On a Friday morning after a late performance of the play “Skylight,” Matthew Beard is at a photo studio in Manhattan doing that thing that young British actors do so well: fidgeting, drolly poking fun at himself, his hands invariably running through his hair.
“Oh, Saturday?” he says when a reporter mentions a recent show. “That’s the problem when people come see you. Your mind goes, ‘Oh, was that the worst show ever?’”
Beard — 26, lanky, fine-boned, with a perpetual wowed look on his face that can’t believe his good fortune — is the latest in a long line of adorably nebbish British heartthrobs that has included Hugh Grant and Jeremy Northam.
In the U.K., he broke out in the small British film “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” when a London casting agent went looking for “a young Colin Firth.”
“That,” he says, “changed everything.” He was 17.
A string of films by the Danish director Lone Scherfig followed, as well as a memorable supporting role in last year’s critical darling, “The Imitation Game.” Now he’s on Broadway, starring with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy (an older version of a nebbish British heartthrob) in a revival of David Hare’s Nineties polemic. He’s onstage for less than 30 minutes, but when the Tony Awards take place on Sunday, he’ll be in the supporting actor category in the company of Nathaniel Parker and Richard McCabe, veterans of the British stage who log twice as much time in their brainy productions “Wolf Hall” and “The Audience,” respectively.
Hare’s play, which had a run in the West End last year and got Beard short-listed for the Evening Standard’s emerging talent award, was the actor’s first as a professional.
“It was very intimidating, but I wanted to do it,” Beard says. “I wanted to put my money where my mouth is, as they say.”
In front of the camera in the studio, Beard is a natural, a skill that comes from years as a child actor. For all his self-effacement earlier, he easily switches to dark and brooding with the click of a button, artfully showing off for the photographer a tattoo, a cubed hare, on his left forearm.
“It looks like a regrettable young decision. It wasn’t,” he says. “I was old and sober.” Unlike posh predecessors like Grant and Daniel Day-Lewis, Beard grew up in working-class Sheffield, just an hour’s drive away from Yorkshire, a perennial hub of television production.
“Everyone in my family is either a builder or a teacher. As a reference I always say, ‘Have you seen ‘The Full Monty?’” he says. His young parents juggled going to school with taking him to auditions for sitcoms and commercials while he recited whole passages from “Star Wars.”
“At that age if you’re well behaved and you don’t cry and you don’t trash the set, you get asked back quite a lot,” he says. “I was always told, ‘This will end and you’ll get a proper job.’ I just never got that proper job. I just kept going.”
The Firth film came about as something of a last-minute audition as he was preparing to put acting on hold to attend the University of York to study English. It was another audition, with Scherfig, that has resulted in Beard’s most lasting professional relationship. The two of them have done three films together, starting with “An Education” (which also starred Mulligan) and now the upcoming “The Riot Club”; a fourth may be in the works.
“I owe her so much. I don’t know why she cast me. I think she sort of pitied me, and has continued to pity me for many years,” he says.
In “Skylight,” Beard, playing against type as a daft, spoiled 18-year-old, dominates the first 20 minutes of the play before disappearing until the last scene. His challenge, in a short time, is to make a strong enough impression and win over an audience that won’t see him again for another 90, tense minutes of bravura performances from Nighy and Mulligan.
“Because I start the play and I have no time to settle into it, if I don’t hit the ground running, I’m screwed,” he says. “There are times when I don’t hit it. And then I have to walk off stage and sit in my dressing room for two hours fuming at myself.”
After the play wraps up in June, he doesn’t know what he’ll do with himself. Like many an Englishman before him, he’s kind of fallen in love with his adopted home.
“I get on with New York. Obviously, a huge part of it is a clean slate syndrome. Also, there’s a pace to New York,” he says, laughing at the sound of his own naïveté. “That’s an original thought. And I like that pace. I can sort of step out of my apartment and straight into the bloodstream.”
He’s taken in all the sights and checked off all the touristy landmarks, except for one: He hasn’t seen any other plays on Broadway. He’s asked if there are any roles he’d like to take and he lights up: “Actually, I saw ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ and I’d love to do that.” The thought lasts for a moment. “But you have to be famous to do ‘Hedwig,’” he says, half apologetic.