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…
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.
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.
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.