The 39 Steps - London

A hilarious whodunit based on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic original film.

Andrew Alexander on Mascara-ing His Mustache as the Suave Star of London’s The 39 Steps

Andrew Alexander is the eighth actor to play the debonair, tweed-suited Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, London’s longest running comedy, at the Criterion Theatre. A graduate of King’s College (where he majored in history) and the Royal Academy of Music, the 29-year-old performer is making his West End debut in the Hitchcock pastiche. Alexander took time one recent afternoon to talk about moving up from understudy to leading man, putting musical theater to one side and sporting a real-life mustache of which his fiancée approves.

How exciting has it been to move up from understudy to star in The 39 Steps?
I feel very privileged and honored, really. I understudied three Hannays —John Hopkins, David Bark-Jones, and Rufus Wright—and then they gave me the part, which they had never done with an understudy before, so I was very fortunate. I’d gone on for roughly three weeks of performances at different times, so I definitely had a head start.

Having seen so many Hannays do the role, did you feel locked into a particular approach?
Actually, no. There’s a lot you can do and, hopefully, that I do do with the part. It is a bit like a musical, this play, in that when you start rehearsing you have to learn the moves and the blocking before you can concentrate on the character, so it feels almost as if the role has a dance aspect.

Which is interesting since you began in musical theater.
I did! Kiss Me Kate was the first show I ever auditioned for at college and then I played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls and a prince in Into the Woods. While I was understudying in this play, I went up for Jersey Boys on the West End and got down to the finals, but dancing wasn’t my forte so I got booted out [laughs]. But I have to say that a part like Hannay really is my niche; I love comedy. Besides, it’s very hard to move to straight acting once you get locked into musicals, and I didn’t want to get boxed in and be seen as only one type of performer in my career.

How do you view your character, given that he is familiar both from the John Buchan novel and the 1935 Hitchcock film?
He’s like a pre-James Bond with a pipe [laughs]. Those books really did start off the spy thriller, which led to the James Bonds and now Bourne [Robert Ludlum’s fictional character]. But the original thing here is that Hannay has got a Harris Tweed suit and a pipe and, at least in the show and partly in the books, he finds it difficult to talk to women, which is one of his downfalls. He’s like a Bertie Wooster figure, and then he’s pushed into a situation where he has to act.

Do you enjoy the period apparel you wear for the part?
The funny thing is, when I was a student I went through that phase that many people do of wearing bizarre things and treating myself like some sort of super-ironic project. So I would buy a lot of stuff from charity shops and wear tweedy jackets and smoke a pipe. I was only 19 or 20 at the time; god knows what people thought! [Laughs.]

This play asks a lot of you physically, as well.
That’s the problem: I’m constantly ripping my clothes and tearing my waistcoat! I’ve been told I’m their worst Hannay for that, but I like to think I’m giving them their money’s worth. I’m always in the physio with an injury to my wrist, or my back is aching from climbing off a ladder. That seems to go with the job.

So, no gym for you, away from the theater?
If I could just do this, I would! It is completely physically exerting: I have two shirts every show and two suits that get dry-cleaned once a week. But it turned out that I was putting on a couple of kilograms regardless because I guess your body just gets used to it, so I go to the gym now about four times a week to work out and swim.

You’re young for this role: Have you had to age yourself up?
I turn 30 in July, which I believe makes me the youngest Hannay yet. But no, I haven’t had to do anything physical like dye my hair. I do have to make sure that I’m strong and rooted and have the weight of someone who’s a bit older. The point is to be the guy that men look up to as a hero and that girls want to… well, you finish that sentence![Laughs.]

What about the necessary mustache, which doesn’t sit happily with every actor who plays Hannay?
I have an actual one which I’ve got used to now, and my fiancée quite likes it, as well, so all’s good on the home front! I do have to color it in with waterproof mascara. Otherwise it runs, and when I kiss Catherine [Bailey, his co-star], she’s left with a mustache on her face.

Before The 39 Steps came along, you were part of the Sony BMG recording group, Teatro, so does it surprise you to have made this transition?
It surprises me only in that I feel lucky to be doing it! I left Teatro to do 39 Steps because I knew this was what I wanted to do and understudying felt the right way to do it. I did spend about two years touring with Teatro and I’ve got a gold album on my wall to show for that time, but as an actor, you always have to keep your options open; you never know what’s going to happen, and it felt as if this was what I had been working towards.

The 39 Steps is so inherently British a piece. Do you feel very archetypally English as an actor?
Well, I have to say that I do feel in my own skin wearing a suit, if that counts as “English.” I just like dressing up, to be honest. But my dad is actually Hungarian, though my mum is English and her father was in the Royal Air Force and used to fly the royal family around. I get my Englishness from them.

If your dad is Hungarian, then presumably “Alexander” isn’t your actual surname.
It’s one of my middle names. My full name is Andrew James Joseph Alexander de Perlaky.

Wow! That sounds impressive.
I guess, although my first agent thought I should change it because he said it sounded Greek. Maybe I should change it back?!