The appallingly talented British actor Tom Hollander has been John Ruskin, T. S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas; the prime minister and a motion-capture hyena; two King Georges, a periwigged pirate hunter, a flamboyant spy, a blisteringly cynical arms dealer, and a couple of very memorable clergymen — from Jane Austen’s simpering Mr. Collins to his own creation, the bewildered, well-meaning Adam Smallbone, hero of the BAFTA-winning Hulu show Rev. Although he’s best known in America as the the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s villainous Cutler Beckett, right now he’s off the high seas and on to high comedy in his Tony-nominated turn as Henry Carr in Patrick Marber’s current, and glorious, Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.
We both showed up for our interview a bit tousled, having commuted by bike, and we never did get around to ordering drinks. Instead, we talked about the challenge and thrill of performing Stoppard, the technical requirements of comic acting onstage and onscreen, and the love-hate relationship American audiences have with “that British Repressed Thing.”
As Henry Carr, you’re at the center of this verbal, intellectual whirlwind that is Travesties, a play that some people find elitist or difficult to access …
Yes, it can divide people, just because it’s so extreme.
Right, it’s got an element of high-wire showmanship to it. But your character has to anchor it, because you’re the one telling the story, and talking to these historical characters: James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Lenin. What did you and director Patrick Marber talk about as you started to rehearse the role?
We talked a lot about age, actually. The age of our own parents, the age our fathers are — they’re sort of entering that Henry Carr phase. You know, if you’re talking to Tzara, then the play is a Dadaist play, broken up with bits stuck on everywhere — like a Dadaist poem. If you’re talking to Joyce, then it’s a kind of stream-of-consciousness play, a babble of coincidence and stuff that’s incoherent but actually poetic and beautiful. And if you’re talking to me, then it’s a dementia play. Or — no, that’s too glib, too buzzy. It’s a play about memory and how memory presents things in different ways and can get confused.
And how we all rewrite the narrative of our “brilliant youth,” because Old Carr and Young Carr are both part of this story.
Yes. Carr can’t distinguish between the play that he was a part of as a young man and the play that he’s constructed for us. And he’s the Nowhere Man. The Nobody. The man who realizes that the high days of his youth were the greatest moments he ever lived — even though he was in quite a bad mood at the time! And the irony is that he’s the immortal one, that in this brilliant world of Travesties, Henry Carr is the one that gets to write the history. Even though it’s actually the artist that gains immortality… [In a crotchety voice, grinning and shaking his fist.] For this one night! Henry Carr gets to tell you how it was. And that’s fun.
It is! But I’d also like to bounce something off of you: Even people who love Travesties seem often to refer to it as “art for art’s sake,” as a sparkling, brilliant toy. I think that leaves a lot out …
Yes! Yes, whenever I’m going “Bloody hell, what is this, this showing off I’m about to go and do?” — I remember talking with Patrick and think that I do love being Old Carr. I love sitting in that. People sometimes think Stoppard is avoiding emotion, but we have tried to find those bits. Tom was with us in rehearsals, and it was in the room that Tom wrote this play when he was Young Carr and now he’s Old Carr. Tom himself grumbled about his failing memory. And that was a very moving part of the whole process for us. There are other bits too… Obviously the First World War, though that doesn’t track as well over here. In England you can hitch a ride on the First World War pretty easily. The minute you say “the dewdrops glistening on the poppies in the early morning sun,” everyone’s lips start to quiver, because they all lost their grandfather. Here it’s not quite the same. I don’t know what it would have to be… [He squints and takes on a hard American accent.] ’Nam. Saigon. Lying awake under the ceiling fan … Whirrr.
The pathos in this play sneaks up on you, like an unexpected punch line at the end of an elaborate joke.
There’s one joke — I think maybe two people a night get it — there’s a joke where nobody knows what’s going on, including the actors. But the audience senses that there’s something. I say, “I expect you’ll be missing Sofia,” and Seth [Seth Numrich, who plays Tristan Tzara] says, “You mean Gwendolyn?” And I go… [Makes a blank panicked face and blinks several times.] And what it actually means is [he’s getting really excited here], in the next scene, the final scene in the play, which is the only scene where everything is true — it means that Carr has forgotten his real sister. It’s perfect. Old Carr has forgotten his sister and so Young Carr forgets her too, because Young Carr is only Old Carr remembering. And there’s something so brilliant and so moving about that. It’s reverse engineered somehow — and there’s a sort of puzzle-y, Rubik’s cube-y satisfaction to it.
This makes me want to ask you about the specific requirements of acting in comedy. When you talk about helping the audience to laugh even if they don’t quite know what’s going on …
I sort of felt like I knew how to do this kind of thing, the acting style, the speed. This thing of saying long lines in one breath, one — [he makes an arc with his hand]. I remember I learnt that from Peter Wood. He actually directed the first production of Travesties. I worked with him as a young actor, and he was a very famous director of comedy, of that sort of heightened, high comedy. He did the first Jumpers too and a whole bunch of Stoppard, and when I was young I did School for Scandal and She Stoops to Conquer with him, so — lucky me! — he was a pedagogue of a director, and weirdly his teaching came around and landed back in the right place.
Good comedy is a really precise dance.
Well, they all have a kind of pace to them. It’s pretty technical. You drive through these long lines and then go up at the end! [He laughs.] And Peter talked very eloquently about how your job as an actor of comedy in the theater is to give the cream of your energy in the day to the audience. That’s your whole job. Which is why I do as little as I can before a show. And for sure the nights that you save your energy and have more than enough, those are great. The audience sort of smells it when you can’t quite face it. But when they’re in the mood, the play can make them feel like they’re making connections, that what is impenetrable at the beginning becomes clearer and clearer. It’s a flimsy plot but it’s endlessly repeated — like a roundabout, a carousel that changes shape slightly with each go round. But it also has a cumulative effect. A friend of mine called it a confetti shower of these beautiful ideas.
I was so struck by the difference in which ideas in the play hit me the hardest now, as opposed to those that I most gravitated towards when I first experienced it as a teenager. I used to adore all the Dada stuff, anything to do with Tzara. But this time, I found myself so moved by Joyce’s takedown of him.
That Joyce speech is beautiful. It’s incredible. “What would Troy be without Homer? A redistribution of broken pots.” We sort of think of that as being the mission statement, if there is one. But you know, there is a difference, because I think if you’re 16 then Dada is definitely the thing. I mean Tzara’s the one. He’s alive, he’s sexy, he’s having sex! And he’s in a play that’s constantly presenting you with very complex ideas, so the idea of incoherence and happenstance is quite accessible — to just smash stuff down. It’s good, it’s punk! It’s an adolescent thing. But Joyce is making you go, No, you can actually be really good as well. There is such a thing as genius. He’s defending the notion of talent and inspiration. Meanwhile, the whole thing is framed as the memory of a slightly grumpy… well, not a philistine but definitely a conservative. He’s a sort of Brexiteer.
Carr of the Consulate.
You know the difference, I feel, with playing Henry Carr in America? Here, he’s one of them — one of those English people. And in London he’s one of us. He’s equally ridiculous in London, but there’s a familiarity about him and a sort of guilty pleasure in him. There’s a man in tweeds in a pub in the country, who reads the Daily Mail and who’s got Britain by the short-and-curlies at the moment, and we’re in a fight to the death with this person. But Henry Carr is actually one of them. People aren’t related to Henry Carr here, so I was a bit scared in previews. Then I realized — well, we’re in the realms of neurosis here now, but I think that there’s a particular tone I can get into, a particular sort of British poshness that turns people off here. They go, “Oh, that’s the villain in every film” and “That’s what we fought the war of independence against!”
It happens in Hamilton …
Yeah, it’s King George III. But I think if I manage to make Carr more innocent and less cynical, it’s more accessible here. That genuinely changes one night to the next. I’m never certain what the answer is. That’s the fun of doing theater. You just get to experiment with its colors each night and you never have to answer it finally … And then it stops.
The stage never says, “All right, that’s your final take.”
Right, “I’m choosing that one.” Or, “I’m choosing that one for you” which is — well, you’re never around when they make that decision, so it’s okay.
Is that part of why you wanted to work on a project like Rev. — to be the one to choose the last take?
Yes, and it was so satisfying story lining it and working out what we were going to do. There were several producorial thrills involved in casting it and in the edit, which I wanted to repeat. So now my producing partner, Hannah Pescod, who’s a brilliant woman — we have a mix of projects coming up. A classic adaptation of a novel that I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid: The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Andrew Davies writing it.
That’s the creepiest, dirtiest, most upsetting Disney film. Sexual obsession and attempted ethnic cleansing. And gargoyles!
Yeah! And ours is a really bold bit of adaptation. And then we have a slate of big and small projects — there’s another adaptation of a book, a completely original series set in London in the ’60s, a whole load of stuff.
Do all those different historical periods require different things of you as an actor?
Well, I suppose when you’re “in period” you’re behaving in a way that you imagine people behaved, based on books that you’ve read and maybe other period adaptations you’ve seen. If you’re doing something contemporary then you’re referencing your own experience in a much more obvious way. There’s often a debate about how people expressed emotion, whether they expressed it. There’s a contemporary register and there’s a period register. And then there’s definitely that “British Repressed Thing,” which people do terribly well, that they’re always using in royal adaptations. I think what really punches through is when people break the edifice and suddenly use a more bourgeois register, a more middle-class register — it’s when you see the crack that makes you want to cry. So it’s when Helen Mirren sees the deer in The Queen. And who knows whether the actual queen would register emotion in that way, but when the actor playing the queen telegraphs emotion in a way that the audience can see, then they fall in love. In reality, if you hung out with Prince Philip, I wonder if he would well up at the sight of a deer… I’d put money on the fact that he probably wouldn’t! But messing around with emotion, finding out what a rule is and then breaking it, judiciously breaking it every so often — I think that’s probably a useful approach with everything. You just want to try to do stuff that scares you a little bit. That you feel you can’t do.
Anything like that coming up for you?
I definitely am about to try and do something I can’t do after this. My agent is nudging me to do this TV thriller where the character is very emotional. The amount of emotion in it, I’m balking at it as I read. Not just because I’ve been in a play that — well, I’ve been dealing with the emotional register of Travesties so long that I now know where it is, so I’m not daunted by it. But basically there’s a lot of crying in this new thing, which is quite hard.
So, from this very intellectual play to this very emotional TV show?
Yes, but I don’t play that intellectual thing in Travesties, you know. I mean you play individual moods on individual lines, which is what you do when you’re acting in anything. You never play the whole thing at once, you never play the meaning. You play This Minute, This Second, This Moment, This Bit. The Bit where I’m trying to describe James Joyce and actually what I want to say is he’s a liar and a hypocrite. The Bit where I’m excited about my trousers! I mean, they’re all moments. And in the debates, you’re doing it with the audience. You can’t ever separate the experience the audience is having from your own. I’m not simply having a debate with Tzara, I’m having a debate with them and Tzara. You’re like a barrister in a courtroom, trying to swing the jury one way or the other. If you play each little bit, if you do the cameo work on that moment, then the construction of it all was someone else’s job. And that was done in the cold light of day between the hours of 7 and 10 a.m. with a cup of coffee, or whatever the writer’s routine is.
They work in the morning so you can play at night.
Apparently Ralph Richardson said that acting is “dreaming in the evening.” Which is such a beautiful thing. And I feel like that when I stand up at that podium at the beginning of Travesties. I get to do that. And that is what it is: Henry Carr is dreaming. I’d love people to know that that’s what they get to do when watching it — that they should approach coming to see Travesties in the same way they would approach going to Carnegie Hall to see a symphony or hear some bit of music where themes and motifs swirl around and around you and come back and get presented to you in different ways with different resonances. It’s like that, it’s like music. The sound of it and the mood of it will change you in some way, even for a minute. That, and it’s full of hilarious, stupid jokes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.