From Thalidomide and freak shows to global celebrity and Richard III, it can only be the inimitable Mr Mat Fraser
THRILLED, honoured, excited, & delighted!,” Mat Fraser tweeted to his 20,000 followers earlier this week. “People have said I could be a Dick, and now I can prove them right!”
Thus did the ebullient actor react to the news that he will play Richard III, Shakespeare’s “twisted villain”, in a theatre production in Hull, the 2017 UK City of Culture, in May.
“He is an actor of scintillating physicality and vocal power,” said Barrie Rutter, the play’s director. “His return to the British stage as Shakespeare’s iconic villain heralds a shivering frisson of excitement.”
As indeed it does. Fraser, who is 54, has phocomelia, a condition caused by his mother being prescribed the drug Thalidomide while she was pregnant with him. But he has never let his congenital deformity hold him back, and has variously been a rock musician, actor, writer and performance artist. After years of hard graft, he achieved international celebrity playing “Paul the Illustrated Seal Boy” in American Horror Story: Freak Show, the fourth season of the awards-laden anthology horror series.
Fraser’s character was originally envisioned as a tattoo-covered lizard man. However, the writers tweaked the physical nature of the character when they found Fraser. “I fought against having tattoos on my face,” Fraser said. “My face conveys my emotions and I wanted to be recognised. I wanted people to be able to see me acting. To see me.”
He has also starred on stage with his wife, the burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz, in a provocative take on Beauty And The Beast, which has played to audiences in the UK, New York and Chicago. When it played the Adelaide Festival, the publicity said the duo rekindled a lust for life “in an adults-only fairytale like no other. Bring your lover (not your mother) to this joyful romp that explores the naked truth about love”.
When he and Muz got hitched in New York five years ago, the ceremony apparently reflected their “extrovert, alternative lifestyle”, with zombie schoolgirl bridesmaids and other bizarre features.
Fraser’s earliest years were, however, far from easy. “Oh, the joys of being the dope-smoking rebel at 17,” he recalls. “Far better than being called the local flid.” He was not minded to acknowledge his own disability: “The D word was not mentioned. I avoided all young children, ‘cos you know their first question’s going to be, ‘Mister, why are you like that?”
He got into music and played drums with various groups. Eventually, he realised that his political anger was about his disability. He became “dissatisfied with the nothingness of what I was doing”. Fraser took up acting and began his career with the Graeae Theatre Company which describes itself as a “force for change in worldclass theatre”, putting deaf and disabled actors centre-stage.
Fraser remains one of its patrons, and says it was the company that inspired him to finally become an actor.
His subsequent CV has ranged far and wide. In 2002. he was one of the subjects photographed in Manuel Vason’s groundbreaking book, Exposures – all of whom were described as artists who were disrupting the norm and provoking debate by “exposing the body in all its diversities”.
Fraser’s list of British film and TV credits includes an appearance in Holby City, in which he played a Thalidomide-affected patient who has been diagnosed with a tumour, and whose life can only be saved by, as it turns out, that very same drug.
He has appeared in documentaries, films, plays, the Channel 4 comedy drama Cast Offs, and in an award-winning, site-specific solo show, Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept In A Box. He has also just finished filming a role in Peter (Dumb And Dumber) Farrelly’s new US TV comedy, Loudermilk.
Fraser also took part in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympics; on YouTube you can see footage of him drumming alongside Coldplay in the closing ceremony. He is also skilled in martial arts and showed his kick-boxing skills to uncompromising effect in a 2009 film, Kung Fu Flid (later retitled Unarmed But Dangerous). One of his co-stars was Faye Tozer, one-fifth of the pop group Steps.
The actor has never seen any point in dwelling on his disability, especially in his TV roles. “I’ve learned a lot about disability portrayal, and sometimes you have to let that stuff go,” he said. “Yes, it’s important and in my own work I talk about it, but sometimes you just have to want to do the acting … Let’s talk about the acting and the work and the art, and not about if I was bullied as a teenager.”
Richard III, which will be staged at Hull Truck Theatre from May 4-27, and in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre between May 30 and June 4, can’t come quickly enough for him.
“This fantastic opportunity to play drama’s most famous disabled villain, and to put the visceral reality onstage of a ‘rudely stamped’ actor in the famous character, is made even more exciting by having it be a Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck Theatre production under Barrie Rutter’s forthright direction,” he said.
“The honour of working with all the seasoned classic actors in the cast is one I hope to match with a deep understanding of a life lived differently, combined with a love of this intense violent drama, and joyously delivering the beautiful poetry of Shakespeare.”
Actor Mat Fraser and his wife Julie Atlas Muz, a burlesque dancer