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Interview: Actress Hope Davis On Thrillers, Escaping To London and David Hare's THE RED BARN

Acclaimed American actress Hope Davis has starred in numerous independent films and TV dramas, from About Schmidt and American Splendour to In Treatment, The Special Relationship and Wayward Pines. She received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the Broadway production of God of Carnage, and next month she returns to the stage in David Hare's new play The Red Barn at the National Theatre, directed by Robert Icke.

What tempted you back to the stage?

So many things! First of all, Sir David Hare. I worked with him many years ago on Ivanov at Lincoln Centre, and I loved working with him. The chance to do a new play of his is just wonderful.

One of the biggest reasons is I spent my junior year of college here in London, studying theatre. It was then that I really decided I wanted to be an actor. I saw so many shows - in those days you could see a play for six or eight pounds if you were a student. I lived at the National, and saw everything playing there over and over again. I wished, more than anything, that I could be an actor here in London.

So when they called me about this project I was so excited - it's the fulfilment of an early dream. And I love the play. We did a reading of it in New York before it was picked up by the National, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. It really got under my skin.

How are you finding the combination of David Hare and Robert Icke?

Robert Icke is new to me, though I'd heard all about his work from friends and other actors. They seem to be getting on very well in rehearsals, so I'd say they're definitely a good pair.

Do you particularly enjoy doing new work?

It's really exciting to do a new play - I was in the original Broadway cast of God of Carnage. It's always wonderful to take on a Hedda Gabler or something, but this is just a fantastic experience

Mark Strong and Hope Davis in rehearsal

What's the premise of the play?

It's two couples who are at a party, and when a snowstorm begins, they realise they should leave. So they get in the car, but they can't make it home - the car goes off the road, meaning they have to walk the last mile in the snow, and they can't see. They're holding on for dear life, just trudging forward. When they get to the farmhouse, one of them hasn't arrived. So the play unfolds from there: where is this person, can we find him, what happens.

It's a real thriller. We were working yesterday with some of the sound cues, and I got so creeped out. I thought, "Oh my god, my poor kids are going to get so scared", because they're at that age where they get really easily freaked.

Do you like watching thrillers?

I don't like gory, bloody thrillers. I love old school thrillers - Hitchcock psychological thrillers, or political thrillers. On stage, that's particularly effective.

What's it been like working with an international company?

Our cast is a real mixed group - we've got Canadian, Australian, Brits, American. Mark Strong is amazing. I'd never met him before, and he's not only an incredible actor, but an absolute gentleman and such a lovely human being. He's a dad with two kids, I have two kids, so we're both family people - we see the world through that lens too. It's the sanest group of people I've come across, which isn't always the case in film or TV. Everyone's just so excited about the play.

Has the play changed much during rehearsal?

Not really - David knows what he's doing. He and Robert made some small changes before we got here, otherwise nothing - it's a not a play that needs to find its feet.

And it's set in Sixties America?

It's set in 1969, at the end of a crazy decade in the States. It's been a long enough rehearsal period that we've had time to study it. We were asked to do research projects by Robert, and it's been fascinating - people really spent time, gave detailed presentations, with each actor taking half an hour or more to describe one element of the times - whether it's the music or the genre of thrillers or the politics of the day or family customs. We've really had a chance to learn.

Hope Davis and Stuart Milligan in rehearsal

What was your topic?

I was studying family and marriage and divorce, and I learned something incredibly interesting. In the US, the divorce rate skyrocketed in the Seventies and Eighties. I thought it must be because feminism unleashed women to decide what they want to do, but it was actually a change in the law.

Another thing I didn't know is that two-thirds of all divorces are filed by women, but before 1969, they had to prove that the husband had abused them, or committed adultery or abandonment - none of which are easy to prove in a court of law. It wasn't until 1969 that there was the first no fault divorce law introduced in California.

Has the play illuminated your experience or your family's at all?

I was born in 1964, so I do have clear memories of that time. The family in the play hasn't experienced the revolution of the Sixties at all, and I grew up in a similar family, so it's interesting to draw parallels. It's been great to learn all of this - as soon as I got out of college I wanted to go back and study again, but life and children took over.

Is there more choice in terms of roles on stage than on screen?

I'd say American TV is in a really good place. There are so many avenues - a million writers writing interesting things - so that's what I've been doing the past couple of years, other than the odd art film. I've done John Ridley's show American Crime - he's such a great writer and an amazing human being. Then I flipped to Wayward Pines, which is this crazy, weird, futuristic thriller, and actually a very compelling story.

Have you managed to avoid too many girlfriend or mother roles?

That hasn't been a huge problem for me. I have played lots of mothers, though I'm sure Mark would say he's played lots of fathers. I've never been stuck in just one thing.

Tell us about your role in The Red Barn

She's a very interesting character. Georges Simenon, who wrote the novel that David's adapted, I don't think he looked too favourably on the feminist revolution of the Sixties. He sees women through a very old-school lens - to him, a wife seems like a burden, a millstone around the neck. So she's the bedrock of the family, she protects everyone and takes care of everyone, but she's also written from a very dark perspective. But then all of Georges's characters are; his world is not a happy place. She's not immediately a warm, comforting mother.

The characters are all rather mysterious - you can't quite tell where anyone's coming from, you can't figure out what's going on and who's done what. I think audiences will have the same experience I had when I first read it of flipping through the pages wanting to know what happens. It reminded me of a Hitchcock film, in that it's this strange, engrossing world, and you can't look away - you don't know what's coming next, but you know it's not good.

Hope Davis, Mark Strong and
Elizabeth Debicki in rehearsal

Is it mainly in one location?

The set design is so brilliant - that's the other thing that's so exciting about working at the National. Bunny Christie is just amazing. When you read the script it's very filmic - you think "How on earth are they going to make this work on stage". It was exciting when Bunny sat us down and showed us the model. It's pretty mind-blowing, the way she and Robert have figured everything out.

I wouldn't be surprised if Robert goes on to direct film. He's got such an incredible eye and a huge knowledge of film technique. Or becomes someone like Matthew Warchus, who goes back and forth.

Have you been on American accent watch?

They're fantastic, and we have a great coach. Mark is flawless. I'm not sure if it's because he was doing A View from the Bridge, but then that's Brooklyn vernacular, which is very different to upper-crust Connecticut. The thing with accents is that either people find them really easy or they can't quite do it. Mark and Elizabeth [Debicki] are kind of amazing. Elizabeth has said actors have to be able to do an American accent, as there's so much work - there's more film shooting in the States than in Australia.

Actually, we all watch the BBC dramas in our family. I didn't realise all our American shows are over here. There's lots of stuff going back and forth right now.

When did you last take on a theatre project?

I did God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009, and then again in LA in 2011. It's really exciting to be back on stage. It's hard to do a play schedule wise with children and make it work, but this felt like something I couldn't pass up. Before my family got on the plane, I thought "Is this really happening - am I really going to the UK and performing at the National?"

So the whole family came to London with you?

My family's here, my children are in school, even my dog's here!

And what's it like being back on stage?

Stage is scary. You have a level of nerves you don't get on a set, because you can always do it again. The dreams started, a couple of months back: when you're backstage, someone says "You're on" and you think "God, what play am I in?", so you're thumbing through the script, trying desperately to remember your lines. But it's really good to be challenged.

Do you think British theatre audiences will be different to American?

I think audiences are younger and more diverse here in general, and I hope they're better behaved with the cell phone thing - it's plaguing New York. Like Patti LuPone intervening - I hope I don't have to do that!

A lot of actor friends in New York are saying they don't want to do plays anymore. As the lights go down in the theatre there, you've still got those six people who cannot turn off their phones. And they don't seem to realise, all the people around you can see that light. Just let go and surrender to the play.

David Hare and Robert Icke

What do you make of the London theatre scene this time round?

I feel the same way I did about it in 1985: I just want to stay. I haven't had a chance to see much yet, but I loved Groundhog Day. The theatre scene here feels really vibrant. I know people complain about ticket prices, but they're much more affordable than in New York, which changes the composition of the audience. I wish I could stay here forever more.

Is it good to have an escape from US politics?

I was saying to my castmates recently that once I got here, I stopped looking at the New York Times every day - it's such a relief not to see Donald Trump's face everywhere, although everyone here talks about it all the time. But I couldn't help logging on to see the footage of Hillary Clinton stumbling - it upsets me so much. It feels like you can't be a human being anymore and run for office. All of her supporters, of which I'm one, you don't want to say "I'm worried".

Of course you actually played Clinton in The Special Relationship

I did, and at the time it didn't feel as weird as it does now. Clinton then was Secretary of State, she had incredible approvable ratings, she was much loved, and suddenly she ran for President and everyone went nuts.

Our director Robert has been talking about politics a lot because of the nature of the play, and day one of rehearsals I said, about Trump, "It can't happen", and then recently, after everything that's happened, I came in and everyone said, "Well, what about now? What do you say now?" Oh my god. If Trump gets elected, I really do hope I find a way to stay here!

The Red Barn is at the National Theatre 6 October-17 January 2017

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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