Ramin Karimloo’s profile has soared over the past three years. From being a long-running and favourite Phantom in the London production of The Phantom of the Opera (2007-2009), the actor has since originated the role in the sequel Love Never Dies, starred in Phantom‘s 25th anniversary celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall (also appearing as Enjolras in Les Misérables’ 25th anniversary concert) and is now leading the Les Mis cast at the Queen’s Theatre, as Jean Valjean. Somewhere on that rollercoaster, he managed to record an album, due for release in April. Lucy Thackray caught up with him about life as a recording artist and taking on one of musical theatre’s biggest roles.
Born in Iran and raised in Canada, Ramin Karimloo’s rise to music industry material has been stratospheric. He famously saw Colm Wilkinson perform as the Phantom in Toronto as a teen and made a bet with a friend that he would end up in the role. Little did he imagine the long relationship he has had with the show at just 33. After performing on cruise ships and moving to the UK to work in a factory, the first singing teacher Ramin picked in London put him in touch with an agent, and the rest was history. Having never trained professionally, his talent appears to be a combination of hard work and a distinctive voice and presence. He seems to bring something intangibly fresh to each role he tackles, however well-worn. This debut pop/rock album is new territory for him, but he seems to take each career milestone in his stride.
The record company came calling just as Love Never Dies was gaining momentum. “I got a phone call saying, ‘Sony wants to sign you and this management company wants to take you on board,’” he remembers, as we chat in his modest dressing room at the Queen’s theatre. “I thought, ‘whatever’, and hung up the phone. It wasn’t something I jumped at, because I wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do. Anyway, they kept calling back, and the conditions got more and more beneficial for me, so finally I was like, ‘Is this real?’ They thought I was playing hardball or something, but I was just thinking, “Why don’t they just phone my management? ”
As he smiles, displaying those dimples and twinkling dark eyes, it is hard not to agree with the consensus that, among his other achievements, Karimloo has brought sexy back to musical theatre. As we chat, it is clear that this was never his intention – he takes his craft very seriously and wants to branch out into many other arenas – but you can’t argue with the online wave of superfans and adoring web pages.
But a sexy Valjean? I ask him how he landed arguably the biggest role in musicals, and he is surprisingly frank about the circumstances. “It’s a role I never would have asked to go for. I didn’t know how I could inspire myself to do it or what I could add to the part,” he says seriously. “For me, Colm [Wilkinson] was the definitive; now Alfie [Boe] has come along and put a whole new take on it, which is operatic – and that ain’t me at all.”
Despite being sure he couldn’t bring anything new to the part, Cameron Mackintosh’s confidence in him was reassuring and once he picked up the novel, he began to see new challenges in it. “It really spoke to my struggles with faith and I thought, well I can tap into that, bring that to the part.”
Whatever area of his work he mentions, Karimloo seems determined to improve and do more. He is refreshingly candid about his album and the limitations of a debut. “I think anyone who releases an album, 10 albums later they’ll look back on the first one and they’ll be a completely different person,” he points out. “I’m very proud of this album because this suits where I am right now. It’s definitely not an album for me to show off my voice – that would bore the hell out of me.”
The style of the album, Ramin, is upbeat, euphoric pop/rock, with a couple of musical theatre nods; Til I Hear You Sing, the Love Never Dies ballad he is perhaps most associated with, is included in a mellower version (though the vocals remain impressive).
His varied tastes made choosing tracks difficult. “Right now I’m playing country and bluegrass, and I grew up with rock – but then my career was big, epic musicals. [This album] was trying to make a bridge for all of them,” he says. His own songwriting is featured, along with co-writing and covers, which is something Karimloo has been honing for a while. He started off learning the guitar and writing while dressing room-bound in his Phantom make-up, later jamming with his co-star and good friend Hadley Fraser, with whom he formed the folk and bluegrass band Sheytoons.
“I’m better writing with someone, that’s why I love my partnership with Hadley – you bounce off ideas,” he explains. The band is purely for fun at this point though. The partnership with Fraser works both onstage and off – currently playing arch-nemeses Valjean and Javert, Ramin remarks that they haven’t messed around as much as people thought, keeping things intense in rehearsals for maximum effect. “I thought we’d write more now he’s next door to me,” he says, nodding at Fraser’s neighbouring dressing room,” but we don’t want to put any pressure on it. We’ll just have that as our playground for now.”
While happy in his current, challenging musical role, Karimloo always seems to have an eye on the future. He’s set to work on three feature films this year (although no Les Mis movie cameo), including shoots in Canada and Budapest, and has stage ambitions beyond musical theatre. He mentions he would love to play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, quickly adding “I’m probably not ready but I’m ready to work at it. I would need advanced notice to work with my coach, but I think I’m right for it.” He certainly has a Brando-esque strength and presence; it would be an interesting fit.
In terms of musical roles his hit list includes Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and Guido in Nine. “I think I’m getting to that point in my life, with things I’ve experienced over the last two years,” he says of the latter. “I’m a bit young for it, but that hasn’t stopped me with other stuff!”
First playing the Phantom at just 30 and reprising the role in Love Never Dies (supposedly a decade older) the following year, Karimloo has seemingly always dipped in and out of such roles. Having also played Raoul in Phantom – even popping up as Christine’s father in the movie – and Marius, Enjolras and now Valjean in Les Misérables, it is safe to say Ramin suits the epic musical. But he is eager not to be pigeonholed.
“I’ve had 10 years in musicals and I’m still loving it, but now doors are opening when it comes to recording and film, I think I owe it to my craft to try those things and take that adventure,” Karimloo says in his soft Canadian lilt. “Only one of two things can happen – I’ll be successful or I’ll fail.” It seems to be the doing, rather than the succeeding, which drives him.
Ramin has ample acting heroes, which are displayed, adorably, on a mood board in his dressing room. He talks me through them: “Colm [Wilkinson]’s made it, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis – if I could be a fraction of him, as an actor – and I love that image of Liam Neeson as Valjean in the movie. But then you look at actors like Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Ryan Gosling, and they’re just so truthful. Mark Rylance really inspired me for this role, from what he did in Jerusalem – just so brave, you know?”
Karimloo is full of enthusiasm for this subject, determined to learn whatever he can to match these demigods. But he is already an impressive actor in his sphere. After joining the Phantom cast, he was nominated for a Theatregoers’ Choice Award Nomination for Best Actor in a Takeover Role, and his reviews for Love Never Dies were positive, however much the show itself was questioned.
Seeing him in Les Misérables, it seems that Karimloo has the ability to take a much-performed role and start again from scratch; he gives a warmth and a humility to Valjean while his voice is perfectly suited to the powerful rock-opera style. His work seems as much about the acting as the singing for him, not always the case in this ambitious, sung-through show.
“After the warm-up I stop worrying about how I sound, because that’s just one aspect of it. I like to be a little rough around the edges, I guess.” he says, revealing that he requested a singing coach as a condition of doing Les Mis, having felt his voice was left ‘dead’ after the Phantom 25th anniversary show. He keeps an iPod handy before the show and even between scenes, finding certain tracks helpful for characterization. “If I feel like I’m not digging deep enough, music keeps me going.” He reveals that he is extending his run in Les Mis until 31st March, giving the impression of being both totally knackered and having the “best time of [his] life,” in the process.
He then goes on tour around the UK in May. “We’re going to dig deeper into the album, touch on some of my theatre songs, have a bit of a hootenanny in the second half of the show. I really want to make it intimate, though I’m playing these big old halls. Even if we’re at the festival hall I want to feel like I’m jamming in my living room,” he smiles. He hopes to play some guitar and piano live, but his biggest goal is “to make it sound uniform – not like album, then theatre songs, then suddenly folk stuff.”
As we wrap up our chat – “I have to get my beard on” – I ask Ramin how he psychs himself up for such a mammoth performance. He emphasizes the need for a physical as well as vocal warm up, and laughs that he even likes to walk to the stage in the manner of Valjean’s age and mood at that moment (the character ages four times during the course of the show).
“All I can do is get myself ready for the moment when I step onstage,” he reasons. “The rest – who knows? You can’t play endgame; the journey is far more exciting than the destination.” With his infectious enthusiasm and vast ambition, you can’t help but think that Karimloo himself has a long and exciting journey ahead of him as a performer.