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View From the Bridge on Broadway: Mark Strong on his epic role as Arthur Miller's tragic hero

“It’s about catharsis,” he says. “You understand what it means to be human through other human experience.”

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Jan Versweyveld

Picture a thick iron cable being stretched and tightened with a hundred tons of pressure on both sides, at the risk of violently breaking in half from the tension, right in front of your terrified face — and then you have an idea of what it’s like to watch Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. The 52-year-old British actor, who has been absent from the stage since 2003, is absolutely killing it eight times a week as Arthur Miller’s tragic hero Eddie Carbone, leaving audiences shaken and speechless by the end of the play’s nearly two-hour, intermission-free running time.

This fall marks the 60th anniversary of A View from the Bridge, as well as the centennial of Miller’s birth. The character of Eddie, whose infatuation and protectiveness towards his young niece causes him to brutally implode, is an essential in the Miller canon. He is jealous, merciless, self-destructive, but doing what he truly believes to be the right thing. And Belgian-Dutch director Ivo van Hove, a modern master of reinterpretation of classic plays, has stripped the production down to its barest bones, jettisoning almost all props and setting the action in a Greek theater-like box. (As with Strong, Bridge marks van Hove’s Broadway debut. This production premiered at the Young Vic in London before transferring to the West End, where Strong won the Olivier Award for best actor, and then New York, where it is playing at the Lyceum Theatre through Feb. 21.)

Strong is dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, looking as lean and sinewy as a long-distance runner, when we meet in his dressing room. The show’s publicist has offered to buy him a coffee. “I’m always gonna have a coffee if there’s one going,” he says in his silvery-rich, abyss-deep voice, a crucial tool which has made Strong such a memorable presence as crime lords and authority figures in movies like Kick-Ass, Robin Hood, The Imitation Game, and Zero Dark Thirty. “You can never have enough coffee.” And that’s a perfect cue for my first question for him. It was the question on the top of my mind after witnessing one of the most grueling, intense, seismic performances by an actor onstage that I’ve ever seen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How is your blood pressure? Is it okay?

Mark Strong: [laughs] Yeah.

But watching you onstage, it seems like the show must be taking a toll on your health.

I understand what you’re asking. But I know what’s coming in the play, of course. So I can build to the climax. It’s not taking me by surprise the way it’s taking the audience by surprise.

What’s an average day for you like?

There’s something about the rhythm of the day when you’re in theater. I’m not very good in the morning, because I’ve been up late the night before. I wake up at 7 in the morning to get the kids to school. [Strong and his wife have two sons.] And the morning is very hard because my body is just telling me that I shouldn’t be up. I’m absolutely shattered. But then as the afternoon begins I can feel myself getting back into gear. And then there’s this little dip right before the show starts, where I think, “Oh, my God, I can’t. How am I going to do this again?” But then the show takes over. It’s this particular production — it kind of grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you through to the end.

There’s no way you can go right to sleep after that show, right?

No. The curtain comes down at 10 o’clock but I can’t sleep much before 1. The moment when I have to be at my best is between 8 and 10 in the evening. I’m so wired up. So those few hours afterwards are like the rest of my day.

And the fact that there’s no intermission — it doesn’t give you or the audience any time to take a breath.

Yes, that’s how Miller originally wrote it when it premiered here in New York. Then he wrote it as a two-act play that Peter Brook directed in the U.K. And then that two-act version came back here in the ‘60s and this chap Ulu Grosbard directed it, and apparently Dustin Hoffman was stage manager on that production.

When I saw it there was absolute silence in the audience.

That happens every night. There is a moment near the end every night where I can just feel that everyone is very attentive. People don’t start shuffling around or rustling as we grow towards the end of the play.

Jan Versweyveld

 

Have there been incidents of people being too overwhelmed or feeling really claustrophobic by the play?

Both in London and here, some people have been in floods of tears. I’ve come across people who literally can’t get out of their seats. Dazed. Some people telling me that they turn out onto the street, saying, “Where am I?”

Have audience members reacted in ways that surprised you?

People have screamed when I kiss Catherine and then Rodolfo. I mean, usually that moment gets a gasp from the audience, but there have been a couple nights where I’ve heard, like, actual horror-movie screams.

Wow, that shows how the play is working.

I’ve talked about it with Michael Gould, who plays Mr. Alfieri. I think there’s a kind of conservative, puritan ethic, which is a little stronger here in the States than it is back in England, probably for historical reasons. Back in London, I wasn’t afraid to make Eddie unlikable. And I could drift into being too aggressive or too macho or too brutal on occasion. But when I try that here, I can really sense from the audience their disapproval. I just feel a little frostiness from them. I can sense them thinking, “Are we supposed to like this guy?”

Do you think we are supposed to like him?

Well, Miller is saying that Eddie might be wrong and his death might have been useless, but at least he was honest and true to himself. I think Miller values that more than anything, especially in light of the House Un-American Activities Committee at the time. I think he was furious with America for wanting him to betray his comrades. And I think he’s writing about somebody who, in the face of being told “no,” in his heart and soul believes he’s right. It just so happens to end in tragedy.

It’s not as clear-cut here as in The Crucible, for example, but Miller seems to be commenting on events within the era he was writing.

Yeah. The lawyer’s final speech is a very thorny one. It took me ages and ages of listening to it to figure out what Miller is trying to say. It’s either cloaked in 1950s speak or he was writing some Greek aria thing. But essentially, having pulled the thread of it for so long now, it strikes me that it’s a kind of fanfare for the common man. The audience he was writing for would have been pretty middle-class. And even the title, A View from the Bridge, which evokes looking down from above onto Red Hook in Brooklyn, and seeing all the people as if they’re ants down there.

I’ve heard that you weren’t too familiar with this play until a couple years ago?

No, incredibly, I wasn’t really.

What was your gut reaction to reading it?

I was reading movie scripts at the time. I hadn’t done a play in 12 years and there was a pile of movie scripts that I needed to get through. But the play A View from the Bridge was in there and it was head and shoulders above everything else. I was reading this dialogue, which was essentially very simple and naturalistic but conveyed an enormous amount of meaning. Miller is an amazingly lean writer. Nothing is wasted and everything has a purpose, yet he makes it seem so effortless, like people are just having a random conversation. But in there is very potent subtext as well as what’s necessary to drive the narrative along.

Were you familiar with Ivo van Hove?

I’d never seen any of the plays he’d done but I was familiar with his work. I remember saying to my agent, “I really want to do this.” And for a moment she was rustling through some papers and she said, “He’s an avant-garde Belgian theater director.”

What did you think?

I went, “Wow. Oh, my God, what’s he going to do with it?” And then, of course, I’ve come to know him and I like his approach to plays so much that it makes me wonder how I’m ever going to do a play again that isn’t done this way.

Were you aware how he was going to stage it when you signed up?

No, I just wanted to play the part. And throw myself on his talent. And I loved it. Not that we didn’t fight about certain things along the way. Not just me, but the other cast members as well. He isn’t a maestro, oppressive figure at all, but he knows what he wants.

What’s an example of a fight you guys had?

The day he told us all to take our shoes off, we were bewildered. We all asked him,  “Why?”

Jan Versweyveld

 

What did he say?

He just said, “You should all just take your shoes off.” And a lot of us said, “Really? Can we know why?” But the question very quickly became irrelevant. We realized once we did it that it suits the space and it suits the style of production.

It definitely contributes to the primal feel.

Well, of course. He knew that. Now I wonder if I can ever do a play again with shoes.

What else bewildered you?

The Italians and their accents. He said, “No, I don’t want them to be speaking in Italian accents.” We all immediately fought that. But we rehearsed it and a day or two later, we never looked back. What Ivo understands, which is essentially very simple, is how to get to the heart of a play. How do you communicate to an audience in the simplest, clearest, most dynamic way possible? He understands that the audience will experience joy most of all when they understand what they’re seeing. So many plays get bogged down in the extraneous matter of the stage. You’ve seen plays that desperately try to pretend that they’re real.

And oftentimes those productions spend so much effort being real that the emotions seem totally phony.

Exactly. But, I mean, it’s not about whether the table onstage is real or not. It about whether you believe it. There is a moment in this play when one of the characters asks me what time is it. And I say, “Quarter to nine.” And so I said to Ivo, “I should be wearing a watch at this point, so that I know what time it is.” And he said, “No, I’m not interested in how you know what time it is.” That’s Ivo.

Right. The watch is irrelevant.

He wants to get the meaning and the story out without slathering it in actors handling props. I mean, the first 20 minutes of A View from the Bridge, they’re all making dinner. It’s all plates and forks and knives and pasta and this and that. And that’s great. But it’s extraneous. It’s taking away from the story and the words. That’s at least what I think. What I now think.

There’s no point anywhere in this production when we don’t think we’re watching real people.

I don’t think so.

And yet, because of the staging and because of the constant underscore of music, it feels like we’re in some sort of purgatory. It’s like this netherworld — is that a fair description?

Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, what is the space? It’s an arena, it’s a boxing ring, it’s a Petri dish in a laboratory. In a way it’s just a space inside of which we watch these people tell their story. Ivo described it once as lifting a rock and seeing a bunch of insects crawling underneath there. It’s ironic because it’s anti-theatrical but at the same time incredibly theatrical. Somehow it manages to achieve both things.

How has it changed in the three different theaters that you’ve performed it in?

In the Young Vic, which is the coolest theater in London right now, the audience was pretty much in the round. It’s a small theater, too, only 400 seats. We didn’t have to worry about projecting, delivering the play out to the audience. We just did it for one another. And the audience were like observers, which was very much Ivo’s plan. On the West End and now here, we have to give it to the house a bit more.

But that’s the genius of onstage seating, right? 

Sure. And it’s so strange to say but it makes the piece seem less theatrical. At one point during rehearsals, someone suggested using a prop and Ivo said, “No, that’s too theatrical.” There’s a radio drama of the play on the BBC at the moment — a very good one, I have to say, starring Alfred Molina — but the minute the Italians come one and start talking in their accents, you realize it’s theatrical. It distracts from the story. It instantly becomes a fiction.

Hearing that Alfred Molina is doing it, even on radio, reminds me that there’s a history of British guys playing Eddie. Michael Gambon did it. You’re doing it.

Ken Stott did it as well. Great Scottish actor.

What do you think that’s about, why it appeals to the British?

Well, I don’t want to be too simplistic about it, but I think in England we respond to Miller, scraping the veneer of civilization, saying, “All is not rosy in the garden.” Our “heroes” while growing up were Macbeth and Richard III and Coriolanus​. In America, you grew up with the cowboy and the homecoming king. And Miller doesn’t sit easily with those types. Surely he does more so now, what with True Detective and many other things in America scratching away at the dark side. But I feel like, again at the risk of being too simplistic, that the British have never been as afraid of dark heroes.

Was your Brooklyn accent different in London as opposed to here?

I think it was probably more pronounced in London. There it is more exotic. I mean, I can say a line like, “I’m walkin’ down a hawl tords a cert’un dawr” and get very carried away in the Brooklynese. And the people in London will go, [in a posh British accent] “Ah, that is magnificent! How marvelous! How authentic!” And then I talk like that in New York and they look at me and say, “What the f–k are you doing?” If you overdo it, you just sound stupid.

When you finished the run in London, did you think that was it for you in this part?

Oh, my God, yeah. I nearly didn’t do the play because I’d gotten very comfortable making movies. I’d done theater, only theater, for the first decade of my acting career, but once the movies came along for me it was very seductive. I get to be home more. I get paid better. And I get to go to a premiere and see an amazing movie I’ve been in.

And you get to do work that you’re proud of.

Sure. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The Imitation Game.

In Zero Dark Thirty you have a great couple of scenes.

Yeah, thank you. I do those films, which tend not to pay very well, but I just want to be involved with them. But I balance those with the big studio films, which pay better and I have a lot of fun while making. Film is both art and entertainment.

 

You have the crazy-looking comedy The Brothers Grimsby coming out in March, where you costar with Sacha Baron Cohen as his brother.

Yes. Which is going to undo all the good work I’ve been building up here [laughs].

No, your stock is way, way up after this. But what do people here recognize you from the most? It’s tricky because sometimes you have a wig on and look different, like in Zero Dark Thirty.

Someone recently told me I looked like Steve Carell in Zero Dark Thirty. I was like, “Um, really?”

Oh, that’s funny. I’m a fan of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, where you appear near the end as a sort of monster and we never really get a look at your face.

That film, I just wanted to be in that. I’d done a play with Danny in 1999 and he asked me to be in Sunshine and I read it and said, “I want this part.” It was so unusual.

Mark Strong in 2007’s Sunshine

Mark Strong in Sunshine, above.

Do you see yourself as a character actor?

Absolutely I’m a character actor. If I can get as far away from myself as possible in a part, that’s the thing I find most interesting. It that means wearing a wig or applying prosthetics or having an accent, I’m up for it.

But this role as Eddie gives you very little to hide behind.

There’s nowhere to hide. It’s ironic that this is probably the most starkly revealing kind of environment to be in.

How do you interpret the reaction that audiences have to A View from the Bridge’s climax? People were in tears when I saw the play, as you say, stumbling out.

It’s strange, isn’t it? But Eddie’s downfall really hits people. When I won the Olivier Award, I genuinely wasn’t expecting it and I hadn’t thought about what to say in my speech. But the play’s run had just come to an end the night before. And in my mind was this 12-year-old boy who’d come up to me and said, “What’s the point of theater?” And that was, I thought, a terrific question. Why do we all go into a dark room and watch one bunch of people pretend to be another bunch of people? And I realized, it’s about catharsis. You understand what it means to be human through other human experience. That’s what all art does. It takes you out of everyday life and asks you to ask those questions of yourself.

Jan Versweyveld

 

Exactly. Not only “Who am I?” but also “What would I do?”

How can you not judge yourself against these characters? Would you do what he is doing? Would I behave like she’s behaving? Everybody came backstage afterwards to ask me those questions. They want me to tell them why Eddie kisses Catherine. Someone asked me the other night, “If it was Marco that Catherine had fallen in love with instead of Rodolfo, would Eddie have been okay with that?” I thought, “What a great question!”

Oh, that’s so great. How many children had Lady Macbeth? It’s terrific to speculate.

And that, ultimately, is why it’s useful to sit there occasionally and watch people tell you a story live. Simon Russell Beale, who I played in Uncle Vanya with at BAM 12 years ago, we were talking about doing movies and he told me once, “You know, I’ve been more moved in the theater that I’ve ever been in the cinema.” You can’t ignore that reality.

Would you say that this production has changed you?

Well, pretty much I’ve always just taken the next interesting job that comes along and I’ve never been overly strategic about it. But what this has done has reminded me that live performance can be so powerful. There’s nothing quite like the experience of feeling an audience hang on every word.

It must make you pleased that people are coming to this and filling up the theater and loving it.

I remember when we first discussed moving A View from the Bridge from the Young Vic to the West End and I was resistant. Because I didn’t go to the West End with the play Closer and I didn’t go with Iceman Cometh, when Kevin Spacey came over to do that.

Why not?

Because I always felt that the West End audiences weren’t really into theater — they were just into having a night out. But that’s changed in the last 20 years, I know that now. There’s an incredibly theater literate audience, who are just dying to be challenged. And now to have a relatively experimental play — I dare say very experimental play — directed by Ivo van Hove on Broadway is a pretty new, exciting thing. You couldn’t fill every Broadway house with this kind of play, but it means that there is an audience out there for it. 

If audiences see you in this and want to see more of you, what do you most recommend of your own work?

I heartily recommend The Long Firm, about a gangster in the ‘60s called Harry Starks. It was done for the BBC and there are four episodes. It’s the story of this gangster trying to make sense of his world and it’s something I’m really proud to have been in.

Tickets for A View from the Bridge can be purchased here or here. The show also offers $20 rush tickets for onstage seats, which can be purchased on the same day as the performance. 

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