Did you get to talk to Pinter about directing the play?
SM: Well, if you wanted to do the play, you had to go the agent and get the rights and Pinter would approve of the director. I knew him a little, maybe a little bit more than Ian, but I didn’t know him very well either. I didn’t discuss the play with him, I’d have been terrified.
IM: And he was not up for discussing. An actor once asked, “Before I come on where have I just been?” and he said, “Well you have just been in the wings waiting to come on.” Harold was not full of bullshit.
So, as actor and director, how do you figure out the mysteries of a play that’s not necessarily straight-forward with explanations?
IM: You ask those time-honored questions: What’s the character trying to do and what does he want? My character is on his uppers, he doesn’t have a bean. He only has the coat he’s carrying and he ends up in a house where the drink is free and he gets free breakfast. So he thinks, “I might stay here.” He would like the companionship and the comforts.
SM: I think you have to make sure that the characters are real people. Even if the play is in the style of Pinter, the people have to be real. It’s set in Hamsptead and we know Hampstead types. Hirst [played by Stewart] is a successful writer, or has been in his day, and Spooner is a chap who clears the beer mugs in the pub. Ian and I own a pub so we know what pub life is like. There’s a lot of the philosophy of the pub in the play. We also understand the British class system. You have two toffs and two working-class lads in this play, and even though, of the two elderly characters, one is rich and one is poor, they both come from a privileged education. In that sense, to identify and make it specific was how we approached it. Actually, it’s a play set in a drawing room, and it follows certain drawing-room-play conventions that have been followed before by Rattigan, Coward, and by Shaw. It was fascinating to find that. I thought this is weird and wonderful and poetic and unpleasant and sexual and strange, but it has got a real mannerism to it, and masks: people behaving in a certain way on the outside and feeling another way on the inside.
What’s it like working on both the Beckett and the Pinter plays together?
SM: Both plays are great puzzles, but in very different styles. What Ian says is absolutely true: What’s so exciting is that the audience has to think about them. It’s an absolutely personal response. With these plays, two people can have a totally different experience of them and they can argue about them. It’s like going to see an amazing modernist or abstract painting, or listening to a piece of music that makes you feel certain different things.
IM: You couldn’t sit through either of these plays and be indifferent. They will perk you up, better than any Red Bull or vodka!
SM: They’re both very funny as well…and entertaining.
IM: They tickle you.
While it’s a staple of the English and European theater, repertory productions are relatively rare here on Broadway. What are your thoughts about this way of working?
SM: On some days we do both plays the on the same day and the American actors in our company are as absolutely up for it as the British actors are. It basically comes from the idea of a company of actors and using the actors fairly so they all get to have different roles. It just so happens these two plays provide you with eight fabulous roles. It’s very balanced—and that’s unusual. You have got your two older leading roles and two wonderful roles. The ages are indeterminate in the Beckett, but they’re very clearly younger characters in the Pinter.
IM: You know, whatever they say, I don’t believe there ’s an actor in the world who, on a Wednesday when they know they’re going to do a matinee, doesn’t just see a hill ahead which you have to go over twice. We’re going to come in a go, “Ah, we’re going to another play this evening!” I hope there will be people who’ll want to have that experience with the actors of seeing both plays together. They’re related: Same four actors, same director, same theater, and one writer very much influenced by the other. I should say, if you’re a young person with a burgeoning interest in the theater, this is a great opportunity to see this Pinter classic and one of the greatest plays of the 20th century; and there are a limited number of inexpensive rush seats that will be available for each performance.
What’s it like working with Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, American actors who come out of a theater tradition different from the one in which you and Stewart were trained?
IM: Well, there’s a lot of chat that goes about the difference between British acting and American acting. We tend to concede that Americans have taught us how to act in front of the camera, but we know best in the theater. But that’s all rubbish, isn’t it? Particularly because Shuler Hensley can hold the stage like a ringmaster in a circus—in Waiting for Godot he’s big enough for 20 on the Broadway stage—and he’s capable of taking it down and being very modest as he is, on the whole, in No Man’s Land. And Billy, who I have only seen once in Sean’s production of The Elephant Man, is very deft physically and vocally. I think they show their respect to the director more than perhaps I do!
Finally, would you care to talk about your own partnership over the past 35 years? First, in the late ’70s, you were lovers, then, in the late ’80s, you started working together as actor and director, and now, as you mentioned, you run a pub together in London…
IM: It’s going downhill…
SM: ...from romance to art to business—yes, I see!
IM: Well, I can’t imagine my life without Sean, particularly because we’re such good friends and he leads such an interesting life. So it’s all hunky dory for me. I listen to him more than anybody else.
SM: Well, you certainly have driven away all the others, one by one!
IM: Yes, I mean Sean puts up with me, much more than others. Or, he doesn’t get put off by any difficulties that I present.
SM: It’s a joy to work with an amazing actor; it’s really that simple. I mean, obviously, our friendship is great. If Ian is the first person I go to with a part and he likes a project, I feel, well that’s lucky. And of course now that he’s a big star in another world, it’s harder.
IM: I would say it’s a prime example of relationships that people have. We’re constantly working with old friends and relishing that. You feel, you feel protected and you get on with it. Why look for trouble elsewhere?