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Category — Building Character

Why Alessandro Nivola Loves “The Elephant Man”

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper wasn’t the only actor obsessed with bringing the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival to Broadway

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When director Scott Ellis called Alessandro Nivola back in 2012 about playing the part of moralistic Victorian doctor Frederick Treves in a mounting of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the actor knew he couldn’t say no. After all, his old friend Ellis was responsible for his entire career in the theatre and beyond. “It’s true!” Nivola insists. “In 1995, Scott cast me in a revival of A Month in the Country opposite Helen Mirren. I was just one year out of college and that play was not only my Broadway debut but my first show in NYC. It was entirely because of that exposure that all the other opportunities came.”

In fact, so many Hollywood offers flooded in that Nivola’s stage career was immediately sidetracked. Although he and Ellis attempted to work together many times over the years, their schedules never aligned… not even for The Elephant Man. “I was filming a movie [Devil’s Knot] in Atlanta at the same time as rehearsals,” Nivola recalls. “I had to fly to and from Williamstown three times if that gives you any indication of my level of commitment. There was no way I wasn’t going to do this thing.”

The life of Joseph Merrick, a real 19th-century Englishman afflicted with mysterious deformities who was treated and befriended by Dr. Treves, seems to have a compelling effect on actors. Nivola’s costar, Bradley Cooper, who plays the title character, recently revealed that David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man is what inspired him to become an actor. And when he discovered Bernard Pomerance’s Tony-winning play of the same name, he did it for his grad school thesis.

Nivola, similarly, was introduced to Merrick’s story through the film, but he was pleasantly surprised when he realized the movie and the play were completely different. “I remember loving The Elephant Man but it was so filmic, especially Dr. Treves, who was played by Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “The character was fascinating but so understated. I couldn’t imagine how it would translate into a great theatre role. And then I read the play and was struck by Treves’ main arc. He goes from having supreme confidence and conviction in his own beliefs and the cultural values of the time and place to just total loss of faith and self-loathing. There are hints of that in the film but nothing like what plays out onstage. I saw it as a huge opportunity.”

Thanks in part to Cooper’s movie star cred, The Elephant Man was an insanely hot ticket at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, so a Broadway transfer seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the lead actors and director all wanted to do it. It was just a question of juggling everyone’s commitments, which wasn’t easy. As Nivola explains, “We were supposed to do it last fall so I had blocked out that time but when it fell through, that’s how I ended up doing The Winslow Boy,” which was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Ellis is associate artistic director (yup, him again).
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November 20, 2014   No Comments

His Rage Is My Rage Too

Gretchen Mol & Hari Dhillon

Gretchen Mol & Hari Dhillon

How Hari Dhillon channels the anger and revelations in Broadway’s Disgraced

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

It’s clearly been a very bad day. Amir (Hari Dhillon) doesn’t so much enter his dusk-lit apartment as storm it, quickly loosening his tight corporate-lawyer tie and pouring himself a stiff drink. His wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) isn’t home, and somehow, that only intensifies his anxious, angry pacing. He stomps out onto the terrace, sips his drink… then hurls his cocktail glass against the wall, shattering it to pieces. He comes back and pours himself another round.

Soon enough, Emily, a visual artist, arrives with some last-minute groceries, reminding Amir that a couple of friends are on their way over for a significant soiree. The guests are Amir’s co-workers and her curator husband, who may have big news about Emily’s inclusion in a new Whitney exhibit. And thus the table is set for a familiar theatrical battle scene: The Dinner Party From Hell. No more glasses will be smashed, but the lives of all the diners will be significantly dented.

Though all four share some blame for the collision, Amir’s rage is the engine that drives the long, volatile third scene of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, now at the Lyceum Theatre. So one obvious question for Dhillon would be: What does he do as an actor to psych himself up before coming onstage?

“The writing is so tight, there’s never a point where I have to stand off to the side and rev up my own personal motives,” says Dhillon, who, though American-born-and-raised, is better known in England as heartthrob doctor Michael Spence on the BBC series Holby City. “The train ride feels kind of inexorable. I never feel like, ‘On Line X, I have to do this.’ ”

In any case, much of the fuel for the evening’s conflict is buried, Dhillon explains. [Read more →]

October 21, 2014   No Comments

The Secret to Surviving a Terrible Family

Eric Lange in The Country House

Eric Lange in The Country House

Eric Lange adds texture to Broadway’s The Country House

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

The ghost of Konstantin, the tortured young playwright whose diva mother withholds her love in Chekhov’s The Seagull, seems to haunt Donald Margulies’ The Country House, now on Broadway from Manhattan Theatre Club.

In the new play, the broken artist shuffling through the living room is Elliot Cooper, a failed American actor-playwright whose unrealized career is partly due to the selfishness of his famous actress mother, Anna. There’s also a hint of the disappointed Uncle Vanya in Elliot, a depressed alcoholic who might’ve been something if only he’d been bolstered by his extended showbiz clan.

Given all this, you might assume rehearsals for The Country House were guided by lengthy discussions about Russians, but according to Eric Lange, who makes his Broadway debut as Elliot, there were none.

“It was mentioned early on, in our first meeting, that the play is inspired by characters in Chekhov and there are themes inherent throughout,” he says. “It was a jumping off point for Donald. [Director] Dan Sullivan said, ‘I want you to throw all that away. This is not a Chekhov play. Let’s just make this about a family.’ We never gave Chekhov any real attention.”

Lange—known for recurring roles on TV series like Lost, The Bridge, and Weeds—resisted the urge to re-read The Seagull or Uncle Vanya. He also sought to avoid “the trap of the role”—overplaying Elliot’s “pity-me” quality.

“Elliot is someone who is deeply wounded, from childhood on,” the actor says. “So to get through life, you adopt these shields, these protective devices. His mind, his sense of humor, his caustic wit.” [Read more →]

September 25, 2014   No Comments

A Woman Walking in A Man’s Shoes

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant puts a feminine stamp on a traditionally male role in A Walk in the Woods

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

A famous old adage says if women ruled the world, there would be no war. So it stands to reason that one of the two envoys attempting to negotiate an arms treaty in A Walk in the Woods is female—only that’s not the way Lee Blessing’s play was originally written. Loosely inspired by a real-life meeting between the U.S.’s Paul H. Nitze and the then U.S.S.R.’s Yuli A. Kvitsinsky during the 1982 Geneva peace talks, the 1988 Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated drama initially starred two men. But over the past quarter century, as more women have become high-profile players in international politics, some theatre companies have opted to change up the characters’ genders. And that’s exactly what Keen Company has done by casting Kathleen Chalfant as seasoned Russian diplomat Andrey (rechristened Irina) Botvinnik in A Walk in the Woods at the Clurman Theatre.

This isn’t the first time the Obie Award-winning actress has played a part that was meant for a man. Her diverse and illustrious career is filled with performances that blur gender boundaries. “I feel like I do this all the time,” she says with a small chuckle. “I have played a number of characters who are actually male, like in Angels in America, [affecting a flawless Russian accent] Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, which was also my first Russian role. In Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, I played Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan—that part can be portrayed by a man or a woman, but it’s mostly been done by men. And I also played Clov in Beckett’s Endgame. So I had no hesitations when Johnny [Keen Company artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, who also helms the production] asked me to play Botvinnik.”

Of course in this mounting, Botvinnik is no longer a male character, which meant some slight script adjustments were necessary—mostly pronoun switches. But Blessing, who was present during the rehearsal process, was happy to oblige. “I’ve formally been asked for my approval to change the gender of one or the other negotiator in A Walk in the Woods four times, that I recall,” he says. “In each case I gave it. I think the gender change can wake us up a bit more to a play that discusses issues that haven’t been on the front burner in quite this way for decades. It reminds us that more and more women are finding their way into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions.”

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September 18, 2014   2 Comments

Once, Twice, Three Times Your Savior

Arthur Aulisi, Daryl Lathon, & Donald Warfield

Arthur Aulisi, Daryl Lathon, & Donald Warfield

The actors in 3 Christs find truth in insanity

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

It’s not every day you sit down with three Jesus Christs. Wait, what’s the plural form of Jesus? Jesi? Jesuses?

“Jesees!” says Donald Warfield, one of three actors playing the son of God in 3 Christs, now at Judson Memorial Church in a production from Peculiar Works Project.

When the audience enters Judson’s grand church hall, they see three men onstage, sitting with their backs to each other in a triangular formation—a trinity. In the background, above the set, stained glass windows of Peter, Paul, and John gaze upon them. It’s a striking tableau about an unsettling subject.

3 Christs, adapted S.M. Dale and Barry Rowell from a real-life medical study, follows the two-year experiment of Dr. Milton Rokeach, who in 1959 brought together three schizophrenics (Leon Gabor, Joseph Cassel, and Clyde Benson). All three believed they were Jesus Christ, and Dr. Rokeach hoped that by encountering each other, they would be shaken of their delusions.

This scenario creates a fascinating acting exercise for the actors playing the Christs (as they’re called by the crew). How do you make sense of insanity? [Read more →]

September 16, 2014   No Comments