One of the most highly anticipated theatrical events of the current Broadway season is not one play, but two, featuring legendary actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Alongside Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, the pair, whose unabashed friendship has made them a recent media sensation, is taking on two of the modern canon's most existential works: Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
In the midst of their busy preview period, TheaterMania sat down with the Sirs (backstage at TV's The View, of all places) to discuss their work, friendship, and the advice they have for young performers who want their careers.
Now that you've been running for a few weeks, what is it like to do these two plays, Waiting for Godot, for which you won 2010 WhatsOnStage Awards, and No Man's Land, in repertory?
Patrick Stewart: We opened No Man's Land in Berkeley; we played it there for a month, so that is very familiar territory. We have done Waiting for Godot before, several years ago. [But] I still find it a little challenging. The plays have very strong, very defined characters. We do immerse ourselves in them, especially if we start with Godot in the afternoon.
Ian McKellen: It's much easier — or much more enjoyable, anyway —to do two different plays in one day than to do the same play twice. To do Godot [first], which I think we both find more of a strain physically, the relief [is] to just throw on Pinter at the end of the day. I really, really enjoy the day. And you don't often hear an actor say that about a matinee day.
I think this is the first time I've ever heard performing Pinter described as a "relief."
Patrick Stewart: It's a different kind of energy we use in the Pinter as opposed to the Godot. The Godot stage is wide open; there's a landscape. There are things out there. I'm always looking to see what's out there. [In the Pinter], you don't have to think about what's out there or pay attention to it. Of course, my character is in his own world most of the time.
These plays are separate entities. Why pair them together?
Patrick Stewart: We both wanted to bring Godot to New York; Ian passionately wanted to do that. I have wanted to do No Man's Land since it was first performed in 1975. I took the play to Sean [Mathias], our director, and said "Look, there's only one person I want to do it with."
Ian McKellen: This repertoire system keeps you fresh. It doesn't allow you to say, "Okay, this is what I do." It's always slightly on edge and that's a good place to be because it keeps it live theater, not dead theater…I wonder if we're doing enough to point out to audiences that [seeing both plays is] something we recommend. People might just think, "Oh, they're both on; if I choose to see both plays, I needn't see them together." And you don't have to see them together. We're not doing these two plays because we think they depend on each other. They could be seen weeks apart, if necessary. But for the aficionado…
Patrick Stewart: Even seeing them on consecutive evenings is something I recommend.
Besides The Coast of Utopia, I can't remember a time in New York when we've had separate productions running in rotating repertory, and this season, we have four, including the Shakespeare's Globe productions with Mark Rylance.
Ian McKellen: I love seeing two plays in the same day. If I'm on holiday here, there are always days when I do a matinee and an evening. In London…sometimes three [shows] is possible. And to go to Stratford Upon Avon and see two big Shakespeare plays in one day is my idea of a banquet. I know there are enough people in New York who love it too. We don't expect everybody to do that, but it is on offer.
Patrick Stewart: Wouldn't it be marvelous if we would find that both productions run and do well? That people realize audiences are up for this, and particularly when you have the same companies, like it is with Mark Rylance's shows [Twelfth Night and Richard III]. We come from that background. I vividly remember the thrill, as well as the exhaustion, of the half-an-hour call being at nine-thirty in the morning at Stratford and doing Henry IV, Part 1 in the morning, Henry IV, Part 2 in the afternoon, and Henry V at night…the excitement just grew and grew as the day went on, and that was the same group of actors…You would see actors in a variety of roles. I had two roles in both parts of Henry IV and I played the Dauphin in Henry V, so they saw me in five roles that day. There is a tradition of this in the U.K. Doesn't come up that often, but audiences loved it. Those three-show days would sell out first.
Why explore Waiting for Godot again after four years?
Patrick Stewart: This is something people often don't understand about the theater. You never question a conductor or an opera singer or a concert performer as to why they continually return to the same composer, to the same piece of music. But people are always surprised when actors want to do something again. You always benefit from the return experiences, especially when the play is as unusual as Waiting for Godot. I feel like a different actor than I was when we did it four years ago.
How are the audiences different from London to America?
Ian McKellen: Before we came to London [with Godot], we played eight cities in the U.K. Big theaters. All sold out. [These other cities] told us what we hadn't realized when we were rehearsing: that Godot was a comedy. They thought it was a very funny comedy. We arrived in London and the audiences didn't find it a very funny comedy. I do not remember how disappointed we were —
Patrick Stewart: I do. I absolutely do.
Ian McKellen: An audience can take a play however they want. It's not our duty to tell them it's funny. We do the play, and if they find it funny, lovely. If they don't, maybe there's something else that's appealing. I think, as far as memory serves, the Broadway audiences are much closer to those regional audiences. Or maybe we're a bit freer with it. We both feel we're better than we were — that we've achieved the play more fully with regard to our own characters. The impetus of these two wonderful performances [by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley] that invade our space has helped out enormously. Maybe we're just getting the play more right than we did before. Who can say?
Does it help that you have each other to get you through the day?
Patrick Stewart: Oh, absolutely. It's a little naughty at times, but all actors do it — we share things on stage. We both have aches and pains because we're in our seventies and it' s a very physical play, Godot. We throw ourselves about. "Ouch," you say. "Are you alright?"Occasionally, we pat one another on the back and say "That was good."
In America, your friendship is referred to as a "bromance." Were you familiar with that phrase when you first heard someone call it that?
Patrick Stewart: No, no…"Bro" is not a term that's used much in England.
Ian McKellen: What does it mean? Two male close friends? (pause) Who are not sleeping together?
Patrick Stewart: I think it's charming.
Ian McKellen: "Bromance…"
Your fanbases here are so huge. Do you make a point to greet fans at the stage door after the show?
Patrick Stewart: Yes.
Ian McKellen: We only sign things that have to do with the play. Those people there have been to see the shows and have intelligent things to say about them. Why wouldn't we want to say hello to them?
Patrick Stewart: It's about making contact with people.
Speaking of which, I remember reading when you were in Berkeley with No Man's Land that there was one audience member who was so engrossed that he wouldn't leave the theater, despite taking seriously ill.
Ian McKellen: Oh yes.
Patrick Stewart: Refused to go to the hospital! [laughs] There was a possible cardiac situation and he wouldn't go!
Ian McKellen: Wanted to find out how it ended.
Patrick Stewart: I hope he wasn't disappointed.
What is the best piece of advice you have for young actors who wonder about longevity in the business of acting?
Patrick Stewart: If someone says "Give me one word of advice," I say "be fearless." And knowing without any shadow of a doubt that what they have to give —who they are — is totally unique and not shared by anybody else. And to believe in that uniqueness. It took me decades before I developed courage as an actor.
Ian McKellen: Be daring. To risk. And to feel safe in the rehearsal room. I'd also say to people, "See your intention." That's what I say to myself. Do you intend to have a career or are you enjoying yourself for the time being? Because if you're going to have a career, you can plan. And that plan probably won't entail taking a job primarily for money…If it's rewarded with a steady income, that's more than you can expect, and if you happen to become rich— Don't bank on it. [laughs]