Frankenstein Q& A for Dramatic Need with Danny Boyle, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller with Madeline Morris a presenter for the BBC World Service as interviewer.
Madeline – Danny I know that you’ve been thinking of doing Frankenstein for years why?
Danny – The guy who wrote it, Nick Dear, it’s adapted from Mary Shelley’s book, very faithfully adapted, there’s a lot of cuts from the material but he did a brilliant job on it. We’d done a play before at the RSC a long long long time ago and it was called The Last days of Don Juan and it was the first manifestation of Don Juan in western literature and it was written by a Spanish monk Tirso De Molina. It was a really good show and we decided to work on something else and we started work on Frankenstein because there wasn’t really a stage version of it. The reason why is because the movies have not only sort of captured it fully but they’ve also distorted it and changed it and in fact when we started working on it the Ken Branagh film came out in the cinema and not many people liked it and everybody ran a mile and nobody wanted to do our play and so we let it go and that was like 1994. It was a long long time ago when we were working on it and then we eventually came back to it because Nick Hytner here at the National expressed interest in it and we started working on it again and we got to bring it here.
Clips of The Creature being born are shown while the actors look mildly embarrassed watching themselves on screen.
Madeline – I wanted to talk about the immense physicality of this show – you are both learning to walk as adults and it really comes through in those clips and how did you go about doing that?
Jonny – We worked with a movement coach Toby Sedgwick, the incredible Toby Sedgwick. We started work the 3 of us (Danny, Benedict and Jonny) and also with Toby and Nick before the rest of the company joined us and it was sort of like a going back to school process really for me and Benedict. We worked on movement in various ways. Movement techniques of using different materials and different substances and it was quite embarrassing and quite a great way to get to know each other and to sort of drop everything immediately…
Benedict – Like our clothes! Straight away.
Jonny – Two guys pretending to be oil and glass who don’t really know each other very well at all. There’s a lot of water in there as well.
Benedict – We talked a lot about about what we were doing as far as the world that influenced Danny and Nick in terms of wanting to do this project. We went to two extraordinary schools for autistic children and there is an element of the movement that reflects that but also as Jonny was saying it’s an evolution of a man who is fully formed so it’s an evolution with a fully grown body, it’s as if a man is born again as an elephant. Sort of backwards. It’s about not knowing anything about what they’ve got but being capable of doing much more than a child so it was about how to stagger that progression and having certain barriers to being fully evolved with certain autistic movements.
Madeline– You do see the development of the Creature as he moves on and gets older and learns. Danny as homework I read the book for the first time which I loved. Most people will know that the book starts very much on Victor. Its all about Victor, its about his motivations and you’ve completely flipped it on his head and you start with the Creature. Why did you decide to do that?
Danny -Because we wanted to relocate it. One of the things the movies manifestation of the stories have done is they twisted the life out of the Creature really and turned him into a monster. All the mannerisms and tics that we’ve all grown up with, and some of them are wonderful and some of it is very pleasurable what the movies have done with the Creature but some of them are not so and you need to redress that really. Because obviously in the book you all know not only does he have a voice but he has a very articulate voice and a highly intelligent person he is as well and we wanted to do that and we thought that the best way to do that was to start with his birth so that you literally see the point of view of the Creature.Madeline – You weren’t worried about taking out the motivation of Frankenstein in the first place because that sets up the motivation for why he creates the Creature in the book so that you understand where he’s coming from?
Danny – No everyone who has said that to us Madeline then we knew that they didn’t understand what we were trying to do. We got that a lot. You get used to it because I work in the movies and you get used to it. In America people say things to you and you just know that’s not what we’re going to do. The whole point was we were going to start with the Creature as it’s born and we will have a little bit of Victor at the beginning and that’s fine and then he’s going to disappear for 40 minutes and then he’s got to play catch up. And they are extraordinary these guys as obviously they both play this part you’ve seen them both doing it and they also have to play Victor which is a challenge because it’s not as great a part. He does disappear for 40 minutes and then he catches up and the unbelievable weight of the load he has to do to catch up. We wanted to change the balance really and it is interesting..
Jonny – For Victor quite a lot of his part is addressing why he’s done it and the wonderful scene with Elisabeth when she asks him “Why did you do it?” and he’s like “What?“. He’s in touch with science, there’s this great overhanging sceptre of science throughout the whole play and its really stumps him that she questions that and it’s also about nature…
Benedict – I think a great motivation before his obsession takes over is the idea that his mother died when caring for Elisabeth this woman who he has now arranged to marry and who he may have been very close to and adored in childhood but the obsession of his adolescence and early adult life has sort of taken over. I think that was spurned sub-consciously by his mother dying looking after a sick cousin and the idea then of losing someone who gave you life and how do you then reverse that? Well you try to create life out of death and so I think it’s very vital that moment where his father says when your mother was dying and he says “Don’t bring her into this..” because for him that’s everything, that’s why he gets started. He tells William how he became obsessed and the sort of avalanche of his energy going into it and that’s a key moment and I always wanted more than that moment but I also do think you get that moment later on as Jonny was saying with Elisabeth about the idea of trying to create perfection and right the wrongs of the world.
Danny– Well it was interesting what she (Shelley) was writing about and it’s why we have the industrial revolution train at the beginning because she was writing at the dawn of this extraordinary age of science which was just arriving and she’s surrounded by these extraordinary men, brilliant men. Her husband Shelley and Byron and her father was a very intimidating figure as well intellectually and yet she writes them without any ego. She just portrays them and the advantage of this amazing image of the Creature, of man being able to create a Creature, it’s why it’s lived on and probably will live on much longer than their work, Shelley and Byron’s work and the story will last.Clip of Benedict as the Creature interacting with Karl Johnson as De Lacey
Madeline – Do you get awkward watching the clips?
Benedict – Yeah it’s really strange because it’s a stage play. One of the weird things about being an actor is you are your own audience for television and film but it’s very odd seeing yourself on stage. And it changes every time.
Madeline – How long does the make up take to do?
Benedict – About 2 and a half hours and about 40 minutes to take off.
Jonny – About 1 and 45 minutes for me (indicates shaved head)
Benedict – There are certain contractual obligations for me to have hair for a certain job I might be doing again after.
Madeline – Funny you should mention that my mum did say to say hi to Sherlock.
Benedict – Oh jeez. (dryly) I’ll pass it on.
Madeline – She didn’t say to say hi to you Jonny…
Benedict – Charming!
Madeline -…but a woman I did meet…
Benedict – She’s got no manners
Madeline -…in the queue said “I really hope I get to see Jonny as the Creature because I really want to see him in the buff.”
Benedict – There you go (Jonny does a mini dance of triumph)
Madeline – Different fans for different things. I wanted to discuss the concept of original sin and whether the Creature is inherently bad or is he turned bad?
Jonny – I think that the book, I would go as far as to say that it takes the stance that there is no such thing as original sin and that we are essentially a product of social forces. It’s one of the many many wonderful subjects in the book and I think that’s one of the great things about telling it from the Creature’s point of view is because you see all these things and most of my friends who have come to see me play the Creature they all feel for him and yet the man murders 5 people. Terrible stuff happens but everyone understands because you illustrate that fact. It doesn’t excuse it in any way but people understand.
Benedict – But he has self knowledge as well and he understands his predicament which is torturous in a way.
Madeline – Which is the difference between most humans I think who when they sin, when they fault they don’t have a lot of self awareness necessarily and I think that’s one of the big differences with the Creature.
Benedict – I don’t know I think its a very big world and a lot of people who are struggling to survive sin and I think part of what he says when he says “I will fight to live all life is precious” I think there are lots of people who live on the edge of existence who have to really fight to live. I do think that they might sin in a conventional sense and I’m not saying they rape and murder but there are huge struggles going on in this world so I disagree I thinks it’s very universal. I think in cultures whether they’re religions or whether they’re experiences that you have in a certain social setting one of the things that something like religion can give you sometimes is they give you a certain moral compass. Like the old man is the moral compass he’s the person who gives the Creature his intellectual world, the idea of what his place in the world of ideas is and that’s where his self consciousness is. It’s not just language and understanding of what’s good and bad its also cycling it through a very particular cultural input. He doesn’t believe that you are born bad. You can do good and it’s up to you and what I’m saying is it shapes his world and I think we’re the same. I think we explore religion down through history you can see it across Africa and countless other places and continents and it’s something that people are then beholden to live by and be very aware of even though their actual circumstances will be high ideals which will have been placed on them by foreign…I’m going on a bit aren’t I?
Danny– One of the things and I remember Nick saying this to us is that she wrote it virtually at the same time as Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Jane Austen was writing about the past and of course what Mary Shelly was doing was writing about the future and one of the things that they were embracing was the fact if you made these scientific advancements which allowed you to be god, to create literally your own life that you don’t need god’s light anymore as you can create your own. Then you can do without god and it was an extraordinary thing. Matthew Arnold wrote a wonderful poem about it Dover Beach about this sense of religion which had just supported everyone and inhabited everyone and then suddenly here was a period in time that was going to challenge that and that was one of the many many things she was writing about. Because that’s what’s great about the story of course is that it fits into so many different ways that you can analyse it. You can look at it as a story about prejudice or about science…
(Clip of Frankenstein meeting the Creature for the first time).
Madeline – what do you both think when you watch that aside from the embarrassment?
Jonny – When we were first approached about doing NT Live and the idea of it being broadcast around the world…Our whole endeavour, our whole process is to present something for this wonderful room and it affects you in such a different way. Everything, the music, the way the lights are done, everything is presented out there (indicates the whole theatre) and its not meant to be looked at this way and its very very difficult for us to watch it like that because Danny wouldn’t direct it like that, Danny wouldn’t film it like that and …he’s directed some films. The medium is so different and the performances are so different. We’re performing to you up there at the back. Your experience has to be for us as engaging as it is for you down there and so you can’t ever get that balance using a camera because you think that’s a bit over the top or…
Woman in the audience shouts out that they need to do some more performances so that she can come and see it live.
Jonny – I would love to. That’s my point that’s all I’m trying to say is that we find it extra weird. We probably find it weird enough watching our film and television work so to watch that its odd. Having said that we’ve had an incredible reaction around the world via email about people watching it so you think ” oh wow people have enjoyed it” but still I’m telling you it’s all about being in the room.
Madeline – Yeah well like I said if people have £200 to buy a ticket on ebay they can come back and see it live .
(Webmistress note: Despite the interviewers fixation on ebay if you’ve prepared to put in a few hours queuing it’s simple enough to get day tickets on the day of the performance from the National for £12 each – that’s what my friends and I did so we could see the show before the Q&A. There is rarely any need to look to the touts.)
Madeline – Have you now gotten a favourite character?
Benedict– Well it’s hard because I do enjoy playing both characters but it’s pretty bloody obvious which one is the bigger more unusual ask especially for what I’ve done of late so you can figure that out yourselves you’re intelligent enough…
Jonny – Yeah it’s the same.
Benedict – But I love playing Victor opposite him as the Creature. I love working with his Creature.
(cue audience hilarity)
Its true, its true and that goes back to how we began as well and it messes with your head this play. There have been moments in the last couple of weeks when I have been looking at him in either role and going “I hope I’m not mouthing his lines“. The real problem is psychologically going “tonight this is what they get” and sometimes you’re in that drum and you can hear people coming in and you can hear the audience talking about it and I did have one moment, probably when your mum was in when I heard someone saying “Oh no is it him?” I’m naked hanging in that thing for 15 minutes and that is weird. And its a great thing to share that experience with him…
Madeline – what’s it like performing naked on stage?
Jonny – It is quite extraordinary. We were both terrified of it. Danny said the most amazing thing to us. He said that first of all when you come out people are going to be, they’re going to think ” What guts!” Its empowering. We also have another amazing cast member Andreea who plays the female creature and she actually had to do it first.
Benedict – She decided to do it first.
Jonny – In the dress rehearsal and she sort of took the edge of for us because we had another person there who was in a different situation to us and she has a non speaking role and she got out there…
Benedict – but she really justified her nudity in a way and…
Jonny – she had incredible courage.
Madeline – Yeah but if I had a body like Andreea I’d walk around nude all the time.
Jonny – You say that but there’s 1200 seats in here.
Audience Q – Have your performances evolved in the time that you’ve been doing it and what would Danny say about that?
Danny– One thing you can guarantee about actors is when they get in front of a live audience is that by the time you come back to see it a few weeks later it will be funnier. Which it is. They hunt down the laughs. And in a good way actually it’s very interesting to see actors relax. I watched it tonight before we came to do this and I haven’t seen it for a couple of weeks and it is amazing. Its one of the dreams I’ve always had of working on stage is that we’d have a wonderful company, which they are, and that we’d also have a couple of lead actors who could just get on that stage and just make it come alive every night you know. And I was expecting to come in and have lots of notes but I haven’t got notes because they drive it and it’s fresh and they’re always thinking and it’s interesting and it’s different some nights and some nights it’s the same but its a lovely way of keeping them on their toes of course that they swap every night.
Benedict – That means the evolution of the performance is different. We began rehearsals when we were starting to orchestrate the beginning and the opening of the play and we worked separately and then we started to watch each other doing it and there is a lot of sharing which goes on and it is very different. I used to watch him in the wings at the beginning as well and I’ve sort of stopped doing that but I still pick up things that he does during the performance rather than watching him at the beginning
Jonny – There’s an old joke about how many actors does it take to change a lightbulb?
1 to change the lightbulb and 40 to stand and say “I wouldn’t have changed it like that.”
What this whole experience has taught me is this extraordinary experience of watching another actor do your work and then a lot of it you say “I wouldn’t do it like that” but a lot of it you say “I would do it like that. That’s amazing.” and we both gave each other license to share and its been a wonderful and incredible experience. Our performances have not only evolved in the way that we get what we get from the audience performing it every night but also from what we watch each other do and I will forever be incredibly thankful for that opportunity because he’s really good.
Benedict– You’re not bad
Jonny – Getting better…
Audience Q- What’s the difference between directing and acting for film or stage?
Danny – Well for me I kept walking towards them. We’d be rehearsing and I kept walking towards them and of course the stage managers would pull me back because you can’t do that because you have to stay there you can’t walk up here and join in because it’s their skill is that they take it to you which is what they were talking about before which is being in a big space and being able to bring the performance out to you. And you work out what the close ups are between you, between the actor and the audience and you are working out where the close ups are whereas a director does that on film for you. That was the biggest difference for me. The similarity is that when you get good actors they’re storytellers. There’s a natural instinct in them to tell the story properly and they can tell when it’s not clear and when that’s not going to come across because it doesn’t make sense and that’s the same no matter what medium you’re working in.Jonny – I can only say that for an actor the major difference is you get to spend several weeks in a theatre to explore together and assimilate the information and to go over and over the piece and you just can’t do that in any other medium. Then you get to present it every night and you go from A to B or A to Z you tell a whole story every night you’re not just working on a little bit here and there. You present the story and that’s what we love and what you can’t replicate anywhere else is the satisfaction. You can tell if its working, you can tell if its not working.
Madeline – Do you ever get sick of it?
Jonny – There are days when you are not as into it as others of course you get those times if you do a lot of shows it can get exhausting and there are days when its not working for you but you will have hopefully got to a point through rehearsal where you can cope with that.
Q – Danny at what point did you decide that you wanted both of the actors to play both of the roles and for the actors did you have any qualms about that and how did the actual direction process take place? Did you direct them both together in both roles?
Danny – I always wanted to do it with two actors. I always thought it was an amazing way to explore the story. What better way to put the focus on the fact as Benedict has just said that they are one in a way, that they’re the same person really. I thought how can we find a couple of actors who will do that? And I knew Jonny, I’d worked with Jonny once before but I’d never worked with Benedict and every decision I came across like that was a good one I thought that’s interesting I know him and I don’t know him I thought that will be interesting as well and that’s what we tried to do throughout and that’s what we tried to explore. Occasionally they’d say to me I’m not doing enough of the other part or I haven’t touched that for a while but we’d get through it together.
Benedict – We did literally almost read through the script one version and then we’d swap over and do it the other way around. It was a huge reason for me to do the job was to be able to play both parts. I mean it’s a very rarely done thing in our theatre culture famously done by Gielgud and Olivier. It’s a huge drive and also it’s a very satisfying thing as you own the whole play through doing both parts and that kind of involvement is a very enriching experience as an actor. And what you were saying about the evolution of both roles through the performance period is affected by the fact that you every night are changing so you leave that performance and whereas normally you can kill the ghosts of it or improve on things or try and change things, all of which is bad as you should just treat each one as the same, that’s what happens in a long run you try to build on the last one, you can’t do that as you have to remember the day before. You have to re-alter your geography and compass to a new cast and a new trajectory through your evening. But in the rehearsal room it was a fantastic thing to do and then as you can imagine we just staggered a little bit longer in one role or another and then eventually we starting running it either one role or the other and I remember the first day we ran both on one Saturday one way and then the other and then in the afternoon as a treat I thought it would be a really good idea for us to go and see Black Swan…Not to be recommended if you’re sharing roles and doing it for the first time.
Q – Was the play written specifically for the Olivier?
Danny – We always wanted to do it on the Olivier. At one point Nick Hytner who runs the National offered us the Lyttleton I think he thought there was a danger…I’d directed in the theatre before but a long time ago and I think he thought I might be a bit rusty and the Lyttleton is a proscenium arch and you can hide more things. But I love this space and I love it from up there (the circle) actually and we worked very hard to make sure that these guys who are responsible for it that it does reach up there because I’ve been here and there is so much air between the actor and up there there’s this empty space which is air and we wanted to fill it. That was the dream and we came up with this lighting and so that it would in some way transfer into that space up there and so we always wanted to use it. It’s an amazing space to throw actors on and there are problems you’re right in terms of getting people on and off and keeping things moving and stuff like that but its a wonderful challenge for a company to take it on.
Jonny – I think what’s important to point out is that the play wouldn’t be written for the space because at the point it was written you wouldn’t know what space it was going to be in. Mark Tildesley’s extraordinary design that is sort of after the fact isn’t it? The play is published and you’ve got a play and you can do it anywhere and anyone can pick it up and put a production on of it whenever they choose but the design is…
Madeline – Is it going to be taken elsewhere?
Benedict – I think this is the only theatre in the world that could do it.
Jonny – (indicates area where the drum descends) 50 foot drop mind you!
Benedict – You have entire worlds come up (from under the drum) In tech rehearsal I had a bit of a moment up there and I was looking down at the drum revolving and the set sinking and I started crying. We’re very lucky actors to be working here full stop let alone on this project let alone with Danny let alone with this extraordinary material and characters to work on so it just had that whole thing. And looking at it a bit like an audience member up there (a weird audience member, maybe the Creature audience member)but it made me think it’s one of the only places in the world that you could actually do this play which makes…
Jonny – Can I just point out that that bell which Mark found in a forgery in East London was made when William Shakespeare was still alive.
Benedict – The Elizabethans heard that sound.
Q from a lady who worked in one of the schools which they visited wondering where else did they visit?
Danny – One of the things we did which was extraordinary is we went to an autopsy. (To Jonny) You weren’t there that day.
Jonny – I couldn’t make it (not sounding sad about that fact)
Benedict – I hadn’t realised we could have gone just to a dissection but it was my idea to go to an autopsy.
Madeline – Why did you do that?
Benedict – Well because Victor’s handling dead material all the time and so to see a doctor operating on a human body. It wasn’t sort of to desensitise us to that but it was to understand how you can be professional around what is obviously an extraordinarily heightened environment.
Madeline – Is that what you learned from it? How to be professional around that sort of environment?
Benedict – I learnt what a dead body looks like when its open, when the organs are examined and weighed, what the skin looks like when it’s cut and peeled back, what the subcutaneous levels look like, what the muscles look like, how hard it is to saw through bone, how much certain organs weigh… I can’t believe you’re disgusted by this you’ve been watching a whole play about it. It’s life it’s all of us. It was fascinating and there was personality in the person on the table but it was like a prosthetic. You couldn’t get over that fact. It was like we’ve all been desensitised by brilliant, brilliant films and brilliant technicians in films because we’ve been brought so close already to the reality of what it is like to stand in a room watching a dissection but it was remarkable but that wasn’t what the question was…
Jonny – Where else did we go? We went to one other school. Those were very humbling experiences and we felt very privileged and we were all very welcomed by the staff and the pupils and they were wonderful.
Benedict – And it’s thanks to you actually as the level of care and one on one that those pupils get and it’s hard hard work and it’s astonishing and so she is owed a round of applause.
(The audience dons their Creature masks so the actors can appreciate the effect)
Benedict – Where are the Victor masks?
The bell is rung once more as Danny, Benedict and Jonny take their bows!