Haydn Gwynne
(© Tristan Fuge)
Haydn Gwynne
(© Tristan Fuge)
American theater audiences first became familiar with Haydn Gwynne when she originated the role of the tough-talking dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in the Broadway musical Billy Elliot, earning a Tony Award nomination, Drama Desk Award, and Theatre World Award for her efforts. Now, she's back on our shores as Queen Elizabeth in the Bridge Project's production of William Shakespeare's Richard III, opposite Kevin Spacey in the title role, at BAM. TheaterMania recently spoke to Gwynne about this challenging production.

THEATERMANIA: Were you excited when you were offered the role of Elizabeth?
HAYDN GWYNNE: Honestly, the answer is no. I didn't even remember the role when I was offered it. I thought which was one is she? Part of it is that I have always been weaker on Shakespeare's history plays than the tragedies and comedies. I hadn't really read the play, and in the Laurence Olivier film version, the women barely figure in the screenplay. So I figured it might be one or two great scenes and nothing else, so my instinct was "how flattering, but I won't be doing it."

TM: What made you change your mind?
HG: The first part of my journey to yes, as I call it, was really reading the play for the first time and realizing this part has a bigger journey than I realized. And then when I saw the scene with the three ladies [Elizabeth, Margaret, Anne] and their confrontation, I wanted to do it. But I was still concerned with leaving my family for so long, but after talking to them, we agreed I should go.

Kevin Spacey and Haydn Gwynnein Richard III
(© Manuel Harlan)
Kevin Spacey and Haydn Gwynne
in Richard III
(© Manuel Harlan)
TM: Did you have a prior relationship with Kevin Spacey?
HG: I was acquainted with him. We had appeared at the Old Vic in one of those 24-hour plays together, but I don't really count that. I admired what he had done with Old Vic and his commitment to theater. He could just sit back and make movies. And I've always admired him as an actor. I did see him do Long Day's Journey Into Night when it was in London -- I wasn't even an actress back then -- and I saw him do The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida.

TM: Is there a secret to sharing a stage with Kevin?
HG: Stand your ground; you don't want to go on without your full arsenal. And I have to admit it was scary during some of our early shows at BAM when I didn't have my full voice. But the person you have on your side at all times is Shakespeare. Elizabeth is quite petulant at the beginning, but by the second act, he allows her to equal or even best Richard intellectually.

TM: Did you enjoy working with director Sam Mendes?
HG: I think one of the strengths of the production is that Sam has focused on the women, so that they don't get lost in the melee. I will say I enjoyed working with Sam. He is very easygoing and runs a relaxed ship, he's very intelligent, he likes to listen, and he has a great visual sense. It's been a privilege to work with him.

TM: So is his process very different than other people you've worked with?
HG: Yes. First, we didn't have him on Fridays at first, since he had to fly to New York, so we did six weeks where we worked from 10am to 4pm, without lunch and with two 15-minute breaks. The Americans thought that was a long rehearsal period, and the Brits didn't. We're more used to that. And we didn't do traditional table reads; we did what we called "Sam's boudoir." We were in this rehearsal room with rugs, beanbag chairs, and everyone was in there all the time, whether they were in the scene or not. It was quite democratic. Everyone had ideas and was free to share them. And some of those ideas became how we did them in the show.

TM: When you say everyone was in the room, do you just mean the actors?
HG: No, our composer, Mark Bennett, and our musicians were also in the rehearsal room at all times. So the score was done at the same time as our rehearsal, and was built very organically from our actions. What I noticed immediately was how musical this company is. I think you could cast several musicals with the people in this show. I wish we had something to sing in this play, because we'd knock it out of the park.

TM: You've played this production all around the world, as well as London, before coming to BAM. Has doing the play in New York felt different?
HG: One of the pleasures of doing the play in the non-English speaking countries, where we had surtitles, was discovering how attentive they were. They also laughed at different things. I will say I am really enjoying BAM because it's such an intelligent audience. I actually think we're getting more of a pure theater-going audience than we did at the Old Vic. More people came there, I think, just to see Kevin Spacey. At BAM, I can really hear the audience reacting to Shakespeare's jokes and getting his wit.