In June this year, Michael Ball was awarded an OBE for his services to musical theatre. It's been 30 years since he made his West End debut as Marius in the original production of Les Misérables, and in that time he has played everyone from Raoul in Phantom of the Opera to Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. And yet, he says, he is still surprising his parents.
I meet him backstage at the Chichester Festival Theatre in England, where he's preparing for a matinee performance as Hollywood director Mack Sennett, in Mack and Mabel. His father was sitting front and centre for the previous evening's performance, and, during the interval, commented that it had taken him some time to realise it was Michael he was watching.
“He said it’s the first time he wasn’t conscious of me being on stage. Like, I’m an actor, isn’t that weird?” says Ball. It’s something he delights in. Surprising audiences is something Ball has been aiming for when considering roles in recent years, and it has become more fun now that he basically has his pick of parts.
"It started with Edna, or probably before that with The Woman in White. I love the idea of being on stage and people thinking they know who Michael Ball is, they've got an image and then not knowing and going: who's that? I mean, that's the best compliment ever. I love doing characters that surprise people and showing what I am, which is an actor, first and foremost," he says.
“The pretty cherub who sings nicely? He’s gone. These are the roles, whether they succeed or they fail, they just give you such a buzz when you come into a theatre and you rehearse them and discover them and you can make brave choices. I’m absolutely loving it.”
This is one of the toughest roles he has taken on, he says. In June, Ball turned 53, and keeping up with the physical intensity of this show is something he is still grappling with; he plays the title role and he is rarely offstage.
“I just have to do it. You have to find a way,” he says. “It’s early days so I’m still catching up with myself. The technical week and previews, where you’re in all day and then doing the show at night and putting in changes, you just have to do it. But look, this isn’t a bad place to be tired, is it?”
He went out of his way to bring to this show to the stage. Each time a team has attempted Mack and Mabel before, they have been met with poor reviews. It has a reputation as a problem show, but Ball wanted to finally tell the story of Sennett and Mabel Normand right.
“We have looked at every reincarnation that there’s ever been and gone: what’s the story we want to tell and how can we tell this best? And we’ve not compromised on anything. When I decided this was the next vehicle I wanted, I came to it without any preconceptions. Reading through all the different permutations, you see why it hasn’t worked. I thought I saw a way of making it work,” he says.
The character was a particular draw for him, but he has found few comparisons between himself and Sennett. “I do know how to lead a company and how to get people going, but I think I’m a little more diplomatic and a little bit kinder,” he says.
“It’s appalling how he speaks to Mabel before she sticks a pie in his face. What is wonderful about him is that he forgets. He’s been appalling to her, she whacks him in the face with a pie, and he immediately thinks it’s funny. It’s not a problem what you did, because now he has a great idea. That’s the man. There’s no grudges . . . As a character for an actor, it’s a really great role to play. You always want to be the baddies, as well. Well, he’s not a baddie but he’s not the most lovable.”
In high spirits
We’re sitting backstage in director Jonathan Church’s office, which Ball has taken over. He’s so enthusiastic, his voice fills the room and it’s possible everyone in the theatre can hear every word he’s saying. He’s in good spirits, despite claiming exhaustion from the show and rehearsal schedule for the week. You would never guess, as he cracks jokes and exudes confidence, that his career was almost over before it began.
While playing Marius in Les Misérables in 1985, Ball got glandular fever, which took him off stage for about seven weeks. When he came back, he found he had begun to suffer panic attacks and anxiety about being on stage, which eventually led to him leaving the show. He spent nine "appalling" months alone at home with depression and anxiety.
“It was the blackest time in my life and probably in some respects the best thing that could have happened me, because I grew up, I gained an insight into the human condition of what the mind is capable of doing to you.”
Although he has never suffered as badly with depression as he did during that time, he is still constantly aware of his anxiety issues and working to manage them. However, he says not talking about his problems at the time held him back hugely, and his perspective in that respect has completely changed.
“I still get those black dogs. That happens. I never talked about it for years and years, and everyone thought I was blissfully walking along through life – but having actually spoken about it, it’s amazing how many other people are really affected in the same way, have gone through periods of anxiety and panic, and the irrationality of that. You either let it cripple you or you find a way through it. I’d say to anyone who suffers like that, get someone to talk to. You feel at the time that ‘this is it, this is what my life is going to be and I’m incapable of doing anything else’. But life truly doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” he says.
Particularly for getting on stage, Ball has several tricks to help him. “It’s about switching your head. Things like this are always worse when you’re stressed, when you’re run-down, when you’re tired. You have to find triggers. Tapping therapy is absolutely brilliant. Stephen Gately from Boyzone, God rest his soul, told me about it. It’s just a little tap that focuses the mind away from that wave of panic and adrenalin that shoots into your body. You have to then also try and turn it into a positive, remain in the moment, not let your brain go outside your body – which happens – and enjoy it. It’s horrible, but the more you understand it and learn how to channel it and learn how to get past it, the easier it gets. But it will always be there.”
Alongside musicals, Ball has enjoyed a long career in music; he came second in Eurovision 1992, representing the UK, and has had a string of albums since. He released a new album, If Everyone Was Listening, last November and finished touring it in May this year. Although his television presenting career has petered out, bar an appearance on the Great Comic Relief Bake Off this year, he still presents a regular radio show, Sunday Night with Michael Ball, on BBC Radio Two.
Despite his fame, and his openness about his depression, he is an extremely private man, and he has no plans to change that.
“I have my family life and I think it’s important to be able to shut the door and keep the door shut, and that keeps you grounded. You stay in reality. I know how to wash my own clothes, I know how to go to a supermarket, and I cook and I love my family. I’m in the business; they’re not. They don’t want to be in the public domain, and it’s my job to be, but you have to respect that. You walk away when you want to. Also, I’m not that interesting,” he says.
Though it's a cliche for celebrities to express unending delight about whatever city they might be visiting at any one time, Ball's excitement to bring Mack and Mabel to Ireland seems genuine. He starred in Hairspray the last time he brought a show here, and is, apparently, still talking about the fun he had. Mack and Mabel is set to head to the West End after its UK and Ireland tour. He says the Dublin run is what he's most looking forward to.
“Here’s the thing about Ireland: I go over there and I have the best time. I don’t remember it all. What I can’t get past is, as I leave and go back home, going: ‘Oh that was amazing’, [and] other people are then arriving and you lot are still carrying on with the craic. You’re just the most hospitable, encouraging, funny, dry people. It’s the best place, isn’t it?” he says.
- Mack and Mabel runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, October 27th- November 7th. Tickets from €18
QUICK-FIRE QUESTIONS: NUL POINTS FOR IRELAND’S 1992 WIN
Favourite musical? Hairspray
Favourite song? Gethsemane.
Dream role? Done them all.
Pre-stage rituals? Thousands. Too many to go in to. I'm a superstitious freak.
Dream dinner party guests? Victoria Wood, except she's a vegetarian, which is such a bore. Dawn French and Kate Bush.
Most expensive thing you've ever bought that wasn't a house or a car? A watch.
Last time you cried? Last night.
Superpower? I want to be the Green Lantern but that's not a superpower, so super speed.
Favourite insult? You've a look of Eva Braun.
Best advice you've ever received? Remember to smell the roses.
Have you forgiven Ireland for winning Eurovision in 1992? No.