Matt Willis interview

The interview: Matt Willis

The interview: Matt Willis

As he takes to the stage as Dr Pomatter in Waitress: The Musical, opening at New Wimbledon Theatre, the actor and musician talks about his joy at getting back on stage, volunteering during the lockdown and his local roots…

Taking a break in rehearsals, Matt Willis is in great spirits. He’s delighted to be performing again, loves the character he’s playing in Waitress and is fresh off holiday in Cornwall.

“I went to see the show a few years back and I loved it,” says Matt. “It’s a great story and the music is top notch.”

Waitress tells the tale of Jenna, a talented baker in a small-town diner and how her life changes when a new doctor appears on the scene. Lucie Jones plays the lead role of Jenna and was in the West End production, which ran from February 2019 until it was forced to close in March last year due to the pandemic.

Matt is delighted to be taking on Dr Pomatter. “I’m very like him. Every other character I’ve played has been like stepping into a character, whereas this guy is pretty much me with an American accent,” Matt laughs. “Well, apart from the fact he is a doctor and well educated, which is very far from me, but his personality traits, and the way he kind of holds himself is very similar.”

“I’m enjoying being able to explore those nervous socially awkward parts of myself.”

For the actor and musician, who rose to fame in the band Busted, and spends his career performing in front of people, this is quite an admission. “I’ve always been that way,” Matt continues. “I’ve always found social situations jarring and not really been comfortable, so I’m very aware of how he feels.”

“He’s this clumsy fumbling guy, who gets worse in front of Jenna, which is really fun to play.”

Matt, whose theatre credits include Fiyero in Wicked, Nick Hurley in Flashdance and most recently Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the Dominion Theatre, is thrilled to be going back on stage. A Christmas Carol managed just 11 performances before being closed by another lockdown in December. Matt was gutted. “It was such a fantastic role and incredible music. We went into it knowing that it might get cut short, and it was closed for understandable reasons, but it was kind of heartbreaking.

”Waitress couldn’t have come at a better time. “It’s been a long time off stage for all of us really so it’s so good to be back in a rehearsal period. I particularly love the creative aspects. When it’s all brand new and everything’s coming together, I find it really intoxicating.”

The show opens at New Wimbledon Theatre and runs from 4 to 11 September before heading out across the country, with Matt in the show up to and including the dates in Hull in February. It’s a long tour, which is tough on family life. Matt is married to TV presenter Emma Willis and they have three children, daughters Isabelle and Trixie-Grace, and son, Ace. “Touring is difficult at times, if I’m honest, as I’m going to be away from my family but unfortunately most of my job entails me being away from home. But with this show, I do get weeks off and some time off for Christmas…”

Matt now lives in Hertfordshire but knows the local area around south west London well, having been born in Tooting and grown up in Molesey. “I still have friends in the area so hopefully they’ll be coming to watch me in Wimbledon!” As a teen, Matt moved in with his Busted bandmate James. And has been on the road for much of his adult life. He says that Hertfordshire in now where he considers home to be as that is where he has lived the longest.

With lockdown putting an end to most things in front of an audience, it was frustrating for the hard-working performer. But Matt did not sit on his laurels when he wasn’t working and he became a vaccination volunteer. “Seeing first-hand how well our country dealt with [the vaccination programme] was mind blowing. The NHS is a really powerful and beautiful part of our country and it was amazing to be part of the efforts in some way.”

“And it was so touching when people came for their vaccines. These were people who had not been out for so long and they arrived wearing their Sunday best and just wanting a chat. It was also the significance of what they were doing in having the vaccine which would mean they could see their families again.”

Matt was not recognised in his new role… “I had my mask on, my tattoos were hidden and I didn’t have a Busted-style haircut,” he laughs.

As well as the tour of Waitress keeping him busy for the foreseeable future, Matt has also been involved with some film work, including World War II thriller, Wolves of War, with Ed Westwick and Rupert Graves. As for Busted, there is more in the pipeline. “There will be more shows in the coming years. Music is always going to be a part of my life. I love it. It’s this amazing gift that we’re able to go out and play music for people who really enjoy it. And we’ll never take that for granted.”

Before rehearsals for Waitress started, Matt and his family enjoyed a staycation in Cornwall, with Matt having been inspired to head there again after taking part recently in a 100k walk along the South West Coast Path for the breast cancer charity Coppafeel. “Cornwall is absolutely stunning and I was blown away by it. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in my life. I’d been before but only to Polzeath – it’s where we go to write songs and that’s what I’d associated Cornwall with – but to see it all properly was amazing.”