Currently: Playing Guy, who becomes personal assistant to monstrous movie producer Buddy Ackerman in the stage version of the cult 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, opposite Christian Slater. It is his first West End play, and he’s got his name in lights outside the theatre for the first time, too. How different is it to appearing at the Royal Court or National, where he has previously worked? “Every job is different for its own reasons, but I guess the audiences are different here—a lot of them are there to see Christian, of course. But one of the real attractions for me was Michael Lesslie, the writer, who is 23—and I’m sticking my neck out here—but I think he’s going to be one of the top writers of the next generation. Working with him is very exciting.”
Hometown: Smith was born and raised in Northampton. “The place where Princess Di was laid to rest is not far from my house,” he notes. He lived there until he went to the University of East Anglia at the age of 18. “My main focus as a kid was football. I played for Leicester City and Nottingham Forest in their youth academies,” he says. “But then I got a back injury and had to stop. I had a good teacher at school, Mr. Hardingham, who encouraged me to take drama as an A Level since I’d got my best GCSE grade in it. So when I was thinking of what to study at university, I thought I might as well do something I enjoy, so I did drama and creative writing.” He moved to London after graduating, and now lives in Harrow with his sister.
Getting into Acting: Having had to give up on his dreams to be a footballer, he started acting—“and what sealed the deal for me was joining the National Youth Theatre, going up to London and spending the summer doing plays with them. I did Murder in the Cathedral in 2003, playing Thomas a Becket, and the next year I was in The Master and Margarita.” He was so good that he got an agent out of it—and when he was still in his third year at university, got his first professional job, appearing that Christmas (2004) in a play called Fresh Kills at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. “That took me out of college for six weeks. Then I was invited to appear in On the Shore of the Wide World,” first at Manchester’s Royal Exchange before transferring to the National. It meant striking a deal with his college to take off his final spring and summer terms, as well. “I said to them, I want to be an actor so you’ve got to let me go and do this. I didn’t go to any more lectures, but they let me graduate. I would get the reading list and do my work and send it back to them.”
Matt Smith and Christian Slaterin Swimming with SharksLucky Shark: He spent the next 18 months at the National, taking over the role of Lockwood in The History Boys. “On the first day of rehearsals, [director] Nick Hytner told us how lucky we were,” Smith recalls. “As he said, ‘Not many boys at your age get to be in a play this successful that’s at the National Theatre and by Alan Bennett.’” He also appeared at the National in Burn, Chatroom and Citizenship. “As a young actor, there is no better place to learn your craft [than the Nattional]. I remember saying to my dad at breakfast once, ‘I’d love to work at the National by the time I am 25.’ I got there sooner!”
Slater Fan: Smith admits he didn’t do as well as he had hoped in his audition for Swimming with Sharks. “I did better on the recall”, he notes. Was he daunted by the prospect of working with Slater? “Not daunted, but excited. I love Heathers and True Romance,” he smiles. “And he’s a really good guy—a nice bloke. He’s funny and genuinely makes me laugh.” Slater’s character, of course, nearly makes him cry: “Yes, I play a bright, enthusiastic young man who is pushed to a very dark, sour place. It’s reminiscent of Faust; it’s about someone who sells his soul to the devil by the end of the play.”