To the world, he’s Wolverine; to New Yorkers, he may always be the singing, dancing, blindingly high-wattage musical star of The Boy From Oz and his one-man show Back on Broadway. This fall, though, he’s in a lower-key theater role, playing a character known simply as the Man in The River, a tightly coiled one-act (about fly-fishing, no less) by Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth. He spoke with Vulture from the set of Pan.
I just watched you doing the Ice Bucket Challenge with the entire cast of Pan. It was in the middle of a barren field and very dramatic.
Yes. Really cold field, let me tell you. Rooney Mara was almost blue, I think. We’re shooting in Cardington, which is in Bedford just north of London.
I must start off by telling you — we have done Zumba together before.
Oh, you’re kidding me. That’s right, it’s at the Equinox at Greenwich, in the West Village. Yes! My wife was doing it, and I was sitting on one of the cardio machines looking in like, why am I sitting on this thing? I went in and joined that class and it was fun actually.
You were quite enthusiastic.
Come on! It’s Zumba! You can’t do Zumba halfhearted. Do it enthusiastically or get out, isn’t that the deal?
Well, people certainly go insane when you sing and dance. When you do something like Back on Broadway that gets such a huge reaction, does it make you want to do something in the opposite direction — like this play — next?
I don’t know if I think that way actually. Certainly, in general, I miss theater and want to get back more to that, but weirdly I'm enjoying film more and I think acting in general more now. There is a high when a musical is working; when you’re onstage singing in front of a crowd, the applause is very visceral, it’s ultimately an emotional response. The drug of that kind of audience enthusiasm is one I’d be reluctant to let go of. But I think what’s driving me now more than anything is to do new material. I get really excited to go and see a play or musical I know nothing about — like I saw Fun Home recently, that thrilled me. I obviously like revivals, too, but it’s hard to get your mind or part of your mind away from comparisons. There’s a great joy in discovering new material.
Why do you think acting has felt more enjoyable lately?
So many things happened to me early on — for instance, it was a huge shock to me when I first did a musical in Australia, because I trained as an actor. I thought I’d do straight theater if anything. And then there were movies and it was, “Okay, well, I didn’t expect that.” But I think having done it for 15 or 20 years now, having managed to practice at it, I suppose, maybe I feel a little more confident than I did originally. Not overconfident, don’t worry about that. But confident enough to look forward to the challenge and not feel overwhelmed. Maybe it’s some form of midlife thing, realizing, hey, this is a great play this is New York, make the most of it. I’m just feeling a great balance between the challenge of things and also the enjoyment of it.
It’s odd to think of a time when musicals weren’t your thing. I imagine people are knocking down your door to do musicals.
It’s the most bizarre thing to me. I always think of the first singing teacher I had who my agent sent me to, Martin Croft. There was an audition for Beauty and the Beast she wanted me to go to, and I said, “No, Penny, I’m an actor,” and she was like, “Just go see Martin Croft, he’s a performer, he’s in Les Miz at the moment.” So I went to see him and we were singing and he’s looking at me going, “You sing in a weird way ... you sing differently from how you speak. What music do you listen to?” And he said, it sounds like you’re just copying what you hear on the radio. We worked for another threeweeks, and I was getting really frustrated, and eventually he said, “Sing it like this” and I thought, well, I’ll just copy him. And he was like, “Whoa, what was that? That’s great! For the audition, copy me!” So every time we did a lesson, he’d sing a song and then we’d work on it. Just like trying to impersonate someone, that’s all it was, and I literally scraped through the audition. Luckily I read first. I think they were scraping the barrel a bit, and I’m guessing I’m the only actor in history who had it in my contract that I had to have a singing lesson once a week — they hired me on the condition of the improvement of my voice. And really I was just impersonating better and better. It’s funny when I hear now, “Oh, everyone wants you in a musical.” [Laughs] If Martin Croft could hear that!
Do you still regularly take voice lessons?
Oh, absolutely. In terms of musicals, I really only started to really, genuinely enjoy singing in public about four or five years ago. I think it took me ten years to get over feeling like I was copying Martin Croft, or that I was a fraud. More than anything, I think I’ve learned that singing is actually more natural than you think, I just had to get out of my own way.
What was your first meeting with Jez Butterworth like? He’s this strange combination of being a dark playwright who also writes blockbuster movies .
Jez is very kind of ... he has a demeanor of someone who’s like, “Oh, gee, thanks for inviting me to lunch.” I’m like, man! You wrote this incredible play! He’s very off the back foot. One of the first things I asked him was what motivated him to write this story — because I was really affected by the story emotionally, which doesn’t always happen. And he said he wanted to give goosebumps. It’s mysterious, you don’t know what’s happening next, you’re not 100 percent sure where the actors or the writer is going to go to the point where it gives you goosebumps. But I just loved that he has a child’s quality, of being very curious, very humble.
Did you see Jerusalem?
I thought that was extraordinary. And again, it was one of those rare experiences where you walk in not knowing what to expect and, wow, you’re completely transported and blown away. I got the sense there’s that possibility with this play as well. But I actually think they’re very different. I think he deliberately wanted to write something quite different; ours is much shorter, like 89 minutes. In Jerusalem, Rooster is a very bombastic, larger-than-life character. This is not like that, it’s in a way like a piece of chamber music; it’s more subtle, there’s a poetic edge to it, though I think Jerusalem had that too. There’s obviously a love of poetry in Jez’s blood. But that also hooks into his love of fishing! That is something I knew nothing about, and I'm learning a hell of a lot about fly fishing.
I was going to say, fishing is rather central to the play, are you an outdoorsman of any sort?
Well I’m a mad lover of the outdoors, but I didn’t grow up with fishing. My son is madly into it, so I’m happy now to go out with him. I’m in a bit of trouble because I took him to Montana in March and said, you know, let’s fly fish, it’ll be a father son trip, but come October he’s going to realize it was a research trip. I’ll make it a few months before I get slapped around a bit.
It seems like a very oddly Zen thing, fly fishing?
It’s an extraordinary kind of endeavor, very human — how to take something that’s really about survival and make it harder than it has to be. [Laughs] There is a beauty to it; it’s really becoming one with the fish, understanding the fish, how to seduce them to the end of your line. How to catch something without any bait, there’s something really beautiful about it. Jez has used it both literally and metaphorically in the play. It is sensual, I should say. Everyone who does it talks about how their mind goes blank, it’s like a form of meditation. And the people who do it, it’s like a drug to them — you’re connected to something very elemental in nature, and I think that’s what the play explores.
The play does have a quietness about it. Is keeping things at that kind of level a challenge for you?
Yeah. Maybe I’ve done too many action movies. But there are no explosions, I guarantee — no shirts come off, I’m pretty sure. [Laughs] No, it is different in every way. It’s the kind of play I haven’t seen in a long period of time. Literally from the moment it opens, you’re brought into a world where the audience will feel almost uncomfortable to be there — it’s very private, very interior. It really asks, when you find someone in life, are we actually just trying to recapture something we’ve lost, or is it real. The play twists and turns a lot, but in a very subtle, quiet, mysterious way. I’m excited about being in a play with that kind of calm, and requires you to sort of calmly let go of your life and connect with the play. And the fact that we’re doing it in the round? It’s going to be very intimate.
Yeah, you’re playing at, I think, one of the smallest theaters on Broadway I think …
The Circle in the Square. I should tell you, the first play I ever saw on Broadway — I had standing-room-only tickets to see Al Pacino in Hughie.* I’ll never forget it; we attempted to go three days in a row. They had eight tickets up for grabs they’d give at ten o'clock in the morning. The first morning we went there at eight, the line was already 20 deep. The second morning we went at seven, on the third day I was there at five-thirty in the morning with my wife, and we were numbers seven and eight in the line. So we got to know all those people pretty well. We got to the play, just as the lights went down the usher said, “There’s two seats down in the second row, would you like them?” I thought, This is the greatest day ever. It was again a one-act play. We were up so early, my wife fell asleep about ten minutes into the play. Al Pacino was no more than eight feet away from my wife, staring straight at her. Be warned, if you come and fall asleep I know I will see you. But given my experience, I’ll forgive you.
I know you have some very exciting facial hair right now [he has a crazy moustache and goatee and is bald for his role in Pan, as Bluebeard]. Will you be keeping that for the play?
Yeah, I doubt it. I went to Disney World with my daughter as a birthday present, and the great thing was no one recognized me. I was on the water slides, and I’d gone up about five times, and this girl kept looking at me, and I thought she was recognizing me. Then she goes, “Man, your facial hair rocks. You look like a goddamn pirate.” I was like, yeah, I like pirates! So every time I went down, which was another 20 times, I heard “Go, pirate, go!” It was fun. But yeah, I have a feeling if you’re a girl and you go to a remote fishing cabin on a moonless night with a guy with a bald head and facial hair like that, you’re probably going to run the other way.
*This is an extended version of an article that appears in the August 25, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the play Hughie as Huey.