Reflections on Lazarus and Working With David Bowie From Star Michael Esper

The filmed version of Bowie’s stage musical streams this weekend to mark his birthday and the fifth anniversary of his death.

This weekend, the filmed London production of David Bowie and Enda Walsh's Lazarus will stream online to mark both Bowie's 74th birthday (January 8) and the fifth anniversary of his passing (January 10). One of Bowie's final completed projects, Lazarus, directed by Ivo van Hove and loosely inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth, is a surrealistic look at death and immortality, featuring songs from his iconic catalogue of music. After a premiere at New York Theatre Workshop in 2015, it moved to a specially built venue in the West End a year later, with its three original stars, Michael C. Hall, Sophia Anne Caruso, and Michael Esper, reprising their performances.

For Esper, doing the show was an experience. Lazarus gave him the chance to both work with one of his musical idols and lose him simultaneously, and to own a character to the point that the lines between reality and fiction started to blur.

Michael Esper (center) in Lazarus in London
Michael Esper (center) in Lazarus in London
(© Johan Persson)

I have such a distinct memory of seeing Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop and being completely baffled by it, and then David Bowie died three days later and thinking that, suddenly, it all made sense.
That's funny. That's the experience I had doing it, too. I had my own ideas about it, my own through-line, but then when he died, so many of the things that seemed so abstract or oblique in the show suddenly became just extremely clear.

Did you encounter Bowie at all during the process? Was there a show the night his death was announced?
I didn't have a ton of interaction with Bowie, but the times when he did work with us, even though they were few for me, personally, were these huge moments. They loomed so large for me just because of how I feel about him and his work. The longest conversation he and I had was when I read for the part initially. We had this long talk about the piece and about feeling like you don't belong anywhere. He was everything you ever wanted him to be. It was really incredible.

The morning we found out he died was the morning we went into the studio to do the cast recording. I was extremely sad. I think "Love Is Lost" was the first song up for me that morning, and I was like "What am I doing here? The perfect version of this song is already done." It's a funny thing to mourn somebody and be in that position, because I didn't know him at all. But I loved him in a certain way and felt so close to this idea of him. But it was awful. It was a huge, huge loss.

Looking back with five years of hindsight, what was the Lazarus experience like for you?
I found it extremely challenging in the beginning. The show was incredibly demanding in some ways. I certainly had periods of time, especially in London, where I felt lost within it. But in other ways, even when it was hard, it was extremely exhilarating. It felt very…You're just fucking out there doing it. I knew it was difficult from the audience's perspective. I knew it was challenging, and coded in such a way that could create all kinds of confusion for people. But there's an enormous freedom in that. It's like "What? I'm doing it wrong? Fuck you!" You know? And because of how Ivo works, we had a tremendous sense of ownership over what we we were doing, because we'd been so involved in the making of it.

Amy Lennox and Michael Esper in Lazarus
Amy Lennox and Michael Esper in Lazarus

How different was the London production, which was filmed, from what we saw off-Broadway?
Well, different. There were structural changes to the show, and then there were so many new people, who were extraordinary. And the space was vastly different. It was massive. It was like 1,000 seats or something. It felt huge compared to New York Theatre Workshop, which was so intimate. That was an adjustment in and of itself. And then, I think, for a while, I was really holding onto the old experience that I had [at New York Theatre Workshop]. That experience felt so special to me that I was really trying to re-create something in this new space that was the same, which was a real mistake. I was much better off when I was just allowing myself to meet the beautiful things that were happening right in front of me with those people.

What do you think about your performance on film?
Honestly, I think I was pretty unhinged at that point. [laughs]

The show had gotten to you?
A lot of things had gotten to me. I think the repetition of doing that part in that way certainly got to me. When I watched the film, I was so moved by what everyone was doing and by the show itself, and being able to actually watch what I had seen from the sidelines for so long. I was just floored by Michael C. Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso and everyone. But in watching myself, I was like, "Oh wow, I was really … unhinged." Sometimes in a way that excited me and sometimes in a way that was like …"Oh, dude." [laughs]

Are you gonna watch it this weekend?
Of course I'll watch it. I'm so curious to watch it, having been informed by the last year and everything that's been going on. The experience of isolation and anxiety and trauma that we've all been through over the course of the last year, there's a lot happening in that show that speaks to those experiences. I'm interested to see what it'll mean to me when I watch it now.

Click here for tickets to watch Lazarus, January 8-10.