In crucial ways, a conversation with James McArdle resembles the kind you might have with his Angels in America character, Louis Ironson. He speaks quickly, as if racing to cover the vast terrain of his opinions, about multiple things at once: theater (he hates overserious “method shite”), New York and London, how the Democrats and Labour sold out in the wake of Reagan and Thatcher. He self-corrects and revises, and then asks for your opinion, and then revises again. At one point, he pauses entirely, as if he’s exhausted himself, and admits, “I feel like I’m just listing a litany of contradictions.”
The key difference, of course, is that while Louis is something of an iconic New York figure — similar in many ways to Angels’ playwright Tony Kushner, at least the way McArdle plays him — the actor hails from Glasgow, Scotland, and speaks with a thick brogue (he has thoughts on accents, too, just you wait). Since the iconic play transferred from London to New York this spring, McArdle has become something of an outsider looking in, playing one of the more definitively hometown characters. Vulture caught up with McArdle, recently nominated for an Olivier for his work, to discuss what it’s like to bring Angels to America, why he loves long plays, and how his take on Louis has changed.
Does the play feel different in New York than it did in London?
I feel like this is where the play belongs. The audience gets so many more references than they did in London. I think especially playing a part that is so transformative for me, the year of doing it has been really helpful, so that you can sort of get all that transformation stuff out of the way. Then you can just do the play. It’s the stuff that people like to focus on, “the accent, the accent” — that’s the most boring part of it, you know? So it’s a way of getting all of that stuff just deeper and into second nature.
Do you feel there’s a change in how you’ve played Louis?
I think I’ve probably softened the humor complex. I’m used to playing lead parts that have the audience behind them. I found it difficult when we started opening, feeling a kind of judgment from the audience, but now I know it’s something that I enjoy. I really understand where Louis comes from and have played him for so long, I’m unapologetic now about it. I think it is giving me more of a bite and spike, the way I go about my actions. That’s been really exciting, to let go of worrying about how the audience are going to see me.
Louis is just such a New York person. What’s it like to play him here, surrounded by New Yorkers?
Listen — there’s no escape. I’m living here, every two seconds I’m like [pretends to point out people around him], “Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis” There’s a lot of Louis around, and that’s been really helpful for me. Because my main reference point before was Tony [Kushner], whereas this time it’s just all over the place. Everyone knows what we’re talking about.
I’d read that you met Tony and realized there was a lot of Louis in him. What was it specifically that stood out?
His physicality, the rhythm, and the sort of ferocity of how he thinks. It’s written like music, all those introductions and stammers. I love playing like that; it’s my favorite type of dialogue to get into. Tony comes from a musical background and it’s so musical. It’s also like a train — you need to get on the train or else you’re running to catch a train that’s way ahead of you, and that is ghastly.
In the “Democracy in America” speech, for instance, he also keeps interrupting himself.
Or trying to articulate it better, trying to get to the more definitive way of saying what is he trying to say. Especially I think in “Democracy in America,” that part of him that is heightened when opposite someone like Belize, who, for various reasons, is making him question himself.
In the oral history of Angels in America, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who plays Belize, talked about some of the discomfort of that scene, since Louis is going on about his idea that American isn’t that racist, which is itself pretty racist. How do you approach it?
Nathan and I have had talks like this. Sometimes it’s tough in rehearsal, when you do it. Often I wonder, “Is it different now from what the actors were doing 25 years ago?” It can be uncomfortable. The audience changes the reaction to it every night. Sometimes the audience, I feel, are really on Louis’s side. They’re strangely the most uncomfortable nights for me.
I don’t mind when they really laugh because I think that there’s an acknowledgement there, of the mistakes Louis is making, as well as the things that he believes in. Other times, I think the demographic of the audience sometimes unsettles me. Like all theater, in our country as well, I wish there was a more diverse audience. I mean, it’s just obscenely white.
Between doing Angels in America, Platanov, and The James Plays, you’ve done a lot of really long shows. What draws you to them?
The next play I’m doing is long as well! It’s about five hours long. But I find it exhilarating. I love the two-show days [on Angels]. There’s a sense of completion. I like to think it’s making theater eventful again, that’s what it used to be. I love live theater so much and the sadness that I have about it is that it has become this white middle-class pastime. That’s not it’s roots. The boys I grew up with are these straight white men from Glasgow, and they’re all professionals. They only go to the theater to see me. But they love it, and it’s not just because I’m there.
For them, it’s about the timelessness of the play, it’s about being alive in their late 20s in the late 20th, early-21st century. Okay, there’s a large percentage of people that have taken the pill and the system that we’re in sort of serves them. But there’s a large number of people who have questions about the system that we’re in — I think this play answers that in a deep, profound way.
I think people long for that in this age of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. I’m not on any of that, and I’m not judgmental of people that are, but I personally just can’t do it. I find it reductive. There’s no sweat or blood or smell. That’s how I judge people.
You’ve done movies and TV in addition to theater, but do you find stage work is what you prefer?
I have a movie coming out this year, Mary Queen of Scots, with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan. I love Mary Queen of Scots. I play Moray, who is Mary Queen of Scots’ brother, and he is not very keen for her to return to Scotland. There’s a whole host of men in it. You know if these men weren’t controlling the strings, they would have probably resolved it. It was written by Beau Willimon [of House of Cards], and it was just fantastic.
So, in terms of film and television, I really want to do film. Everyone keeps saying telly is the future now, but a couple of times I’ve done telly and film that I’ve been encouraged to do, and I’ve just been like, “Why did I do that?” So I’m totally open if the scripts are right. It’s so interesting, because I feel like the business side of things are like, “Okay now you’re gonna go do movies.” But I’m like, “Am I?”
I find it so strange, being an actor. I can’t believe I’m doing it, and so I’m gonna do it my way. Otherwise, I’d rather not. If they don’t want me to dance anymore, then I’ll go do something else in Scotland.
What was it like to go from growing up in Glasgow to going to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art?
I don’t think people believed me. My parents didn’t ever discourage me, but I don’t know how much they actually believed I would do it. There was just no other option for me. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Once I got to RADA, I didn’t really realize the class system existed in my country. I grew up where everyone was the same, and I had privilege that other people in my life didn’t have. I thought that was the extent of it, and then I moved to RADA. For a long time, when I would speak, it was like novelty for them that I was so Scottish. I felt like I would have to prove my intelligence a lot in the room. A guy, in my year, he’s a dear friend of mine now, said to me [in a posh accent], “You won’t play Hamlet, for example, because you’re Scottish. and Hamlet’s a prince.” I was like “Hamlet’s Danish, you tit!”
I had assumed equality, and learned that I was naïve. I don’t feel that much now that I have to prove intelligence or my worth because of the parts I’ve played or whatever, but it is alive and well, inequality and the class system.
Even here. There was a party thrown at the producer’s house [in New York]. More than one guy was like [in the voice that sounds like Louis], “You’re playing Louis?” I understand why that may be shocking, and I understand that there are plenty of actors here that could have done it, so as a foreigner, to be asked to do it … But I’m an actor. Actors need to be able to act. Don’t worry, I’ll work hard to make sure it works. But it was the Scottish thing. No one does it with Denise [Gough, who plays Harper], and she’s Irish. It’s like, “You’re so Scottish!” English people say to me, “You’re so Scottish.” I think they mean, “You’re working class.”
The thing Louis does, leaving Prior after he’s diagnosed with AIDS, is so terrible. Was it hard to get into his mind?
That is one of the main things I never bought. One of the main challenges for the play for me, and with Marianne [Elliott, the director], was that I have to find a reason that isn’t just that he’s scared of AIDS. And it can’t be that he doesn’t love him and it can’t be Joe. What I love about Marianne is how collaborative she is. I had the vulnerability and the strength of vulnerability to say, “I don’t know either. What do you think?” And we didn’t try to rush through an answer. We just did the scenes, played them out moment by moment, and it wasn’t til, I think, about halfway through the London rehearsal process that I said, “Prior’s his mother. Prior’s his goddess. He is the only divine feminine force in his life, and he can’t watch that die.” He actually just doesn’t have the strength to watch the most beautiful thing in his life die. It’s breaking his heart too much.
You’ve had to work with two different Joe Pitts — Russell Tovey and then Lee Pace. How has that relationship changed over the course of the two productions?
With Russell, his Joe was so frightened and nervy. The dynamic in “Perestroika” was he was like a plaything, and then I immediately was like, “Where the hell is Prior?” Whereas with Lee, the way Lee does Joe is that he’s an intellectual match for Louis. So, not only does Louis fancy him, but he gets involved in an intellectual debate that keeps him there.
There’s an old line in an old version of “Perestroika” where — and I’m paraphrasing wildly before Tony Kushner appears from the dark and kills me; sometimes he’s like Ethel Rosenberg, he appears out of nowhere — but Louis says to Joe something like, “The more Republican you get, the more I want to fuck you.” And I think there’s that kind of pull in them. There’s like, “I want to get to the root of you.” And I think Lee has that. There’s a wrestle between them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.