His work is everywhere. You’ve probably seen it – but you probably won’t recognise the name. Nick Ahad travelled to London to find out more about an enigma
Andy Nyman is the most famous person you’ve never heard of. It is baffling that he’s not wildly famous. By any measure this actor, magician, writer, director should be far more of a celebrity than he is.
Nyman was responsible for co-writing and directing all Derren Brown’s shows for the past decade on television and stage. Those viewing figure magnets like the Russian Roulette special and the Lottery numbers prediction were 50 per cent the work of Nyman.
As an actor he has appeared in two major Channel Four series – and stolen the show each time (once in Charlie Brooker’s zombie show Dead Set and recently in off-the-wall comedy Campus).
Frank Oz, the man behind the voice of the Muppets and Yoda in the Star Wars movies, has only directed one stage play – the one Nyman is in at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory theatre. The reason Oz has directed it? Because he was asked to by his friend Nyman.
Nyman takes the lead in a soon-to-be-released British feature film alongside Neve Campbell. That’s a British, low budget movie that has somehow bagged the Hollywood actor and star of the movie Scream. How? Campbell specifically told the director she wanted to work with Andy Nyman. With his childhood best friend Jeremy Dyson (one of the men behind The League of Gentlemen) Nyman co-created a hugely successful West End stage show called Ghost Stories. Nyman starred in the sell-out show, which broke box office records in the West End and also did big business in Canada, where it toured with Nyman in the lead.
So why is he not more famous? That was going to be the question and I assumed I was going to struggle for an answer.
I don’t. I find the answer the minute our interview begins. Or rather, doesn’t begin.
I take the early train from Leeds to get to our mid-morning meeting at London’s Lyric Hammersmith. I wait half an hour. Nyman doesn’t turn up. He knows how far it is to come. His grandparents are from Leeds and he spent a large part of his childhood in the city. Frantic phone calls, attempts to send emails – it is not an easy morning, Nyman still doesn’t show up and after an hour I leave for another interview.
Fortunately, we manage to re-arrange and later in the afternoon when we do meet, he explains (to be fair, he is enormously apologetic) that he simply forgot about our interview.
Interviews, talking about his work, getting his face in the paper, is clearly not Nyman’s raison d’etre. You’d think that travelling all the way down to London to interview an actor, only to have him forget that I’m there, would be annoying. It is. In this rare case, however, it is forgivable. Why? What is so great about Nyman, I discover, is that he is a man obsessed with his work. His dedication to his art – and not the pursuit of fame for it, is wholly admirable. Socrates declared that fame was “the perfume of heroic deeds”, but we appear to have forgotten that the deed comes first and the fame sprayed on later.
In an age of celebrity culture, where being famous is an end in itself and hang the actual skill, talent and dedication it takes to achieve fame, Nyman is the most wonderful creature. To him, the work is all – not talking about it, publicising it – just making it. Nothing is more important than the work – not even remembering to turn up for an interview.
“I have a level of fame that means I can walk down the street and no-one will recognise me,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t have an ego, or I’m backwards in coming forwards, but the fame thing doesn’t appeal to me. The things that are really important to me are my family and friends and making good work.”
“I have high expectations when I work on something with the team making it and of myself, but I have been really, really fortunate to be able to do work that I really love and feel passionate about.”
I have admired the work of Nyman since I saw him in Dead Set on Channel 4 and began to be more impressed the more I found out about him.
One of the reasons for Nyman’s, for want of a better word, anonymity, is that he absolutely disappears into a role.
We’re meeting because of his West End play, Terrible Advice, written by another of his friend Saul Rubinek, best known as Daphne’s fiance Donny in the sitcom Fraser.
That Nyman is brilliant at his work, yet somehow has not yet become a big name is demonstrated by the Evening Standard’s review of Terrible Advice. It names the cast in the first paragraph – Scott Bakula, best known as the star of Quantum Leap, Caroline Quentin and Pulling’s Sharon Hoga – but makes no mention of Nyman until way down the piece.
The Evening Standard concludes: “The best thing in Frank Oz’s production is fast-talking Stanley”. There are no prizes for guessing which role Nyman plays in the production.
He is short, bearded, greying and pot-bellied and the newspapers is at a loss when revealing “Nyman has a curious magnetism”. It’s not something he will pore over.
“I don’t really think about the reviews thing – if good ones get sent to me, I might take a glance. I think reviews are poison because either they’re bad and that damages what you think of the piece, or they’re good and that’s equally damaging. Because the truth is, it is what it is.
“The thing that matters to me more than anything else is my family, but professionally I have always believed in the idea of a legacy and leaving something. Personally it was important that every piece I left was something I was proud of, so consequently I have tried to never do anything that I would be embarrassed by or think was not good enough.”
Since he was 15, visiting his grandparents in Leeds from his home in Leicester, Nyman has had an eye for the theatrical. He met his future best friend Jeremy Dyson at Jewish summer camp and the pair immediately struck up a friendship, “We bonded over our love of American Werewolf in London, filthy humour and dirty magazines. Nothing has changed,” laughs Nyman. “When we realised the girls weren’t interested in us, we thought the next best thing to do would be to scare them, so we held a seance.”
The theatrical event did not go down well – at least not until the trick was repeated, this time with Nyman pulling the strings behind the curtain and Derren Brown being the front man. On a Channel 4 special many years later several million tuned in to see the event.
“There is a direct line from the seance me and Jeremy did at camp, to the stage and television show I did with Derren,” he says.
Before the company that made the shows for Channel 4 approached Brown, they went to Nyman. “I got a phone call out of the blue, one of those dream phone calls, from a production company saying we want to offer you a one-hour special doing your magic and mentalism. I’m quite well known in the magic world – at that time there were not many people doing it – it was a small pond,” he says, “They said they wanted to do the one-hour special, but hoped it would be a five-year deal and I said ‘no thanks, you’re all right’. I think they thought I was trying to get more money or something. But although I love magic and mentalism, I’ve always been really clear that it’s just a hobby. Acting has always been my deep passion.”
So Nyman turned it down, but the production company put him together with Brown and the magic shows have been “the equivalent of painting and decorating for an out of work actor for me ever since’. George Burns says ‘I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate’ – I try to really live by that. I’m of that generation – I’m an actor because I worship De Niro and Pacino. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor because I wanted to be famous, I wanted to morph into different characters.”
In 1991, after training at Guildhall and spending 10 years in theatre and doing small parts on television, Nyman landed the lead in an adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel Dead Babies. “It had Kris Marshall, Paul Bettany, Olivia Williams and it was going to be huge, the next Trainspotting, and I was really proud of it. But the distributors messed it up and it was a total disaster,” says Nyman without a trace of bitterness. It was clearly a learning experience.
“I realised then that all you can do is what you do and work as hard as you can and then it’s up to the gods. I also realised I’d achieved my life’s ambition. I grew up wanting to be the lead in a film and the first day I walked on to set and saw those big cameras, I just thought wow. I thought this is extraordinary, I haven’t lost that. At the time I rang my agent and said I just want to do films now. I went to Cannes with the film then to LA got an agent and a manager and a lot of Indie films, a movie for NBC with David Schwimmer and Hank Azaria. And whenever I wasn’t working I would do the ‘hobby’, the magic with Derren.”
Two years ago he started to get too busy to continue with Brown and has been concentrating on acting. “I’ve been told so many times that this is the big thing, this is the film or the show that’s going to be huge and make me a big star. I’ve just done a film The Man, with Neve Campbell, who, as crazy as it sounds, did it because she wanted to work with me. At the minute I don’t know when it’s actually going to be released. It would be lovely if it became a big hit. But I can’t sit there thinking ‘come on, come on, be a success, come on’, you just can’t do that. I’ve been in the business for 25 years, and my big turning point came when I did Merchant of Venice at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 17 years ago. Since then I have just done work that I am really proud of and that’s what I want to achieve in my career.”
An admirable philosophy, and if he starts turning up to interviews on time, more people might get to hear about it and about this impressive man’s work.
Andy Nyman is in Terrible Advice at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, to November 12. Tickets 0207 3781713. www.andynyman.com