All you have to do is glance at the photo up top to see why Burn This is one of the hottest tickets of the season. The revival of Lanford Wilson’s erotically charged 1987 play stars real-life Brooklyn neighbors Keri Russell, 43, and Adam Driver, 35, as two grieving souls who become unlikely lovers.
EW spoke to them in early March about their offstage friendship, the terror of live theater, and a little movie they just wrapped set in a galaxy far, far away.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Burn This begins previews in just a few days — what’s left to fine-tune at this point?
ADAM DRIVER: Everything! And even when we get into the run, there will still be things to work out. I always find that with plays, you don’t know what you’re doing until the last performance and it’s too late. I wish I could start from the beginning.
KERI RUSSELL: I’m just looking forward to a week from now, knowing that I survived the performance. Don’t I seem confident?
DRIVER: Almost cocky.
In theater, at least, you have the luxury of rehearsal, which you don’t always get on movies and in TV. I remember interviewing Sidney Lumet once and he was talking about how he would rehearse for three weeks before he shot a film, which is pretty unheard of…
DRIVER: It’s hard to compare the two because they’re completely different. Film, you kind of have to get it right the first time and what is both good and bad about it is you’re breaking it up into little pieces and there’s so many other things supporting you—editing, music, things like that. And then whatever it was on that day, that’s it. There are so many ways to interpret a line, and in movies, you don’t ever get that chance again. It’s just that one thing and that’s the version of what it is. And in theater, you’re sort of operating as your own editor and director in a sense. I mean, we have a director and a collective story that we’ve all agreed on, but you’re starting a journey from the beginning to the end. So they’re two different things. It’s hard to compare. Rehearsal for film is rare and it’s definitely great. I feel like you can tell that from Sidney Lumet’s movies.
RUSSELL: The other thing that’s so different to me when you are shooting something for film or TV [is] you can just work and work one little moment and fine-tune that thing over and over, and with [theater], whatever pitch you start the race on, it determines the way the rest of it will go that night. It’s a different ride every night.
DRIVER: And the audience, also. There’s a collective intelligence in the room where they teach you about the play a little bit.
Do either of you get to see much theater? Was there a play that first got you excited about acting onstage?
RUSSELL: Go ahead, you have a good answer for this.
DRIVER: I do? What’s my answer for this?
RUSSELL: When you first moved to New York…
DRIVER: I guess this is my stock answer. I have a couple of performances that stuck with me. When I first moved to the city before I started school [at Juilliard], I was working as a waiter and got a rush ticket to see Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I had never seen that play, and I got a night off, and I was in the mezzanine, and Bill Irwin in that play is one of my top five performances of all time. His physicality is so amazing. I had no idea where he was going to go. Fiona Shaw in Happy Days at [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] was pretty incredible. That was another touchstone for me. I run this non-profit with my wife where these actors come in and part of the conceit is that we do little or no rehearsal to show a military audience you don’t need a conventional stage or sets or lights or costumes to create a theater experience. It reminds me to not be so precious.
RUSSELL: I didn’t grow up going to theater. But when I first came to New York, I remember going by myself to see Fiona Shaw do Medea. And I remember being mesmerized by her. And then I guess, recently, the thing I saw that really took my breath away was The Jungle. I loved it. It got me excited.
You both live in Brooklyn. How long have you known each other?
DRIVER: We knew each other a little though Matthew [Rhys, Russell’s partner and The Americans costar]. Now we know each other a lot better. We were talking about this yesterday, these are all my canned answers. I met Matthew doing the play Look Back in Anger, and we read lines together when he was first testing to be on The Americans.
RUSSELL: Adam played me.
DRIVER: I read her lines, yeah. Keri and I go out for the same parts a lot.
I need a Keri Russell type, get me Adam Driver!
DRIVER: [Laughs] It’s like a mirror.
RUSSELL: The only time I’ve ever done something at the Oscars, they got me at the last minute to introduce a movie because Queen Latifah fell out. Obvious second choice. Keri Russell.
DRIVER: So Matthew and I had done this play and I was with him when [the producers of The Americans] came to the show to see him, and I think during that show he got the part on The Americans, so I was following it as it went. And I went to the premiere of The Americans because he invited me. And because I wanted to see what Keri did with my character, and that’s how I met Keri.
You were both recently on the set of a little independent film called Star Wars: Episode IX. So first, tell me everything about that movie…
DRIVER: Nice try.
Did you know when you were shooting it that you would be doing this play together?
RUSSELL: Did we?
Did you rehearse for this at all on the Star Wars set?
Keri, not to make you nervous, but this is your Broadway debut…
RUSSELL: Yes, I’m an ingenue in her mid-40s!
What was it about this play that made you want to do Broadway?
RUSSELL: Aww, f—! That’s what I ask myself every day. [Driver points to himself] It was definitely not you! I wanted to take a break because after we finished The Americans, I wanted to stay in New York with my kids. I read the play on a plane, and I liked that in the midst of everything that’s going on the world and how hard it is right now politically, love, lust, and desire seemed like a great escape. It moved me. And I thought, “Why not? I’ll give it a shot.”
Adam, didn’t you play the same role in Burn This when you were at Juilliard when you were 23?
DRIVER: Yes. When you’re 23, you don’t know much about anything, really. I look back and it’s embarrassing thinking about some of the things I remember doing in that play. It felt like kids in costumes. Now, you just have more experience. There’s something funny and sad about being the age of the character.
This is a play where the chemistry between the two characters is pretty essential and gets pretty steamy. I mean, the publicity photos are the two of you laying down on a couch embracing. One website described it as “horny”.
RUSSELL: I guess we are sort of laying on top of each other There’s an ache and desire and a need in this play. And I think that photo shows that feeling. Everyone wants that feeling.
How hard is it to create that sort of sultry chemistry on set when you’re both married—and you know each other’s spouses?
DRIVER: I actually get asked this question a lot, and I don’t really have an answer. We’re actors and that’s part of our… not to undermine your question, but it’s not really something that we work on or we think about. You don’t have to like the person. In this case, we do, which makes it easier. I don’t know…
RUSSELL: I think everyone in any relationship, I think I have that with J.J. [Abrams], the first time I read his stuff there are certain frequencies where you get what the person is trying to say. Do you know what I mean? You just get certain people. Good, bad, or I think the true chemistry is in the words of the play, the ideas, the feelings that it presents. So before we did the photo shoot we had obviously read the play many times and knew what world it was in.
This is the first time that the play has been revived on Broadway since the original run in 1987 with Joan Allen and John Malkovich. Why does it feel right to bring it back now?
DRIVER: A really great play is always relevant. If it’s well-written, I don’t know if what’s going on in the world has to necessarily align with it. It’s like telling people what to think when they see it. I heard Tony Kushner say this one time and I absorbed it immediately: None of us live in the theater; we all have our lives outside of it, so I’m not going to shortchange someone by telling them what the play is about. A lot of themes, specifically about loss—having something beautiful that’s now gone and not having time to grieve for it—how that connects people seems pretty timeless.
RUSSELL: There’s something about loss that’s relatable to right now. There’s this idea of wanting authenticity. When someone is experiencing a huge feeling or really grieving and being vulnerable, it’s very attractive and intimate and sparks an instant connection between people. And I think I personally am looking for a little more authenticity in my life with what we have right now. It’s also about that explosive age when you don’t have kids or mortgages or responsibilities or all of the s— that stacks up.
Keri, in the play your character says that you two are like apples and oranges. What appealed to you about working with Adam?
DRIVER: I love this.
RUSSELL: When I tell anyone I’m doing this play, every male is like, “Oh my God, that’s my favorite f—in’ play!” And I get it. Every boy loves that part. But what I think is so great is Adam has this sensitivity to him underneath the stuff that’s written in the play. And I was intrigued by that. I knew it would be more than the thing that all the guys love about it. The firecracker stuff.
DRIVER: [Checks his watch] Oh, we’re out of time! No, let’s just say that it’s in the category of things we’re still working on. When we talked about doing this play, it just seemed really exciting to do it with Keri in particular. It’s rare when you meet actors where your taste and way of working is the same. They just get it. You feel like you’re battling the same things and finding someone in this job who is inspiring to work with makes it such a rare thing. Because there are so few who share the same passion and anxiety. So when you find those people — which are, like, five — you hold on to them. And you work with them as much as possible. It makes going to work not feel like work. Keri has no end game, she’s rare. I lucked out. It spoils you for everything else. Bottom line, the next job will suck for both of us.
Burn This opens April 16.