After decades of success on television, the star of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘The Affair’ tells EW about stepping into his most demanding role ever

By Jessica Derschowitz
April 19, 2018 at 01:48 PM EDT
Matthew Murphy

A version of this story appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. 

It’s impossible to take your eyes off Joshua Jackson in his latest role, not that you’d want to. The actor, 39, is on stage for every moment of the new revival of the landmark play Children of a Lesser God (now running at New York’s Studio 54), and its story — about the relationship between a hearing teacher and a woman who is deaf — requires him to use sign language in addition to speaking his lines, often doing both simultaneously. You start watching him and you can’t look away.

Preparation took months of effort — including a monthlong out-of-town run last summer in Stockbridge, Mass. — and the show’s Tony-winning director, Kenny Leon, was floored by Jackson’s commitment. “If I’m going to war, I want to go with Joshua Jackson, because he’s going to prepare,” says Leon, who previously directed Jackson in 2016’s Off Broadway production of Smart People. “This Broadway audience, they’re so lucky to have an actor who’s given up himself so completely to this character.”

Lesser God won the Tony award for Best Play in 1980, and the subsequent 1986 film adaptation earned Marlee Matlin an Oscar for her role. (The part is now played with staggering range on stage by Lauren Ridloff, who, like Jackson, is making her Broadway debut.) Less than a week before opening night, seated in his dressing room, the star of Dawson’s Creek, Fringe, and The Affair (returning June 17 on Showtime) was hopeful that the play’s messages about connection and communication would speak to people anew.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How have previews been going so far?
JOSHUA JACKSON:
The previews have actually been going pretty well. In my previous experience, I’ve never done Broadway before, but even doing this last summer and the last couple of plays that I’ve done, the beginning of the preview process is such a panic-inducing place because you just don’t know yet. But because we had that summer run, we were a bit ahead of the process, so the rehearsal space was really demanding but lovely and then once we got it up on stage, it felt like it was time. It didn’t feel like, “Oh s—, we don’t know what we’re doing yet.” This play is such a joy to do every night because it’s so detailed, there’s so much to find — I have this amazing woman to be on stage with, and to have the opportunity to go and try to be great every night is amazing.

Was Broadway something you were specifically looking to do?
When I was in my 20s, I got the opportunity to go and do [London’s] West End, and on every actor’s bucket list is Broadway at some point. I had had a couple of opportunities over the years but it wasn’t the right thing, and then truthfully a couple of things that I wanted to do that didn’t work out. And it was really working with Kenny a couple of years ago that started the conversation — if I could do everything with Kenny for the rest of my career, I’d be a happy man. I would run through walls for that guy. He brought this to me and said, “This is something that I’ve been wanting to do.” So he’s the one that really lit this fire and now here we are, two years later.

What was it about this play that appealed to you?
In my very lucky life, I’ve had the opportunity to only do plays because there was a question at the center of the play that I was asking myself. When I did A Life in the Theatre [in London in 2005], it was, “What is being an actor, what is this life, do I want this life?” When it was Smart People, it was, “What is being a white man in America?” And for this one, it’s, “What stops us to truly see another person, to truly hear, to really understand and accept with humility another person?” This man is so clearly in love and so desperately desires to do the right thing, and yet he still can’t give himself over completely to accepting the woman, the object of his love.

The conversations around the deaf community have evolved since the play was written. What keeps it relevant?
The power of the play is in its universality and not in its specificity. So that love story is, I hope, real and recognizable to anybody and it doesn’t really have much to do with being hearing or deaf, that’s a man and a woman really struggling to understand each other and accept each other for who they are. That is something, sadly, that we’ve all gone through. … At the center of it is that we use love, which is the strongest of bonds, to explore exactly that dynamic. Even with a strong desire to communicate and the strong desire to bridge that gap, if you don’t bring humility into it, you probably won’t ever be able to see that person. And I think that is, in the very broadest sense, something that we are very much going through right now in North American life.

One of the taglines for the play is “Start Listening,” which seems like a very timely sentiment.
We didn’t try to time the release of this play, but when we were doing Smart People a couple of years ago, I feel like we were a year ahead of when that show should have come out because we were just about to get into the deep s— that we’re into right now. We are in a place right now where we just don’t listen to each other. I’m as guilty of it as the next guy. This is a play that explores how different worlds can be completely valid and that even in love and with desire, when you want to bridge the gap, you still can’t make it because you’re missing the essential element: humility.

I was blown away by how much work you’re doing, between your spoken lines and signing and how much you’re on stage.
It’s a lot — I am exhausted by the time I finish. I’ve been more selfish with my time in this process than I’ve ever been because of the amount of focus. The signing is difficult and the speaking, there’s obviously a learning process for that. It turns out that SimCom, which is signing-speaking at the same time, is actually the most difficult. One of the things that I have learned through this process is that up until the ’70s or ’80s, they used to teach deaf children to speak and sign at the same time. Turns out that was the wrong thing because it’s two different sides of your brain, and when there’s a disconnect between the signing and the speaking, both things stop. So that is unbelievably difficult on stage, because obviously you can’t stop, you’ve got to keep going. So to keep the trains going, it’s hard. It’s a hard show.

Your costar, Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf, is phenomenal — and your relationship feels very authentic.
In the best platonic version, there’s a deep love and a deep trust between the two of us. One of the many things I’ve learned through this process is, if you leave the peripheral vision of a deaf person, you cease to exist. So of the many, many challenging and kind of scary things for her, the natural blocking of a play, the actors should not obviously face towards each other the entire time, so for us to go through this together and for her to get to the place of trust where you can say, “Look, I’m going to walk over there, but I want you to know that when you turn around and you need me to be there, I will be there.” I hope that’s what’s coming across on stage — there’s a rope tied between the two of us at all times, whether we’re in a scene together, whether we’re talking together, whatever’s happening, we are bound together in this performance.

What do you hope people take away when they see Children of a Lesser God?
I hope that it resonates with you so that in a day or two, you’re in the midst of a conversation and you say, “You know, I saw this show the other night, and there was this one scene where I was like, ‘I’ve done that’ or ‘I’ve been that person’ or ‘I’ve had that done to me’ and it really made me think.” If people take something from it, I want it to be the idea that they’ve seen themselves represented and they’re moved by it.

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