Interview with Murder Ballad star Ramin Karimloo
Ramin Karimloo is one of Broadway and the West End's biggest names thanks to his inimitable talents which have seen him take roles in long-running hit musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables around the world, giving him a strong international fan base and resume to die for. The perfect leading man, his handsome looks, generous manner and willingness to share his journey with his loyal social media following have seen him become the youngest actor to play The Phantom along with exceptional runs as Jean Valjean in both the West End and Broadway productions of Les Miserables for which he was recently nominated for a Tony Award.
“I'm not really religious, I try and live by gratitude” he explains as we talk about his outlook on his life and career. “When I was 16 I put it out there and I made a stupid-ass bet with my friend that I'd become the youngest Phantom, I'm not sure why I said that, what a weird thing to say, then we went off to play hockey. Then it happened.” Not only did Ramin play the iconic role of The Phantom for as part of the show's 25th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall, he was also the first to play the same role in Lloyd Webber's sequel to the show, Love Never Dies which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in 2009.
“Words are powerful and I think power of intention is a real thing because it gives you a focus,” he explains. “If you say something and your focus becomes that then why not? I wanted diversity so I left a great paying job in a great show, I'm doing my bit to allow diversity to come in.”
Karimloo's recent career couldn't get more diverse, with roles in The Secret Garden in New York sitting alongside the Hal Prince compilation show The Prince of Broadway in Japan, and now the UK premiere of Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre. It's rare for a musical theatre performer to command so many different roles, and I wonder how the pressure to diversify sits alongside the basic need to keep working as an actor.
“After I finished Les Mis on Broadway the word I put out into the universe was diversity” he comments, I'm a father and a husband, and as much as don't want to chase money and I certainly don't want to work for money in that sense, but finances play a part of it. It's funny when you put it out there and be brave, it's always worked out so far and my instincts were right, diversity is just the way to go.”
Roles in long running shows certainly provide a degree of stability, and the decision for any actor to walk away from a regular paycheck, especially in a show that so shows no sign of winding down is a difficult one to make.
“I'm such a fan of Les Mis and I'm such a fan of Cameron” he replies, referencing British theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh who he has worked for on a regular basis. “I wanted to make sure I left fresh and not the tired and reliable lead. If there was any hype that I brought to it, not that I believe my own hype, I wanted to maintain that as best I could so the best thing was to go. I'm forever grateful for Cameron because every job he has ever given me has ticked every box.”
Ramin's current role in Murder Ballad is again quite different from his previous shows, and I was interested to hear what had drawn him to both the musical and this production.
“I liked that it was four people and I thought I wouldn't mind having a crack at Michael”, he explains, speaking of the role played by his co-star Norman Bowman. “I saw it on my agent's desk and he said they were looking for a Tom, and I thought I'd like a go at that. I've not done anything like this. Everyone calls him the ass-hole and the bad guy – but he's not. I like that sort of twist as it reminded me there was more to the character. Kerry and Vix are just such incredible leading ladies – it's always great to have one leading lady who you respect and get on with but to have two that are like family...I just knew this was going to be a great experience.”
One of Ramin's initial worries about taking on the role was not only the intimacy of the Arts Theatre but also the sexual nature of the story, and the role which required him to spend a lot of the 90 minute production in various states of undress.
“I love working out, but that doesn't mean I don't have insecurities about my body” he states. “I know I've worked on having abs, but what's in a picture and set up to make you look perfect is different from walking around in real life, that's a different story for me.”
With all the pressures on performers striving for roles on stage and screen, I wonder if Ramin thinks that young male performers in particular are becoming more body conscious in terms of how they look at a casting, thanks to the rise in social media.
“I was asked once what does it take to have a Broadway Body. That was a wake up call for me” he responds. “I just thought, 'any body'. I want to be an advocate of you being comfortable in your own skin if you're whatever size. As long as you've got a clean bill of health from the doctor you're good to go. For me personally I love the athleticism of working out, but now I've set myself up – I never want to hear 'remember when Ramin was in shape?' So it's keeping that up. If there's a role I need to be less out of shape for, I'll go eat – no problem. For now you know, it still serves the characters I do”.
Having successfully made the leap from the West End to Broadway, I'm interested to know if Ramin his his eyes set on TV and film work, or if his love for musical theatre and the stage has been an overriding love of his life.
“I never grew up with music theatre, I still haven't seen The Wizard of Oz. Isn't that crazy?” he laughs. “Doing Prince of Broadway re-established my love for music theatre and doing live work. When you go to New York you get sucked in and seduced by the whole TV/film thing. I've always said I'm like a pinball going through life and I'm lucky to bounce off things; for a moment I tried to direct that pinball and I think that's a mistake, as far as my energy and my life goes. So I'm back to being a pinball. I have so much fun and I love doing 8 shows a week, I love the repetition of it. People always ask don't you get bored of it, how do you keep it fresh, but the audience makes it different every night. One thing I really do believe is the energy you pick up from them. Some nights they want to give you this much, some nights they're more reserved, it doesn't mean they love you less.”
Ramin's next challenge is the Broadway premiere of Flaherty and Ahrens' musical Anastasia which lands in New York following a successful run at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, which I had the pleasure of attending earlier this year. Ramin plays the role of Gleb, a part created specifically for the stage. “I did the workshop, and I sat there thinking there's not one boring song” he comments, “it's Flaherty and Ahrens doing what they do best, I love them. “When something is in a workshop your imagination paints a beautiful picture. Like Love Never Dies, the first time we ever did that in the room your mind just thought 'wow'. So I'm praying that for Anastasia it's as good as I remember. We're very excited to keep that story going, I found it more personal than I anticipated.”
The challenges in originating a role in a new musical are completely different to starring in a long-running show, and his experience with Love Never Dies saw the creation of a new work played out in a hugely public manner.
“I got a thicker skin, I learned how to say no” Ramin explains. “I don't care what people think, as an artist I won't change to appease someone. With all the changes we were doing and the press coming when they did, it was just too soon. I loved that time, I love that show, I think that's some of Andrew's best work – that and Sunset Boulevard.”
Ramin seems relaxed with his relationship with critics, yet is overwhelmingly supportive of the wider Broadway industry which treats performers and creatives with such respect.
“As a kid you sign up to be an actor – never do you think I'm going to be reviewed, I'm going to get a Tony nomination - these are things you learn about as time goes on, it's not what you sign up for. But at the same time, if you sit by the pool you're going to get wet. Social media gives you a million more critics, it's about how much weight you put on other people's opinions. If you try and take it all on you're going to be schizophrenic. I can do a show one person will think I'm the best thing they've ever seen the person next to them can thin I'm the worst thing they've ever seen. Who's right? What does it matter to me – I'm still going to go out the next night and do it. You can only do what you do as best you can.”
For someone who is continually working I imagine it's hard to switch off and relax. When he's not on stage in Murder Ballad he's working on new music or planning upcoming concerts with his Bluegrass band which tours the country later this year.
“I have to be busy with the kids” he explains. “We took two weeks off to go to Florida and it took me to the fourth day – I'm not used to doing nothing, it's hard to relax. Now I ride my Harley or use public transportation to calm down and read a novel – something that's got nothing to do with the show I'm doing. The gym relaxes me, being busy with Dad stuff is great.”
It's clear that the Murder Ballad family have become extremely close throughout their time together, and the company seems particularly tight and comfortable with each other both on and off the stage.
“I haven't suffered post show blues in a while, this one I'm dreading” he laughs. “I love this cast and these people – from Phil in the flies to Sam on sound. Because there are so few of us we've all pitched in to make it work. It's good to leave sad.”
Ramin Karimloo stars in Murder Ballad which runs at the Arts Theatre to 3 December 2016.