Exclusive Interview: Actor Mateo Oxley on Gay Footballer Play Target Man (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Mark Starling’s new gay footballer themed play Target Man closes the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season in London later this month. Ahead of the production’s limited six performance run, The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann spoke with one of the play’s lead actors Mateo Oxley about his role as England goalie Joel. Oxley also talks understudying for Andrew Garfield in Angels in America, the significance of footballers coming out and encountering Rocky Horror fans while performing in Shock Treatment.

Mateo Oxley appears in Target Man at the King’s Head Theatre London

James Kleinmann: Mateo, you’re about to appear in Target Man at the King’s Head, why was it something you wanted to be part of? 

Mateo Oxley: It’s important to me, as an openly gay actor, to seize opportunities to tell LGBTQ stories. I’ve played my fair share of heterosexual characters, all fascinating in their own right. I feel very fortunate. I’ve never seen my sexuality as an obstacle to playing those parts. I think there just came a point where I felt frustrated that I wasn’t exploring queer roles, roles that I could really connect with on a personal level, so I made a conscious decision to push for that a couple of years ago. Understudying Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America at The National Theatre and Brandt in Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed at The Finborough were big turning points for me. Joel in Target Man sort of feels like the third point in that triangle. Three totally different, complex, queer roles. I hope they’ll be many more.”

 “I hope the play gets a future life and a longer run somewhere. It deserves it. As soon as I started reading the script for Target Man I knew pretty quickly that the playwright, Mark Starling, had written something very intelligent, surprising and nuanced. It’s always a privilege to work with new voices and originate a part. Laura Jayne Bateman who is the Artistic Director for the production company, Sliding Tackle, just had this infectious passion for the play and incredible attention to detail when I met her. We really chimed. They’re a young, immensely talented, emerging company. It was a bit of a no-brainer.”

 You mentioned seizing opportunities. How do you go about curating your career? Can you do that?

“I try not to get too ahead of myself and map it out these days. The industry is far too unpredictable to be able to do that effectively. I guess if I think about my body of work, I’ve been drawn to some quite unusual, subversive projects. My first job out of drama school was Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, an epic, immersive show co-produced by the National Theatre. It was the most incredible baptism by fire I could have imagined and really challenged my preconceptions of what theatre was or could be. I hadn’t even graduated, hadn’t met with any agents and sort of launched myself into it headlong.”

“That first job has become a sort of compass as I’ve navigated my way through the industry. I’m not a particularly risk-averse person so I think I’ve adopted an attitude where I’m willing to be a bit more selective about the projects I want to work on, even if that means spells of inevitable unemployment with grueling side-hustles. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t! I’ve made my peace with it.”

Tell us more about your character Joel in Target Man.

“OK, so Joel is a goalkeeper in his prime playing for one of the top clubs in the Premier League, the highest level of English football. He’s an incredibly driven, talented and trophy-decorated athlete but holds the immense weight of being closeted due to rife homophobia within the sport. He’s very much a ‘keep your head down and get on with it’ kind of guy, but that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain as he seeks to live an authentic life whilst vying for a spot on the World Cup team. I think Joel’s quite different to how a lot of people perceive footballers. He’s erudite, he sees beyond the football bubble and is quite worldly. He reminds me of when people used to tease footballer Graham Le Saux about being gay because he read The Guardian. Joel totally reads The Guardian.”

As you’re in Target Man you must have considered how significant would it be for male football players to start coming out. How likely is it that we’ll see this happen do you think?

 “Yes, it’d be hugely significant. Game-changing, really. The research I’ve done for this play coupled with stepping into Joel’s shoes has taught me that coming out in men’s football would be an act of tremendous courage. I would like to think the FA, the fans, the media and the clubs would have the infrastructure to support a player who chooses to come out, but you could argue that it’s still a very hostile, hypermasculine environment for a queer player to exist in.”

Why do you think there’s so much interest in male football players coming out? 

“I think there’s so much interest in football players coming out because the LGBTQ community has this incredible wealth of athletic talent and most people understand that there is absolutely no physical disadvantage to being LGBTQ. An openly gay player in men’s football could pave the way for younger generations and show them that they’re not only welcome in the sport, they can flourish in it. But, as the recent hashtag #gayfootballer has shown us, you can’t force someone to come out and certainly shouldn’t abuse them if they feel they can’t. People who say ‘who cares?’ or ‘why are they making such a big deal of it?’ don’t quite grasp the intensity of the media spotlight, the discrimination and strain on a player’s mental health. If you’re cool with it, great! But don’t assume everyone else is.”

 What sort of research have you undertaken for this role? Are you a football fan yourself?

 “Admittedly I’m much more of a tennis player, I grew up playing competitively and follow pretty much every tournament, both men’s and women’s. Football in my high school was quite a volatile environment in which I survived solely due to my speed on the pitch, rather than any real technical ability. I come from a big sporting family, but I just felt like football wasn’t for me. The changing room banter was horrendous. Looking back on that now I feel a bit sad about it because I think I could have really enjoyed the sport, but as this play explores, it’s not just about kicking the ball. It’s the culture surrounding it. I hope we get to a point where it’s fully inclusive.”

“I’m from Norwich originally and I do like to keep tabs on how the Canaries are doing, it’s really exciting they’ve been promoted to the Premier League! I’d love to go and watch a match at Carrow Road. It’s been years.”

 “Research-wise, I read Robbie Rogers autobiography, an American soccer player who came out in 2013. I’ve watched a lot of footage of Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas – who I had a huge crush on growing up – his athleticism in goal and how he commands the box is really useful for this part. Thankfully I don’t actually have to save any goals in the play, but yeah, I’ve been studying the physicality and psychology of a goalkeeper. It’s generally considered to be the toughest position to play.”

 Target Man closes Queer Season at the Kings Head; did you have chance to see any of the other work in the season, if so what were the highlights? How pleased are you that there is a ‘queer season’ at the King’s Head? 

 “We’ve been in a bit of a rehearsal whirlwind, but I managed to catch Refract by my friend Kate Reid which was excellent and I’ve booked to see World’s End directed by my friend Harry Mackrill. Can’t wait for that one. Vivre la saison queer!”

 We know you’ve got a gorgeous singing voice, have you been recording or performing as a singer recently? Where can people hear your work online? 

 “I’ve been building a series of stripped down acoustic and piano covers with an eye to release some of my own material in the not too distant future. I didn’t think anyone other than friends and family would listen, so I’m thrilled to have the kind of digital audience I do. It’s all available online across major streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL etc. I’ve got three more to record in the studio, but I’ve had to push them back until after Target Man finishes as it’s all hands on deck at the moment. Recording is such a different beast to acting, it’s usually just me in a tiny vocal booth, my producer on the sound desk and his little dog Chloe.”

 We saw you a few years ago in the stage production of cult film Shock Treatment at the King’s Head. What was that experience like? 

 “Bonkers. Utterly bonkers! Shock Treatment was the stage premiere and sort of sequel to The Rocky Horror Show. I didn’t quite realize the extent of the Rocky Horror fandom. Every night was like a rock concert with the audience on their feet, sometimes even on the stage. I remember getting carried away and essentially giving a front row audience member a lap dance one night. I offered to pay their therapy bill, but I think it went down quite well thankfully!”

 On the night I was there I spoke to some pretty hardcore fans of the film who’d travelled a long way to see the production, did you have some interesting audience encounters post show on that one?

 “Oh, absolutely. Rocky/Shocky fans are next level. Although I have to say every single person I met couldn’t have been lovelier. We had people who had flown overseas from the US to see the show multiple times. It’s got a massive cult following. The original stage production of The Rocky Horror Show was upstairs at The Royal Court, so there’s a similar vibe at The King’s Head that the creative team wanted to tap into.”

 You’re an ambassador for the Invincible Me project, what can you tell us about it and how are you involved? 

 “So, InvincibleMe are a fantastic charity that focus on making mental health as much of a priority as academic success. Their goal is basically to nurture children and empower educators to promote positive mental health and well being. They focus on primary education, as research shows that early intervention is most effective. In between acting jobs I worked in over 20 mainstream and SEN schools. I think teachers are absolute superheroes and learnt so much during my time, particularly from Nana Amaning, a teacher at Avondale Primary School in West London who is hands down one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. When Amy Shocker, the founder and Executive Director of InvincibleMe, asked me to come onboard I jumped at the chance. It’s a privilege.”

 Where can people follow you on social media and find out more about you? 

 “Brave souls can follow me on Twitter @MateoOxley for all acting and music related news and the occasional politically exasperated tweet! I try to keep those a minimum, but the struggle is real. I’ve tried to pepper my timeline with happy seals recently to balance it out.”

 “I’m also on Instagram @mateooxley which I find a bit more creative – follow for houseplants, stay for the cute videos of my two cats Nimbus and Rouxfio.”

Mateo Oxley is appearing in Target Man at Londib’s King’s Head Theatre 20-24th of August at 9pm. 75mins. Runs for six performances only, closing the theatre’s Queer Season. For more information and to purchase tickets head to the Target Man Event Page here.

Target Man Synopsis: 19-year-old Connor has just signed for a Premier League team. Fame, fortune and the World Cup squad are within his reach. He just needs to play up and keep his head down. But Connor has a secret which football isn’t ready to hear. When he crosses paths with Joel, England’s No. 1, together they make a decision which threatens their careers, private lives, and the very foundations of the game. Forthright, funny and incisive, Target Man spotlights the choices we make to be true to who we are. Directed by Laura Jayne Bateman for Sliding Tackle.

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