'Company' 's Matt Doyle on Dealing with Anxiety Onstage and Off: 'Panic Attacks Are Really Ugly'

Matt Doyle, who was nominated for a Tony Award Monday for his performance in Company, tells PEOPLE about overcoming anxiety and depression — and reaching high highs after experiencing very low lows

What is shown in the photograph – Matt Doyle Where was the image taken – The Civilian Hotel, NYC When was the image taken – April 10, 2022 Who took the photograph – Curtis Brown Full credit line – Photo by Curtis Brown
Photo: Curtis Brown

Every night on stage at the Broadway revival of Company, Tony Award nominee Matt Doyle has a nervous breakdown — as his character Jamie, that is.

Still, his neurotic rant in the show-stopping number "Getting Married Today" is all too familiar. Much like in the Stephen Sondheim musical, panic attacks for him are "very physical," Doyle tells PEOPLE. "I sweat. I get hysterical. I often cry, and there's shaking involved. I have to let it pass, and I have to breathe through it."

He adds, "Panic attacks are really ugly."

Company, about a single woman celebrating her 35th birthday with friends who are all partnered up, resonates with Doyle for many reasons. The actor turns 35 on Friday, and though he is in a committed relationship with longtime boyfriend Max Clayton, he is also not married.

In fact, like his character Jamie, he's sabotaged relationships in the past, including his one with Clayton.

"We started dating, I broke up with him immediately, and then we got back together, and then we've been together for seven years," he explains, adding that Clayton — who currently understudies Hugh Jackman in the Broadway revival of The Music Man — "saw past" the bouts of anxiety and depression.

"Max just always saw me for who I was," says Doyle.

The former Book of Mormon actor says he's currently in a "really positive" place, but that hasn't always been the case. He's dealt with a panic disorder and an anxiety disorder since he was a child and says things came to a "really ugly head" around 13 years old, when he was struggling with suicidal thoughts.

His family had just moved to California about two years prior, and he was thrust into a middle-school environment with preteen boys who were very different.

"I was chubby and awkward and very socially awkward and artistic, and they were all into sports and skateboarding, and I just didn't fit in," he says. "I was bullied really, really badly. And when I say bullied badly, it went beyond just like a few slurs thrown at me. I was physically beaten up constantly and dealing with that on a daily basis. It was something that I tried to push through and tried to deal with."

Then, he says, "my sexuality came into play."

Matt Doyle What is shown in the photograph – Matt Doyle Where was the image taken – The Civilian Hotel, NYC When was the image taken – April 10, 2022 Who took the photograph – Curtis Brown Full credit line – Photo by Curtis Brown
Curtis Brown

Doyle, who has openly identified as a gay man since his early years on Broadway in Spring Awakening, Bye Bye Birdie, and War Horse, says he knew at the time that his "very conservative father" would "never approve" of his sexuality.

"It wasn't easy," he says of those early conversations with his parents. "I first told my mom when I was 16, and it was devastating because I was met with, 'Let's not talk about this with your father.' " But at around 22, it was time to have a discussion with his dad John — "and it went about as painfully as I thought it would," Doyle says.

"I wanted him to be proud of me, as cliché as that sounds," says Doyle. Eventually, though, there came a day where they could be proud of each other.

"My father is in advertising, and he was working on Tiffany. I was backstage with a bunch of people [at the time, in 2015], and I wasn't really talking to my dad that much those days. And somebody mentioned, 'Have you seen the new Tiffany engagement ad? It's a gay engagement ad. And I asked, 'Is it in the gay magazines?' And they said, 'No, it's a national ad. It's everywhere.' And I said, 'Well, my dad has Tiffany, but he wouldn't have done that.' "

Getting choked up, Doyle recalls, "I called him up, and I said, 'Did you do this, Dad?' And he said, 'Yeah, I did it.' I said, 'Why didn't you tell me that?' And he was like, 'I just didn't want you to feel like I was trying to prove something.' And I just wept."

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These days, they're "the closest we've ever been," he says. And with the help of therapy and medication, Doyle has his anxiety under control. Still, "It doesn't go away," he explains.

Channeling the nervous energy he's experienced throughout his life into his critically acclaimed turn as Jamie in Company has been cathartic, Doyle notes.

Matt Doyle as Jamie in COMPANY. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Matthew Murphy

"It's nice to be able to represent something that I've dealt with and found torturous and ugly and painful and have it be celebrated and relatable and humorous and something that the audience can identify with," he adds. "The first time I went out there and received that reaction — applause, laughter — I felt seen."

During Mental Health Awareness month, Doyle advises those who are experiencing similar feelings to be open, adding: "Always remember that you need to communicate and that you need to bring people into your life, not push them away."

The actor notes that the coronavirus pandemic proves that anxiety and depression can creep back up unexpectedly at any moment — but that you must have the tools at hand to emerge on the other end.

"[COVID] was just this extra reminder of no matter how secure you might feel or how much you've really reached that goal or that point that you've always wanted to reach, the ground can just fall out from underneath you," he says. "You have to be able to shift gears, and you have to be able to keep going."

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