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INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JAMES MACDONALD


Director James Macdonald was born in London and studied English at Lincoln College at Oxford University, in addition to studies at Lecoq Mime School in Paris.


Ted Sod: Did you always want to be a theatre director? James Macdonald: I got the bug when I was about 16. I discovered that there was this really cool arty thing that meant you could be in a room with lots of people who were much cooler than you, and you could feel like you were all creating something together. Without having to make a fool of yourself in public. So, I started directing then, and I went on doing it through university, and I just kept going.


TS: Did you meet any of your current contemporaries who are still working in the theatre when you went to Lecoq? And did you have any teachers who you feel had a profound influence on you? JM: I met Simon McBurney–he’s certainly still working! Both at Lecoq and at Oxford, my teachers had a huge influence on me. I just did an interview with someone who’s working on a new edition of Congreve’s The Way of the World, which was a play I directed recently. And I ended up talking a lot about my tutor, Anne Barton, who was a marvelous woman and a brilliant mind. She’s the one who got me interested in that repertoire and the plays of that era.


TS: Why did you choose to direct Sam Shepard’s play True West? JM: I got to know Sam over quite a long period of time. I first directed one of his plays in the late ‘80s—I directed Fool for Love as a double bill with a piece he wrote with Joe Chaikin entitled Savage/Love. So I first talked to him on the phone when I was working on that. And then a while later I directed the British premiere of Simpatico. I talked to him quite a lot around that one; we had really delightful phone chats. And then he was in London for a while because Jessica [Lange] was cast in some plays here, and I got to know him a bit more. I invited him to do a reading of his stories at the Royal Court as a fundraiser, and we also had a dinner with all the Simpatico actors. And then this strange and wonderful thing happened. I was casting Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the New York Theatre Workshop, and I got wind of the fact that he really liked that play; that somehow he’d come across it and was a fan. So, we asked him if he wanted to be in it and he said, “Yes”—which was a huge sideways jump for him at that point in his life. He’d never really done theatre acting, but he was obviously fascinated to have a go. He described Caryl’s play as the best play since Endgame—which was really his favorite play—and he just dived right in. To have the chance to really get to know him in the rehearsal room and work on that play together was wonderful. Then when I was talking to Todd Haimes about which play I might want to direct at Roundabout, I said, “Well, I’d love another go at one of Sam’s plays, I haven’t done one in a very long time.” By that point it was about 20 years. True West seemed to me to be the one to do; it’s my absolute favorite.


TS: What made you decide to cast Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as Lee and Austin, respectively? JM: Of course, at Roundabout you cast in collaboration with the marvelous Jim Carnahan and with Todd as well. And with a small- cast play like True West, those decisions are the biggest decisions


8 ROUNDABOUT THEATRE COMPANY


James Macdonald


you’re going to make on the whole show. I totally lucked out getting these two extraordinary actors to play the brothers. And Marylouise Burke—who I’d just done Annie Baker’s brilliant play John with in London—and the great Gary Wilmes to play the mom and Saul, the producer guy.


TS: Paul and Ethan are really very different, so I can’t wait to see them working together. JM: I think that is in the play, isn’t it? The brothers, Austin and Lee, are like chalk and cheese. They are complete opposites, and they undergo a kind of transmutation during the play. It was important to me to get two people who were very different. Also in the last Broadway production, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly swapped roles—which I think is a clever idea for a lot of the themes of the play, but the one thing it didn’t acknowledge is the fact that there’s a ten-year age gap between the two brothers, and I really want to explore that.


TS: How does this play have personal resonance for you? JM: Well, on one level, that has to do with my relationship with Sam. But also, at its center, it’s a very witty and painful play about identity and how stable or not that identity might be. I think it’s Sam’s purest expression of that idea. I know this writer quite well because I’ve directed his plays before, but the question that’s new to me here is how to animate this battle between the two brothers, that’s slightly different from any of the other plays by Sam that I’ve worked on. Also, how to animate it on a big stage, because the


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