Jo Lennan

Writer and Journalist

It is day five of rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production, the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Tim Minchin, 37, sits quietly at stage left. In the part of Rosencrantz, he watches as others give their lines. Then – barefoot, script in hand – he stands to interrupt.

“Well, if it isn’t … ! No, wait a minute, don’t tell me. It’s a long time since … where was it?”

Minchin, in khaki-coloured jeans and with his trademark shock of red-tinged hair, looks hesitant but intent. He doesn’t clown about or swear like his co-stars Toby Schmitz (Guildenstern) and Ewen Leslie (The Player, a supporting role). When he isn’t needed he recites his lines to himself.

“This is about where it is the most stressful,” he says later, over lunch. “I haven’t done a straight play since 2006.”

That was a Perth production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, in which Minchin played Mozart. “I’d never been employed as an actor outside of Perth until last year with Californication,” he says, referring to the US television series. He followed up that role (as affected rocker Atticus Fetch) with his recent turn as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.

“Straight plays”, as he calls them, have not made Minchin’s name. His fame stems from musical comedy; he has played his irreverent cabaret shows, complete with grand piano, at festivals, on tours and to packed arenas. Sly lyrics are his strong suit, but he’s unnervingly versatile. His score for Matilda the Musical, performed on Broadway earlier this year and based on the Roald Dahl book, earnt him a nomination for a Tony Award. (He was pipped by Cyndi Lauper, with her score for Kinky Boots.)

Seen in the light of day, Minchin, clean of make-up, has a bright complexion, as well as the fine lines of a man approaching 40. There is no sign of the bug-eyed stare from his publicity stills, nor of the driven, demonic grin he likes to flash on stage. Relaxed when not rehearsing, his conversation veers from impish to impassioned, from the glib to the cerebral. “I’ll speak on anything,” he says.

By rights, Minchin should have been tired. The week before rehearsals started, he’d performed Superstar in Brisbane, flown to Los Angeles for a meeting, gone to Melbourne for three more Superstar shows and then moved his young family into a rented house in Coogee. They will stay there until September and then return home to Crouch End, North London, where he and his wife, Sarah, moved seven years ago.

Rosencrantz, for Minchin, is a way back to stage acting. For one thing, he knows the play: he and Schmitz both acted, albeit in lesser parts, in a 1996 university production of the Stoppard classic. The play also suits his flair for absurdist silliness. It seems inspired casting, but in fact it was Minchin who pitched the project; he and Schmitz did not audition. “Up until Simon [Phillips, the director, became involved], I was running it. That,” he says, laughing, “is the only way I get cast.”

This state of affairs is changing. While in Los Angeles last April for a charity event, he auditioned for Californication. Though utterly unknown to the makers of the series, he got a call back within the hour. Likewise, on stage in Superstar, Minchin shone as a complex Judas, making Ben Forster’s Jesus look one-dimensional.

Asked if he finds it intimidating to work with more practised stage actors, Minchin answers, “Very.” He would have liked more time with the Rosencrantz script. “I have my insecurities and my confidence. Like all people, I’m neither one nor the other. I know I can command attention on a stage.”

Minchin served a long apprenticeship for overnight success. After studying in Perth (he majored in English and theatre, and gained an advanced diploma in music), Minchin composed scores for theatre and documentaries, wrote and starred in a musical (Pop: A tragically musical romantic black comedy, at Perth’s Blue Room Theatre) and recorded without success with his band, Timmy the Dog.

Moving to Melbourne in 2002, he sought work as an actor while earning a pittance playing in covers bands, but failed to get an agent. In late 2003, Minchin decided to try cabaret and booked himself a space for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. New to comedy, he threw in everything: “A few poems, a few monologues and a whole lot of songs.” In an age of pared-back stand-up, he offered vaudeville. “Audiences laughed more than I expected. I had thought it would be quirky. From there, I was off.”

Minchin spent another 18 months playing small gigs at venues like South Melbourne’s Butterfly Club and Sydney’s Seymour Centre. He acquired a signature look by straightening and teasing his long, naturally curly hair and applying dark eyeliner (to emphasise the comic faces he pulls while singing). For the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Minchin spent his meagre savings on hiring a space with a grand piano, printing flyers and staging a show that featured early versions of songs like ‘Inflatable You’, a piano lounge–style paean to a blow-up doll, and the self-mocking ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Nerd’: “He always dreamt of being a star / But he learnt piano instead of guitar / Which, in the ’90s, didn’t get you very far.”

The act, Darkside, was Minchin’s breakout show. Months later he took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he was named “best newcomer”. The following year, he staged a second solo show, So Rock, and moved to London. With show number three, 2008’s Ready for This?, Minchin ridiculed targets from religion to reiki, and sang his atheist Christmas carol, ‘White Wine in the Sun’. (Unexpectedly affecting, the song convinced Matilda director Matthew Warchus that Minchin could make people cry as well as laugh.)

His fourth and most recent solo show, which debuted in 2010 and toured the UK and Australia, was a bombastic arena act that pilloried, among other things, bombastic arena acts. “I spent my profit, a lot of it, on making it cool,” he says. “It was the world’s first comedy show that deserved a fucking arena.” Performing sold-out shows at venues like London’s O2 Arena (capacity 20,000) and the Royal Albert Hall, Minchin emerged from a smoke-filled cage and, sitting at his piano in front of a 55-piece orchestra, sang, “I’m quite famous now, so suck my balls.” Reviewers described the performance as “triumphant” (the Independent), “gloriously funny” (the Guardian) and “a thing of jaw-dropping wonder” (Daily Telegraph).

If this was Tim Minchin at his excessive best, it also sharpened his desire to try something different. For the better part of a decade, the self-described “hack pianist” had dazzled with his hybrid act and old-fashioned pizzazz. “I’m a good musician for a comedian and I’m a good comedian for a musician,” he told an interviewer four years ago. “But if I had to do any of them in isolation, I dunno.”

Since then, Minchin has sought to prove he can hold his own even when he does just one thing – whether acting or singing, on screen or on stage. He takes a fierce, private pride in these recent steps, though is wary of sounding boastful: of his turn as Atticus Fetch, Minchin says, “I don’t think it sucked”; of playing Rosencrantz, “I’m not totally shitting myself.” Minchin says he will not go back to doing arena shows. He is currently composing another stage musical (“the details are still embargoed”). After that, he will tackle the music for Larrikins, a DreamWorks animation starring a singing kangaroo, a bilby and “a rock-and-roll cane toad that I’m going to play – ugliest creature in the world, typecast”.

In future he will do more comedy, in which he likes to explore notions of outrage, and particularly “this idea that all opinions are equal, and that your idea is strongest if expressed most vociferously”. The idea found expression in a song, ‘Loud’, which he wrote for Matilda: “Now here’s a tip / What you know matters less / Than the volume with which / what you don’t know is expressed.” The trick will be keeping his own outrage fresh: “I am outraged about outrage.” He speaks of climate denialism, the teaching of creationism and conspiracy thinking. “Anti-science [outrage] pisses me off.” He also refers to the way people “pounced” on singer Delta Goodrem after she tweeted that a photo of a person in blackface was “hilarious”. Though Minchin does not share Goodrem’s sense of humour, he laments, “People are waiting to feel outraged … I do it, too. It’s what we humans do. It makes us feel good about ourselves. I’m good; you’re bad. We’re binary thinkers.”

In the US, Minchin’s dim opinion of religious faith has loomed large in his public image. Beloved of atheists and science teachers, he is occasionally maligned. Once, ahead of a Dallas show, a contractor reneged on supplying a grand piano, writing in an email, “Find a better comedian (not a demon).” And on the conservative blog theblaze.com, an item reviewing his performance at last year’s Reason Rally was titled, “‘Bring your kids!’: Atheist performer drops 75+ F-bombs on stage.”

As for how Australia thinks of him, Minchin says, “There hasn’t been any tall-poppy-ness … but then again I’m sure there are people who hate me.” Some bristle at his use of eyeliner, but Minchin says this is not limited to Australians. “Why is he wearing the stupid make-up?” Minchin parrots in an oafish tone. “And you’re like, ‘Because I played piano and did funny songs for 12 years and no one came. I put on some make-up, which gave me an image, and I got famous. You weren’t there, earning $13,000 a year.’”

In Rosencrantz, Minchin’s make-up and sartorial choices will be made by the director and the costume designer. “I will do whatever the show needs me to do, but I won’t shave my beard, because I’ve got to play Judas again in October. Or get fat.”

Having finished lunch, Minchin orders a skinny flat white to take back to rehearsals. He drinks a regimented four coffees a day, as well as four glasses of wine. His other daily vice is science podcasts. “It’s terrible, but I don’t listen to music. I don’t like the radio on in the car.” Partly this is to keep his head clear to compose.

“And it’s just noisy,” he says, smiling. “It’s a noisy world.”