Craig Urbani: The Man Behind The Makeup

Theatre ZA: Hey Craig! Thanks for taking the time to chat to us. It’s awesome to sit down with you, you’ve really been everywhere in the last year – Chicago, both here and in Europe, then Great Balls of Fire with Jonathan Roxmouth, in Rock of Ages, and now the fabulous Rocky Horror Show! So it’s great to get to chat to you about all that.

To start off with, please tell us your story. How did you come to be in the performing arts? How did you choose them? And what did you do to get to where you are today?

Craig Urbani: You know, I’m one of the cases where I didn’t choose it, it chose me. There was never a question, there was never any doubt that I would somehow be an entertainer – whether it was acting, singing, playing music, in some capacity I was always going to be doing it. You know, from primary school, even though I played sports, whenever we did a show, the teachers always said: “Craig, you’re going to be doing it.” Even when I tried to steer away from it for whatever reason, they always told me no! And on the way to sporting fixtures, they would always ask me to sing songs by Yazoo, or from Grease. But it was always kind of there. My dad is where the musicality comes from. It was never his main job, he was an accountant, but he always had bands and gigs. And when I was younger I would go along, and I played the drums, and so I would play along reasonably – I probably play as well now as I did when I was 8! [laughs]

Craig Urbani as Billy Flynn in Chicago

But ja, it was always in me. I grew up in Joburg, and growing up I took part in regional competitions and did quite well sometimes in those, and I did well even when I was not quite focused and maybe not applying myself so much. So as I got older, I thought: “Sjoe, you know, I enjoy this, maybe I should pay attention and try a little harder and work at it!” And despite my mom taking me to Eckard Rabe’s house, for him to dissuade me – because he was teaching at Randpark at the time – and he said: “Look, look at me. I’m teaching, I’m out of performing jobs, acting is crazy, acting is difficult, acting is tough…” And we left his house and my mom asked “What are you going to do?” and I said “I’m definitely going to perform.”

So I went to Rhodes University, because I was told the drama department there was awesome, and I had a fantastic four years there. I did a BA, majored in Drama and Journalism – because I enjoyed the journalism, which I felt was also still tapping the creative side – I got offered a job from a creative firm in Sandton for copywriting for good money – we’re talking the early 90’s here – and I got offered a PACT Schools Tour for a couple hundred every week, so I took that as well because I wanted to perform, and that was my first professional job! In 1991. And then after that I started to do little bit of tv stuff, I got a couple adverts, and I was sort of surfing the wave.

TZA: Was this all leading up to a big break? What was the point when you picked up the phone to say “Mom, I’ve made it!”?

Craig Urbani as Buddy in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” in May 2000 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)

CU: Well, it wasn’t so much as calling her because she was there! And that moment was Buddy [The Buddy Holly Story]. But first, I did the Rocky Horror Show in 92/93, I played Rocky – it was with Jeremy Crutchley and Ian von Memerty, David Dennis, all these legends, guys that have stood the test of time – and we did the show, and I played Rocky first, and then Brad. But when I still had the bleached white hair, PACT [The Performing Arts Council of Transvaal] had their auditions, and Pierre van Pletzen called me up because they had seen me at Rhodes, and they thought I was quite funny, they liked my comedic ability. But they didn’t know if I had musicianship or if I could play the guitar, so they called me in. I remember going in, I called my dad beforehand and asked him: “What did this Buddy guy play?” and he gave me the chords over the phone, and luckily I could kind of play a little bit of guitar. So I went in and did it, and the rest is history. I got that role in Joburg ‘93/’94, it took off and it was a phenomenon, the first time it was put up in South Africa – it was in its seventh year in London – and unbeknownst to me, they were kind of grooming me to go over there, to open the show in the new venue it was moving to. So I went over in ’95, I was 24 years old, and played Buddy in London! I was Buddy for a year, and then I did Fame, and I ended up being in London for 11 years. I went back to Buddy once, I did Thoroughly Modern Millie, Kiss Me Kate, Fame, Grease, two pantomimes, and the Happy Days musical where I played the Fonz! [laughs]

TZA: What’s your fondest memory of being overseas?

CU: It was all incredible! I had an incredible time in London, but it was also a wake-up call to how much of a busker I really was – here I was trying to get into all these musicals, and there were people who were technically honed, who were PROPER musical performers. And I had sort of snuck my way in doing a bit of rock and roll here and there. I wasn’t an out and out musical theatre performer, I hadn’t got that specific training at Rhodes – I had trained to be an actor. So I realized there was a lot of technique involved here, and you can’t just get by on a bit of chutzpah and charm! But I trained, I did Thoroughly Modern Millie, I did Kiss Me Kate which is a bit more classical musical theatre, I did a show called Contact, for which I was nominated for an Olivier Award, which came out of nowhere. And it ended up being 11 years abroad, during which was a year of playing Buddy in Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, and New Zealand, and I popped back to South Africa and would do a show every now and then. And then we did Grease here, and I thought I was home for good in 2001. And then again, they asked me to go across to London to play Danny in the UK Tour and in London for a while, at the Dominion Theatre. And then that led to me staying for another few years, and then eventually I came back in 2005. And when I came back then, I wasn’t coming back to stay, I was just coming back for a while, and then I wound up having a child, and I’ve been based back here ever since.

But as I said, there was never a question, even if I had tried to pull away, performing would’ve sucked me back in; I definitely know that I’m doing what I was destined to do. And sometimes you get frustrated and wonder why you didn’t do a more traditional job, but ultimately I know I am doing what I was born to do.

TZA: What advice would you give to youngsters, being an experienced old hand? Maybe when they experience some of the inherent disappointment that comes from being in the industry?

CU: The advice is that it probably won’t go the way you think, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go a way. All you can do is equip yourself. You have to be open to suggestions; you have to be willing to learn. Don’t think you know it all – your best ideas might cause you to get stuck! So just put as many strings in your bow as possible. You know, I can say this because my father used to tell me for years: “Learn to read music”, and I would just go tinkle around on the piano, and use my ear. And at the end of the day I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. My mom always says to me that if she had come to me and asked if I wanted to go to ballet, I would’ve said “Pshhh, no!” But I wish I had. Because I wish I had received a different sort of training. Because I’m a mover, not a dancer. And I play musical instruments, but I’m not a musician. And I can sing, but I’m not a “singer.” And I can act, and I can entertain. But I was never truly the master of any of these aspects. So the advice I can give is to keep an open mind, and prepare yourself to learn.

Craig as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, the 2014 Pantomime at the Joburg Theatre

And you know what we tend to do is we take the good news – you know, when you get the part – and you say “Oh! I got lucky, I got lucky”. But when you get the rejection, you say “I’m not talented enough, I can’t do this anymore, I’m too old, I’m too ugly” or whatever it is that you’re feeling that day. I can honestly say, being on the other side of the casting process, it has nothing to do with your talent. You know if you should be there. Even if you’re not 100% right for the role, you know – or you should know – that you’ve done the work, and you’ve come prepared. As long as you don’t let yourself down, or let nerves cripple you. Al Pacino said this amazing thing, taking about how you’re a performer, you want to perform, you’re an actor, you want to act. So don’t see the audition panel as a group of people judging you, see it as an opportunity to perform! You’ve got a captive audience, what a gift! But for me, auditions are always difficult, and cause anxiety, but if you try and remember that, and just embrace it for what it is: an opportunity to perform. So often, after my periods of self-flagellation and self-criticism, and self-deprecation, I hear from someone involved: “Oh, do you know why you didn’t get that?” And it’s NEVER to do with my talent or ability. And it’s so often a puzzle, and they’re trying to fit things in, and one person comes in and changes the whole dynamic of the puzzle. I’ve just done auditioning for the Queen musical, We Will Rock You, and I tell you now, phenomenally talented, brilliant performers came in, did great jobs, and got nothing. And that’s because of an age thing, a style thing, a look thing – not because they couldn’t do it, or weren’t good enough.

There is not one success story out there who hasn’t been told “You didn’t get it” or “You’re not right for this” or had someone question whether they’re in the right industry. They’ve all been there, everyone who has made it has had to overcome those kinds of knocks and setbacks. And those clichés come to mind, you know: what’s for you, will happen. And if it doesn’t open, it’s not your door. I mean, I have been devastated – in 1993, I worked so hard to try and get the role of Curly in Oklahoma. And I was training and training and training, and I was trying to get the singing right, but I knew deep down inside myself I wasn’t really hacking it. And when Philip Godawa and Graham Scott called me and said “Craig, you didn’t get it”, I remember being so devastated, I was in the middle of a rehearsal, and I was broken. And that night I got an email about a new rock ‘n roll musical called Buddy. So you have to trust, you’ve got to trust. And I was like, what is this Buddy thing? May as well go. And it was life altering.

TZA: Can you tell us a bit about Rock of Ages? What was that like?

Josh Ansley (L) as Drew and Craig (R) as Dennis in Rock of Ages

CU: It’s just such a fun show! Rock of Ages is a piece of pink fluff, and they have all the ‘80s anthems in there, and they’ve interwoven some outlandish characters and love stories around all these iconic rock songs. And it’s great fun! It’s just a sheer, unadulterated party, laugh, it’s in your face, no subtlety, and we had a great cast! Both old hands and some young, wonderful talent. VR Theatrical are a wonderful company to work for. I’m so pleased that we have this new production possibility in the industry, they’re a company with a lot of integrity and a lot of heart, and they’re good people. And they’ve come up through the ranks – you know, as Jaco [van Rensburg] was a performer, and Wessel [Odendaal] is also a performer. They’re doing a lot of great work! And that’s important because a lot of the time you can get producers that don’t care about the performers, or at least appear to not care. They just seem to care about bums on seats, and money in the bank, and you kind of get that feeling like: “Do you even know what’s going on here?” But with VR Theatrical you know that they do know. And we did the show two years ago and it was awesome, and now we’re doing it and it’s going to be more awesome! Two years ago was at the Lyric – lovely venue, not the best location.

So it’s awesome that they maintained the rights, and got the opportunity to bring it back. I remember Brian Hilve from Montecasino being very supportive two years ago, and they talked the talk and followed through! And it was a blast and we had a great cast and crew.

And my character, Dennis, is hilarious! Alec Baldwin played him in the movie. He’s kind of this crazy old rocker who owns the Bourbon Room, and he wants to keep his bar open, and keep rock alive, and then they have a very funny storyline twist with the Russell Brand character, Lonnie, where they fall in love, which is hilarious, and I don’t think you see it coming! The film is a little different from the musical, they changed some minor storylines and took a bit of creative license with some of the songs, but it’s the same story overall.

TZA: So then, if you were an ’80s song, which one would you be and why?

CU: I wasn’t so much of a rocker hey, I was more of a pop boy. [laughs] So if I was an ‘80s song, I’d be more of an A-Ha – “Take On Me”. That kind of sums it up for me – that was the vibe I was into. I wanted to be Morten Harket so badly. I’m a pop dude! But if I had to be a rock song… I wouldn’t know! Maybe REO Speedwagon, because I remember playing drums in my garage to REO Speedwagon to “Keep On Lovin’ You”. I could always hear the song in my head, but all my mom and the neighbours could hear was the bashing and crashing of cymbals! [laughs] Because these were the days pre-electric drums, you know all acoustic.

TZA: Last year you did the Chicago European Tour, and spent some time over there. What was that like?

CU: It’s one of my favourite shows, one of my favourite roles, and I’m glad I got to do it again – I played it once 11 years ago. This time I felt more mentally ready, a bit wiser. I love playing Billy, I love the role, I love him, I love the show. It’s slick, it’s sophisticated, it’s intelligent, it’s sexy. We had a good run of it; it was a little challenging, as we had non-English speaking audiences in some places where they had subtitlecards standing on the side of the stage. And I joined the cast – Jonathan [Roxmouth] did it before me, and then he went off to do Phantom of the Opera, so I joined the cast in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and I didn’t do China where they were quite used to reading the subtitles, and you do get a lot of energy back. And that for me is actually what I love about theatre – that interaction, that exchange of energy between audience and actor, and so where they weren’t as used to it, we didn’t have that, and that made it challenging in Germany. I don’t think they didn’t appreciate it, as they would tell us at the end that they loved it, but they don’t speak very good English, they’re one step behind the game, they’re trying to follow both performance and story, and that made the two hour performance of the show a little more tiring than it would’ve been otherwise.

TZA: Speaking of getting tired, how do you keep a show fresh if you have to perform it so many times in a row?

CU: There’s the degree of plain old professionalism where it’s “Get on and do your job”, but there are always going to be days when you feel like doing it more or less than others. But some days trying works against you, and you’re trying so hard, you’re ready, you got lots of sleep, you’re on my A-game, but for some reason it’s not landing. You have other days when you feel a little tired, a little under the weather, and it just seems to ping and bounce, and you are aware that that show was a TREMENDOUS show. And what I do pride myself on, is that I never want to know when people are in. Because I always want to give 100%, and as I said, there are days when I know my 100% will land bang on, and days when it’s not going to happen. But I always love walking out of stage door or coming out of my room and thinking: “Oh, were you in?” And it’s someone who has done the show before, or someone who you respect, or your director, and so on. And I’d rather not know beforehand, because I get too into my head, and overthinking can kill you. You need to go on your instincts, you need to be flowing. And I sometimes feel like when you’re about to go on and you hear “so and so is here” you always think “Ooo, I wish I didn’t know that.”

But on the other hand, I thrive off the energy that I can create on stage with the other performers. It’s a major key for me. Because those are the days when you feel a little low, or a little less than 100%, and that spark happens, and then you know something magical happened on the stage and you never want to do anything else in your life other than perform. Other days you are trying so hard to maintain or achieve that, and it works against you. You can’t understand when or why it happens, but when it does, it’s a thing of beauty. But when you can’t you just have to do the work, and that’s when it feels like a job.

TZA: Having done both stage and screen, can you tell us what your favourite aspects are of each?

CU: I love the interaction of stage, but it depends on the day. Some days you just feel a little more low-key, a little more focused, a little more “in”, and to be on camera is so different in terms of the energy that is required. And it’s an area where I think I need to learn so much; I don’t think I’m great on camera – I think I’m okay – but I’ve gotten better. I’m too still. I honestly think my niche is far closer to stage than camera, but I enjoy it! I like the focus and stillness of the moment. And I always get told “Less, less, less” because I’m quite energetic and frenetic, and I move a lot, but I need to be more still and contained. And in that sense, I watch someone like Liev Shcreiber in Ray Donovan, and he’s so amazing! He does nothing, he’s still, there’s nothing on his face, but he tells a whole story! And I’ve tried to do that, and I cut all my movement, and then the director will say, “Craig, stop that. What are you doing?” And I say, “I’m doing Ray Donovan!” and they say, “No, no, act. Do what you do.” And it’s always a learning process. I did two international things last year, one with Edgar Ramirez – who is a stupendous actor – and that was just fighting with him, and the other one was a character in the series called Warrior. And I watched myself there, and even with the director having pulled me back I was still, I think, a little too big. And this is having got away with it! You know, we filmed it, it’s done, it’s out there, I still look at it and think, “Yikes, I was doing too much.” You know, I was playing this real badass guy. But to me, it looks like someone trying to tell other people that “I’m bad” instead of just being bad. And there’s the conundrum: There are days when I absolutely love it and can’t get enough, and days where I can’t tap into it at all. So it’s the same, but different. You have days when the theatre just pings, and days when the more you try the less effect you have. And you have days where you feel like you’re telling the story with your eyes, and you’re still and you’re focused, and other days where you’re trying to achieve that and you just can’t get it!

And in terms of it being a learning process at every point, it’s hard to keep yourself focused and keep things in perspective when you’re being told how great you are all the time, and it’s hard to keep things in perspective when you’re constantly being told you’re not good enough and you can’t sing high enough. So it’s all about balance, and trying to learn! And honestly, the moment we stop learning, we stop living. And in my life, I’ve had to be open to learning, because I’ve spent portions of my life not being on my A-game, drinking too much, getting myself into a situation where my best thinking, and my ego, and my arrogance, and my knowing it all got me to a very bad place. And I needed help, and I got help. I got help on a personal level, and that helped me on a professional level. You have to be open to suggestions, you have to be willing to learn, you have to be willing to admit that you made a mistake, and to be vulnerable and show some humility. That’s a huge asset!

TZA: Do you have any pre-show rituals?

CU: I do tend to find a spot – and I do like it when we’re in a vast space, like when we were in Europe, some of the theatre were ENORMOUS, so massive, so backstage was huge – so I find a light, or a spot where I talk to a higher power, or whatever you want to call it, a God, and I don’t ask for anything, but I just give thanks and keep in touch. And I try to do that just before I go on. I think I did that almost every night, if not every night, for Chicago. And it depends on the show, how I’m feeling before the show, how challenged I am in terms of the role I’m doing, but I did that for Chicago definitely, I always looked at the same spot. And I don’t end up going, “Please let tonight go well”, I just try and say thanks, that I’m doing what I love, I put it out in the universe that I’m grateful for getting the gift, playing in one of my favourite shows, one of my favourite roles, please let me do it justice.

TZA: If you had to pick one, what would your dream role be?

CU: You know it’s funny, when we were doing Rock of Ages two years ago, Clare Taylor – she was playing Sherri – she said to me, “What do you like to play again?” and I said I would love to play Billy Flynn [in Chicago] again. I think I was drinking too much, and I was too ungrateful when I played it in 2008, I said I’d love to have another shot at that – and then that I’d love to play Frank-n-Furter. And the universe answered! It really has been a massive gift to me. I’ve never played Frank, and I messaged Matthew Wilde at the Fugard and said “If you’re ever doing it again, please consider me for Frank!” because a lot of people wouldn’t consider me right for it! But I’m not afraid to do the camp, over-the-top thing, and I’ve always identified and feel like I really know that character, that blend of macho meets camp, man meets woman, zany and wacky. So when the opportunity came, and Pieter Toerien sent me an email and asked me to come in for it, and the overseas guys came, it was one of the few auditions I’ve walked out of and thought: “I’m gonna play that.” It was a perfect aligning.

Craig as Frank-n-Furter in the Rocky Horror Show

I’ve been trying to get myself in shape for Rocky Horror – I’m 49 years old! – donning fishnets and a corset and high heels, but again it’s the gratitude thing. I put it out there, and I got given a gift.

TZA: What is your go-to audition song?

CU: Depends on the audition. For Billy, they made me sing sides.  If it’s a “musical” musical I sing a cut from Jekyll & Hyde called “A Man Could Go Quite Mad”. It’s nice, it’s big, it’s at the top of my range, and it’s like a big piece of meat that I can chew on. When I auditioned for We Will Rock You, they wanted a rock song, so I sang “Sex On Fire” in a musical theatre style, because I was going for Kashoggi so I could vamp it up and make it work for the character. And from Kiss Me Kate, there’s a Cole Porter song called “Where Is The Life That Late I Led” which I tend to go to because it’s an acting piece, and you can show some range and you’re not just standing there singing something. What’s difficult for shows like Rock of Ages, they want to hear a rock song, but they also want you to emote the rock song. If you were at a gig, you would just go sing “Don’t Stop Believin’”, but for the audition, you can’t just sing. It can be a bit difficult to get that balance right with these jukebox musicals as opposed to the more traditional shows.

TZA: What are you currently watching on Netflix?

CU: Ray Donovan! I love it, I love him. I watched Ozark, I think Jason Bateman is fantastic, he can do it all. I’m trying to get to the new Handmaid’s Tale! I’m not up to date.

TZA: What was the last song you listened to?

CU: I’ve been doing a lot of Billie Eilish lately, because my daughter is in charge of the Spotify. Her songs are all so depro, but I really like her! I rate her very highly. And a song I’ve been loving at the moment is Andy Grammer’s new song, that’s the one I play for myself.

TZA: Thanks Craig! We really appreciate you sitting down to chat with us. All the best for 2020!

Craig Urbani can be seen as Dr Frank-n-Furter in the Rocky Horror Show at the Teatro at Montecasino until March 1 2020. Tickets are available at the box office and on Computicket.

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