I meet Fra Free on Thursday, “bump day” in his world. He’s halfway through his run in a revamped production of Cabaret in London’s West End, and it’s the day after his midweek double show day, with another before the end of his week of six days. Her eyes, which glint under wisps of thick curls, are still lively.
“The last time I did theater in 2019, I used to hit the gym in between show days and I just don’t have the energy for that right now,” says- he.
His role is also physically demanding. The Tyrone actor plays Emcee, the Kit Kat Club’s ethereal emcee. In this production, a refurbished Playhouse theater – which I can see across from the hotel bar we meet in – is immersively transformed into a Weimar-era club. This helps explain grimace-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 at the recent Olivier Awards. Did Redmayne have handover notes to Fee? “He texted me when he found out I’d been asked to do it: ‘So glad you’re playing emcee’,” he laughed.
“The thing is, there’s no story with Emcee. You have to make it up, which is why all the versions of it – like Joel Gray, Alan Cumming, etc. – have been so very different. It took some of the pressure off of having to replicate what Eddie had done.”
A lot has changed for Fee since his previous stage appearance alongside Ciarán Hinds in Brian Friel’s translations at the National Theater in London in 2019. Now in his 30s, he’s traded the bright lights of central London for the greenery of the Oxfordshire countryside. . And in his acting career, Cabaret is also a change of gear.
Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2009, roles have multiplied for Fee – on stage in London’s West End, Dublin and Belfast, and on television and film, from Tom Hooper’s big-budget film version of Les Miserables, to Sophie Hyde’s Dublin-based independent film Animals.
His award-winning role in Sam Mendes’ The Ferryman – set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles – helped lift him further. This took him to Broadway after the West End production ended in 2018, which in turn led to a plum role as Kazi, a villain in the late-airing Marvel spin-off series Hawkeye. from last year.
“I loved playing him. Like other villains in the Marvel world, he’s not as straightforward as you might expect,” he says. did not receive the best cards.”
T-shirts and tattoos
In the upscale bar where we meet, busy with Harrods shoppers and very, very important business meetings, you can almost feel the ears turning to listen to this disheveled-haired guy in a T-shirt. vintage Beach Boys and tattoos, as he recalls the starry story of his introduction to LA life. Thanks to her manager’s spare plus-one, it was at Madonna’s Oscars after-party in the Hollywood Hills.
“I didn’t pack anything in my suitcases, so I had to stop at Topman to buy a cheap suit,” he says. “I was giddy the whole time I was there, thinking how silly that was. The whole game is a big mess, but it was a fun night.
Among the acting celebrities in attendance, he remembers Laura Dern who went to see The Ferryman, and Bradley Cooper, it was the year of A Star Is Born. He met the hostess too. “It was a Moroccan-themed party and she was wearing a fabulous kind of long cape, even though she was roasting. She thought my name was interesting. I was like, ‘well, yours the is also’.”
It was far from Madonna’s parties that he was brought up. Growing up in Dungannon in County Tyrone, Francis Martin “Fra” Fee was the youngest, after three older sisters. “I was the golden boy,” he says, with an impish smile that probably got him into trouble.
His mother was a teacher and his father a quantity surveyor passionate about am-dram. “He introduced me to theatre,” says Fee. “I remember seeing Conleth Hill in Stones in His Pockets at the Lyric Theater in Belfast, and it was him and the local actors, even the non-professionals, who thrilled me. I was so enthralled by that and I desperately wanted to be involved in any capacity.
After school he moved to the University of Manchester to study music and then to the Royal Academy of Music in London. One of the main reasons he left Northern Ireland in the early 2000s, he says, was to come out at a time when homosexuality was still stigmatised.
“An example is in my Catholic high school. In order to get full marks for religious studies, I had to write an essay about how ultimately homosexuality was wrong,” he says. “So there was no way in hell that I could consider living there and being authentic myself. I was completely terrified of coming there, and I knew it was going to happen. I remember counting down the days until I could go to college, and it still took me a year to find my courage after that.
As a teenager, homophobic jokes were still dropped on mainstream shows like Friends, and gay kissing on soap operas still made headlines.
“My young, locked-up gay teenager snuck out to watch this, because I was so desperate to see something that reflected how I felt inside,” he says. “The absurdity was that no one would blink if it was a straight couple. The fact that it made the headlines made you feel like a freak,” he says.
“I knew from hearing conversations that my parents would assume that I would have lived a very unhappy life, as they were unaware of it otherwise.”
But things have since changed. “I love coming home now and feel very welcome. I hope young queer people in Northern Ireland will get away with it more easily,” he says. “There is so much more queer visibility in media and culture and that makes a big difference The fact that actors can come out and live those successful public lives means it creates a safer space for young people to come out and be proud of who they are, and maybe even share this love with another person from their school or friends.
It reminds him of Netflix’s Heartstopper, a coming-of-age series centered on a gay schoolboy and his friends, which he’s just binge-watched. “I find it so moving because of the total difference in my experience at school. My first hint at something romantic in my life, I was well into my twenties, when most kids at school were thrilled with their first kiss when they were 15 or 16. It’s really beautiful too.”
These days he’s settled into a cottage in rural Oxfordshire with his boyfriend Declan Bennett, also an actor and singer, and their dog. The other actors Sinead Cusack and her husband Jeremy Irons are their neighbors. Fee and Bennett arrived in October 2020, just days before Fee landed the role in Hawkeye.
“I stayed there for a month before moving to the United States, leaving him there in a small town he didn’t know and where he didn’t know anyone,” says Fee. “But he’s currently in New York doing Moulin Rouge, so the roles have turned.”
When Zoom auditions first became a thing, he feared competing with actors around the world, 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 probably would have needed a green card to go to the US and stay for auditions, rather than getting visas for projects I signed up for. So it opened up the world in that way.
After Cabaret, he plays with two top secret television projects, one of which is filming in Los Angeles, the other in Spain. “One of them would involve signing on to play a role for multiple seasons. While that’s exciting, I’m also afraid of getting stuck.”
But, like enduring a hump day in an award-winning West End race, it’s a good problem to have.
The cabaret continues at the Playhouse Theater in London until June 25. theplayhousetheatre.co.uk