Jack of all trades, master of - all of them? That doesn't sound right. But then neither does much to do with Michael McKean's career. An actor of 25 years' standing whose only Oscar nomina-
tion was for Best Original Song? A veteran of 150 films who could walk unrecognised down the street? A man who describes stage acting as "something I've been doing as long as I've been doing almost anything" - but whose Broadway purple patch, and West End debut, had to wait until his late fifties? Or how's about "big bottom, big bottom / Talk about bum cakes, my girl's got 'em"? That doesn't sound quite right, either, but it's probably what McKean - lead singer of the legendary spoof metal band Spinal Tap - will be remembered for.
News that the poodle-permed rock god David St Hubbins is to appear in the West End will delight Tap fans. You can keep your Madonnas and Gwyneth Paltrows: this is star casting! McKean opens this week in a new play by John Kolvenbach - whose On an Average Day brought Woody Harrelson to London in 2002. The play, Love Song, also stars bright young Hollywood things Neve Campbell and Cillian Murphy. But keen movie-watchers will be eyeing McKean, whose meticulous, twinkle-perfect turns in director (and Spinal Tap sidekick) Christopher Guest's improvised "mockumentaries"- 2000's dog-show comedy Best in Show, 2003's A Mighty Wind and the forthcoming Tinseltown satire For Your Consideration - denote a performer of major acting as well as comic talent.
Love Song is (according to McKean) "a surrealist romantic comedy," whose tendency towards sentimentality is offset by some cracking dialogue. In a cast of four, McKean plays elder brother-in-law to Murphy's troubled young loner, who one night accosts a housebreaker (Campbell) and falls in love with her. Their story, he says, is "about how difficult it is to make yourself happy. And to accept the happiness you have." Not that McKean seems to have any problem with that. "I insist on having fun, no matter what I do." And yet, he plays questions about Love Song with a pretty straight bat.
Given that his forte is spoofing lack of self-irony in his characters, I had expected McKean to come with irony to spare. But in person, he can sound like one of his own over-earnest creations. At this advanced stage of rehearsals, he tells me, "it's like we've assembled this car and it's running OK, but every now and then we hear a little screw drop out of the bottom. And you've got to back up, pick it up and re-bolt it..." Working in theatre rather than film (he has also recently appeared in a Broadway revival of musical comedy The Pajama Game) is likewise subject to a hokey tribute. "It's so much fun. Every night and twice on Saturdays, you get to do it again. You get to sand off a splintery corner. I find it exciting to be part of an ongoing process."
Perhaps he's on interview auto-pilot, and these are his stock, self-effacing responses. Or perhaps this is Ricky Gervais syndrome - in real life, the creator of The Office is unnervingly similar to David Brent. The similarity shouldn't surprise us - not only does Gervais co-star in For Your Consideration (as a cheerfully anti-Semitic studio exec), but "Ricky has always given [Spinal Tap] more credit than it's due," says McKean, "as the inspiration for The Office." The genetic inheritance is easy to detect. A cast of losers who think they're winners. The bathetic English banality. All those unflinching interviews to camera - both McKean and Gervais are masters of deadpanning the patently absurd. But much of the pleasure of watching them is in sensing that, behind these sad unwitting characters, we think we can glimpse the performers' eyes twinkling, their lips teetering on the precipice of a laugh.
It's a skill McKean has been cultivating since the get-go. Fresh out of college, he formed a satirical troupe called The Credibility Gap; Spinal Tap cohort Shearer was a fellow member. So was David Lander, with whom McKean went on to star (as the goofy double act Lenny and Squiggy) in the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley - still his most famous role Stateside. He later featured as a regular on Saturday Night Live, whose alumni include John Belushi, Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy. But McKean's tenure was an unhappy one, taking place during an era when, by his own admission, the show was at its nadir.
Before then, though, came This is Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner's brilliantly realised 1984 rockumentary - starring a Spandex-clad McKean, Guest and Shearer - dealt a near (but not totally) fatal blow to the overblown, shamelessly unreconstructed world of glam rock. Age may never wither the ample pleasures afforded by "Big Bottom", "Stonehenge" and "Sex Farm" ("Scratching in your henhouse / Sniffing at your feedbag / Slipping out your back door / Leaving my spray"). And several of the film's comic riffs (the amp that goes up to 11; the album cover that could be "none more black") have entered the lexicon.
As with Guest's later films, the characters and dialogue in Spinal Tap were largely devised by its leading actors. McKean remains proud of the film - particularly its songs - and the Tap still reconvene for occasional gigs. Is it hard to squeeze back into the leopard-skin? "Yeah, it is," admits the now-rounder, 59-year-old McKean. "But what's happening to my body is probably happening to David St Hubbins's body. Mind you, he probably does a lot more drugs than I do." On their most recent tour, the Tap trio also performed as their own support band, The Folksmen (stars of the more recent spoof doc A Mighty Wind). Not all Tap fans were in on the joke, though, and The Folksmen were booed off stage.
It was A Mighty Wind which, in 2004, brought McKean his Oscar nod. The only slightly tongue-in-cheek ballad "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", co-written by McKean with his second wife, the actress Annette O'Toole, was nominated for Best Song. McKean likes to joke that "all I had to do [to get Oscar recognition] was leave my field." But there's nothing flippant about his commitment to songwriting: it's been a parallel career, and music is his abiding passion. Given that, after thirty years of work, he remains more a cult than a household name, does he regret spreading himself thinly between the two activities? "Not at all," he says. "If I had never done anything professionally with music, I'd be doing it anyway." And then he adds, with a flourish worthy of his daftest characters, "if mankind has two greatest inventions, one is his partnership with the dog. And music is the other."
That partnership with the dog brought forth McKean's other cinematic meisterwork, Best in Show, a straight-faced comic salvo directed at the world of pedigree dog-breeding. Alongside Shearer, Parker Posey, the hilarious Fred Willard, and some dozen others, McKean is part of Guest's repertory company of actors who extemporise these counterfeit documentaries into being. The skill, says McKean, is "just listening, being in the moment, carrying your own water. Trusting everyone around you. And not laughing when Fred Willard says something." Their latest offering, For Your Consideration (released in the UK in the New Year), depicts the experience of a cast of Hollywood neurotics when Oscar buzz accrues around the low-rent Jewish family drama in which they star. McKean and co-star Bob Balaban play the ultra-defensive screenwriters of the film-within-a-film, Home for Purim.
Fellow regular Catherine O'Hara is the actress who dares to dream that online Oscar rumours might revive her nose-diving career. Of course, O'Hara is now being talked up for a real-life Oscar - which is, laughs McKean, "exactly what we'd love to see." But comic turns seldom win awards, he points out - least of all female comic turns. (I wonder if O'Hara is being equally phlegmatic). Can McKean verify the film's account of the brittleness of Hollywood egos? When he and his wife were Oscar-nominated, he says, "it was a really fun month. We just thought, we get to go to parties, we get to go to the awards. We're not going to win. But it was fun. We didn't let it do anything to us." To allow yourself to care about Oscars, he says, is "setting yourself up to be miserable, and I try not to do that at anytime."
I'm sure such relentless equanimity is the basis of a happy life. After all, it forecloses soul-searching. I wonder whether working on a pre-existing playscript (as with Love Song) is less fulfilling after creating one's own roles from scratch. But to McKean, "it's all interesting. It's still the same job, no matter what you're doing." And that job, he says, is "reality".
"It doesn't matter if someone has put a script in your hand. Your job is to make that feel as if you were improvising it. As if your character were a real person who has wandered onto the stage" - for which, he will admit, the Guest mockumentaries have been excellent training.
"I can go broad," he says, "but I try and keep it real. I've always believed that the really great comics are real. I believe everything that Stan Laurel did. He was a wonderful actor. I believed that he was really there and he was really trying his best. That's what broke your heart and that's what was so funny about him."
McKean's love of comedy, and his concern for it - he's currently reading stand-up Jimmy Carr's new book on the subject - shine through his otherwise inscrutable veneer. The only time in this interview that he gets really animated is to describe his worry that humour in the US "is being replaced by meanness and outrage." And his sense that "you could probably get by in America without a sense of humour easier than you could in the UK. I'm not exactly sure why." I don't think McKean himself wants to be taken seriously - far from it.
"It's never that important to me what other people think about what I do. What's important is, I haven't heard much booing in my life." But he believes, rightly, that comedy can be (in a certain sense) serious, that it needn't be silly or vulgar, but as beautiful and candid as - well, music.
"I've come to the realisation," he says, "that some of the best comic songwriters are also great love-song writers. Randy Newman writes really funny material, and yet he can break your heart. Noel Coward. Cole Porter, the same." To McKean (whose current, cherished project is the creation, with his wife, of a not-exclusively comic stage musical) this proves that "a certain amount of creative ability will enable you to do pretty much whatever you choose to do."
To me, the much more obvious conclusion is that those who know how to be funny tend also to know how to be true. McKean is just such a performer and hopefully, with Love Song, he'll show it.
'Love Song' is previewing at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London (0870 0606627), and opens tomorrow. 'For Your Consideration' is released in February next yearReuse content