From school plays to Play School – meet Matthew Backer4 Jul 2018
From school plays to Play School via the world of journalism. We find out how Matthew Backer got to where he is and what it’s like to work with Australian icons.
‘I started acting in high school,’ Matthew tells us. ‘But when I finished school I decided to go into journalism and worked on a local Queensland newspaper. I loved it, but after my cadetship I knew I wanted to try out for NIDA and I luckily got in first go. Journalism is about story telling and so is acting. It’s just using yourself instead of words.’
It turned out to be a very good career move. Matthew graduated from NIDA, where he’d mostly studied traditional theatre, and went straight into playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. He jokingly (and very modestly) tells us, ‘That was three months after I graduated and I fluked my way through it. I was the right height, right look and could sing the part. I did musicals at school and sang in the car, but I wasn't a trained singer. I didn't have the technique. That took a lot of training because musical theatre performers are such athletes. It’s very demanding on your vocal chords.’
How else did musical theatre differ from the acting world you were used to? ‘Well, coming from a theatre-acting background, I was used to being in a role for about two months before moving on. With musicals it’s a very different ball game. You need the stamina and focus to last one to three years. [I really admire] musical theatre performers.’
Matthew has been in some diverse plays over the years. When asked if he had a favourite he told us that would be like picking a favourite kid. We did, however, discover a few stand-out-moments. ‘I fall in love with all my roles but I really loved playing Ariel in The Tempest. It was John Bell’s final show as a director, so that was really special. Last year, playing Alan in Heaven Only Knows also meant a lot to me. It was about gay men in Kings Cross in the 40s and 50s, and opened in Kings Cross a few months before the Same Sex Marriage vote. There was a real buzz in the room every night.’
Matthew will also be seen acting alongside Rachel Griffiths in the new SBS series, Dead Lucky, which airs in July. He told us that although it was only a small role, shooting a scene opposite Griffiths was a great experience. ‘She’s such an icon of Australian film and TV. It was exciting just to be on set with her, watching her work. Giving her attitude back as my character was fun too.’
On the subject of TV icons, how did you get to be on Play School? ‘At NIDA we actually did a Play School unit and Benita taught us, so we all prayed we’d end up on it one day. I tried out a few times post-NIDA but didn’t make it. But because Play School is such a technical job, the last few years doing so much theatre helped me a lot. I auditioned again and this time they thought I was ready.’
Matthew explains how his theatre training helped him. ‘They like it to feel like it’s being filmed live, therefore you keep going no matter what happens. Which is theatre in a nutshell. On Play School I’m acting as a heightened version of myself. It’s kept very casual and personable so it feels like you're talking to one kid through the camera, and that they're going on an adventure just with you.’ We find out that three of those adventurous kids are Matthew’s nephews. ‘They’re the perfect age to watch it, which is so cool. I’ve actually got a video on my phone of their reaction the first time I was on.’
Finally, we wondered if Matthew missed journalism at all. ‘I miss writing, but I’ve found it hard to do it whilst being in back-to-back shows for four years. I’ve now got a bit more free time as I'm taking a short break from theatre, so I’ve been coming up with some film and series ideas. It is good to be writing again.’
Hopefully we’ll be chatting to Matthew about that next time.