Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and other members of the cast talk about performing Tony Kushner's masterwork 25 years after its New York debut

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As you could probably guess by its subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Angels in America is a hard play to describe. At its most basic level, Tony Kushner’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning magnum opus is about two couples at a crossroads: Prior and Louis, who fall apart once Prior reveals that he has AIDS; and Harper and Joe, Mormons who’ve relocated to Brooklyn from Salt Lake City (she’s an agoraphobic Valium addict; he’s a closeted legal clerk). At the center of their overlapping stories — or, really, to the side, underneath, on top, insidiously — is Roy Cohn, Kushner’s reimagining of the real-life lawyer, he of Red and Lavender Scare infamy.

First mounted in San Francisco in 1991 before opening on Broadway in 1993, the nearly eight-hour play in two parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) was Kushner’s response to an administration, Reagan’s, that looked the other way — or worse, laughed — as thousands of gay men died of AIDS. More than 20 years later, in the hands of director Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), Angels is still as particular to the time and place in which it’s set as it is universal, as punishing as it is life-affirming. Perhaps most important for this production and its players, Angels is about right here and now, wherever you happen to be.

Following a sold-out run at London’s National Theatre, Angels in America opens on Broadway this Sunday. Ahead of its return, Entertainment Weekly sat down with members of the cast — which includes Nathan Lane as Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter — to discuss performing the masterwork 25 years after its New York debut.

Credit: Alexei Hay for EW

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You just started previews a few nights ago: How did it feel to finally have an audience after rehearsing for so long?
DENISE GOUGH (Harper Pitt): It’s great to have an audience finally. It was getting really tiresome doing it to an open space of nothing. So it was great — and it was really great to do it in New York. Because they know the play so well here so it made so much more sense. And it felt, well, I was really overwhelmed by the first night.

ANDREW GARFIELD (Prior Walter): That first preview, there was something very special, palpable that was happening.

NATHAN LANE (Roy Cohn): Yeah, it was like they all knew the play intimately. They applauded the entrance of the character Belize, [played by] Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.

GOUGH: Which we were furious about. He’s a nightmare now. [Laughter]

LANE: They certainly get more of the humor of the play, and the references. You know what made me laugh? When I’m telling Lee’s character, Joe, that I want him to go to the Justice Department and to protect me because I’m in danger of being disbarred as a lawyer, and the things I’m asking him to do are illegal, let alone unethical. And I really rip him a new one, and at the end of it, he says, “I’ll think about it, I will.” And when you said, “I’ll think about it,” the audience seemed to be on my side, the devil’s side. They were like, “He’s not going to do it?”

GOUGH: It’s true, we’d never had that reaction.

This is a play about the U.S., but it’s also, like all good plays, incredibly universal. I’m wondering, especially for the Brits among us, is there a different way into the material?
GOUGH: Oh god, I don’t know. I don’t really approach it as being from the place I’m from. I know that performing it in front of an American audience feels different for me, because as I said, they know it so well. So the other night, that first speech, I’ve always felt really vulnerable on my own on the stage. And in London I always felt like they were trying to work out who this person was. But the other night it felt like everybody went, “Oh, that’s Harper,” and I literally felt like Sally Field winning an Oscar, going, “They like me, they really like me.” That felt really lovely, performing to people who know the play so well.

But I don’t think of things in terms of [being] Irish — I think my accent is fine — so if I was just allowed only to play Irish roles, that would be a real problem, because there really aren’t any. I just think about the audience, it’s definitely more, I feel like sort of more fun in front of New Yorkers. Because it’s an homage to New York, as well. It feels like it’s in its rightful place.

Obviously this play is very relevant right now. What’s it like to be performing in something that’s of the moment in so many ways?
GARFIELD: I think it’s the point. I think it doesn’t get any better as an actor; to feel purposeful as an actor is a rare thing, I find. To find a story that is so in tune with the cultural moment, what the universe and the world seems to be crying out for, what humanity and the culture seems to be crying out for. Unfortunately, it is this play, which is a devastating one about living through a very dark and devastating time, which I think the majority of people in the United States and I think in Europe and the West would concur with: It’s a time where we need community, it’s a time where we need to remember the things that make us human and all of our commonalities. So, it does feel like going on a march every night. It feels like we’re on a march every night for seven-and-a-half hours. So even though it’s very costly for us and for an audience, I think it’s one of those things that’s very worthwhile to do because I think if we weren’t doing this we would be struggling to find something that was as meaningful to do as performers. And if we weren’t doing that, we would be going on marches. It’s the time to march.

LANE: He’s like Oprah. People are weeping at the end. You ask him about this play and people want to give him a Golden Globe, people are bringing their sick children to be healed by Andrew. It’s unbelievable. Not even Tony Kushner is this eloquent about this play.

What about for the rest of you? What has the experience been like?
LANE: Exhausting.

GOUGH: Lee is new to it all. [Editor’s note: Lee Pace was not part of the National Theatre production in London.] We’re exhausted by it. How do you feel about it, Lee?

LEE PACE (Joe Pitt): Well I haven’t gotten exhausted yet because I’ve only done it three times in front of an audience. And I learn something different every time I’m on stage with everyone. It’s such an inspiring group of people.

GOUGH: We are.

PACE: Aside from the play being so inspiring, what everyone brings to it, is such a unique and personal experience. And so I, it’s just such a privilege to be a part of it.

Angels In America
Credit: Helen Maybanks

What was it like to join a cast that had already done it together in London?
PACE: Fast. Because we rehearsed for about a month. It was going fast. But one of the great things about theater is we’ll be doing this for a bunch more months and I hope to keep discovering things about the play and this world on the last night that we’re performing it. I think that’s one of the opportunities of theater. With a play as rich as this, and as you said earlier, as topical as this. There’s not a time you can’t read something in the news and think about democracy, think about the state our country is in right now and look at this world that Tony has created and learn something by placing the issues of today inside this world, where change is important, where the taboos of America — sexuality, religion, politics — are like combined in this interesting alchemy.

LANE: Oprah Jr. This is the running mate right over here for most inspirational speech. There you go. What more do you want?

How do you feel about being asked to comment on politics because of this play?
LANE: As Mike Nichols used to say, “I’m the bird, you’re the ornithologist.” I don’t want to discuss that, that’s for you to decide. Whatever people see in the resonance in the play in 2018, and I think they’ll find how prescient Tony Kushner was, especially — we’re in such a difficult time right now, and so the play speaks even louder than it did maybe the first time. Obviously it’s all about the relationships, the human relationships. I can’t play the fact that Roy Cohn also happened to be Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor. But people are now aware of that because it’s been written about. Certainly there are things that he says that will ring a bell, I’m sure, with the audience. But there’s nothing that you can play, it’s just what people take from it. But nowadays, if you’re on a red carpet or something, whatever happened that day they’re going to ask you about it, whether it’s political or the #metoo movement, they want actors’ opinions on everything. And sometimes people don’t want to hear actors opinions…

GARFIELD and LANE: …on anything.

GOUGH: Having said that, though, I would talk about politics anyway and I’m glad that people are talking to each other about politics, because we’re in the state we’re in because we didn’t talk about politics enough. So I would rather be asked questions like that than, “What are you wearing?” … I feel like it’s my right, it doesn’t matter what I do for a living. I would hope everyone, whatever profession they’re in, is talking about politics at the moment, because that’s the only way anything is going to change. So, I don’t think I should not talk about it because I’m an actress. I mean, good luck trying to get me to stop talking about anything I want to talk about. But politics, of course, and also if I was offered Angels in America on Broadway and I didn’t do it, what’s the point? You get opportunities so rarely to make your work a political statement, because it is a political statement to be in this play, at this time, I believe. I certainly feel like when we first started rehearsals [for the play’s 2017 London run], it was a couple of days after Trump had been elected and I thought going into work, Thank god I’m rehearsing this and something that means absolutely nothing, which often we have to do to pay the rent. I’m so glad to be in something that’s saying something about the world as it is in the moment.

JAMES McARDLE (Louis Ironson): That was one of the most vital things about coming to America. It was just, there really wasn’t an option. We had to bring it here because we’d been asked to, and who were we as a British company to say, “No, you’re not having your play back.” We wanted to bring it here because it belongs here, now, at this time. It’s sort of rare when those things happen when everything comes together and you’ve been given an opportunity.

GOUGH: It’s not the easiest thing to do. I know we’re not going down a mine, but it’s not the easiest thing to be in all the time. But if you don’t do this at this point… I remember thinking about it, being like, “Do I really want to be Harper for six months?” It’s really quite emotionally draining, but there is no question: Sometimes you get an opportunity to do something that really is saying something. And it’s a privilege, an absolute privilege to be doing it in New York right now.

PACE: Tony’s intention was political when he made this play, and that was 25 years ago. And it’s a play about change, that’s what the play’s about, is the power of change and how difficult change is. And you look over the past 25 years and you see how much has changed and how much plays like this contributed to that change. Now people live with AIDS.

GOUGH: They’re not dying secret deaths.

McARDLE: And the heat of the play is different as well. When the play was first done 25 years ago, people were dying in the audience. So the immediacy of the play was about the crisis of AIDS. But now the heat is political.

GARFIELD: And ethical.

McARDLE: That is what everyone is talking about. It brings in such a wide range of people. My friends who might not necessarily relate to some of the characters, they all came from Scotland to see it when we were in London and they loved it, because it’s actually about what it’s like to be alive in the late-20th/early 21st century and how we go on. … [Audiences] want something to articulate for them in a deep, profound way what it is that we’re all feeling that isn’t Twitter, that isn’t reductive. And seven and a half hours isn’t reductive.

Let’s talk about all those hours: Is it the hardest thing you’ve done as an actor?
GARFIELD: We all have different experiences on a two-show day. Joe ends the play in such a different play than Louis ends the play. Prior has seven and a half hours of abject terror, and then about five minutes of light, self-acceptance, and acceptance of reality and joy; and a kind of gratitude for every breath he’s got left…. I get sent back into the world in a very uplifted way.

McARDLE: I always think at the end of a two-show day, I could have flown back home in this time. Get to the end of it and, I could be in Scotland.

LANE: We always say…because it is such an ensemble piece…we are, though, weirdly on our own tracks. Some people I don’t see until the curtain call or running past them in the hallway or something. The exciting thing is, for me, to do the whole megillah, to do part 1 and then part 2, it’s the most thrilling, exhilarating one. It’s tiring, but you feel…

GOUGH: …completion.

LANE: Yes, a completion. And it’s really fulfilling. But each person goes through a different thing. My show in Millennium is sort of well structured so there are a lot of breaks — because he’s so evil, [Roy Cohn] used sparingly. And then in Perestroika he’s in the hospital dying, so that’s the more exhausting and emotional one. But you have to figure out, like I’ve been finding now coming back to it, you have to figure out when to eat before hand. Because if you don’t eat at the right time, like in the middle of the show on Saturday night, I was lightheaded. I was like Judy Garland. “Where am I?” It was like, “Who are you? What’s happening? I gotta lie down. Why can’t I stop talking?” It’s crazy. It’s like an athletic event and you really have to make sure you have a PowerBar, an oxygen tank…

GARFIELD: An iron lung.

LANE: Yeah, honestly, literally, I was delirious in that scene, in the Martin scene. I was talking to you [Denise], I was talking so fast, I didn’t know where the hell I was.

GOUGH: It is, though, isn’t it, it’s an athletic event. I remember thinking when I was meeting Marianne for this, I had just come from doing this enormous part that ravaged me [People, Places and Things] …. But I remember thinking, this’ll be a walk in the park. It’s loads of time off, it’s Valium, I mean, it’s just so easy. And honestly, my god, it just undoes you, this play, completely. And Andrew, I think we have a similar, we’re devastated and then you have a couple of scenes where you get your strength back. I’ve just done Millennium three times in a row and by the end of the show last night I was paranoid, needy, and you think, “It’s because I don’t get to finish.” But when I do the full show, I leave feeling quite [like,] oh, okay. Because you get the ending.

There’s this brilliant book that’s been written about the history of Angels in America [Editor’s note: The book is The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois]. And I read the chapter on Harper because I was feeling all of those things. And every one of the actresses said the same thing. And that the night-flight speech was the payoff for having gone through breaking your heart through the whole thing, and then you get hope at the end. I used to play that final speech kind of scared and nervous, and then I said to Marianne, “She has to win. I can’t go out into the world still scared.”

GARFIELD: But it’s the genius of the play that even if you resist it and you do all your tricks to not go there…

GOUGH: Doesn’t matter.

GARFIELD: It’s no-nonsense. It drags you down.

GOUGH: “Yeah, whatever, you’re tiny. Give me what I want.”

GARFIELD: And because it’s all coming seemingly from Tony’s unconscious. It’s coming from the deepest of deep within in, and there are scenes for you because he dreamt them.

McARDLE: There’s a bit in the book as well, the guy asks, “Does Tony Kushner give notes?” And he’s sort of famous/infamous for giving notes. And I remember in London, there’s a three-word sentence, and I asked, “What does it mean?” And I got a 10-page email in response. And a year-and-a-half later I’m not sure I do know what it means? So there’s enough reading material to get through it but eventually have to sort of cut loose and let it do it for you. Sometimes you just have to get out of the way of it.

GOUGH: The play is just the thing. You just have to let the play undo you, because it’s going to.

McARDLE: It’s also weird — usually by the time you’re into a run of you can tell how the audience is going to react in certain moments, but this play they react slightly differently every night. So you end up having a dance with them a wee bit. Sometimes they laugh at things that they’ve not laughed at before, or they don’t, which always angers me if I don’t get a laugh. If they don’t laugh, I just refuse to speak again until they do.

Angels In America
Credit: Helen Maybanks

Great art doesn’t have to do anything but be great art, but if Angels could do anything, if it could give something to people, what would it be?
LANE: Hope. Ultimately we’re all going through our own personal tortures and now also the political environment is atrocious and yet we have each other. We can rely on each other. And we can listen and talk to each other if we really want to, and that’s the only way we can, as the play says, move forward. And I think that ultimately that’s what it tells you. It tells you many things politically and emotionally and intellectually, but I think that’s ultimately what it’s reaching for.

McARDLE: Change is possible both politically and personally, but you have to be prepared to work hard for change. It’s not going to come to you, you have to go out after it, violently, to attain it.

GARFIELD: Tony says that he doesn’t think any play can change the world or save humanity or save us from ourselves, but he obviously believes it’s about direct action. What are we doing politically, individually, what are we doing to create the world that we want, that we can dream. And I think if anything, off the back of what both of you said, this play may send people back into their lives with more hope and more inspiration to make the changes they need to make in their own lives internally and therefore externally in the world.

PACE: It’s my sincere hope that a lot of people come to see this play that don’t know it. And I think a lot of people who have seen it so far are familiar with the play. And I remember when I first was exposed to it I was in high school in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and I read it and I was like, Oh my god, there’s all of this out in the world. There’s all of these other people that I think I know something about, you know? So it’s my sincere wish that other people have that introduction to the play that I had.

GOUGH: There was a young boy that sent us that letter yesterday, individual letters, and he’s like 21, and he said he loves this play so much and it makes him proud to be a gay man in New York now. And he’s 21, he wasn’t even born, just like James wasn’t born when it was written.

McARDLE: Please.

GOUGH: At the National it was the same. I remember meeting these two really young gay guys — and they didn’t really know…because we’re not taught this history in schools. The only way I know this is because I left home and was educated by the world around me. This is a huge part of history that was kind of wiped out and people were told to be ashamed of and be secretive about. So there’s something about taking everything out into the open and having all the information about on whose shoulders you’re standing, too, that’s really, it’s paying homage to such a wonderful movement that was happening back then. A man that came and helped us with research had made a list of all his close friends who had died of AIDS, and he stopped at 37. He said, “I couldn’t do it anymore.” And when he came to see the show, you could just see it in him, this emotional thing that he was around at the time when you weren’t allowed to talk about it publicly, and now he’s able to watch it again on a big, huge stage. These stories need to be on the most public stages we can put them on, so for us to be allowed to be part of that, is incredible.

Angels in America runs at the Neil Simon Theatre through July 1.