by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-10-26
While the rest of the UK's Jewish community was fasting on Yom Kippur, Andy Nyman was at an undisclosed location watching magician Derren Brown play Russian Roulette.
"That was Kol Nidre," he says, "and it was remarkably daunting. I was like wow, not only do I feel remarkably guilty about missing Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur but Derren could potentially kill himself, which felt very strange."
As the magician's co-writer and director, having worked on all of his TV shows and his stage show, Nyman has seen Derren through all of the mind control stunts that have turned him into one of the UK's hottest magical talents (he even won a Silver Rose at the Montreux Television festival this year for his efforts).
The Leicester native is also an actor in his own right, with appearances in the likes of British thriller The Criminal, Martin Amis adaptation Dead Babies, sitcom Baddiel's Syndrome and Uprising, a TV movie about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, which saw him starring alongside David Schwimmer and Donald Sutherland.
Today, however, Nyman is lost. En route to a rehearsal room in West London while he chats on the phone, he keeps stopping to ask people for directions and in one or two instances even asks me if he knows his whereabouts (after I admit my own affinity with West London). An enthusiastic interviewee, he liberally peppers his dialogue with superlatives - everything is 'massive', 'extraordinary' or 'phenomenal', and just occasionally, 'amazing' - which, given the amount of actors who are less enthusiastic about discussing their work, comes as a refreshing change
How did the Derren Brown show come about?
I do a lot of magic so I was approached by the company who do his show, and because of my acting career I didn't want to commit to it. But then Gerry Sadowitz knew Derren and recommended him to the production company, and they went to him and offered him the job, and asked if we would work together, and I could help co-develop the material, write scripts and kind of direct Derren as well. That's how we first met. But I had seen him at a magic convention before and he was absolutely unbelievable, fantastic. We got on very very well. I've worked on every show he's done, probably for about the last three and a half years, and obviously I was very much involved in the whole Russian Roulette show.
Were you surprised by the reaction to the show, in particular the Jersey police putting the reality of the stunt into question?
I don't know. Kind of legally, there's very little we can actually talk about, but I wasn't surprised, I don't know what else they're going to say about it. But it's been a phenomenon and we're absolutely over the moon with the whole thing really, how well it went, how well he did, and how extraordinary the reaction was and how it seemed to capture everyone's imagination.
How did you get involved in magic?
I always loved it, the whole idea of it and the psychology of the magic that I absolutely loved. There was a robbery in Leicester where I lived, when I was about 12 or 13, and this robbery was very bold, they went into the shop - I think it was called Woolco - and they just went in in the middle of the day and piled everything up, all the white goods and got someone to sign for it, and then they just walked out, and I thought that was amazing, to have the chutzpah to understand that if you're as bold as that you can get away with it. My uncle was very into magic, and he gave me a magic set - the two things happened at about the same time, so I think if I hadn't gotten into magic maybe I'd have been a criminal, I don't know! Magic's always been my hobby though, while I've gone very high profile with it, I've always considered it my hobby.
How do you think it's changed in the last 100 years, since the likes of Houdini were around?
In some respects it's undergone massive changes and in others there's been no change at all. You know, Houdini was an absolute genius when it came to manipulating the press and capturing the imagination with stunts, and today people like Derren and David Blaine are doing the same thing. But the world has changed so much, the industry is so much more savvy, we've seen so much more and it's more media friendly. The sort of stuff they're doing is the sort of stuff Houdini would be doing if he were alive, I expect.
How important is your Jewish background to you?
Well, I'm not frum, but it's a massive part of who I am and it's very very important to me. I say the Shema every day - probably as much force of habit as everything else. I don't go to shul that often, but it's massively important to me. (at this point Andy, finding himself somewhere between Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road, breaks off to ask a passing stranger for directions).
Do you remember what your Barmitzvah was like?
Oh God yeah. The actual Barmitzvah was in Leicester, which has a beautiful shul, and then we went up to Leeds for a big Simcha, which was fantastic. It really was.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well Derren's doing a new series which we're just writing at the moment. But I'm about to appear in a drama for Channel 4 called Played. It's the first time that someone's actually written a script specially for me. It's part of a season of Dogme films (films which are made by a certain code of practice, which forbids the use of artificial lighting, special effects and other things commonly used in filmmaking) that they have each year. It's a very nice role, and a very nice script about two brothers.
How did you enjoy starring in Uprising with David Schwimmer?
It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I've ever had. As someone whose Jewish identity is massively important - my mum comes from a Polish background, my dad's side is Russian - to be doing a film about the Warsaw Ghetto, where they rebuilt the whole ghetto, brick by brick, was absolutely mind-blowing, to have a scene on a roof as one of the freedom fighters, firing a huge machine gun at 1,000 extras dressed as Nazis, was really a very odd experience, but incredibly liberating. It was just one of those times when you think everything's come together, I'm doing what I should be doing.
Would you like to do more Jewish roles?
It doesn't bother me. That was particularly good because it was so heavily researched, but if you were a black actor to only play black parts would become so constraining. And I think to be a Jewish actor, there's clearly a sensibility it you're doing plays by Jewish playwrights where you kind of have a level of understanding, in the same way as when you meet someone who's Jewish you have that common ground. But the idea of just doing Jewish roles, I don't really know what that means.
What was David Schwimmer like to work with?
Phenomenal. He's an extraordinary actor, and a proper actor, very much somebody who has been a theatre actor and trained and takes it seriously, he was extraordinarily professional and everything you want him to be. Delightful. A mensch.
You also starred in Dead Babies, based on the Martin Amis novel, which wasn't that well received by critics - what did you make of the reaction?
It is a film and a half, I've got to tell you. Here was a film with no stars at that time but a very very good cast of solid British actors, an extraordinary script - but it's always going to be a brave and revolting project, it's not a multiplex smash, but it should have been. It's come out now on DVD in America and there's a cult that's beginning to follow it around. For me of course it's a shame it wasn't this massive smash, but it was a massive step forward because having been a jobbing actor for 13-14 years, suddenly this is a massive step up. Personally it's something I spent my life wanting to do so irrespective of the critical acclaim or how it did at the box office it was a great sense of personal achievement. It went to Cannes, and it went to LA and then I got an LA agent and out of that I got Uprising, so I'm very happy I did it. And I got pretty amazing reviews for it! I was very blessed. Again, it's a weird dilemma because on the one hand you're getting on good reviews, on the other they're saying the film's bad, so am I supposed to value their opinion of me and not of the film - it's really complicated, and it's rubbish, the whole reviews thing, it's useful as well. It's useful rubbish.
What other areas of the arts interest you?
I sing. When I kicked off I started doing musicals and then took myself out of musicals, to become a 'serious' actor when you've been doing musical theatre is very difficult. I'm very ambitious, I don't like being told what I can and can't do. I directed Derren's stage show, he's going into the West End next year and doing another tour, and directing is something that I love. I'm writing a movie at the moment and at some stage in the next five years I'd like to direct a film. I've spent my life being obsessed with films and I can now be in that world and I consider myself very fortunate, firstly to have had a passion and secondly to have followed that passion and still be doing it 16 years out of drama school. There were other people in my year at drama school who never ever worked a day afterwards.
When was the last time you set foot inside a synagogue?
Rosh Hashanah. I went back to Leicester and went with my parents. I would have gone for Yom Kippur but Derren Brown was putting a bullet in his head that night. I didn't fast, because I was working and I felt like 'well, I'm either going to do the whole thing or I'm not,' which is kind of a ridiculous excuse but that's what I feel. I'll do two days next year.
Who are your favourite magicians?
Derren, obviously. Ricky Jay. And I think David Blaine is phenomenal.
Does Derren have any forthcoming plans that you can reveal?
No. The truth is, what he's got planned at the moment is a six part series, then the stage tour, so we're in the middle of writing the series then it'll be making changes to the stage show and directing that when it goes out again, and then I don't know. It's also fitting around whatever I'm filming, I go to LA a lot, but it all seems to work very very very well, because we work together so well.
What inspires you? Where do your ideas come from?
Anywhere and everything, really and truly, and one of the things that we love is just coming up with things - it's like, I'm looking at a banana box now, and it could be anything, the colour of it, the design. Films clearly are a massive influence for us, and then in terms of my writing, not for Derren's stuff, my other stuff, it's more films, really.
What's your favourite film?
There are films that I go back to a lot, I'm very very sentimental. I've always loved The Goodbye Girl. And I'm a massive horror film fan. Recently, there was a Japanese film, Dark Water, which apart from the strange last few minutes, it was terrific. It absolutely knocked me for six, it was terrifying. As a ghost story, it's perfect.