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Ramin Karimloo: the unstoppable beast

Iranian-Canadian musical theater actor Ramin Karimloo is known for his work in the West End, performing in The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, as well as debuting the role of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies.

Recently he finished a run playing Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway and gained attention for not just his vocals but his physical strength. He is back in London and getting ready for a show (tonight) at the Palladium on 16 July. Later in the year he will be joining Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and Kerry Ellis in UK premiere of the off-Broadway musical Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre.

The Palladium show will be another opportunity to see Ramin and his band mix country and bluegrass with musical theatre (and vice-versa), after sellout shows at Islington’s Union Chapel in January.

I sat down with Ramin shortly after his return to London. We talked about the shows, his fitness regime and how he is looking for a good gym to hit while in London.

Ramin has boundless energy and it shows in his performances, his workout clips and when he interviews.

How are you enjoying London?
It’s the first time in three years that I have finally unpacked everything as before I knew it was just a fleeting visit. It gives me time to now enjoy where I have been, because when you’re doing it, it is work.

Where is home?
It is hard to feel truly Canadian, an Iranian with a Green Card, or British. That weighs down on me sometime because I think having a nationality is important. To not or to feel confused by it. I think spiritually you have to connect to something.

Do you feel like you are a citizen of the world then? 
Yes. Which is charming at times. But then three years down the line (with the) same suitcase. Trying to think, “Am I going to make weight with this luggage?” It looses the charm.

When people describe your performance they tend to describe both your physical and vocal presence. Are both important?
Well I feel physical energy and physical truth is just as important as emotional truth. It all goes hand in hand. For me I like to be all in or nothing. That is part of my character. But also these roles I play require.

Fitness seems to be part of the performance. Do you find your body reacts well to whatever you throw at it? 
I did bodybuilding for Valjean and gained 20 pounds of muscle. I hit that goal with 5000 calories a day. You think about these movie stars who do this. But they do this for a scene and when the scene is over they go back to normal. I was thinking, how do I keep this up? I didn’t think this through. So to maintain it, that became my task. I like a challenge. Since Les Mis, I shed about 12 of those pounds so I can walk around a bit more normal, but keep my strength. But now I just enjoy it.

Did putting on that weight help you get into character with the role of Valjean?
It did because I believed I was strong since I was lifting 500 pounds. I was strong! And then in our version I had to rip my shirt off, to shed his skin of that convict outfit. And when the audience sees a ripped guy with a six pack, it’s great marketing, let’s not deny it. But it also shows that guy has done the work.

Did you have trouble maintaining your weight?
I always say the first month is the hardest. But when you start eating better you don’t crave crappy food anymore. I became someone who said, “I can’t wait to have my roast potatoes and chicken,” as that’s what I was craving. I eat six times a day still. So it will be some source of protein. Throughout the day I would have had a steak or chicken, two servings of fish. A handful of carbs such as brown rice and green vegetables.

How does the rest of the family cope with this regime? 
For the kids, I am very big on them eating healthily but I still want them to be kids. But it is like, well if you want nutella, you are going to have to have some of my protein pancakes!

My wife is really into it to and so she is eating the same meals and it is a good support system for each other.

Do you think it is a new trend to demand that male performers look a physically fit in roles?
I think it has always been there. You look at Hollywood, Brando in his prime was physically fit. I think there are certain roles that suit certain body types. I just know that the roles that I go for require sexy, charismatic men. How can you act sexy? You either are or you are not. One audition I had, the role required me to be sexy. I did it and they said, “that was great, now can you do it sexy.” And I thought I just did! I didn’t know where to go after that!

For Valjean I remember reading in the book he was physically fit and this was the reason I took the part. He wanted to keep his body physically fit and mentally fit to take revenge on the world. It said he kept his body supple. That is not a broken man.

So given given your level of fitness, will strong men roles be a driving force behind the characters you are likely to play? 
Well I can mess this up. Give me a month of food!

Is there a training regime you follow?
It is based around body building and functionality. I love to be able to jump high and keep that agility. I do sprints.

I’ve been reading Joe Manganiello’s book called Evolution. There is no gimmicks in there. I’ve tried those workouts. They are hard. But it keeps you functional and you look good. If you look good you feel good.

Will Londoners see you at the gym? 
I hope so. Obviously I’m based in Essex but I want to find a London-based gym. It’s been a while since I’ve been here so I don’t know what’s around. But one that is a fully functional gym.

It got to the point with Les Mis when I moved to Washington Heights, I would cycle 8 miles to work. Do the matinee. Then go do bodybuilding, strength training, do the evening show, and then cycle 8 miles home.

How do you keep the energy up? 
When you enjoy something it is not a task. So the bike home I am not doing it to race, I am not doing it to burn fat. But to ride for 20 minutes when you have got you, the moon and the Hudson River, why would you take the subway?

Do you think if you weren’t a performer you would be an athlete? 
I don’t know as I didn’t really workout until I got the role of Valjean. I worked out a bit doing Miss Saigon doing the t-shirt muscles as obviously you’re playing a G.I. and so you have to take your shirt off.

When I did Valjean in London, Cameron Mackintosh saw me on opening night. I was in my dressing room with my shirt off. He came in and said, “Somebody’s in their thirties, darling,” pointing at my belly. I looked down and he was right. I knew it and I had other comments before.

Basically I had gained weight and my shape was gone. So I decided that I was going to get in shape. But I would do it properly.

I got the Insanity programme, and did it exactly as it said from the diet to the DVD. The first day I almost died. But when I finished it, I was in the best shape. I felt agile and great. I enjoyed eating. So from then I studied bodybuilding and worked with bodybuilders, and it became a way of life.

You’re at the age when a lot of the leading man roles call for a bit of muscle. Is this where are things now?
I shed some of the weight back down as you want to look normal in a t-shirt. I was getting to the point where I was too small to be the big muscle heads, and I’m too big to be normal.

How is the concert on 16 July at the Palladium coming along? 
It’s coming along great. The band is excited to keep developing the sound we’ve got, “Broadgrass” (that’s Broadway meets Bluegrass).

We’ve got new ideas. When people come and see the show, my favourite comment is that it just looks like a bunch of friends singing around a kitchen sink. We get excited to get together because it gets us together. We just love each others company. We love playing the music we do and we love trying new things. I call them the hits, the “Bring Him Home” and “Music of the Night.”

Some days we will be like, let’s play it like this, they won’t expect this. I think it will be nice. I have ideas about how I would like “Bring Him Home” and “Music of the Night” to sound this time around.

From day one we always have said we will play what we want and how we want. We didn’t do it to make money or get record deals. This is a passion project so let’s be passionate about it.

No doubt fans of Ramin will continue to be enthralled by whatever he does. His energy and enthusiasm during an interview is enough to inspire you to head out and do a few supersets of something…

Ramin Karimloo plays the London Palladium on Saturday 16th July 2016. Check www.seetickets.com for further details.

Photo credit: Matt Murphy for Broadway Style Guide and Ramin Karimloo's Instagram

 A version of this interview originally appeared in Londonist

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