate Show – the luck of the draw. “I’d started acting on the stage, doing plays at university,” he says. “And, yeah, TV just happened to me. Theatre was always something I wanted to do. In many ways, I prefer it.”
Mathew Horne on…
… live performance
There’s that old cliche that theatre is instant, and you get an instant reaction. There’s an actress in The Miser who has never done any theatre and has certainly never played a 700-seater like the Garrick. She asked me: “Well, how will it be?” And I said: “It’s different every night.” There are the obvious reasons – there’ll be different people in and the actors will be in different moods. But the biggest thing you find is that the air changes. The temperature changes. How you sound – and how other actors sound – changes. And, of course, that happens every night. “With a lot of people there,” I told her, “it’ll almost be like you’re performing a different show.”
When it comes to a stage production, Horne revels in the weeks of rehearsal, in having “the time to think about it”. It’s not part of The Miser’s process, but he loves table work. “I feel like I’m back at school,” he enthuses, “learning and investigating something – a story, a piece, a character, whatever. And you don’t get that on TV.” At this point, he’s leaning forward in his chair. The buzz he gets from preparing for a live audience is obvious.
Horne’s thrill at treading the boards in a comedy play has, in some ways, brought him back to where he started as a student, cutting his teeth doing stand-up gigs on the Manchester, London and Edinburgh comedy circuits. He didn’t go to drama school – that was his training. It’s “that instant reaction,” he says, explaining the enduring appeal of doing live performance. “The excitement of a different audience every night, and how it’ll go down, is completely unquantifiable.”
Beyond the backlash
The roar of the crowd and the immediacy of the relationship between performer and audience seem like a more comfortable fit for the man in front of me than the newspaper headlines he found himself the subject of at the peak of Gavin and Stacey’s popularity. In particular, Horne and Corden seemed to be splashed over every front page – the double act of the day.
“That period of attention didn’t sit well with me,” Horne says. “It’s nice to be recognised for your work, but it became about something else. I was never interested in being famous.”
Celebrities are rarely allowed to stay unscathed in the spotlight for long. The press pounced on the pair after the flop of horror comedy film Lesbian Vampire Killers – in which Corden and Horne co-starred – and BBC3 axed their eponymous sketch show. Horne has previously said he thinks their onscreen ubiquity at that time, including hosting the Brits together, didn’t help. If he’d found being recognised just for being on TV “pretty empty, really”, he calls the backlash “a difficult time for me and James”.
Contrary to reports of a rift between the pair, he says they’re fine. “We got through it.” Recently, Corden has achieved success hosting the USA’s The Late Late Show. Does it ever frustrate Horne that an appetite for stories that imply fallouts between creative partners sometimes seems stronger than people’s love of the acts themselves? He smiles resignedly. “Yeah.” He sighs. “It’s cyclical, though, isn’t it? There’ll be somebody else who comes to the fore and is brought down. That’s what happens in this country.”
After that experience, Horne did, by his own admission, “retreat a little bit from the press”. He became more selective about events, about where he chose to appear, “which was definitely a reaction to what happened”. At the same time, though, “I was still moving forward in my own work”. His tone is upbeat. “I feel great about what I’m doing; it’s an absolute joy,” he says, gesturing at his script of The Miser. Although he’s proudly off book, “I keep looking at it,” he laughs.
Horne is continuing to flex his creative muscles, too, developing his writing as well as his performing career.
“You know, more and more comics, or people who have done stand-up, end up writing and acting,” he points out. “It probably doesn’t quite fit with some people’s more purist views of what an actor should be, but that’s the way it is.” He feels strongly that if “these people, like myself, who do various bits, have something to contribute, they should be able to”.
Appropriately for Horne, that involves collaboration. Over the past few years, he and a university friend – a trained actor – have been writing together in “an interesting partnership”. They’re in the process of working out where their ideas will end up. “They’re coming very organically,” he says. The pair are currently deciding if their material would fit “a feature film, a sitcom or a drama”. He smiles. “You know what it’s like. Things are in progress.”
Q&A: Mathew Horne
What was your first non-theatre job? Paper boy.
What was your first professional theatre job? Blue Remembered Hills (2001).
What is your next job? Exciting projects are afoot, but yet to be announced.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s possible.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Comedy.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Learn it!
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Linguistics teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Go on stage smelling nice, as I was advised by Charles Kay [with whom Horne appeared in 2012’s Charley’s Aunt
At least one outcome of this writing partnership, Horne says, will be a short film. He’s hoping it will enter production later this year. He’s “really excited about that”, he explains, because it will mark his directorial debut behind the camera. Last year, he returned to the Edinburgh Fringe, his old stomping ground, to direct a show, “but I’m not so wild about live directing”. However, the schedule for Horne’s short feature will need to fit around a second tour of The Catherine Tate Show Live.
Horne loved doing the stage show first time around. “It was wild,” he says of the experience. “I really pushed Catherine to do it. She was quite reluctant, but I said: ‘Look, if you don’t, you’ll regret it.’ And it’s paid off – the shows were amazing.” He acknowledges that a production like this comes with a ready-made fan base, but partly credits Foley, as director, with making it “a very entertaining, funny night out”, even for those rare few who might not have heard of Tate.
Tate is one of Horne’s role models, alongside the likes of Alison Steadman and Ruth Jones – his co-stars and, in the case of Jones, co-writer (with Corden) of Gavin and Stacey. He admires their toughness in a male-orientated industry in which female representation and the presence of strong female characters still isn’t what it should be. Watching these “heavyweight actresses” who have “overcome that initial obstacle” is, Horne says, inspiring on the very broadest level.
He doesn’t say it in so many words, but integrity and commitment clearly matter to him – to his own sense of himself as a performer and writer. When he says “jealousy isn’t an emotion I ever really experience”, it feels like a comment made by someone who’s grappled with fame and the rumour mills of the press. “If you compare yourself with someone else, you’re in for a terrible life,” he says.
When Horne claims he’s never been particularly ambitious, or that his approach to his work is just to keep “doing what I’m doing and feel only love and joy for people who are doing well”, it could sound disingenuous – the kind of thing an actor would say. But, after spending an hour in his company, it doesn’t. He seems genuinely contented with where he is right now. “For me,” he argues, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I want to keep acting until I drop dead.”
Then he laughs. “Well, with my sword-fighting in The Miser… you never know.”
CV: Mathew Horne
Born: 1978, Nottingham
Training: Drama at Manchester University (1997-2000); stand-up circuits of Manchester, London and Edinburgh
Landmark productions: Theatre: Entertaining Mr Sloane, Trafalgar Studios, London (2009), Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (2012), The Pride, Trafalgar Studios (2013). TV: 20 Things to Do Before You’re 30 (2002), The Catherine Tate Show (2004-2009), Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010), Worried About the Boy (2010)
Agent: Dawn Sedgwick Managem
After touring Theatre Royal Bath and Richmond Theatre, The Miser is at London’s Garrick Theatre, March 1-June 3