Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Q&A with Jonathan Cake: U.S.-Dwelling Brit Who's Playing an Italian

Restoration, the play that opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop, gives us a memorable and endearing new odd couple in Claudia Shear and Jonathan Cake. She plays Giulia, the frumpy, sardonic American art restorer hired to clean Michelangelo’s David for its 500th anniversary. He’s Massimo (a.k.a. Max), the handsome, flirtatious security guard at L’Accademia in Florence who’s with her every day while she’s working. There’s a little bit of will-they-or-won’t-they tension, but the crux of their relationship is an almost begrudgingly flowering friendship, through which each learns to come to terms with their life’s disappointments.

Shear wrote the play, so her role was tailor-made for her. But Jonathan Cake, a British actor last seen on the New York stage in Broadway’s The Philanthropist with Matthew Broderick, only got the part of Max after Daniel Serafini-Sauli played it in La Jolla and Danny Mastrogiorgio dropped out of the New York production shortly before previews. He proves the perfect foil/confidant for Shear’s Giulia.

Cake, 42, won a Theatre World Award playing Jason to Fiona Shaw’s Medea during the 2002-03 Broadway season, and later was Iachimo in Cymbeline at Lincoln Center. In London, he had the title role in Coriolanus at the Globe and received the Barclays Theatre Award as Best Actor for a stage adaptation of Baby Doll. He costarred in the 2008 big-screen remake of Brideshead Revisited and has been featured on the U.S. television series Chuck, Six Degrees and Inconceivable. Cake also has appeared on two episodes of Law & Order as a corrupt defense attorney and two episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent as the fiancé of Detective Wheeler, portrayed by Cake’s wife, Julianne Nicholson (who just wrapped up an off-Broadway run in Parents' Evening at the Flea).

During my recent interview with Cake in a New York Theatre Workshop rehearsal room, he was coughing repeatedly—the last symptoms, he said, of bronchitis that he’d caught from his 1-year-old daughter (he and Nicholson also have a 2½-year-old son). It didn’t keep him from being generous with his thoughts about performing in Restoration, being half of an acting couple, and living and working on both sides of the Atlantic.

Have you spent much time in Italy?
I have, actually. I’m a huge Italy junkie. I sort of think I’m Italian. I have no reason to think that, it’s completely fanciful. Coming from the south of England, we were invaded so many times, there’s Roman blood all over. When I was in Rome a few years ago doing a job [the ABC miniseries Empire], I had an extraordinary six months. You know that way in which you feel utterly at home in an entirely foreign city? I felt, Of course this is where I’m from. But then, it’s Rome. So maybe everybody feels that way.
I was married just outside Florence, a little place in the Tuscan country called Figline Valdarno. My wife is from Massachusetts; she’s the oldest of, I think, 32 grandchildren on just one side—a huge Boston Irish-Catholic family. So we were going to have this mother of all massive weddings, with people she hadn’t even met, somewhere in New England. We had been looking at places, and none was quite right. Then we were in Italy—I was doing this job all that summer, and she’s back and forth. I said at one point: Look, why don’t we just take a crack squad of our favorite people and find somewhere extraordinary here and get married? She was: [with uncertainty] You know what? [pause, and her tone changes] Yes, let’s do that; that sounds great.
I was working at the time with this actress Trudie Styler—Sting’s wife—who has this beautiful place in Tuscany. That’s where we had the reception. However, we did enter a world of pain because we were trying to get married in an Italian church. All stranieri [foreigners] have to go through an enormously complicated, bureaucratic process. Up until about 20 minutes before the wedding, we weren’t sure whether it was going to go ahead. It took a massive donation to their organ fund to see the thing through. The bishop of Fiesole had to give a special dispensation, and the bishop of Boston had also to give a special dispensation. It was absurd.

Do you speak Italian?
I speak an incredibly personalized, idiosyncratic version. The joke amongst the crew when I was filming Empire in Rome was that, my character was called Tyrannus, and they always said I spoke Tyrannese—which was just particular to me. I know enough to get by, and of course the longer you’re there, the better it gets.

Could you talk about your rapport with Claudia Shear? You two have terrific chemistry in Restoration, but it’s a special kind of chemistry, in that it’s not really romantic.
She’s one of those people—and it happens much more rarely than you’d think—you get on a stage with and immediately feel entirely comfortable with. You just know you’re sort of safe. You feel like the space between you is taken care of somehow. I’ve never felt at all stressed by doing this play, and partly that’s because I share the stage so much of the time with her. That’s indefinable; I have no idea particularly why that should be. It’s just a happy accident when it happens with certain actors.
One of the reasons I wanted to do the play was you don’t often get to see on the stage the real progression of a male-female relationship. It’s rare to have that described in detail, for them to get over their initial differences and their mutual suspicion, and of course there’s all these bumps in the road along the way. Her character’s not the most prepossessing or easy to get on with, she’s prickly, and God knows he’s got his foibles too. So she’s written this very smart, delicate thing about how men and women can be friends. And yes, I think there is a romantic connection, but it’s the romantic connection of people who are mutually fascinated by each other and are each other’s saviors, really, in this crazy room that they’re both prisoners of. She becomes a prisoner of her feelings towards the statue, and he is almost literally a prisoner there, because that’s his job and he feels tied and devoted to the statue even while he resents living a life that involves him being there every day. He obviously is desperate to be seen, desperate to be communicated with, desperate to share ideas with, desperate to do some living with, and she’s everything he wants for communication. He says, “I wake up every morning with my mouth full of things to tell you,” which to me is an extraordinary romantic thing to say to somebody. It doesn’t mean that they’re meant to be together. It just means that their not having that connection on a daily basis when she finishes the job should be a painful thing for an audience to contemplate, a painful thing for him to contemplate.

In the reviews of Restoration, the word “hunky” often preceded your or your character’s name, even in the Times. And one critic described you as the theater’s equivalent of Patrick Dempsey—a resemblance I noticed while watching the play. Care to comment on all that?
My, that’s terrifying. I don’t read any reviews. Really, the Times is using a word like “hunky”? That’s not good journalism.
The way I think I look is probably different from the way anybody else thinks I look. We all have issues, particularly if you haven’t slept in 2½ years, like I haven’t. But the only thing I’d say about “hunky” epithets or anything like that is it doesn’t really make you feel like this person is being swept up in the character you’re playing. It sounds like people are just looking at the outside and thinking that’s the point. The strongest elements in the character, I think, are his vulnerability and his childish idealism that’s clashing with how old he is and how much of his life is behind him. If the Times wants to write “hunky,” that’s up to them, but you can’t blame an actor for feeling slightly disappointed that that’s the best they’ve got. Or the best I’ve got.

You’re British, dashing and the right age...have you ever been considered for James Bond?
[Laughs]
No, never, to my knowledge. My best friend, Sam Mendes, is going to direct the next movie, and I think he still has Daniel Craig on board. [Laughs] “Elbow Craig. Get in the old pal.” That might look a little too obvious for his tastes.

Medea is one of the all-time plum roles for women in theater. What was it like playing opposite that?
I never particularly thought of it like this is somehow Fiona’s show. First of all, I should say I was just ecstatically thrilled to be involved in it at all. Fiona and Deborah [Warner, the director] occupy a very special place in British/European theater. I revered them growing up. They have this incredibly human but very brave, extreme, avant-garde reputation for their work. So I was just honored that I was involved. The way that Deborah imagined the relationship, I thought it did Jason an enormous service because the production stressed that she did what she did for love. It became an enormous romantic battleground. I think watching the production, you felt there was still this connection between them; it became about a very real husband and wife—not these mythical creatures—and the awful damage done by an affair.
I saw Fiona not long ago in London, and we still reminisce about the fact that it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Screaming at her over the slaughtered corpses of our children while you’re knee-deep in water, trying to get to the point Euripides insists you get to... I didn’t have kids at that time, so I didn’t have the sense I do now of what that could possibly be. The play makes such incredible demands on you that not for a second did I think, I wish this play were called Jason.

Let’s talk about the woman in your life offstage, Julianne Nicholson. Did you meet on a job?
Hilariously, we met doing a pilot for HBO called Marriage, which never got made into a series. This was 2003, with Steven Bochco. Kate Walsh was in it, and Frank Whaley.

Have you worked together since then, outside of Law & Order?
Two years ago, I was doing Parlour Song at Atlantic Theater Company with Emily Mortimer, who was doing this Scorsese movie at the time. So she’d go off six or seven times to shoot that, and the people at Atlantic said to Julianne, “Would you mind stepping in for her?” So we got to act together on stage. And it was terribly sexy. It’s a fantastic thing when you re-meet your partner on stage, dressed as this suburban sex siren, and she lit this cigarette like this femme fatale. When someone takes over on short notice like that, you just want them to be not too rabbit-in-the-headlights. But she took a draw on the cigarette and looked at me like, [seductively] “Come on then, let’s see what you’ve got.” Yea! That’s my wife, ladies and gentlemen.
I know I’m biased, but she’s the most amazing actor I’ve worked with. This is not just me; if you talk to any actor who’s worked with her or knows her, she is so revered amongst the profession. She can do things that almost all of us can’t. She’s just incapable of being dishonest. Actors really fall into two categories. There are the people who cover up what’s going on inside them when they pretend to be different people, and those who—and they’re very, very rare—take everything away, so you just see far down inside who they really are. It’s terribly arresting and exciting, and that’s what Julianne does. You know, I fell in love with her [while] acting, and that’s because when she acts, you see the essence of who she is. And that’s so powerful.

Are you two “bi-continental,” or do you just live here now?
We still have a place in London, and I try to pretend in my head that we live in both places, in a very glamorous way. But of course we don’t. We have two tiny children, and they were both born in New York. My wife has a wonderful career here, and the industry is much smaller in Britain, and I think it would be trickier the other way around, for her to get work there, being a thirtysomething American actress, than it is for me here.

When was the last time you worked in Britain?
This January. I went back to do one of those Masterpiece Theatre Miss Marple mysteries. [It’s due to air this summer.]

Did you experience any culture shock when you came to the States?
The first time I’d been to New York, I was doing Medea, and I remember being in Times Square getting water before the show. I asked for a bottle of water, and I got 12 lattes. I have no idea how the man extrapolated “12 lattes” from “I’d like a bottle of water.” So making yourself understood...
I hate the system of vaguely waiting for pedestrians. I spend so much of my time at street level pushing strollers around, and people [driving] don’t have any compunction about turning if they want to turn. I’ve got the light, and we’re crossing... The informality of that kind of kills me, and I feel like this is just a terrible accident waiting to happen. You shouldn’t be allowed to turn if pedestrians are crossing. It’s just my little parent rant.

You lived in L.A. first. How was that?
I’ve grown to be strangely fond of it, actually, but that’s because I don’t live there anymore. When I lived there, I felt like, What am I doing? It couldn’t have felt geographically and culturally further away from what I’d experienced growing up. If I’d been living with the Inuits, it would have felt more culturally recognizable in some way.
I had some very bleak times in my life living in L.A. Most of the time in my profession, people aren’t working. I was a phenomenally unsuccessful actor at the time, trying to become more successful. The place is built on tears and disappointment. Most of the people who get off the bus with this burning lottery ticket in their hand will still have the burning lottery ticket in their hand when they leave. I feel that more often than not, people aren’t very happy with their lot there.

What differences between the U.S. and U.K. have you noticed specifically as an actor?
It’s a much bigger pool here. The actor’s lot is pretty universal, I think. Actors are always having a tough, generally underpaid time of it. This myth that actors are at home reading a pile of scripts, trying to work out what their career path should be, is utter bulls---. Most of the time, most people are just wondering what’s out there for them next. L.A. is obviously a big honeypot for actors in this country, and that’s a tricky thing for New York-based actors. Geographically, it’s far away from where you’re from. Britain’s much smaller. People gravitate toward London, and it doesn’t feel like such a huge distance.
In Britain, it’s not cool to be seen as taking it seriously. We are a nation who pretends that we’re all amateurs. To be seen to be really caring about it, worrying about it, is to be seen as sort of ambitious, too self-involved, too lacking in self-deprecation. We all want to pretend that we just turn up and we do this stuff and we go home. So when you first get to L.A., where this is a real industry and people take it incredibly seriously—I remember meeting my first agent there, and she was going on some extraordinary rant about all the things she wanted to do to me, for me, in my career. She talked about a thousand words a minute.
The fact that the New York Times is so powerful [in its theater criticism] here is something we have no conception of in Britain. You can get the whole spectrum of critical opinion, and it won’t dictate the future of your show. I don’t know why any actor reads reviews. No actor wants critical opinion, good or bad, any phrases in their head. It’s just one of those things that gets in the way of thinking purely about the character that you’re playing. If you think that’s what a very powerful person thinks, and therefore what a bunch of the audience has read and what they might have in their minds, then you’re thinking about the wrong thing when you go on stage.

Enron’s failure on Broadway reignited a debate about British-versus-American theatergoing tastes, since that play’s been a big hit in London. What’s your insight into the topic?
The only experience that I have that made me feel like I could generalize about it was when we did Medea. We did it here in 2003. It wasn’t long after 9/11, and I did sense an enormous engagement with the play here in a way that we hadn’t had in London. It was as though—and people expressed this a lot, actually—they wanted to find out what the ancients thought about suffering. Instead of looking away from it, a New York audience went towards it, and wanted to find out what real extremity was like, depicted on stage. So I felt like this play written in 435 B.C. had something very urgently to do with events in the world. We didn’t have that at all in London. Maybe there’s a truth there about London audiences generally—we don’t really want to confront something right now. During the infamous years when Margaret Thatcher was in power, it became notorious that no one could really write about politics. Even though you had this figure to be opposed to, there was this strange veil of silence. It was like, no one really wants to hear it, no one wants to discuss it artistically. That’s been changing a little bit, because there’s been a vogue for “drama journalism”—plays about what’s going on right now—that the Tricycle particularly have done. So maybe now we’re a little bit more willing to watch what’s going on, but at the time I did feel like New York audiences are much more interested in what’s contemporary to them right now.

Photos of Jonathan Cake, from top: as the Italian security guard in Restoration; eating gelato with Claudia Shear in Restoration; hunky? you decide—Cake in 2007-2008’s Cymbeline; with Fiona Shaw in Medea; in 2008 with his spouse, American actress Julianne Nicholson; in last year’s The Philanthropist, with Matthew Broderick; in Cymbeline, with Martha Plimpton, at Lincoln Center. [Restoration and Philanthropist photos by Joan Marcus; Cymbeline photos by Paul Kolnik]



Related Articles


From This Author - Adrienne Onofri

Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels (read more...)

  • Photo Coverage: Lucky Cheng's Turns 25!
  • Photo Coverage: TRU Annual Benefit, Featuring Robert Cuccioli and Jana Robbins