Interview: Will Keen Takes On Vladimir Putin in Patriots

The Olivier winner makes his Broadway debut in Peter Morgan’s play.

Will Keen plays Vladimir Putin, and Michael Stuhlbarg plays Boris Berezovsky in Peter Morgan’s Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Portraying Vladimir Putin in Broadway’s Patriots has posed a unique but welcome challenge for Will Keen, who recognizes that each performance holds new meaning as the world changes.

The new play by Peter Morgan (The Crown) tells the story of Putin’s rise to power after the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as that of billionaire Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his role in Putin’s ascent. The resulting conflict between the two men, coupled with the nefarious politics that arose, made for an intriguing piece of theater when the play premiered in 2022 with a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre before transferring to the Noël Coward Theatre.

With the Broadway run (now at the Barrymore through June 23), Keen reprises the Olivier-winning role he originated in London. He spoke with TheaterMania about taking on the complexities of such a controversial character, and how American audiences bring new dimensions to the play.

Will Keen plays Vladimir Putin in Peter Morgan’s Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did the role of Vladimir Putin find you, and what were your first thoughts about taking on the role?
It was the summer of 2021 when I was asked to do a reading of the play that Peter, [director] Rupert [Goold] and [producer] Sonia [Morgan] organized. I thought Patriots was an exciting play and it was a brilliant part. We did another reading in January of 2022, and the thought was that they we were going to do it at the Almeida once Peter had finished with The Crown; but once Ukraine was invaded it made sense to get it on as soon as possible. Rupert is brilliantly light-footed in his programming. The play premiered at the Almeida soon after the invasion and it always felt like an incredibly live conversation because the daily events change it for every night’s performance. There was no hesitation to do it.

What was the most challenging aspect of getting into Putin’s persona?
What’s a lovely challenge is he’s such a present figure in everyone’s heads. You’re meeting people who have already started a conversation in their own minds, but the way he exists to them is as an archetype. It’s a lovely challenge to turn that experience into something three dimensional, and to attempt to empathize with what that section of his life was for him. That’s a real privilege and a real challenge.

What were you most surprised to learn about Putin, and what were you most surprised to learn about yourself through playing him?
It was very surprising to watch his civility at the beginning of his career. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t very clever, but the way he presented himself was pretty timid. I found the idea to be useful that when he was in Dresden and the Wall came down, the building where he was working as a member of the KGB with the Stasi was surrounded. He spent two days burning all of the records and the work that he and his colleagues had been doing for many years. The idea of burning your past and the idea of saying goodbye to a whole ideology, and what could give meaning to your life — that was a very striking image to me.

In every part that one plays, one is finding new corners and new possibilities of the self. I hope that I would never act like this character. By giving myself greater discipline of examining physical stillness and economy of movement and a very held physicality, that created a sort of inner turmoil and a building tempest inside just from battening down the inner hatches. That was an interesting thing to discover.

Will Keen plays Vladimir Putin, and Luke Thallon plays Roman Abramovich in Peter Morgan’s Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

You worked with Peter on the first season of The Crown. How did that partnership lend itself to teaming up on Patriots?
The Crown was a different kind of process, but it’s brilliant the way Peter manages to switch between the domestic and the geopolitical and how one sheds light on the other. I think he enjoys the imaginations of actors. He’s absolutely open to collaborate and make the journey together.

In considering all of the unrest around the world, how have audiences changed since Patriots began previews in the United States?
It’s hard to codify exactly what it is that changed, or if it’s having to do with being in the US or having to do with history having moved on. We have a different image in our heads of Putin in April 2024 from what we had in August 2023, or in July 2022. It happens in tiny increments, but we’re always looking through the filter of “today.” It has also occurred to me that there must be something in the American psyche, the consciousness of being the antithetical superpower to Russia, that may affect how the play lands. The American audience has been very warm and appreciative. We’ve had a lot of Russians and Ukrainians coming in, and they have expressed enthusiasm and warmth in their reception of it. That has been a lovely thing.

If you could interview Putin, what would you ask him?
I’m not sure, but I’m so struck by his ability to listen and to turn whatever question or statement that is passed his way to suit his own interests. He talks about his training in judo, and similarly he uses the attack coming towards him and turns that force upon the opponent attacker. It would be something about that, I suppose.

What would you hope American people would take away from this story, especially as they look toward the next election?
I’m hesitant to attribute any sort of message to the play because I think it’s trying to ask questions rather than provide answers. What constitutes patriotism? What is appropriate behavior? Patriotism is love for a country, but there’s lots of ways of expressing love and there’s lots of things you can do on the basis of that love. There are actions you can try to justify because of that love. There are all sorts of questions around the idea of freedom and constraint and to what extent you can extrapolate questions about the control of the state. The play is very interesting at its heart because there is a sense of betrayal. Peter’s play so brilliantly explores both the betrayal of a friendship and the betrayal of a country. There’s plenty to think about within.

Will Keen plays Vladimir Putin in Peter Morgan’s Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

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