Helen Mirren's Costars Judith Ivey and Dylan Baker on Becoming Margaret Thatcher and John Major
The pair stars opposite Mirren, as Queen Elizabeth, in Peter Morgan's new Broadway drama, The Audience.
No matter how many times you've seen Judith Ivey and Dylan Baker on stage and screen, you won't recognize them when they make their entrances in Peter Morgan's The Audience, a drama at the Schoenfeld Theatre about England's Queen Elizabeth and her weekly meetings with her prime ministers. Ivey, a two-time Tony winner last seen on Broadway in The Heiress, takes on the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher. Baker, last seen in God of Carnage, plays John Major, Thatcher's immediate successor as prime minister.
That Ivey and Baker are longtime friends also adds to the charm of the experience. Of course, the most alluring aspect is who they're acting opposite: Dame Helen Mirren — the closest thing the film industry currently has to a Queen. She won both an Oscar (in Morgan's film The Queen) and an Olivier (in the London run of The Audience) for playing Elizabeth II. That the production is directed by Stephen Daldry, of The Hours and Billy Elliot fame, was icing on the cake.
During a recent conversation, Ivey and Baker discussed what they learned about playing such revered figures of British politics and how Mirren herself lived up to their expectations.
What was it that interested you most about doing The Audience?
Judith Ivey: Definitely Mr. Daldry. And Dame Helen. She's one of my go-to faves. I never imagined I'd ever get to work with her. Thatcher was a force to be reckoned with. And I like transforming.
Dylan Baker: I hadn't done a play for three and a half years, and I was dying to do [one]. When I saw this, it was better than anything I could have hoped for. And then the fact that Stephen Daldry is going to be redoing a production that he and Helen Mirren had such success with in London? I wanted to be a part of that.
Is working with Mirren everything you imagined it would be?
Judith: Absolutely. More. She's really been a support to me in a way I never would have expected…Certainly through rehearsal, I felt like she was there to catch me. Now I feel like I'm starting to be able to give it back. It really is grace and kindness, two of my favorite things. And she's a gal. We can talk about handbags and haircuts, things like that.
Dylan: We were getting ready to do [the show] for the first house, and Dame Helen was over on stage left, I was over on stage right, and all of a sudden, there she was [on my side] and said, "Hello, Darling. I just wanted to say hi before we begin," and I was like, "My God, how did you get here?" There's no room behind the set to get through. There's a foot of space. With everything else you have going on, you just wanted to say hey?
Before starting this project, how much did you know about the figures you're playing and British politics in general?
Judith: I was certainly aware of her. But there was a lot more research to do. I certainly don't feel like I'm mimicking [Margaret Thatcher], but it's finding something that's familiar about her to use as an actor to capture the essence of her. That took some more study than I thought it was going to. I watched YouTube till I was blue in the face.
Dylan: I knew a lot more about Margaret Thatcher than I did about John Major. I've never understood the whole "why is this one prime minister and yet they don't vote for him?" Watching this play, you see the different men and women who've worked their entire lives to get to this point. Once they get there, are they ready for it?
What is the most interesting fact that you learned in your research?
Judith: [Thatcher] grew up over a grocery store and her father was a grocer. Look who she became. That says a massive amount about this blanket chutzpah on her part. She changed policy without asking anybody…She bypassed all the stuff. It was logical [to her]. It would take too long [to go] through the process and she needed to change it right now.
Dylan: I've come to think so much of John Major, mostly because of his humble upbringing. His father had been an actor and a circus performer. When they were destitute they lived with an uncle [who] John Major went on to find out was his half brother. He did miserably in school, but was interested in politics and literally took a soapbox, put it down, and started talking about the issues.
The Audience is structured in such a way that, Dylan, you have two scenes, and Judith, you have one. Does that make it easier or harder than a play where you're onstage the whole time?
Judith: It's almost like your own little one-act. There's a beginning, middle, and end, and you want to bring on a three-dimensional character…It's like you're shot out of a canon and you have to hit all the points and then you're done and back in your dressing room. It's very challenging in that way. Almost more so, I would say.
Dylan: It's a whole different way of working. Since I have two scenes, one at the beginning of the first act and one at the end of the first act, it's the same guy going for the same things. And then, after we had been very well received at the first couple of previews, Peter Morgan, the writer, came back and said, "We want the end of the act to have a different feel to it." So my entire scene changed.
Judith: How did it change?
Dylan: John Major is of the point of view that the royalty is on the tipping point in 1992. The economy is in the garbage and these people [are] oblivious to the fact that [others] are saying maybe that's enough of this…So that scene is me telling her. Before, it was me timidly approaching the Queen. Now it's two people with opposing viewpoints going at each other. We're furious with each other. We're fighting with each other.
Judith, does the fact that Thatcher is still reviled in some circles, even after her death, affect the way you play her?
Judith: You have to love your character. Her conviction is so seductive that I don't have any problem embracing her vitality and her devotion to what she believes. There's a lot of logic behind what she says. In real life, I probably wouldn't be of her party if I were British.