Starring in Macbeth is enough of a challenge, but it takes another level of guts to bring your marriage into it, too. That’s what husband-and-wife duo Corey Stoll and Nadia Bowers are doing in the Classic Stage Company production of the Shakespeare tragedy this fall, stepping into the roles of the central couple, only after promising director John Doyle that “we weren’t going to bring a lot of drama to this.” The two met at an alumni event for NYU’s graduate acting program in 2008, and balance their acting gigs (Stoll recently finished filming Spielberg’s West Side Story; Bowers appeared in the Chekhov-esque Life Sucks) with parenting their almost 4-year-old son. After a day of rehearsals on Macbeth, the two sat down with Vulture over iced coffee to discuss Doyle’s approach to this production, the advantages of acting together as a real-life couple, and what it’s like to have your husband appear in The Romanoffs when you’re an actual descendant of the Romanovs.
Did the offer come in for you two to do this simultaneously?
CS: No, it came to me. I’d worked with John Doyle before; we did Three Sisters a decade ago. John and I were talking about Lady Macbeth, and who would be good, and it seemed clear to me that Nadia would be a great choice. I wanted it to be his choice as much as mine.
NB: [Doyle] didn’t know my work, was the thing. I was also doing a play, Life Sucks, at the time. We had an audition. He’s British, so the way they audition is, they just meet people. We just talked for a while and truly hit it off, and then and I was like, “You should come see my play.” Then they [gestures at Corey] had a secret meeting that I didn’t know about, where he was like, “So I want to cast her, but I just want to check with you that that’s okay.”
CS: He just wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to have pillow talk about it. We weren’t going to bring a lot of drama to this.
You were both in an episode of The Strain, but I don’t think you’ve acted together in anything else.
NB: Just some readings, but this was the first time that we’re actually in a rehearsal room together.
Does that take some getting used to?
NB: It feels very normal. We went to the same acting program, the NYU graduate acting program, and there’s definitely a way of working and a playfulness we have, so maybe that has something to do with it, too.
Do you take the roles home much?
CS: We do some running lines. It’ll be interesting when we go into running it, and the whole scope of the tragedy, taking that in every day. Even though your mind knows that these things aren’t happening, your body is still going through these actions.
NB: It’s a very dark play. It’s like a brutal world that they’re in; John’s really embracing that aspect of it. I feel a heaviness, actually.
Has John talked about the other ideas he wants to explore in Macbeth?
NB: He’s like, “I would like to tell this story to the person who’s never seen Macbeth before.” He has some ideas and some images that are very strong with him.
CS: I think that was partially why he was interested in casting us against each other. We can bring an intimacy —
NB: He said we don’t have to sign an intimacy clause.
CS: Amazing things that you wouldn’t expect can emerge from a real couple working together. If I was coming in and meeting a new actress and trying to establish that we have this relationship, there would be this sense of, like, looking into each other’s eyes, but that’s taken for granted.
NB: What was taken for granted?
CS: But that’s part of a couple! You become a team toward the outside world, and that’s really what these people are.
How do you approach the dynamic between the Macbeths as a couple?
NB: I have to say some pretty horrible things to you! That’s not so hard. I’m getting to enjoy it more. I think they speak to each other in a way that we don’t.
CS: We’re definitely much more careful with each other’s feelings.
NB: They don’t have a child. That’s part of the problem, I think. Historically, Lady Macbeth was married before and had a child, and in this play there’s only one line that alludes to her perhaps having had a child. Most people are going to think it’s the child between them, but what we’re kind of working with is perhaps there’s a child from a previous marriage who has died. Maybe, since I had children before, I can have children, maybe it’s him. But Male infertility would not be something discussed at that time, so of course everyone would look to her.
Corey, between doing Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Iago in Othello, and even Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, you’re really working through all the Shakespeare you can.
CS: For me this has been this great education, these last few years, at the audience’s expense [laughs]. Selfishly, I’ve felt I’ve learned so much. This was not a plan. Macbeth wasn’t something that I was dying to do, strangely. I remember reading it, being like, How can the audience possibly have any identification with me? He’s just this murderer. But the language is so beautiful, and it becomes more beautiful and more human as he embraces this bloody path, which is really remarkable.
The Julius Caesar you were in had a very direct political allegory about Trump, and there are in some ways similar political themes in Macbeth, but I imagine this won’t be that direct.
CS: In terms of any sort of political analogy, we’ve completely steered clear of that. But it’s impossible to hear some of these lines and not feel incredible resonances with what’s happening now.
NB: When I had the audition with John, he said, “Do you have any questions for me?” And I said, “Why are you doing this play right now?” He said, “I’ve been thinking about evil, and I think we’re at a place where we might be staring evil in the face.” When he was younger, he was part of a political group, and they would say that there’s no evil, there’s just different gradations of good. He said, “I’m not so sure that that’s true anymore.”
CS: Evil as a force, not evil as identified in a person.
Corey, when you were in The Romanoffs, one of the anecdotes you told the press was that Nadia is an actual descendant of the Romanovs. Nadia, what was it like to watch him in that show?
NB: You know, it was great. I loved it. I recognized the people he was depicting. I know those people a little bit, you know, especially in the first episode. Marthe Keller’s character was a slightly exaggerated version of some members of my family. But the funny thing was that I heard about this series and I was like, I have to be on this, and 24 hours later the phone rang for Corey. I was like, “This is the only time in my life I’ve wanted to kill you!” You know what? Like, maybe I could get you killed because I’m a Romanov, so.
CS: I can attest to that. Being in a couple as both actors, the assumption from the outside is that there’s this incredible amount of competitiveness, and that’s actually very rare.
NB: But that time it was allowed, and you understood it.
CS: It’s your birthright!
Do you consult each other on your careers?
NB: Yes, and we also have an almost 4-year-old, so there’s more consideration now because of this child.
CS: Yeah, it’s become more complicated.
NB: This is the first time we’re ever on the same schedule. Usually there’s some kind of unevenness.
CS: Once we’re in performances and we’re exhausted, we can’t say, “I was performing last night, you wake up and, you know, take him to school!”
NB: Yeah, that is the one thing. We’ll have to alternate or something.
I guess if your kid is 4, you’re not quite at the point where you have to explain, “Mommy and daddy are going to go pretend to kill people onstage.”
NB: I don’t think so. Although my son said to me the other day, “Mommy, I have my opening tonight so that means I’m not gonna see you for a while.” He was totally matter-of-fact about it! But I’m sure we’ll bring him to the theater. I brought him to Life Sucks and he sat down in the front row and he was like, “Mommy, do some acting.” I don’t think he totally understands what it is, but he knows what rehearsal is and audition, he knows those words.
Are there other theatrical couples you two would like to play together?
NB: Someone said Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, someday. That would be fun.
CS: That one I feel like it would be hard not to bring stuff home.
NB: They don’t kill!
CS: No, but they kill each other. It is brutal.