Dad, got a minute?
By Laura Barton, The Guardian, Wednesday 10 September 2008
The light coming through the window has a tinge of late-summer Englishness, but it falls upon a scene of contemporary Americana, all discarded beer bottles and an enormous blond sofa. For the past few weeks, this church hall in London has been the venue for rehearsals of Now Or Later, a new play by New York playwright Christopher Shinn about the US election, which opens this week at the Royal Court. Directed by Dominic Cooke, it stars Eddie Redmayne as a candidate’s 20-year-old gay son, a young man ill at ease with his father’s political ascendancy.
Redmayne is one of Britain’s brightest young actors, and at 26 has already established a stage and film reputation, appearing in Edward Albee’s The Goat Or Who Is Sylvia?, for which he won best newcomer at the Evening Standard theatre awards in 2005; the film Savage Grace, as Julianne Moore’s son; and in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd. He has also done his fair share of plush costume dramas – Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Other Boleyn Girl, and the BBC’s forthcoming Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which he plays Angel Clare.
Today, Redmayne’s attention is drawn to the questions posed by Now Or Later. “My character is called John Jr,” he says. “He is the son of the Democratic nominee for the election in 2008, and his dad is about to be elected president. And it’s election night, and my character has gone and done something which is perceived by most people as being incredibly foolish.” John Jr has gone to a party dressed as the prophet Muhammad, photos of which have surfaced on the internet. “And,” says Redmayne gravely, “it’s about to turn pretty hardcore and basically have massive international ramifications.”
It is not so long since Redmayne’s own university days (he studied history of art at Cambridge), and the role of John Jr, an Ivy League student, has taken him back. “What I do remember is this idea of sparring with friends, arguments about issues and current affairs,” he says. “I’m a pretty poor arguer, but there are those moments when you suddenly realise that you’ve taken a standpoint, and you’ve so been pushed into a corner, and you’re actually beginning to believe what you’re saying more than you ever actually meant. And that is something I kept finding in this play. There are moments where I really did think [John Jr] was going to apologise, but the more people press him, the more he feels cornered. He’s like a hedgehog.”
What Redmayne seems to relish about the play is that it takes place at the exact intersection where politics, freedom of expression, and the responsibilities that go with personal relationships meet. “It’s an intense emotional story about an intimate family. In a weird way, it has a kind of Greek tragedy quality to it.”
In preparation for the role he met Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s head of communications. “It was so funny meeting him, and pitching the problem of the play, which is: ‘This kid has done this.’ And within seconds he had come out with, ‘Well, the statement would be . . .’ Just seeing how his mind works – and the speed of it!” He also met Cherie Blair to discuss the issue of mixing parenting with political power. “She was fascinating about the importance of family, and about trying to keep a family away from the spotlight,” he says. “It’s the idea that kids make mistakes, and if you’re a parent they’re just something that a 16 or 17-year-old would do. But of course, if you’re in power those ramifications are going to be much greater. It’s kind of the parent’s issue, for having become a public figure.” He asked Cherie if the Blair family argued about politics, and if her children’s opinions ever had any influence. “And she came up with what was a really valid comment: ‘I believe absolutely that you have the right to hear people’s opinions, but also that you have to have more belief in people who will actually go out and do something about that opinion. You must also be proactive with it.’” He frowns. “Kids that are born into families where their lives have a predestined quality is one thing, like royalty or massive landowners. But when your parents have chosen to go into that world, it’s another deal.”
Now Or Later touches on the way the internet has affected political discussion – the idea that nothing, not even blurry snapshots from a university party, can be kept hidden. It’s an issue that is beginning to affect Redmayne’s own life. As his fame grows, so too will the volume of wobbly YouTube footage, compromising photos and snippets of gossip. He nods. “I was at university with politicians’ kids, and at school with … ” He pauses. “Prince William,” he says, hurriedly, “and when you meet those people, you hope you’re doing it on what you believe are your own terms, but they’re still clouded by this kind of . . . ” he trails off and looks a little awkward, a young man still digesting the idea that he, too, is now one of “those people”.
He Googled himself once. “Well, not once, several times. I looked up myself on IMDB, and it was so horrific.” He blushes faintly. “I realised it probably wasn’t the way forward. And I have this rancid habit of Googling reviews, which I’ve got to stop doing.”
What does he think will be the response to Now Or Later? We discuss the furore that met another Royal Court production, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, before it went to New York in 2006. Christopher Shinn wrote an op-ed piece at the time expressing his frustration at the New York Theatre Workshop’s decision to cancel the show. “I think Now Or Later will go to America at some point, and I think it needs to be seen there,” Redmayne says. “There are controversial things in it, but it’s the most beautifully balanced argument. What’s coming out of it is this idea of what a stalemate the world is in at the moment. Sorry, I feel like I just ranted at you.”
» Originally published here.