Building Character: Jefferson Mays
The Tony-winning actor plays a spy in “Blood and Gifts”
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about how actors create their roles
The first time we meet Simon Craig, the dissolute British spy played by Jefferson Mays in Blood and Gifts, he is muttering to himself as he spills pocket change all over the floor. The second time, he’s about to be shot by an ostensible ally.
By the end of J.T. Rogers’ sprawling look at Western involvement in the 1980s war between Russia and Afghanistan, Simon’s CIA counterpart—a square-jawed Texan named James Warnock—has received a brutal crash course in the consequences of realpolitik. But so, in odd and tragic ways, has Simon, who after 14 years in Afghanistan knows the lay of the land but is still capable of crippling disappointment.
“We started referring to Simon as Cassandra during rehearsals,” says Mays. “He sees what’s coming down the pike before anyone else.” That’s not to say, however, that Simon is ready to face what’s coming. “I learned a couple interesting things about MI6,” Mays says of the British intelligence service. “They generally leave their fellows out in the branch for a fairly long time, so they tend to go native. Or to seed. Or both.”
To prepare for the play, which is running through January 8 at Lincoln Center Theater, Mays read plenty of British spy novels by the likes of John Le Carré. “I tried to make Simon one of that world,” he says. Director Bartlett Sher also brought in several guest speakers during rehearsals, something that Mays typically doesn’t go for. “But there was one fellow, who was present at the Oslo peace accords, and he said something that really resonated for me. ‘There’s always a double chess game being played,’ he said. ‘One on top of the table and one underneath.’ That gave me something to play.”
Mays says he and the rest of the cast also benefit from a playwright who conveys quite a bit of historical material without being pedantic. “J.T. has made every effort to humanize these people and still take their measure from a historical level. And as an actor, you always try to find some human, idiosyncratic things so that it doesn’t lean toward the didactic. Sometimes I say to Jeremy [Davidson, who plays James] before the show, ‘You know, maybe this time they’ll work it out.’”
The play gains immediacy because Sher seats the actors around the performing space when they’re not in a scene. When characters refer to people who aren’t in the room, they often point at the actors who play them. Suddenly, the offstage actors aren’t just passive observers. They’re a ghostly part of the action.
“We introduced that on the first day of rehearsal, and there’s a formality to it that I quite like—almost like with a Shakespeare history play,” Mays explains. “It helps the audience keep their ducks in a row, and it’s a wonderful resource for an actor. I don’t want to work any other way anymore.”
He should get many opportunities, since he’s one of the most in-demand stage actors in New York. Since winning a 2004 Tony Award for I Am My Own Wife, in which he played 35 roles, Mays has appeared primarily in revivals, including Journey’s End, Measure for Measure, and, as Henry Higgins, Pygmalion.
Simon is a considerably smaller role than many of these, but that doesn’t mean Blood and Gifts lets the actor kick back and let someone else do the heavy lifting. “Oddly, I find myself experiencing more stress with the smaller roles,” he says. “Say you screw up the first scene as Hamlet. Well, you have the rest of the play to redeem yourself, plus a cast that’s there to support you. Whereas I found Journey’s End [in which Mays played the smaller role of a griping Army cook] to be very difficult for some reason.”
Like Journey’s End, Blood and Gifts doesn’t flinch from the harsher realities of war. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Mays says he and the rest of the cast leave their jaded, misanthropic mindsets at the stage door: “When you’re dealing with subject matter such as this, with such a tragic ending, the rehearsals can be giddy. It’s sort of a riotous dressing room.”