Sea Wall in the Summertime

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge in dialogue about taking their conjoined monologues to Broadway.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge. Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson
Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge. Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson

They headline Sea Wall/A Life, but aside from the curtain call, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge are never onstage at the same time. But they’ve clearly become friends, joking when I meet them backstage about posing on the sofa in the style of those sultry ads for Burn This with Keri Russell and Adam Driver. As the more established movie star, Gyllenhaal acts a bit like the older brother to Sturridge’s more introverted, fidgety British sibling, though we’re grading on a curve here: They’re both nervous, fidgety people. Also, they are wearing matching gold chains.

The show started at the Public Theater in February and March and now has moved to Broadway with the same director, Carrie Cracknell. In the first of the two monologues, Sea Wall, by Simon Stephens, Sturridge plays a photographer who describes his relationship with his wife and father-in-law; then comes A Life, by Nick Payne, in which Gyllenhaal’s character talks alternately about his father’s illness and his wife’s pregnancy.

Both monologues reveal a tragedy at their centers, which might make them seem like acting exercises. As might getting two actors together to talk about what the other is doing onstage and how each of them got there. One thing Gyllenhaal is sure of is that the show has been subtly enlivened in its transfer. If nothing else, by the weather outside. “People referred to it as ‘stark,’ ” he says. “This show is no longer stark. This show is in the summer!”

Tom Sturridge: I want to start with October Sky … [Gyllenhaal’s 1999 breakthrough film role as a coal miner’s son].

Jake Gyllenhaal: [Laughs] Can you imagine? By the end of this interview, we’d hate each other.

TS: I don’t know how you came into contact with Nick [Payne].

JG: I went to a reading of a friend’s show, and Lynne Meadow, the artistic director, said, “I’m going to give you a couple of different playwrights that I think you’d be interested in,” and Nick happened to be one of those, and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet happened to be one of the plays. I immediately fell in love with it. Then, as the universe would have it, the next thing we did was Constellations [also by Payne]. Why did you want to do your piece?

TS: When I first read it, I felt so close to it because of how beautifully it articulated exactly how I felt about my family. The majority of the play is about the birth of a family and how wonderful that is. That is rare onstage because we’re supposed to make things interesting by everybody hating each other. I thought, These circumstances are very similar to my own. I don’t think I ever hesitated. For you, Nick did a reading [of A Life, then called Art of Dying] at the Royal Court, which, in my understanding of it, was like a man reading an essay. Was it a leap of imagination to think of it as theater?

JG: It felt blazingly, gloriously, insanely clear only because it was so filled with feeling. It was this sort of obtuse soliloquy that Nick had written for himself because it was just him trying to come to terms with the experience of his father’s passing.

TS: Did you think you were going to play Nick Payne?

JG: Never. There are moments when it bleeds in, but I resisted that. He wrote a lot of things for me, too. My rhythms and my way of speaking are incorporated. It’s a strange mix of the two of us and the way we speak. The reason I like his writing, and probably you can hear from this interview, is we trip over words, and we add other words. That’s where we meet.

TS: Struggling to find language?

JG: I think I still continue to grapple with how personal moments of it really are. Sometimes I feel like I’m potentially violating fiction and nonfiction, whatever that boundary is. I just recently came back from this big long press tour all around the world [for Spider-Man: Far From Home] in different time zones, and I would come from the airport, and I would do the piece in traffic if I was in Seoul or London or wherever, headed to some radio interview or something. I would do it when I would wake up and I couldn’t sleep. I do it, still, whenever I wake up, even if it’s in an unconscious state. It’s rare that I think a performer gets the opportunity to do something again and to rediscover certain things. In our preview period at the Public, you did some pretty wacky shit …

TS: I don’t know whether this is an English sensibility for me, but it really is an extension of the rehearsal process. There’s an audience there, but they should know they’re watching an experiment. In the first preview, I did it with a microphone, having never held a microphone in my life. But I think the exciting thing about returning to it is going into even more detail. Before, we were just going, “Can we get through these ten minutes without people falling asleep?” Now we can really do surgery.

JG: Do you think about me and my story coming up next?

TS: I’m completely conscious of the baton I pass on. In the first preview, I exited in a fury, in character, disgusted that he had told the story to these people. You could feel the audience think, Well, why the fuck did you tell it? I think it’s okay to lead them in different ways, but it’s important to know what you’re doing and that you remember [the character’s] love at the end.

JG: I mean, monologues already have that perception of actor indulgence. These are monologues about loss. How do you get out of that box? If anyone knows us both as actors, the last thing you would want to do is indulge that thing. I want to ride the roller coaster of a million different feelings. I do think that is really about people walking out of the theater at the end of this experience feeling — as my mom used to say to me when I’d see a movie that I’d love or had an experience that I loved — clean.

TS: That’s the contract we ask of the audience: Have faith in love in the beginning. We’re here to create a community together and to do something beautiful. Not “Here we go, this is going to be really depressing.” The audience really does dictate the way things go. If one person laughs at something because of some personal connection with it, I’m just — zoom, wherever they are, the next four minutes is for you. It’s not a bad thing. I’m acknowledging you coughed, whatever, your phone can go off, we’re here together.

JG: “Come to Broadway, citizen. Unwrap those candies.”

TS: Everyone in the audience is only one step away from almost all of the experiences of this evening. Afterward, when we talk to people, they don’t talk about the specifics of the play; they talk about their father or their child. That’s why we brought it to Broadway, because the public felt such ownership of it.

JG: If we’re speaking honestly, there was sort of that desire for indulgence, the acting indulgence. Then what was given to us as a response was people sharing their own personal experiences with us, which made us realize this thing was bigger than what we were doing. And then all of a sudden, the show became a show.

TS: Having done a number of plays, is there any difference in what you feel ten minutes before the first preview?

JG: When I did If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, I was nervous every night. When I did Sunday in the Park With George, I wasn’t nervous any second of it.

TS: Really?

JG: Even when we did it at City Center. You are enveloped and wrapped by a 25-piece orchestra, or I was. Of course, there have been times with this show, before I went out, when I was nervous. But I knew somewhere that it didn’t work unless I wasn’t hiding anything. All the audience loves is that imperfection. It’s what we all lean forward for. That’s what I’ve discovered onstage, and it’s a beautiful thing because it has helped me in my life and in my movie work. You can hate me or love me or whatever, but ultimately this is how I am. How about you?

TS: Hours before [I went on], simply the idea of getting from the beginning to the end was terrifying. The way I walked onstage at the Public, at least in the beginning, was like the scene in Gladiator when he first goes out in the arena.

JG: “Are you not entertained?!”

TS: I do remember being out there with the audience for the first time and the nerves completely disappearing and realizing that this was the safest place to be. Is there something you’re afraid of, going into this new experience?

JG: I mean, we have two days’ rehearsal and two days of tech. We haven’t done the show in four months.

TS: Fair enough, I’m afraid now.

Sea Wall/A Life is at the Hudson Theatre. Purchase tickets here.

*A version of this article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge on Sea Wall in the Summer