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The Industry
Posters advertising musicals including 'Kinky Boots'

Image credit: Lee Snider Photo Images / Shutterstock

‘Kinky Boots’ star Matt Henry, MBE, on his journey to the West End stage and what skills you need to succeed in musical theatre

Matt Henry is an award-winning actor and singer, best known for playing ‘Lola’ in the West End musical Kinky Boots. He won both a WhatsOnStage and Olivier Award for ‘Best Actor in a Musical’ for the role in 2016, and went on to receive an MBE in 2017 for his contribution to theatre.

We spoke to Matt about playing the iconic role on the West End, as well as how he first got into acting and what advice he has for anyone hoping to be in a musical one day. Here’s what he shared:

Hi Matt! What first drew you to performing?

What drew me to performing was watching kids TV and going, “Oh my God, I want to be on that TV show.” There was The Windmill, I think it was, that was on with all these dancing kids from Sylvia Young’s. I was brought up in Birmingham so I was really jealous of those kids that lived in London. 

That was my first draw to singing, dancing, and acting, and then also I started to do that when I was at school. [I] took GCSE drama and A-level performing arts and then [that] got me into theatre.

Why musicals?

What I love about musicals is that you are doing the three disciplines. You get to show off your singing, do a bit of acting, and do a bit of dancing, and tell story through song, dance and acting. I went to Urdang and then the rest is history. I just fell in love with the three disciplines.

Tell us about ‘Kinky Boots’.

I had known about the film for several years, but I never knew about the show and somebody told me, again, “They’re making this show.” And then I heard the songs and they were so relatable to me personally. 

Lola, for me, it’s one of the biggest Black guy roles. There weren’t that many when I was growing up and looking at the West End. I was like, “Where are the shows that best represent me?” And then this show came and I was like, “Wow, this is a role that does represent me,” and I felt very connected to that. 

How did you prepare for the role of ‘Lola’?

I had never done drag in my life and I thought to myself, “Oh my God, how am I going to do this?” And then, when I got the job, I spent the whole summer watching [Ru Paul’s] Drag Race. And I was like, “Okay, I kind of get this whole thing about contouring and tucking,” and then I watched [and asked myself] how would Beyonce do this? How would Beyonce prepare for such a gigantic role? And I read something about her running on a treadmill when she was doing Dream Girls to build the stamina to sing the songs. 

So I started that summer, before rehearsals, getting on the treadmill at the gym and not belting the songs out, but going over the words and singing the songs to myself. Hopefully I didn’t embarrass myself. But just preparing myself for the marathon that the role of Lola was.

How do you maintain yourself for a long run?

It was the first time I got to do a lead role in the West End and I thought, “No one’s going to take this away from me,” and, “How can I sustain doing eight shows a week?” Because it was an eight show role. So then I had to work out how could I have the energy, sustain my voice, and also my skin? 

I watched what I ate, so I didn’t speak until four o’clock. I stopped eating at five o’clock, because I found that the corsets were so tight that if you try to eat anytime late, you’d just be, “Ugh!”

Cindy Lauper[’s] singing teacher arranged for me to have these Skype singing lessons with a woman called Katie Agresta, who is phenomenal. She wasn’t there to give you singing techniques. It was more to do with maintenance of you looking after your voice and how you use your voice as a singer. Because a lot of the times when we’re speaking, especially in loud rooms, to be heard, we raise our voices, and we’re putting immense tension and strain on our vocal chords. And she just taught me how to just take my voice and look after it. And so I didn’t drink alcohol for two years, which was crazy! But I had to sustain looking after myself.

Is it important to be able to sing, dance and act brilliantly to be a performer in a musical?

Be the best at what you are good at. So if you’re a fantastic singer, be the best singer that you can be, be the best dancer that you can be, and be the best actor that you can be. I would always say work on yourself continuously, and even when you’re not working, be working continuously, because you don’t know when the next phone call’s going to come. 

I had a phone call the other day and it was like, “Matt, we need you to sing this song.” And I was like, “Fantastic,” because I had the whole week and I’d been starting to do my singing lessons again, routines and techniques and stuff. And so instantly I could fall into hitting those notes that I needed to hit in the song. 

Also, for young performers coming up, I think go and see shows. Go to class, go to Pineapple [Dance Studios], if you can, come to the Actors Centre. I’m a member of the Actors Centre and I’m an actor that works. So I’m forever, forever working on myself continuously, because I think that’s what you need to do to survive in this industry, which is very cutthroat at times.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell myself, it’s okay. It’s okay to be upset when you didn’t get the role in the Nativity. You weren’t Joseph, and you were one of the angels at the back. It’s okay. When the guys bullied you for doing ballet and told you that you were a little sissy, look, you’re going to become somebody. You’re going to take your talent and it’s going to grow and you’re going to develop into somebody that is going to be on the West End. 

It’s hard as a young performer coming up, because you’re so self aware and you’re so anxious about trying to please all the time, but sometimes we need to just be confident in who we are. And I think that’s why Kinky Boots was so fantastic, because it was all about, ‘Just be you, just be the best that you can be’. And everybody else will accept you or neglect you or reject you, but if you’re being true to yourself, then the whole world is your oyster.

Thanks to Matt for taking the time to talk to us. Take a look at our other video interviews with actors and casting directors and more advice about musical theatre on our website.