What’s On TV sat down for a chat with Jack Davenport who’s starring in Sky Atlantic’s new US series Smash. The former This Life and Coupling star plays British theatre director Derek Wills, who takes charge of a brand new Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe…

Does Smash lift the lid on what it’s really like behind the scenes of a Broadway show?
“Shows about showbiz can be a double-edged sword, as there’s nothing worse than a load of actors, pretending to be actors, talking about how wonderful actors are. But our show lightens that as we have that escape valve of lots of amazing musical numbers, and it’s careful not to be too ‘insidery’. Although it’s about Broadway, it’s a workplace drama and it’s pretty accessible as it goes into the characters personal lives and emotions.”

You see the new songs being created from scratch, sung, for the first time, choreographed in the rehearsal room and on stage. That’s very original for a TV show…
“It’s about young actors and production staff who work in the world of musicals. No one has ever made a TV series where you see the building blocks of a big Broadway production, from the initial idea and a few songs, then on to how it starts to take shape. You see how each piece of the jigsaw fits, and how that long act of creation unfolds. It’s pretty compelling television.

“We do have a fantasy element. Earlier in the series when you get to see a number in the rehearsal space, it cuts into the full production version of it so you get a sense of what it might actually look like on Broadway. Most are brilliant original songs that could well be in a real Marilyn the Musical show.”

Many in the US have been comparing Smash to Glee. Do you think that’s fair?
“It’s not like Glee. There’s a comparison only because of the singing. In our show people are only singing because it’s what required in the show, not because they’re so adolescent they’ve just got to sing! We’re grateful that Glee made musicals and television compatible again. That’s only similarity – we do sing lots, not me though, thank God! For TV writers Glee For Grown-ups has got good alliteration and it’s a nice peg to hang the show on, but I can say confidently that something like this has never been done on television before.”

So how truthful is Smash about musical theatre?
“Well yeah, you see lots of time in rehearsal rooms, overbearing directors, miserable actresses in tight clothing… It’s all pretty much there in the real world. I have seen a few directors like Derek before. Being a director your job is to manipulate people. When you’re devising a musical, there’s so much you can bring in that’s completely abstract. I mean you could have dwarves abseiling in if you wanted it. And someone has to take charge of that, and of the 50 people in the rehearsal room.

“The nicest thing about playing the character is that he’s someone who doesn’t give a s**t what anyone thinks about him. There are many occasions when Derek behaves pretty unspeakably, but he never apologises. He’s just trying to get a very difficult job done, and it’s difficult because you’ve got a room full of needy actors.”

Will you see Derek’s vulnerable side in the show, too?
“You will. It’s not the case that underneath it all he’s just a trembling violet, but he’s not a monster, he’s just unapologetic. There are lots of British directors on Broadway, so I can show the slightly different cultural approach that being a Brit like Derek brings. He does get to be sarcastic, a bit mean and brutal at times.”

What’s it like acting alongside Anjelica Huston, who plays Broadway producer Eileen Rand?
“Just marvellous. She’s Anjelica Huston, and I’m like a mere mortal! For someone who’s like genuine showbiz royalty, right up there, she’s the most down-to earth goofy, sweet and fun person, without any sense of grandness. Anjelica’s a complete mucker-in, which makes me love her all the more.”

Is it good to film in New York?
“You can’t do a show about Broadway without the city being a big character in it. When you’re in middle of Times Square at 2am you do wonder what the hell you’re doing. But New Yorkers pride themselves on being completely unimpressed with everything and yet they’re quite neurotic.”

Are you a big fan of musical theatre?
“Well I wasn’t really. I quite like the silly ones like Little Shop of Horrors, but I’m usually like, ‘Why are you singing the lines, why not just say it?’ Since doing this show I’m now aware how incredibly demanding it is to do what they do. You have to be a triple threat performer – singing dancing acting. Megan Hilty (Ivy) and Katharine McPhee (Karen), who are playing the two actresses in the show vying to be chosen as Marilyn, are certainly that. I sit there and can barely remember my lines and not bump into furniture and they’re like truly amazing.”

Both yourself and Andrew Lincoln are ex stars of This Life and doing so well in US television at the moment. Do you still get to see each other much?
I’m going to Andy’s house this weekend. He’s one of my best friends. He was my best man for real as well as in my fake This Life TV wedding. This Life was a long time ago now. He’s killing zombies in Walking the Dead, while in Smash, Derek’s only killing actors’ dreams. Andy shoots up the screen a lot where as I’m armed only with a viciously sharp pair of leg warmers! Andy would be great on Broadway as he’s got a lovely pair of jazz hands. I don’t know how my zombie moves are these days!”

So is there an ex-pats club over there?
“When in Los Angeles yes, because it’s so spread out, and you’re more isolated. I’m now filming in New York and Andy’s in Georgia, while Damian Lewis is in North Carolina for Homeland. We don’t sit around congratulating ourselves, it’s not like that. It’s more like: ‘I wonder how long this will last?’”

Smash begins on Sky Atlantic on Saturday, April 21 at 9pm