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Matt Ryan on seducing Keira Knightley in Broadway's Therese Raquin

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Joan Marcus

Eyes fly to Welsh actor Matt Ryan upon his stage entrance in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Therese Raquin. His arrival marks a change in the drama’s vivacity, a shock to its narrative plateau, and, perhaps most notably, a decidedly handsome shift in sexual tension.

It’s easy, then, to understand why Therese Raquin — running through January at Studio 54 on Broadway — takes on wholly new life when Ryan’s character jolts electricity through the period-piece veins of the play’s central character, the titular Therese (inhabited by Keira Knightley in her Broadway debut).

In Raquin, Ryan plays Laurent, the disarmingly charming childhood friend of Therese and her husband, Camille (Gabriel Ebert), a pair of married cousins who loathe each other yet co-exist under the watchful eye of Camille’s mother (Judith Light). After a chance encounter, passion sparks between Laurent and Therese, resulting in a murderous plot to off Camile — and, as far as this production is concerned, an accompanying array of rough, steamy, highly-choreographed simulated sex scenes between the two lovers.

“Those things do take time for you to get to know the person and build that trust, but now it’s really gelling,” Ryan tells EW. “It’s one of those things, isn’t it, with chemistry, where you can’t just make it happen. Or maybe you can, but it’s been great working with [Keira].”

 “She’s f–king fantastic, man,” Ryan continues. “She’s great. We’re dealing with a very serious play, but our sense of humor towards it is something that I think really, really helps us. She’s always up for diving in, and she’s fearless. We keep on trying different things each night. It’s a real joy for a big star like her to just be mucking in the trenches [with the cast].”

But Ryan has his own rising star, to be sure. America took notice of the dimpled, doe-eyed 34-year-old Welshman when he landed the title role in NBC’s short-lived comic adaptation, Constantine. The show was cancelled earlier this year after just one season, but Ryan’s praised performance propelled him onto pop culture’s watch list. (It also earned him another shot to play demon hunter John Constantine for a one-shot appearance on The CW’s Arrow in November.)

Yet for his recent burst into the ether, Ryan is not a newbie to the stage, nor even to Broadway. Abroad, he’s a West End veteran (beginning with a role as pint-sized Gavroche in Les Miserables) and a resident of the Royal Shakespeare Company, having appeared in The Tempest, Henry V, and Hamlet. In New York, Ryan made his Broadway debut in 2009 understudying Jude Law in Hamlet. The difference between the two — from a recognition standpoint, at least — is madness without method.

“With Hamlet, I used to walk out [of the stage door after the show] and a few times, fans would call my name. But now there’s a lot of Constantine fans that come to see the show and it’s a very different experience,” says Ryan with laugh. “And it’s quite different from going to a Comic-Con than it is coming out of the stage door, I can tell you that. Everyone’s dressed differently, for one. At the theater, it’s a little bit more of a conservative crowd. But it’s astonishing and wonderful.”

Raquin has now settled into its second official running week (of 10), receiving top-notch notices upon opening (EW awarded the production a strong A–). Ryan, speaking during previews, was already confident in its well-oiled machine — mostly. “There are a few times when the house [set] flies in an inch in front of my face, and I think, if this hits me, it’s not that I’m injured, it’s that I’m not going to be to here,” he jokes. “But it’s all getting easier now. Your pre-process and post-process gets easier. For the first couple of weeks, I did spend a little bit of time having to decompress [after each show] because the end is difficult and not a nice place to go.”

Without spoilers, the play’s second act does take more than a few turns of tragedy, resulting in the kind of heavy emotional finale that Ryan finds it slightly difficult to shake off. “But it’s getting easier,” he asserts. “Last night, I took a little bit of whiskey and about 10 minutes in my dressing room and just sat there and [breathed], ‘Okay… okay, that’s done.’ Then I was hungry, so it was back to the real world.”