Toby Schmitz takes the lead
There aren’t many young actors with the style and charisma associated with the stars of yesterday. Rosemary Neill talks to one
WCab driver: So you’re an actor. Schmitz: Yep. Cabbie: Would I have seen you in anything? Home and Away? Schmitz (to himself): Same old conversation. Schmitz (to the cabbie): No, I do theatre, I do plays. Cabbie: You been in Les Mis or Cats? Schmitz: No. Cabbie: Yeah, didn’t think so. Not real plays. THE actor and playwright recounts this apparently typical encounter with a biting irreverence worthy of Noel Coward. He is making the point that he refuses to be discouraged by the common view that treading the boards isn’t a real job. Schmitz says with a certain ferocity: ‘‘ You’ve gotta have some balls about it. You gotta have some claim on yourself as an actor and not get down when the cabbie HEN Toby Schmitz, one of the country’s busiest theatre actors, finds himself in a taxi, this is how the conversation often goes: or your mum say, ‘ What have you acted in?’ You’ve gotta own it.’’ This former party animal, who was once threatened with expulsion from the National Institute of Dramatic Art because of his drinking and tardiness, is now one of the leading theatre actors of his generation.
Yet on the day we meet, Schmitz looks more like a nerd crossed with a wannabe hipster than the upper-class gent he is about to portray in Coward’s Private Lives. The actor is unshaven and wearing a black hoodie and Clark Kent-style glasses. He pads about the small terrace he shares with his actor girlfriend in vast, unlaced basketball boots that engulf his lower legs. Yet once the tape recorder is on and Schmitz’s thoughts pour forth in a flash flood of words and droll asides, it’s easy to imagine him in a silk dressing gown, dropping a confetti of bons mots while holding court in a Riviera hotel suite.
Schmitz’s signature roles have ranged from focus-pulling comedy (simulating sex with a bunch of flowers in a production of Measure for Measure) to full-blooded tragedy (Hamlet for Brisbane’s La Boite theatre). ABC critic Nigel Munro-Wallis declared this 2010 La Boite show the best Hamlet he had seen, adding that Schmitz, now 35, ‘‘ brings to his part a fabulous combination of angst, moodiness and true edginess that will have even the most jaded of theatre patrons willing him on’’.
Next year Schmitz will cement his reputation as one of our finest actors in serious roles with Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir that will be announced shortly.
But it’s when the actor plays romantic and comic leads that he embodies the polished masculinity and verbal dexterity that also defined earlier generations of leading men; the suave, stylish, effortlessly articulate actors we rarely see on contemporary stages and movie screens. Last year, Schmitz starred as Benedick in a Bell Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing —a role renowned for the verbal sparring between the ostensibly reluctant romantic hero and his seemingly imperfect match, Beatrice.
Again, the critics were impressed. The Age’s reviewer wrote that: ‘‘ Schmitz brims with feckless charisma, and brings a fantastically mobile comic intelligence to every expression and gesture. It’s a performance packed with ado, most of it LOL funny.’’
Belvoir’s artistic director Ralph Myers has cast the actor in his production of Private Lives because he reckons he was born to play the wealthy, wisecracking divorcee Elyot. In this frisky comedy of manners, which opens in Sydney later this month before touring to Wollongong and Canberra, Elyot and his exwife Amanda run into each other while on honeymoon with their new spouses. In spite of their volatile history and the marital vows they have just taken, they rekindle their feelings for each other — for better and worse.
Myers describes Schmitz as ‘‘ very sharp, very funny, very droll, very much like Coward in many ways . . . Elyot is a kind of personification of Coward; Coward wrote the role for himself to play and gave himself all the best lines. Toby is kind of him.’’
Simon Phillips directed Schmitz when he appeared opposite a cross-dressing Geoffrey Rush (playing Lady Bracknell) last year in a Melbourne Theatre Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The former MTC boss agrees Schmitz is an ‘‘ innately elegant actor, which means that he’s born to play that kind of role — loquacious and witty leading men of the 30s and 40s who have a kind of elegance as well as a sexuality about them. He’s got those qualities as a person and as an actor.’’
Yet male characters such as Elyot are a dying breed in contemporary theatre and film, and this, in turn, begs the question: What has become of the suave, sophisticated leading man who made women swoon and men uneasy; screen and stage actors who had the good looks, charm and dashing qualities of matinee idols, but who also brought an edge and depth to their craft? From the 1920s to the 60s, actors who were charming, eloquent and wore a well-cut suit like a second skin held sway in Hollywood and beyond. Among them were David Niven, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Sidney Poitier, Peter O’Toole and Tony Curtis.
Astaire’s physical grace was prized more than his looks, while Grant was a byword for debonair masculinity. O’Toole, meanwhile, amassed eight Oscar nominations while often playing characters who ‘‘ embodied the roguish gentleman who looks as good crossing the desert on a camel as he does at high tea in his Plaza suite’’, as GQ magazine has put it.
Today, with the exception of George Clooney, Hollywood’s leading men are cut