For ‘Love Actually Live’ star Rex Smith, Billy Mack is Iggy Pop meets Jayne Mansfield
“Love Actually Live,” a blockbuster for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in 2018, has opened for a second run. Do we have a new holiday tradition?
The show, produced by the Wallis in partnership with For the Record, is a kind of movie/jukebox musical/rock concert chimera, interweaving clips from the 2003 Universal movie “Love Actually” with live performances of its soundtrack. Whatever you think of the production, it’s hard to deny that it’s a fairly meta experience.
For the record:
2:53 PM, Dec. 18, 2019An earlier version of this article misstated Rex Smith’s TV credits. They include “As the World Turns” but not “Days of Our Lives.”
You’re watching the film, with its nine intertwined story lines and starry ensemble — Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley — and you’re also watching live actors dressed up like those stars, singing pop hits by Joni Mitchell, Kelly Clarkson, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, the Beatles …
The element that perhaps blurs the lines between film and stage and life the most is Rex Smith in the role of Billy Mack, the roguish rocker staging a comeback, played in the film by Bill Nighy.
“Bill Nighy’s an actor playing an aging rock star; I’m an aging rock star playing an actor,” Smith says.
Smith‘s may not be a household name these days. But there was a time when mobs of screaming girls pursued him everywhere he went. That was his teen idol phase, starting in 1979 with the made-for-TV movie “Sooner or Later.” Before that, he’d done a hard-rock phase, recording two albums with his band Rex and opening for Ted Nugent. Later he had a TV star phase: “Street Hawk,” “As the World Turns,” “Solid Gold.”
His Broadway leading man thing was really more than a phase, covering 30 years and roles in “Grease,” “Grand Hotel,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Pirates of Penzance” (he also starred in the movie) and others.
Now 64, Smith says, “I’ve outlived my fame. And that’s fine. I’m the guy at Home Depot getting paint chips for my bathroom.”
He’s healthy, happily married to his fourth wife. He has five children. (Until 1997, he thought he had four children. Then a 16-year-old boy approached him after a performance of “Sunset Boulevard” in Canada with news: On her deathbed, his mother had told him that his dad was Smith. Smith embraced this son, Brandon, now 39, who has a child of his own — Smith’s first grandchild.)
In his 20s, he would buzz his biplane upside down over Linda Ronstadt’s place in Malibu as she and her boyfriend, Jerry Brown, waved below. Andy Warhol questioned him for Interview magazine. At some point, he attended culinary school.
He has done so much and known so many people that he comes across as a real-life version of the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis ads. But as he told The Times in this edited conversation, he still gets a thrill out of performing live, even — or especially? — while wearing nothing but gold lame shorts.
You must like doing this show, because you’re back for a second time.
You can’t buy what I’m doing. I’m working with hugely talented people, like Anderson Davis [adapter and director of “Love Actually Live”]. I’m sort of channeling Iggy Pop and Jayne Mansfield at the same time. And here’s a little bullet point that just came to me as I was driving over: This isn’t a jukebox musical, this is a jack-in-the-box musical, and I’m the court jester that pops out.
How did you get involved the first time?
My manager suggested it. It went to the casting office in New York, and apparently like an hour later, “Oh my God, ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ was the first Broadway show I ever saw.” I’m the guy you don’t think of, but I always come in and do the best I got. The end of this show, it’s 1977 again and I’m at Madison Square Garden. I know how to take the roof off a place.
Had you seen the movie when you signed on?
Yeah, but I’ll tell you this. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, when I got the script. I’m having the best cup of coffee. I’m looking at the script: “Billy Mack enters the house and then goes center stage, dot dot dot, naked.” I literally spit my coffee. I ask my wife, “Did you see that? Naked?” She’s just nonplussed, like, “Oh, yeah.” She goes, “It’s in the movie.” I go, “I must have been getting a glass of wine when that happened.” And she got me the gold shorts that I wear, off of Amazon. Because some of the other ideas were a little too Jayne Mansfield.
What were some of the other ideas?
To wear a Santa hat upside down on the thing. No. It’s a conical hat. No, OK? And what’s gonna hold that hat? … But then they created this Liberace cape that was just, like, I mean! And when they were altering it, I said, “Don’t touch it! I want to drag. Like a train. Liberace doesn’t put a hem on it.”
Do you think the show will be back next year?
Why wouldn’t it? It’s so new and different, you have to see it to really see it. On paper, you can see theaters going, “Hmm.” Paul Crewes [artistic director of the Wallis], that he invested in this thing? That’s how you get a hit. They gave me some stats, like 12,000 people came. And we’re in Beverly Hills. People only jump up to get their parking validation done. To see these people who are going to get their Bentley, like “Yeaahhh!” That’s healthy! It’s good, and it’s what we need.
Back to the shorts. You had some hesitation …
No, once I got the gold shorts I was OK. I’m like a jockey. I’ve lost 11 pounds. I even stopped drinking, because I’d done everything else, like where else can I cut the calories. I’m lighter on my feet. So think about how good that is! I should be the poster boy for AARP. Grandfather out there, wearing only a Stratocaster and cowboy boots.
It seems to me that Billy Mack is in a different place from the other characters in “Love Actually.”
He’s lost everything. There’s nothing left to lose.
Right, so he can act as a kind of a truth teller, pointing out society’s hypocrisies.
And I would say that’s sort of the marching orders of rock ‘n’ roll, which he embodies. Rock ‘n’ roll is all about tearing down convention, and not necessarily rebuilding it. Leaving it in rubble.
Like a court jester?
That’s exactly what I was saying before, about the jack-in-the-box! And funnily enough one of my favorite movies is “The Court Jester” with Danny Kaye.
When I was doing “The Pirates of Penzance,” I was 24, every night in my dressing room, knock knock knock. Who is it? “Rock Hudson.” Knock knock knock. “Paul Newman.” Knock knock knock. “Danny Kaye.” I’d just seen “The Court Jester” the night before. So I open the door, and I say, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle. Get it?” He goes, “Got it.” I go, “Good.” I did “Get it, got it, good” with Danny Kaye! Which was an ongoing joke with him and Basil Rathbone. I was in heaven.
Am I talking too much? I don’t know how to give a short answer. I had two coffees in a Thermos in the car.
I had two coffees too, but you have energy than I’ve ever had in my life. What’s your secret?
I’m a Jack Russell terrier. I’ve been married four times because I just wear ‘em out. It’s not meanness or anything, it’s just like, “Stop.” I wake up in the middle of the night: “Hey, hey, hey, listen, I was just thinking .…” When I was young, it was charming.
'Love Actually Live'
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 29 (check for exceptions); additional performances 7:30 p.m. this Tuesday and 2 p.m. Dec. 27
Tickets: $39-$125 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 746-4000, thewallis.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including one intermission)
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