I meet Fra Fee on Thursday, “hump day” in his world. He’s mid-way through his run in a revamped production of Cabaret in London’s West End, and it’s the day after his mid-week double-show day, with another to go before his six-day week is complete. His eyes, gleaming from underneath locks of thick curls, are still spritely.
“When I last did theatre in 2019, I used to hit the gym between two-show days and I just don’t have the energy for that right now,” he says.
His part is physically demanding, too. The Tyrone actor plays Emcee, the ethereal master of ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club. In this production, a revamped Playhouse Theatre – which I can see opposite the road from the hotel bar in which we meet – is immersively transformed into the Weimar-era club. This helps explain the wince-worthy ticket prices of up to €380.
Fee took over the role in March from Eddie Redmayne, who, along with co-lead Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles (now played by Amy Lennox), helped Cabaret sweep up at the recent Olivier Awards. Did Redmayne have any words of handover to Fee? "He sent me a text message when he heard that I'd been asked to do it: 'So thrilled that you're playing Emcee'. Something along those lines. 'Don't f**k this up'," he says, laughing.
"The thing is, there's no backstory with Emcee. You have to invent it, which is why all the versions of it – like Joel Grey, Alan Cumming etc – have been so vastly different. That took a bit of the pressure off having to replicate what Eddie had done."
Much has changed for Fee since his previous stage appearance, alongside Ciarán Hinds in Brian Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre in London in 2019. Now in his mid-30s, he has swapped the bright lights of central London for the greenery of the Oxfordshire countryside. And in his acting career, Cabaret is a gear-shift, too.
Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2009, the roles have come thick and fast for Fee – on stage on London's West End and in Dublin and Belfast, and in television and film, from Tom Hooper's big-budget movie version of Les Misérables, to Sophie Hyde's Dublin-based indie movie Animals.
His award-winning turn in Sam Mendes's The Ferryman – set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – helped elevate him further. It took him to Broadway after the West End production completed in 2018, which in turn led to a plum part as Kazi, a baddie in the Marvel spin-off series Hawkeye, which aired at the end of last year.
“I loved playing him. Like other villains in the Marvel world, he’s not as straightforward as one would expect,” he says. “He’s trying to carve a life for himself as he wasn’t dealt the best cards.”
In the high-end bar where we meet, busy with Harrods shoppers and very, very important business meetings, you can almost feel ears turning to eavesdrop on this tousled-haired fella in a vintage Beach Boys T-shirt and tattoos, as he recalls the starry story of his introduction to LA life. Thanks to his manager’s spare plus-one, it was at Madonna’s Oscars afterparty in the Hollywood Hills.
“I hadn’t packed anything suitable, so I had to make a stop in Topman to buy a cheap suit,” he says. “I was giddy the whole time I was there, thinking how silly it was. The whole game is a big silly thing, but it was a fun night.”
Among the acting glitterati in attendance, he recalls Laura Dern who'd been to see The Ferryman, and Bradley Cooper, it being the year of A Star Is Born. He met the hostess too. "It was a Moroccan-themed party and she was wearing some sort of fabulous long cloak, even though it was roasting. She found my name interesting. I was like, 'well yours is too'."
It's a long way from Madonna's parties he was raised. Growing up in Dungannon in Co Tyrone, Francis Martin "Fra" Fee was the youngest, after three elder sisters. "I was the golden boy," he says, with a mischievous smile that's likely to have got him into and out of trouble.
His mother was a teacher and his father a quantity surveyor with a passion for am-dram. “He introduced me to theatre,” Fee says. “I remember seeing Conleth Hill in Stones in His Pockets at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and it was him and the local actors, even the non-professional ones, that enraptured me. I was just so fascinated by it and desperately wanted to be involved in any capacity.”
Once school finished, he relocated to Manchester University to study music, and to the Royal Academy of Music in London thereafter. A large reason he left Northern Ireland in the early 2000s, he says, was to come out at a time when being gay was still stigmatised.
“An example is in my Catholic grammar school. In order to get full marks for religious studies, I had to write an essay on how ultimately homosexuality was wrong,” he says. “So there was just no way in hell that I could envisage living there and being my authentic self. I was completely terrified of coming out there, and I knew that was going to take place somewhere else. I remember counting down the days until I could go to university, and it still took me a year to pluck up the courage after that.”
As a teenager, homophobic jokes were still being casually dropped in mainstream shows like Friends, and gay kisses in soaps still made headline news.
“My young, closeted gay teenage self snuck off to watch that, because I was so desperate to see something that reflected what I felt inside,” he says. “The absurdity was that no one would blink an eyelid if it was a straight couple. That it made front page news made you feel like a freak,” he says.
“I knew, from overhearing conversations, that my parents would assume that I would have lived a very unhappy life, because they weren’t privy to it being any other way.”
But things have changed since. “I love going back home now and I feel very welcome. I’m hopeful that young gay people in Northern Ireland have an easier time of it,” he says. “There’s so much more queer visibility in the media and culture and that makes a big difference. Actors being able to come out and live these successful public lives means that it’s creating a safer space for young people to come out and be proud of who they are, and perhaps even share that love with another person at their school or friends.”
It reminds him of Heartstopper on Netflix, a coming-of-age series centred around a gay schoolboy and his friends, which he's just binge-watched. "I find it so moving because of how wholly different my experience was at school. My first hint towards something romantic in my life, I was well into my 20s, whereas most kids at school were excited about their first kiss when they're 15 or 16. It's really beautiful as well."
These days, he's settled in a cottage in rural Oxfordshire with his boyfriend Declan Bennett, also an actor and singer, and their dog. Fellow actors Sinead Cusack and her husband Jeremy Irons are their neighbours. Fee and Bennett arrived in October 2020, just days before Fee landed the part in Hawkeye.
“I was there for a month before moving to the States, leaving him there in a lockdown in a little town that he didn’t know and where he didn’t know anybody,” Fee says. “But he’s currently away in New York doing Moulin Rouge, so the tables have turned.”
When Zoom auditions first became a thing, he feared he’d be competing against actors the globe over, but “now I see that’s the wrong attitude to have, because I wouldn’t have been able to apply for opportunities like the Marvel gig otherwise. I would have probably needed a green card to go the States and stay for auditions, rather than be given visas for projects that I’m signed up to. So it’s opened up the world in that sense.”
After Cabaret, he's toying with two top-secret TV projects, one of which films in LA, the other in Spain. "One of them would involve signing on to play a role for multiple seasons. Although that's exciting, I'm also wary of getting stuck."
But, like enduring hump day in an award-winning West End run, that’s a good problem to have.
Cabaret continues at the Playhouse Theatre in London until June 25th