Chris Evans on playing a not-so-heroic character in his Broadway debut
You may know Chris Evans as a star-spangled Avenger who in real life smacks down white supremacists on Twitter, but in his latest role he’s not any kind of savior.
The 36-year-old actor makes his Broadway debut in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, as selfish NYPD police officer Bill. The play, which first premiered Off-Broadway in 2001, tells the story of an apartment-building security guard (Michael Cera, Evans’ Scott Pilgrim vs. the World costar) who gets swept up in a murder investigation involving his rigid boss (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) and a rookie cop (Bel Powley). All three tangle with the pompous Bill, who has no qualms about using his privilege and power to manipulate everyone around him.
It’s a complex role that puts Evans’ inherent likability to the test, and theatergoers who only know him as the noblest member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are in for a shock. EW caught up with Evans before opening night to talk about trading his shield for a police badge, his theater nerd childhood, and, of course, that mustache.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with this show? Were you specifically looking to do theater?
CHRIS EVANS: I’d been looking to do a play for a while. Theater is kind of where I started as a kid. I was a big theater nerd. [Laughs] As a kid, I probably did at least three plays duing the school year and then would go to acting camp. So, I had a lot of time on stage. And then it’s just a matter of finding the right project.
So what was it about this one that made it the right fit?
It’s kind of amazing that this was written in 1999, given how applicable and relevant it is. It’s incredibly prescient that Kenny has written such a thematically strong piece so long ago, given what’s happened in the past year. I thought that it would just resonate with a lot of people, and I’d really get to play a character that I don’t typically get to play. I’m usually a bit more of a good guy. [Laughs]
Bill certainly represents the patriarchy. Bill represents misogyny. Bill represents all the negative things that have a bit of a chokehold these days. The difference obviously between film and theater is this exchange between you and the audience. I was curious about the feeling of being on stage and exploring what it’s like to have the audience kind of hate you.
What kind of conversations did you have with Kenneth Lonergan about approaching this play now, as opposed to when he wrote it?
Kenny’s in every single one of our rehearsals. He’s completely without ego, so you never feel that he’s trying to take anything over. He really respects actors, so he really wants us to take his information, take his advice and still make it our own. You never feel as if you’re being put in a box. And you really, really are desperate to make him happy. It’s tough to say, “Well, I don’t know, Kenny, I actually thought this…” [Laughs] As an actor, it’s really helpful to be able to understand what he was thinking when he put pen to paper.
As you said, this play feels so timely, especially after the rise of the #MeToo movement. Why was it so important to you to put this play on in 2018?
I think a piece like this will get people talking and thinking. It’s not something that will leave you quickly. As an actor, that’s what you want. You want to give them something that takes time to digest and process and promote thought and change. So it just felt appropriate.
The ending is a little ambiguous, and there are no clear answers to all of the moral quandaries it raises. It’s a story that sticks with you.
And that’s the complexity in life. There is that ambiguity and almost ambivalence at times. It’s what makes things so messy and tough to break down and understand.
One of the things I thought was so interesting about this show is how it addresses masculinity. Like you said, you’re someone who’s played a lot of heroic or selfless characters who exemplify the good ideals of what it means to be a man. And then this character, Bill, is a lot of the terrible things about masculinity and privilege. How did you approach that?
Well, the way I would with any role. I first start to think about my own experiences and my own life and remember the people that I know who share traits with the character I’m trying to bring to life. So, you’re not skimming the surface, you’re actually trying to harvest a real source of how those things come to life.
I grew up just outside of Boston. When I was a kid, that was the way to weaponize your words against other little boys: to attack their masculinity. And that was certainly the weapon of choice when I was a kid, especially doing theater [laughs]. So I knew a lot of kids that would kind of build their identity and create their shields and sharpen their weapons with throwing around their masculinity and attacking others. So having known a lot of those people, I certainly had a well of information to kind of tap into.
I also have to ask about the mustache.
Oh, yeah. That thing. [Laughs] It’s something, huh? When I first read the play, it’s kind of how I saw the character. And now I’m stuck with it.
It’s almost like putting on a uniform. When you strap on a gun and you put on a badge, it’s almost like your posture changes. And it’s no different with the haircut and the facial hair. It’s all little external pieces that when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, you see someone you don’t recognize, and it’s a little bit easier to slip into another reality.
Has there been anything about working on this play so far that’s really surprised you?
I mean, I grew up doing so many plays. It’s a world away from Broadway theater when you’re doing community theater outside of Boston, but the process is similar. The periods of learning your lines, discovering new things, tech weeks… It’s like riding a bike. You’re like, “Oh, I remember this! I love this!”
So what kind of shows did you do when you were growing up?
Oh, god. Name a show. It was all musical theater. I was a kid, and there would be a fall show at my school, there would be a winter show at the town one town over from me, and then there would be a spring show at Regis College, and then I would go to this summer program where we would do two shows. I’m one of four [kids], and we were all actors, so all of us were always in some form of a show. So in my room I’m blasting Sweeney Todd. In my sister’s room, she’s playing Once on This Island. In my brother’s room, Little Shop of Horrors is going. Whether you [were] in a show or you [were] going to shows, my whole life as a child was plays.
I know the Marvel movies are at a bit of a crossroads, and you’ve started directing and doing theater. How are you approaching where you are in your career? Are you treating this as a sort of transition point?
I mean, that’s the thing. I am very capricious. I will say, I’ll probably do less films. I really enjoy my downtime, which is not to say that in any way I’m lazy or not driven. But something about making films year round, the years start to go by very quick. And the one thing I really dread would be waking up in 30 years and saying, “Yeah, it was great, but I kinda missed it. I was so busy doing things, I wasn’t actually living my life.” And when I do take time off, even if it’s just a couple months, [I want] to go home and spend time with my family and just be. Even if it’s just picking up a new hobby like painting or the harmonica or something that has nothing to do with my work, I feel kind of recharged in a way. So I could see myself maybe taking my foot off the gas a little bit and just kind of letting the wind take me whichever way it blows. I’ll always stay in… I don’t want to say the arts, that sounds a little pretentious. [laughs] I’ll always try to create, I guess, and I love acting. But I did direct once, and I really did love the experience. I’d love to explore that again. I’m not quite sure.
But it’s not about trying to climb to the top of a hill of being some giant movie star. That’s not terribly appealing to me. I really value my privacy. I have no regrets. I love everything I’ve ever done, and I’m beyond grateful, but I really also love taking a break and going home and being with my friends and family for a little while.
I would imagine that after something as structured and fast-paced as the MCU, it would be nice to take a minute to just breathe.
Yeah, absolutely. Well said. [Laughs]
You’re obviously still in the middle of this play, and maybe it’s premature to ask this, but has there been anything you’ve learned from this experience that you want to carry with you to future projects?
Yeah, sometimes when I read scripts, as an actor you just get an instinct right away. You read a line, and you get an immediate instinct, and you almost marry yourself to that instinct in a way. And then every other type of variation of the dialogue is a version of that initial instinct.
I think with this, since this isn’t a film that can be cut and edited and discovered later on, this has to be found in the moment because the audience is right there watching it. You really have to listen, which is obviously a cornerstone of any acting endeavor. But more so in the theater, you really have to be present. You can’t plan things, I guess. If you plan anything in the theater, I’ve found that it almost dies a certain type of death. It’s at once terrifying, but it’s also liberating. [laughs] That’s what this should be about. It’s almost something I’m excited to take back to films: Just be a little more loose and free.
Lobby Hero runs through May 13 at the Hayes Theater in New York.