“NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival April 21, 2014, at which star Kevin Spacey appeared for a Q&A with Charlie Rose, along with director Jeremy Whelehan and the rest of the cast. The film is a documentary that chronicles a theater company’s tour of a production of the Shakespeare play, “Richard III,” with Spacey in the lead.
The stage play, directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), brought together a group of American and British actors in what they called “The Bridge Project Theatre,” the first transatlantic company of actors. The aim? To see if the experiment would be “not shit.” Apparently, Mendes joked at some point that the slogan on the poster should be “Not shit.”
While, regrettably, I missed the stage production when it came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012, the movie makes it quite clear that the production was not only “not shit,” but far from shit.
Kevin Spacey said, “People ask why I made this film. It’s really very simple – I am a theater rat,” to which the audience cheered. Later, he said, “For me, the theater is where I learned my trade … and theater has always been my primary allegiance.” For more than ten years now, he has served as the Artistic Director of The Old Vic Theatre in London.
“NOW” is an interesting movie for a lot of reasons. It shows why live theater is so exciting to both actors and audiences, and it’s also a travelogue of sorts. The company visited three continents on its tour, and several of the locations are featured in the film – Istanbul, Naples, Beijing, Doha (in Qatar), and Sydney.
The first location in the movie is Epidaurus, Greece, where the company performed in a 4th century B.C. amphitheater before an audience of 14,000+ people. Julius Caesar himself purportedly sat in those seats. It was a profound experience for the cast and crew.
As the actors traveled together, they became close friends and developed a camaraderie that prompted British actress Gemma Jones (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) to say that seeing everyone again at the screening and in the film made her want to cry. After one of the actresses had a bobble head doll especially made in Kevin’s likeness as Richard III, he responded by having a doll made in the likeness of everyone involved in the production, even those behind the scenes.
When asked about the budget for the tour, all Kevin would say was that it was “big.” The company had some decidedly luxurious adventures, such as taking a yacht trip to Capri and driving up and down sand dunes in Qatar, but other aspects of the tour were not so posh. Gemma said that the theater in Naples was “very gritty and real” and “infested with vermin.” Nevertheless, she added, “I really loved that theater.”
Actress Haydn Gwynne, who starred in “Billy Elliot” on Broadway and as Margaret Thatcher opposite Helen Mirren’s Queen on London’s West End, said, “One of the moving things was to play it in front of all of these different types of audiences.” As a result, she said, the actors didn’t have to worry about making the play fresh every night because the differences in the audiences always gave the actors new energy.
In many of the countries, subtitles were provided for the non-English-speaking audiences. Kevin said that only in Spain could the actors see the subtitles from the stage. When one actor said, “Yes, sir,” Kevin noticed the “Si, senor” subtitle. “It was a great lesson in not looking at the subtitles,” he said.
In some locations, audiences took flash photos during the play. In response, Kevin either flipped them off while on stage or broke the fourth wall and said, “Stop it! Put the camera down!” He said the other cast members got him a green laser that he then kept in his costume and flashed audience members with it when they tried to take photos.
Charlie Rose asked Kevin about the similarities between playing Richard III and the character of Frank Underwood on “House of Cards.” Kevin said that playing Richard III helped him to learn how to speak directly to the audience in “House of Cards.” “I know a lot of people think Ferris Bueller invented the direct address, but it was actually Shakespeare,” he joked.
Kevin said this film is very important to him, in part because he wants to convey the importance and excitement of live theater to those who don’t get it. “No matter how good an actor is in a movie,” he said, “they’ll never be any better in that movie.” In theater, of course, there’s an opportunity to explore a role in depth and improve every night.
Richard III is a particularly demanding play, however. The character of Richard appears in 22 of the play’s 24 scenes. “Kevin is a beast!” Haydn remarked. “The man has ridiculous stamina.”
Noting that lead characters got more breaks in Shakespeare’s later plays, Kevin said, “I’m convinced that the first actor who ever played Richard III shoved Shakespeare up against a bar wall and said, ‘Don’t you ever write a play like this again!”
An audience member asked Kevin if he believes, as many say, that the theater is dying. “The theater’s always been dying,” he answered. “They’ve been saying that for centuries. And you know what? It just keeps limping along.”
“As long as people want to tell stories, and as long as people want to hear those stories,” he continued, “the theater will be alive for all time.”
“NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage” will be released in select theaters on May 2, 2014, but it will also be available for download through Kevin Spacey’s website. Visit the site, too, to read more of his thoughts on the film and to sign up for his newsletter.