Shadows star recounts rise from London Dungeon
PASADENA, Calif. — He may be co-starring as a vampire on FX’s What We Do in
the Shadows, but Matt Berry didn’t become an actor the highfalutin way.
No Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for him. He didn’t play Shakespeare in the provinces or worship at the feet of Stanislavski.
No, the British Berry came to acting through a wax museum that specialized in horrors like Jack the Ripper, the Black Plague and London’s torture chambers.
“It was called the London Dungeon, it’s like Madame Tussauds, but it’s a horror version of that, and you show people around,” Berry says.
“You do shows, and that’s where I worked on comedy and timing because you were doing 70 shows an hour to the public. You had to be good, concise and funny in the short amount of time,” Berry says.
“So that was great practice for me because it was like stand-up every five minutes.
Part of his repartee was improvised. “They wanted you to stick to certain facts — say if you were in Jack the Ripper section you had to know the dates, where the bodies were found, and this kind of stuff.
“Everything else was up to you. So it was up to you to be as funny as you can and not to fail — which was a great discipline for me and for everyone who worked there because it was really up to you how well you did and how quickly the time went. If you weren’t very funny or you weren’t a great performer, you’d find that out really quickly, and it would be boring and embarrassing because it would be like dancing in the dark.”
Dancing in the dark was pretty much Berry’s forte until he wangled that job. After university and armed with an esteemed arts degree, Berry worked at a series of paralyzingly boring jobs.
“One of the jobs I had was to inform people who phoned what the share price was for an Australian bank. It was soooo dull. And it was up on a screen. And it wasn’t even a digital reader, it was written, and every five minutes a guy would come and scrub it off and write what it was at that new minute. It was dreadful. The results would make people angry and would make people happy. It was day in, day out, and I thought I would go mad doing that. I was fired after a while,” he says.
“Then I was working in a parking-fine office with no windows copying the books of the parking attendants. That was extraordinarily bleak, that’s when I found out about the London Dungeon and got out of there.”
Even the London Dungeon wasn’t a lifetime goal. Berry grew up passionate about music and a bit of a prodigy. He didn’t read music, but played by ear and began composing songs by recording his work on tape. His parents didn’t object when he proved unremarkable at almost everything else.
“Painting and doing music, they were things I loved doing. I didn’t care for much else, so I didn’t apply myself to those other areas. Pretty much got into trouble,” he says.
“I think that’s normal for the artistic mentalities. You can’t help it. It’s not any kind of ‘choice’ that you make. It’s what I want to do; this is all that I can do. That’s the way that it is. My parents were quite worried. They were very supportive to be honest, they didn’t push me in any kind of direction I didn’t want to go. They just trusted that I would find (it). Because I’ve always known what I didn’t want to do. And to a parent, that looks decisive.”
Because of his comic patter at the Dungeon, Berry wove some comedy into his music and, after almost 10 years of odd jobs, landed roles on the late-night comedy Garth
Marenghi’s Darkplace and in his friend’s series, The Mighty
Boosh. Other comedies followed like Toast of London, for which he won the British Emmy as best male comedy performer, The IT Crowd, and
Year of the Rabbit, which has been renewed for a second season by IFC.
Two years ago Berry found himself shooting the indie film,
An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn with New Zealander Jemaine Clement (A Chorus of Disapproval). Clement and co-creator Taika Waititi had made a successful film about vampires living in modern Wellington.
“We were in Eureka, Calif., and we were stuck in a hotel together, a hotel that had been shut for the season where we filmed this movie,” recalls Berry, 45.
“And he just said one day, ‘Look, I might be doing a TV version of What We Do in the
Shadows. Would you want to do it?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And that was it. Then there was a pilot and we did the series last year. I didn’t know who I was going to play. That was all up to him.”
Berry portrays Laszlo, one of three vampires who resides in the nether depths of Staten Island and who must cope with their “humanity-challenged” coexistence in the show, which returned for a new season April 15.
He confesses he has a sweetheart, but won’t talk about her except to say she’s not an actress and she’s funny. He freely admits he might be difficult to live with. “All artists have funny hours. If I get involved with something, I can’t stop. I have to continue till it’s finished. For someone else, it can be a nuisance.”