Currently playing to packed houses at the Adelphi Theatre, today’s one-of-a-king guests steps every night into one of the most memorable characters of film, and now theatre, History. Guillermo Názara chats with lead actor Olly Dobson, who originated the main role in the musical adaptation of the emblematic 80s movie Back To The Future. All the way from the West End! Or should we say Hill Valley?
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Welcome to our show!
Hey, how’s it going?
Really well! So first of all, congratulations on such an amazing show. I think that it must be staggering to be in such a great production every night, because I saw it last Thursday and it was remarkable, really remarkable.
Yeah it’s easily the biggest and, you know, in my opinion the best thing I’’ve ever been involved in. I’m just gonna be eternally grateful for this opportunity that has come my way to play such an iconic role that people know and love. And yeah, like I said I’m just, I will forever be grateful to everyone that gave me the opportunity to do this. And yes, it’s tons of fun every single night.
Now that you mentioned it’s such an iconic character um and many people, many members of the audience already know that character. They have grown very fond of it, but this is a new adaptation. So how do you take the challenge of originating a character that many people know and you sort of have to give the people what they want but at the same time you have to make that character your own? How do you approach that as an actor?
Um, so luckily for me I have the film to go off which is the one thing that everyone knows and it’s the only thing that people know about Marty McFly. The source material is ‘Back to the future – The movie’ and one of the most exciting things for me was not only honing in on paying homage to Michael J. Fox and his and his performance. I watched the film many times years ago. I’ve seen the film so many times anyway but when I got the job I thought: You know what? I’m gonna write down a list of the things that I remember about Marty McFly. And then what I did was as I watched the film and as I was watching the film I was not only ticking the things that I’d already written down while watching the film and going: “Oh his voice”. I remember that: “oh he likes to walk backwards a lot, that’s another thing”. I also crossed them out if I thought I was wrong going off what I thought. I also wrote down new ones as well.
And then at the end I had accumulated a list of things that I thought people might love to see and that was off the back of my memory. that was off of memory so then what happened was I got into the rehearsal room and your director tells you what to do in certain cases. So sometimes that might go against what was in the film whether that’s right or wrong, we don’t know there, never is, but you know with respect to john rando of course I’m going to try and give everything i can to the notes that I get given the direction I get given.
And the funny thing is this is easily my favorite question I always get asked and I wanted to pay enough respect to Michael J. Fox myself and the new guys that didn’t even know the film… We’ve had people that haven’t seen it, which is obviously amazing to say. That it’s like: What? Have you not seen the film? But just to as an actor, to put your own thing on such an iconic thing already that’s a dream. That is incredible because you think: “Oh my God, I’m adding to this thing. Is that okay? Should I be doing this?”. And yeah, it ended up being so much fun, creating this role again, if you will, co-creating it. Because I always think I’ve done it secretly with Michael, even though we’ve never been in the same room together. And yeah, it was more about seeing and it was more about thinking what people wanted.
And then, when i got into the audition room I’m so: well, that might happen a couple of times. So basically I thought about what Michael was Marty. I watched it and I correlated the notes and then I did a fresh set of lists. I put that all together and I tried to basically play bingo, very essentially tried to do as many things as I could. Further into rehearsals, we realized: don’t need that, don’t need that, definitely need this and it changed again. When I opened in Manchester, I thought: yeah don’t do that, do this and so on and so on… And I can happily say since press night… Well, that would be a lie there are still things that I change and add all the time seven months into a run and it’s so much fun. I love that I’ve been given the chance to play all the time but the main focus is always to tell the story and that’s what we do every single night. I don’t ever do anything to change it up just for me, I do it if it feels right in that moment and the one thing I would say is I do sound like him on stage I feel like that was the most important thing people wanted. And I think I might have been right with that one if I might have been wrong.
And talking about you know those things that are right and those things that are wrong, are those just a feeling that you have or do you also benefit from the feedback that you get from the audience? Do you sometimes consider: “well, what I’m doing may not have the response that I wanted and that is why I decided to change the approach in the character”?
If I were to put it into terms of laughter: “oh this line didn’t get as much of a laugh as I thought it would, do let me change it to get the laugh”, there aren’t many cases where i want to do that. I would much rather it naturally happen. I see what you’re saying but I usually don’t let the audience’s reaction drive change in me because sometimes I find that that might be from an actor’s perspective: “oh where’s my laugh / i’m going to change it for me to get a laugh”.
There might be a couple of moments that I’ve done where it might be like a silly noise that he makes in reaction to something, but um generally speaking what we’ve said and what we set a long time ago it kind of stays.
With Marty McFly it really has been a long time ago because you were in the rehearsal room during the workshops at the dominion theater, then you went to play the character in Manchester then in london. It’s been a huge process until you know you arrived at the Adelphi theater. How has it been to create a character from the very inception during the workshop process? How was the workshop process? How different was Marty at that moment that it is you know today and also in manchester?
So in all the workshop versions we did, and I can’t even tell you how many we did now… it was a few years ago. I think we did one, I think we did three, I can’t remember… In the workshops the very first one I was essentially, the very closest version, I could have got to Michael J fox. I only did one audition for this and you know at the time they said you know it’s only gonna be for two weeks – no guarantee. but the way I looked at it is I thought that those two weeks are going to be my auditions – two weeks of auditions. so that was the mentality I went into the room with.
And in the workshops, I was very much helping everyone in the creative process of how we do this. Here’s a version of what we think he’ll be so I brought to the table my impersonation, my version of Marty Mcfly. I think for me that helped with Roger Bart and Hugh Coles and Rosie and scenes when we’re doing it together – just to get it up on its feet. But the further we went on in different workshop processes, all the way up until Manchester, we realized that there’s scope here to put your own spin on it. So yeah basically what I would say would be that at the top we started with essentially not a spitting image but Michael J Fox’s Marty, who most people love and everyone loves and that filtered through and it’s a weird one, right? I didn’t expect this to happen but we got to Manchester and I’m not quite Michael J Fox anymore. I’ve got my own spin on it.
The lockdown happened and I made a very conscious effort to not look at the script nor watch the film. I had to take myself away from it because I didn’t know when we were going to come mentally. I didn’t want to get myself excited or upset and you know all that sort of nonsense. and basically when I came back to London it was like my body had lost parts of the muscle memory. It was a blessing in disguise, because my homage to Michael J Fox was always there and is and what will always be there. I’ve watched this film for all of my life – he’s always going to be there in the mannerisms and the way in which I speak. But what happened physically and listening-wise is I was able to respond with Marty’s character but actively do it differently because I had so much time for my body to not purge itself of the memory of my version of Marty in manchester. but it enabled change, it enabled me to work differently and play a lot more and i think that really helped, it really helped build another layer to marty mcfly, in my version of him anyway.
And I am weirdly grateful for the lockdown – obviously a terrible terrible thing that happened, but in terms of having the time to just not really sit on it and then come back and be like full pelt again I was discovering things I never would have found before. and that enabled me as an actor to generally allow myself to not be so involved in my work all the time. It allows me to be fresher when I’m on stage every day. I’m incredibly lucky to have this much time to create something like this. you don’t usually have three years totally – you usually have, well not that really, you’re not supposed to have that much time. but i’m super lucky and i’m very thankful that I did have that opportunity because i’m very happy with well i’m very happy with where he is right now.
Would you say that after that new layer of complexity some of your own personality, your own traits have been given to the character?
Yeah – absolutely. Marty McFly is a 17 year old kid. How do I play a 17 year old kid? There are so many versions of what people think is a kid so I decided to access my own teen self you know to allow myself to get distracted, allow myself to pick things up and look around. teenagers are curious, they’re curious about everything and they’re a bit more animated you know giving that youthfulness to them – you know, not so still. I was just trying to access parts of me that I remember being young because essentially that’s a version of a 17 year old kid that you know some people have never seen before.
So I used that as opposed to studying 17 year old kids. I just sort of recognized what it is in my life that I like that could be deemed as childis. I don’t know but i love watching cartoons, so for me watching cartoons was a really easy way of finding mannerisms and physicality that I could maybe hopefully translate into the human world, like double takes or a really quick shake of the head and high pitched noises, low pitch playing around with it, creating this sort of um whack-a-doodle thing going on with it… And then naturally speaking that all calms down and it all comes instead of being this caricature, I sort of then honed in on it and made it focused thought about the choices. I was making my intention in scenes and I would just allow myself as a teenager to sometimes get distracted because it gives a sense of youthfulness. yeah i’m talking a lot but it was actually very important to me that i just i found a youthfulness to him yeah um you know I don’t want people thinking that that’s a that’s an adult yeah playing a kid you know I get it thankfully.
Apart from you know all the demand it has regarding the acting while creating this character, it’s also an extremely technical show and you in particular but you’re on stage almost all the time. And it has a lot of choreographie, a lot of very demanding scenes, so did you need any special preparation for this? Because it’s extremely energetic and your acting is extremely energetic, so to be able to cope with almost three hours of show every night must not be easy.
I think the most important thing is managing physical exhaustion. So on a double show day it’s hard to be talking all the time in between shows that you know that’s just another layer of this, it is using me up. This is running the tank dry, using the tank dry and all this sort of all that. If I were to tell you how I prepared for this role to do it seven times a week: when I was in the workshops I made sure that I was ready to sing 10 a.m every single day and this goes for rehearsals in Manchester and london. I never didn’t not go full out so for me it was about building stamina, building an association to what it is that it would do to me. so thursday workshops 10 a.m till 6 p.m, I would go all the time. Not only did i want to prove to them that i want this role but with the two weeks I’ve got I know it’s going to be a lot because everyone knows the film. he’s in the film all the time so I figured on stage, I’d be on i would be on stage all the time as well it was just about repetition doing it over and over and over technically speaking you know when i do a lot of shouting i would make sure that I’m in a place physically, where i can exude that much energy especially, when you’re shouting because that can be quite detrimental to your singing voice as well.
I pride myself on technique and I had wonderful training when I was at college so I didn’t have to go back to any of those sorts of things. I knew what to do, I knew what to do but in terms of building up stamina that was the trickiest thing. and that kind of demanded me to do it full out every day and then when we got to london, I was able to sit on the gas a bit because i’d done it i’d got there I know what it is I need to do. and as i’m growing into this role and realizing being a lead you can’t actually always go full out you know. there has to be moments where you reign it in for the sake of your voice – being able to do it. But it’s about repetition, not letting your mental self get to you going: oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that. if you’re already saying that you’re not gonna be, you’re not gonna do it. so for me it was about having self-belief and trusting in the processes of my technique and the want to do it. I love this job and I think that helps too apart from that
And as I was saying, it’s a very technical show. Usually when shows are so technical, especially this one, I’m not going to spoil it for everyone but those who go see it just be prepared to be wowed. But usually when something is so technical bloopers happen and I was wondering if you have had any funny bloopers that you would like to share with us.
I think directly with me the biggest blooper that happened was on the very first preview in london and I went to go do the guitar solo and the guitar strap just broke and I was like I can’t hold a guitar up by just the neck it’s impossible so that was a really that was a hard one. That was a bit that was a bit iffy. That didn’t feel great, I won’t lie to you and we’ve had a few issues with the car and random noises being played out during scenes where it’s like: that’s not supposed to happen for an hour, what’s going on here? But in case I get told off by my bosses I’m not gonna say anymore, without spoiling anything for anyone.
And have there been during the previews or even during the trial to manchester many changes to the show that may have affected you to your character to the development of your scenes or or anything like that?
The biggest change would be the fact that the Manchester Opera House is a huge stage huge. The only change really is set went from this to that without. So blocking in scenes for me was a little bit different but like I said previously I took myself out of the job after manchester um so when I came back to london it was very I was very welcoming and I think a lot of people were of the changes that were going to happen you know because we weren’t sitting waiting for it if anything I forgot what the set was like it was a long time. It’s a long, long time.
Brilliant. To end this interview, if you would have to give me only one reason to go see Back to the future, apart from seeing you of course, which one would it be?
You know when you say to someone: “oh you should go and do this because the people that run it are really lovely people and love what they do”. Like say, whenever I’ve been on holiday I’ve had friends say to me you should go to this lovely quaint family restaurant because it’s run by them and they love what it is that they do and you usually end up having one of the best meals ever. The company here, the entire company, crew, front of house…
We all love this job and I promise you that if you’re anxious about your favorite film being ruined, it’s not. We have treated these characters and the technical aspects with so much love and care.
How do I explain this? This is a really hard question… It’s like… we love the film as much as everyone else, we know what it means to everyone and I just want everyone to know that the work and the amount of effort that came from everyone in this building, to make sure that it was right, was incredible. We pay massive amounts of respect to the film – that’s what we know people want to see in a way and plus the other side of things that you’ve never seen before.
Back To The Future – The Musical is performed from Wednesdays to Mondays. Tickets are available on the following link.