Jason Donovan: Fallen idol

Jason Donovan once commanded an audience of 22 million in 'Neighbours' and sold 13 million records. But it didn't make him happy, he tells Nick Duerden. Can his latest role as a throat-slitting serial killer win him the credibility he craves?
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He comes strolling into the west London diner at the appointed hour, takes his seat, and nobody bats an eyelid. There was a time when he couldn't go anywhere without the trail of a thousand girls screaming in his wake, but those days, as he will tell you himself, are long gone. The hood of his coat comes down, and it reveals a face whose years sit very heavily on his features: they are there in the receding hairline, the pronounced crows' feet and the grey bags under either eye. The beard, meanwhile, almost gives him the look of an Arctic explorer, and over the course of the next 60 minutes he will pull at its gingery strands with nervous fingers, the nails of which have been bitten down to the quick. This is Jason Donovan at 37 years old, a far cry from the TV hunk and pop star of old, but an undeniably voluble presence full of expletive-laden enthusiasm and a refreshingly blunt compulsion towards honesty. When I ask him how he is, for example, he mistakes it for an intrusive inquiry into his current mental balance, but nevertheless is eager to respond.

"You know what? I'm good, I really am. I'm fucking great, actually. I feel alive. I'm in a good place in my life right now, and it feels terrific to be able to tell you that." He beams at me, a mile-wide smile slapped right across his face.

The former Neighbours pin up is currently appearing in a touring production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd. Last week, it was Brighton. Tonight, Milton Keynes. Still to come is Manchester, Woking, Stoke-on-Trent and Bromley. It's a demanding show, he tells me, and full of song: "I took vocal lessons to beef up the voice. I always had it in me; it just needed to be coaxed out, and it has been. I'm not saying I'm Pavarotti now," he laughs, "but it's definitely more robust."

Sweeney Todd, in which he plays the titular throat-slicing barber, marks a rather abrupt change of tempo for the actor who spent much of last year as the happy-go-lucky inventor Caractacus Potts in the West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "I know!" he booms. "From one extreme to the other! I'm sure some people will be thinking, What the hell is Jason Donovan doing playing Sweeney Todd? My response to that would be, come see for yourself. It's brought out hidden depths in my acting, it really has."

And he needs people to realise this, he stresses. In the UK, where Donovan lives in Notting Hill with his girlfriend and two children, the man has been pigeonholed. "I suppose my image here is of family entertainer because of Joseph [Joseph and his Technicoloured Dreamcoat, which he performed to record audiences in the early 1990s]. In Australia, I've been able to stretch my wings more, but that's only because I haven't been similarly tarnished with that bloody many-coloured coat, you know? There is a darker side to me, what with all the drugs I've taken, and that's the side I reach towards for something like Todd."

Jason Donovan, then, is attempting a slow process of reinvention. You could even call it a comeback, but he would argue that he has never really been away, simply - and in his eyes unfairly - marginalised into the world of kiddy theatre. In a few months' time, he will head back to his native Australia, where he is set to appear in a stage version of Festen, based on the Danish film about a family reunion in which unspeakable secrets are revealed. I tell him it's a bold move, but Donovan is oblivious to this fact, admitting that he hasn't seen the harrowing 1998 film, nor the play when it transferred to the London stage last year. His management suggested it would be a positive career move, and so he promptly signed up.

"It'll be good for me," he says, musing. "You know, for much of the 1990s, I just wanted to be cool, I wanted to be [The Prodigy's] Keith Flint or Kurt Cobain. That's why I snorted up a whole mountain of cocaine - I thought that was the route to credibility. It wasn't, of course. It was a fucking destructive path to follow. Now, I don't care about being cool; I just want to express myself." His big brown eyes burn, and the effect is rather disquieting. "I want to surprise people, you know?"

Eighteen years ago, Jason Donovan found himself transformed, almost unwittingly, into an international superstar. Fresh out of school and sporting a mullet worthy of a 1970s footballer, he played Scott Robinson on Neighbours, which, at its height, was watched by 22 million Britons every weekday. When his on-screen romance with Charlene Mitchell (played by Kylie Minogue) spilled over into real life, record producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman had the canny idea of transforming them into pop puppets. For five years, Donovan was a fixture of the charts, selling 13 million records in the process.

"It did get silly for a while back there," he says of the mild form of Beatlemania that ensued, "but I'm glad I went through it, because I wouldn't be here now if I hadn't. It did kind of fuck me up, though." And this was because he had in effect become a teen idol, a mantle he'd never previously sought. Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1968, he initially wanted to follow in his father Terence's footsteps by becoming a respected stage actor. In music, his heroes were not throwaway pop stars but alternative figureheads such as New Order's Bernard Sumner and The Cure's Robert Smith. The credibility he so desired for himself, though, would remain forever out of reach.

"Well, you say that, but Andrew Lloyd Webber did seek me out personally to do Joseph," he counters. Lloyd Webber has never been associated with credibility, I point out. He disagrees: "Andrew approached me with this most amazing offer, and I thought, fucking great, a bit of credibility and a ton of cash." But the profile it afforded him soon took its toll, "and by the end, I hated it. I just wanted to go out and fuck the canvas right up, do drugs and be stupid." He smiles sadly. "You wanted the truth? Well, that's the truth."

He still remembers the very moment he finally decided to seek out his dark side. "It was one evening while doing Joseph. I looked down at myself in a loin cloth and white socks and thought, This isn't me. Commercially, it may have been the right decision but mentally, it was all wrong. It was too squeaky, too clean. Drugs were my only way out."

Donovan, who had been happily smoking pot since his teenage years, then rapidly developed a spiralling cocaine habit. With the benefit of hindsight, he has since proposed various reasons for his addiction: the fact that his mother, Sue, a TV newsreader in Australia, walked out on her family when he was just five years old; and that, at 24, he began to go bald.

"If you're blonde-haired and blue-eyed, you think that [the onset of baldness] is the death of your desirability. You don't see the bigger picture and think you might be Sean Connery in 40 years' time. All I had was the 'Jason Donovan look'. That was a major thing for me, and to see it ending - well, that's what started me on drugs."

There were other possible reasons as well: he had been abruptly dropped by his record label due to diminishing sales; Kylie had left him for, among others, Michael Hutchence; his star was on the wane. Perhaps, I suggest to him now, it was also prompted by the consequences of his court case with The Face magazine - in 1991, he sued them for printing a photograph of him in a T-shirt with "Queer As Fuck" superimposed on top. He won the lengthy court battle, but lost the respect of his fanbase as a result.

Donovan is having none of it. "If you're looking for a psychological reason as to why I took so many drugs, you won't find it unless you know more about my own psychology than I do," he says. "I'm not trying to be a smart arse here, but I don't think you do. Look, the main reason I took drugs was simply to have a good time."

He has been clean for six years now, and attributes his newfound health to family life. He met the mother of his children, former set designer Angela Balloch, while appearing in The Rocky Horror Show in London. By the time she became pregnant, in 2000, they were already drifting apart.

"We had the kid, we split up, but then I sort of realised that, you know, children were a means for me to move on from my reckless days, so we got back together, had a second child..." He pauses for breath here, and pulls on the whiskers of his beard. "We're not married, but it's sort of ticking along pretty good. And the kids are fantastic, the greatest love affair of my life."

Despite, or perhaps because of, his roles in musicals such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Sweeney Todd, Jason Donovan is perennially cast, by a cruel and unloving media, as a man for whom the bubble has burst. This, in part, is surely due to the continuing success of his Neighbours peers. Despite the cardboard quality of the daytime soap, it did harbour an impressive gene pool of nascent talent. Kylie, of course, and Hollywood A-listers Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe; even Natalie Imbruglia managed some sort of singing and modelling career. Donovan's arc, in comparison, isn't quite so impressive.

"Okay, but then I don't need my profile to be any higher than it is now," he says. "Do I really want to be Kylie Minogue? Sort of not really, you know? Obviously, I'd love to do some of the films Guy has done, but if you ask me whether I'm happy with my career as an entertainer, yes, I actually am."

In 1994, Donovan was offered Pearce's role in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but turned it down because he thought playing a drag queen so soon after his public spat with The Face wouldn't look good. It subsequently catapulted Pearce to stardom. "Was it the right decision to turn it down?" he wonders now. "Probably not, but I'm not going to dwell on it. I work pretty much consistently but I've still got my anonymity, and that's important to me. I've been offered quite a few reality TV shows recently, but I just don't need that kind of fame. Look at Jack Nicholson. He doesn't put himself about too much. He realises that less is more, and that's my attitude, as well."

And anyway, he argues, Hollywood could still happen for him. If you look at the film careers of Crowe or Pearce, both took off in America after just one trailblazing Australian film. That's all it takes. Last year, he appeared in an Aussie TV drama called MDA (Medical Department Australia), in which he played a tough medical lawyer. He got good notices for it, and after Festen on the Melbourne stage, he says, "anything could happen. I'm under no illusions, mind, but you never know, do you? People seem to want to make out that I'm this sad character, desperate to get my fame back, but that's not the case at all, mate. Quite the opposite. Things are going well for me, I'm fine and I'm happy with life. It would be rude to expect anything more, right?" m

'Sweeney Todd', to 22 April, various UK venues: www.sweeneytoddthemusical.co.uk

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