Elliot Levey always intended to become a lawyer, but having ended up on stage, he tells Sarah Freeman why he was made for his latest role as a good northern Jewish boy.
On December 31, 1999, Elliot Levey’s friends were in Athens preparing for what promised to be the most memorable New Year’s Eve party of their lives. He was supposed to be there too, but as the clock ticked onwards towards midnight, the Leeds-born actor was nowhere to be seen. Instead he had his head buried in a book that he just couldn’t put down. “Once I started reading Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer I just couldn’t stop,” says the 40 year-old. “I was underneath the Acropolis thinking, right I’ve got to get a move on, but I’m not going anywhere until I finish this thing. It was unputdownable.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that Jacobsen’s tale of a Jewish man looking back on his life as a young boy and ping-pong star in Manchester chimed with Levey, who is about to take the lead role in a new stage adaptation of the novel. While he may not have won any trophies for table tennis, he too grew up in a northern Jewish community and while his parents were secular he had an oddly orthodox upbringing.
“It was Alan Bennett who said that the best moments in reading are when you come across something which you had thought special and particular to you set down by someone else. It was, he said, as though the author’s hand comes right out of the page and takes yours. That’s what I felt reading The Mighty Walzer. Suddenly I realised that all these things that I thought were peculiar to my own childhood had actually been felt by lots of other people.
“Jacobson captured what it is like for a child of recent immigrants. With every subsequent generation there is a desire to progress, but there is I think something that ties you to your past.
“While neither of my parents were particularly religious, my father had a maxim that there is never an argument for ignorance and therefore he wanted me to taught as much as possible about Judaism. Most of us over the years have gently eased our way into a very secular society, but I honestly believe that I benefitted enormously from that education.”
Levey says he never set out to become an actor and, in fact, before he went to Oxford University to study philosophy he already had an entirely different career in mind. “Whenever my uncles would ask what I was going to do when I grew up I would tell them about my plans to be a lawyer. It was a good profession for a nice northern Jewish boy and that was honestly my intention. There were, however, two things which changed that. The first was getting a place at the National Youth Theatre where we performed a slightly obscure play by Lionel Bart called Maggie May about a Liverpudlian prostitute. As a teenage boy I found myself the object of people’s attention. At that age, suddenly having people applaud you is quite beguiling and incredibly seductive.
“I was probably already sold on acting at that point, but it was cemented when I was at university. Everywhere you looked people were putting on plays and the colleges seemed to have a pot of money sloshing around to pay for productions. It’s no wonder that some of student directors went on to pretty much rule the world.”
Prior to graduation Levey was already entertaining thoughts of going to drama school, but before he had chance to audition, he had already caught the eye of a number of casting directors. He assumed at some point the work – and the money – would dry up and he would be forced to apply to the likes of Rada, but it never did.
Early bit parts in the likes of EastEnders and Holby City were followed by more high-profile roles on stage and screen. In recent years he has appeared in films like Florence Foster Jennkins, The Queen and The Lady in the Van and the TV series Davinci’s Demons, but it’s arguably on the stage where he has really made his mark.
In Hull playwright Richard Bean’s tongue- in-cheek take on East End immigration, England People very Nice, Levey took on the role of a Palestinian asylum seeker and three years ago he appeared alongside Mark Gatiss and Tom Hiddleston in a critically acclaimed production of Corialanus at the Donmar Warehouse.
“The Donmar is just an amazing place to work. The best thing about it is that there are only two dressing rooms; men in one, women in the other. When you are doing a long run you get to spend most of your life being cooped up with some of the greatest human beings you are ever likely to meet. Living cheek by jowl with Mark Gatiss is just a wonderful experience – he is one of the funniest, most generous people you could ever have the pleasure to meet. I have also been blessed by the vision of Tom Hiddleston in his pants more times than I care to remember. I know, it’s the kind of experience some people would pay a million pounds for and got it for free.”
For his latest role in The Mighty Walzer, Levey was spared the usual audition process. Instead he was invited to meet director Jonathan Humphreys “and the rest of the gang’” at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and admits that he was already on board before he even stepped inside the theatre.
“Simon Bent has done a terrific adaptation in creating a central character who is my age. It begins with him sat having a drink in Harry’s Bar in Venice and as he thinks about where he came from he gets to meet the ghosts of his past as well as reliving the table tennis matches that he won and lost.”
Ah yes, the ping pong. Since he accepted the part, Levey, who now lives in London, has been in training mostly with David Hulme, the founder of the Stockport Table Tennis Academy, but also with his three sons. “I’ve been concentrating hard on what David tells me and every weekend I’ve been going back home in the hope I’ve learnt enough to finally beat my children. I haven’t. I can beat one of them, very occasionally. However, at least now I look like I know what I’m doing. I have all the right moves, but they are not necessarily in the right order.”
Levey is married to Emma Loach, daughter of director Ken, who has in the past called for a boycott of all cultural and sporting events supported by the Israeli state. Given Levey’s upbringing, that must make for some interesting conversations around the dinner table. “My wife grew up in a house where other books trumped the Bible,” he says. “And that’s probably as it should be. In fact, when we named our sons Samuel, Benjamin and Jacob she was gloriously oblivious to the fact that they were even biblical names.”
Emma works as a television producer and while Levey clearly relishes his time on stage he admits that the small screen is an increasingly attractive option. “As an actor all you can do is say yes and no to roles and hope that you don’t have any regrets. The awful, mundane reality is that with three kids aged from 15 to 11 it’s easier to do television. You do a stint, then you come back and by the time everyone has got sick of you hanging around the house you’ve probably got another job.
“The theatre is different. For a start, there is no money in it, but it also it often means you are away from home for much longer periods. Having said all that, being on stage is an absolute thrill.”
The Mighty Walzer, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, June 30 to July 30. 0161 833 9833, royalexchange.co.uk