Interview: Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope Discuss Their Broadway Collaboration
Bettany plays Andy Warhol and Pope plays Jean-Michel Basquiat in this new play at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Paul Bettany (WandaVision) and Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy) didn't know each other when they landed in the rehearsal room, but after one reading, they knew they were (platonically) meant to be. In Anthony McCarten's The Collaboration — on Broadway via Manhattan Theatre Club now after a hit run at the Young Vic in London — Bettany plays an aging Andy Warhol, with Pope as rising star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both were afraid of the roles for one reason or another, but as soon as they found themselves in each other's presence, those fears more or less evaporated. We recently sat down with the pair for a deep dive on the show, and what it's like to make characters out of two very well-known figures from the art world.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You hear that people want to cast you as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. What goes through your head?
Paul Bettany: "No, I really don't." It sounded really hard. I didn't know how you get out from underneath the wig and the glasses and blah, blah, blah. I'd seen the exhibition at the Whitney and was fascinated, but I didn't think you could just do that sort of monosyllabic…
Anyway, Denis O'Sullivan, one of the producers, sent me Warhol's diaries, and I didn't realize they were basically a dictation, and when he speaks, he sounded more like Truman Capote. I started speaking to people like Candice Bergen and Anna Wintour, who knew him, and they said, "He was quite verbose and private." But I still didn't know. We had a workshop in and I was terrified. I learned all the words, basically. I sat there frightened, and Jeremy came in, we got the script open, and he had also learned all the words, and we started floating, like, "Oh, this might be able to sail." I fell in love immediately.
Jeremy Pope: It was one of those things where, who's meant to be in the room will be in the room. I really believe that. I had my own journey getting to this project and figuring out if I was the best for it, and to be in that room was affirming. Paul's only job at that moment was to continue to unpack the very surface version of Warhol that we've been fed for years, and that was the kind of journey that I was on with trying to understand Basquiat. We went on the journey together and it's felt very authentic and fun and freeing. This is such a unique experience, to go to the Young Vic, make the film, which we just finished last Saturday, and then come to Broadway.
Does Broadway feel like the victory lap at this point?
Jeremy: Broadway feels like the last leg of the tour, but it feels right because we're in New York and this is a homecoming piece that centers on these two giants who contributed so much to New York City. I'm excited to be back at the Samuel J. Friedman and MTC, which is where I had my Broadway debut, and now I get to share this with Paul, who's having his Broadway debut. I'm looking forward to our audiences witnessing his Warhol, because it is so spectacular and so genius.
Jeremy: It's such a gift to go on that stage. As hard as theater can be, eight shows a week, and how easy it can be to just do your performance the way you want to do it, we've made this promise to each other to just continue to have fun and explore. And it feels like that every night. I know I'm getting on the ride, I don't know what type of ride it's going to be, but I know that I'm doing it alongside Paul.
Paul: Film is very much a director's medium, right? You give them everything you can, and then they create your performance later in a dark room with an editor. Theater is very much an actor's medium. Show starts, something happens, it feels different. You're on a Wednesday evening show after a matinee, and I come out, we start playing, and then he'll do something, and I'll think, apart from him playing Basquiat and me playing Warhol, what he did was so clever and fun. As an actor, I appreciate that. It gets to feeling like you've never done the show before. There's a bit of me laughing inside at how clever he's been, and I love it.
At this point, have you gotten beyond your initial fears of the wig and the glasses and the personas?
Paul: I hate talking about acting, and I'm about to talk about acting. When people ask, "How do you prepare?," I just die inside. Because I don't know. I watched some documentaries, I read some books, I looked at some photographs, and then I read the script and did a lot of thinking.
I like to think about what people's dreams are and what they're frightened of. The whole world must have looked pretty frightening to a young Andy Warhol in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and through some sort of desperate magic, he changed the world and made it a place that saw him a star. At the moment where we catch him, there's a young man coming up through the ranks with neo-expressionism, which Andy must have thought was regressive, but the market is telling me my star is on the wane and his is on the ascend. That must have been a threat.
I don't know if any of this is true, but it's what I'm doing, and it's what the play is doing. This is a play about two men with seemingly no common ground finding common ground. It is a surprising evening. It's full of humor, it's very emotional, and there is a deep well of pain there, but in the end, there is, fundamentally, joy and love.