Interview: Daniel Donskoy’s Journey to The Pianist

Donskoy stars in Emily Mann’s stage play based on the life of Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman.

Stories don’t get more harrowing than that of Władysław Szpilman, the Polish Holocaust survivor whose life was immortalized in the Roman Polanski film The Pianist. Now, Szpilman’s tale of strength is getting the stage treatment at George Street Playhouse in Emily Mann’s play of the same title (through October 22).

Taking on the title role is actor Daniel Donskoy, best known for playing James Hewitt on The Crown and here making his American stage debut. Donskoy is aware of what rests on his shoulders and he doesn’t take his responsibility lightly. Here, he tells us about why it doesn’t even get easier with time.

The Pianist GSP 09 23 097 T. Charles Erickson
Daniel Donskoy in The Pianist at George Street Playhouse
(© T. Charles Erickson)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This is an especially harrowing story to tell night after night. Does it get easier with time?
I thought it was going to become easier want to settle into the role, but it actually hasn’t. Every night you discover more things that…On the one side as an actor, it’s so lovely to rediscover yourself and rediscover your cast mates and rediscover the story. But that also means that every night you are shocked anew, and you are feeling it anew. I’m a very physical actor, so I can’t settle into the whole thing. I feel my body heavily reacting to this material because it’s so personal and the audience is breathing it with us. I’ve never seen such a silent audience in my life. They’re just silent, and then at some point, all you hear are tears. It does something to you, and that’s the beauty of it. But I’m a very sensitive person.

How are you taking care of yourself?
Not very well. I tried the thing of going to a bar and drinking the sorrows away. That doesn’t work. So I went back to the traditional, like, go to sleep, wake up, try to do something nice. All my closest family and friends all live in Europe, and because of the time difference, I can’t even call them after the show. I can’t call my mom to be like “Help me.” Thankfully, I’m good friends with my cast mates here. So its mainly, wake up, go to the gym, read the news, scroll through my Instagram and my TikTok, and think about everything but the Holocaust.

Is it weird to have gone from playing the perpetrator in A Small Light to the victim in The Pianist?
It is odd that in the first two American projects I’ve ever worked on, in one, I’m a Nazi, and in the other, I’m Wladyslaw Szpilman. That’s exactly what I love about this job. It can be as contrasting as starting work as a Nazi and then doing one of the most emotionally loaded stories of survival in the Holocaust. It’s weird to use the word joy, but it brings me the joy of my craft.

At the end of the day, it’s not real. I’m not the story. I’m telling someone else’s story and reminding myself why I am telling that story. Why was it important for me to play Karl Silberbauer? Because we were telling the incredible story of Miep Gies. It wasn’t about me playing the Nazi; it’s about being a little piece in a puzzle that tells the story of an extremely brave Dutch woman who decided to risk her own life to save people. I don’t think about the fact that I played a Nazi, I’m just so happy to be part of a show that brings this story to people.

It’s the same with The Pianist. I’m not saying “I’m a Jew and this is the Holocaust” before I go on stage. I’m a human being, this is my family, I love them, and there are people who want bad things for us. The interesting thing about historical drama is that they don’t know what’s going to happen. We have all the history books that taught us, but they don’t know they’re going to be historical. You have to forget everything you know, because they don’t know anything.

Same again here. I’m not going every morning or every time before stage and go. I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew and this is the holocaust. I forget all of that. I go, I’m a person, I’m a human being. This is my family. I love them. And there are people who want bad things for us because obviously it’s the, the interesting thing about historical drama is they all don’t know the word holocaust. They all don’t know what’s gonna happen.

In terms of that, what was your frame of reference for The Pianist?
I definitely knew the film. I didn’t consciously rewatch it. I remember it being harrowing and horrible, and the first thing I remembered was the scene where they pushed the man in the wheelchair.

That seems to be everyone’s first memory of that movie. It was mine, too.
And how odd is that? It’s a film about the survival of one of Poland’s finest pianists and what stays in people’s mind? The scene where they push the man in the wheelchair.

So yes, I was familiar with it. But Emily Mann’s script is different. In this production, I move back and forth from narrating to being in scenes with my cast, constantly moving between the two. A film doesn’t need a narrator because the camera is inside Adrian Brody’s face. You see every move. We’re different because you need to address the audience. You can feel the urgency of the playwright wanting to share this point of view. I’m desperate to rewatch the film, but I’ll only do it once we’ve closed.