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Adam Godley Interview: The Lehman Trilogy
Widely known for his television stints in Breaking Bad and Suits, Adam Godley is embarking on one of the most eagerly anticipated stage plays of the year. The Lehman Trilogy depicts an iconic American story, covering the 163 years from 1844, when the first Lehman arrives on a New York dockside, to 2007 when their firm Lehman Brothers implodes, kicking off the largest financial crisis in history. How on Earth does all that fit into one evening?
Interview by Michael Burland
First published in the September 2018 edition of The American magazine
Information & Tickets
Adam, thanks for talking to us at such a busy time; deep in rehearsals for an exciting new venture.
Yes, a new play is always exciting, it's such a gamble and the audience has no idea what they're about to see. They have no preconceptions, they see it in the moment, which is ideal.
How long have you been working on The Lehman Trilogy,?
The National Theatre have been working on the production for a year or so, and Ben Power [English adapter of Stefano Massini's Italian work] even longer than that. We did a workshop in March where the cast came together for the first time with Ben, Sam [Mendes, director], the designers and so on. We kicked things around for a week, so that when we started here [at the National] on the 14th of May we could hit the deck running. We're still working on the script as we go along, finding the best way to present the show. It's such an extraordinary, poetic, surreal, fascinatingly written and conceived piece that even knowing how to stage it is hugely challenging.
It sounds like a very collaborative process, and the amount of time you've been given to work on it is much more than the usual 'couple of weeks rehearsals then it's on'.
That's one of the great miracles of the National. The only impetus in this extraordinary building is to provide everything you possibly can to create as great a piece of work as possible. For a production like this, we really need that time. I can't imagine anywhere else you could do it, to workshop it for as long as we have, and to be given the resources needed to create what I hope will be an extraordinary evening for the audience.
Does anywhere like that exist in the States?
Maybe the Lincoln Center. But we still have arts subsidy in the UK, even though it's being chipped away. It's so precious. And who benefits? It's not so a bunch of actors can skip around having fun, it's so we can present work to the audience that is of the highest possible level. It is theatre for the people. We are the custodians of it. People deserve to see the best possible work, and really good work just takes time. With all of the arts, time is money and time is what allows you to create something above and beyond the ordinary.
Somebody has to develop new works. If you workshop one off Broadway, for example, it then has to be redeveloped for a bigger stage and it will have a different cast, but here you're putting that work in in advance.
Yes, but American theatre is exceptional in its own right. They don't have the level of subsidy we have in Britain yet they still produce phenomenal, world class theatre. In some respects that's even more commendable.
You work a lot in America, do you live there too?
I'm a dual citizen now, and I've been living in the States for almost twelve years, LA in particular, but being in the fortunate position of working means you're never in one place for a long time. I'm in the great position of travelling all over the States as well as Canada, and I still work in Europe. I'm constantly moving, but I love that. And I love coming back to London or New York to do theatre.
Is LA your base by choice, or for work reasons?
Well, I fell in love and he was in Los Angeles. Our home is Los Angeles, and we are there about a third of the time.
Do you still have a home in London?
No, I don't any more.
Is there anything you miss about it?
I'm over often enough not to. But any big city is constantly changing and I'm not there for all of the changes. I come back and say, oh my goodness that building's disappeared, and that one wasn't there before. The last place I lived was in Union Street, in Southwark, and The Shard didn't exist. Suddenly at the end of the street was this ...thing. It looked like CGI. And all those crazy new buildings in the City, it's breathtaking. It's the sign of a vibrant, living city. The Southbank, where the National Theatre is, used to be a wasteland, it was kind of tumbleweed, and now it's like Times Square.
Is it true that you've done more stage work on this side of the Atlantic and more on screen in America?
I think that's fair to say. I do some theatre in New York and the majority of my film and TV work is now in the US. Occasionally I do some in Europe – I made a film in Belgium a couple of years ago and a TV series in Sweden.
Would you like to do more on Broadway?
I would, but not just for the sake of being on Broadway, it's always project led. When something like The Lehman Trilogy comes up I will jump at the chance, but it could happen anywhere. Working on Broadway is an actor's dream, though.
What are the differences?
The longer I've lived in America, the more I realise how different we are. Any of your readers, who came from America to live in London, will know this – you start to tune in to these subtle differences. I think the theatre community on Broadway is a more coherent block, the community welcomes you in, in a way that London doesn't – the London theatre world is more fragmented. It's not to say either is more friendly than the other, but I have a sense that people really identify as 'Broadway' - there's Sardi's [the legendary restaurant where showbiz people congregate] and endless awards ceremonies, there's Broadway Cares and Broadway Bares and many events that bring them together, whereas in London they don't identify so much as 'The West End'. That's how it seems to me anyway.
You've lived your whole life in the acting world, starting your career at the age of 9 in a BBC radio production of Hemingway's My Old Man then having your first professional stage role aged 11 at The Old Vic.
Yes, and while I was at The Old Vic I used to come here and I remember the National being built, which makes me sound very old! But I was very fortunate to find the thing that I'm passionate about at an incredibly early age.
So it would be a stupid question to ask how far back you remember wanting to act! Was it 'always'?
It was always! The fact is I was a pretty hopeless student, and I was hopeless at sports. My dear parents (who are sadly no longer with us) probably thought there must be something I could do and I was lucky enough to stumble into acting. From the moment I started it, even at 7 in a school production, I just knew how this works. Becoming a character. It was an immediate connection. From that moment I never really wanted to do anything else. I felt like an outsider when I was young, and to an extent always have, and I immediately felt a kind of belonging. It felt right, and it felt comfortable, and I thought 'I know what this is, and I like it'. To this day being in a rehearsal room with a great play and a great group of people is one of the most joyous and challenging and wonderful places to be. I feel incredibly blessed, like working here, now, with this creative team.
The Lehman Trilogy is a three-hander, so it's just Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale and me on stage – we keep looking around for the rest of the cast but there aren't any. It's a family story, at the heart of it, and and an immigrant story, which gives it a great resonance today.
It's huge, one of the most challenging things I've ever done, but all the ingredients are there: all the people involved, the taste of those people, their intelligence, and their experience is something you can really trust. Originally it was in Italian and went on for hours with tens of characters. Ben Power had a literal translation and he and Sam worked, very successfully, to find the heart of it, so the audience can emotionally connect with it.
You worked on Suits with Meghan Markle, our newest Duchess. Did you spend much time with her on set?
I did, actually, and she was a bright, intelligent, beautiful, wonderful, interesting, interested person. When I put two and two together, about her and Prince Harry, I just thought how fabulous – you couldn't image anyone more perfect. It's such good news.
Can you give me any scurrilous gossip for an exclusive, please?
I don't think there is any! She's nothing but a delight. And she's always used her position, first as a famous person and now as a member of the Royal family, to highlight important issues.
It looks as if you all had fun making Suits, was it like that on set?
It was. There were moments when I was working with Rick Hoffman, who plays Louis Litt. There must be outtakes! There was one scene we did together where he was drinking his cat milk or something… I can't quite remember but I do remember not being able to hold it together at all. He's so funny, and such a great guy. It was a really lovely team on that show, a wonderful story line and I had absolute ball on the show. I'm glad people like it.
You're also in another series, the hugely iconic Breaking Bad, with Bryan Cranston. Your part, Elliott Schwartz, is so important, he sets the whole story line going, but I was surprised to see that you were only in three episodes. It doesn't feel like that.
It was incredible being involved at the beginning when it was just another show, and then coming back in right at the very end, by which time it had become a phenomenon which changed everybody's lives. Vince Gilligan, who created the show and directed a lot of what I did, is such a great guy, and when that level of success happens to the good guys you're just thrilled. And Bryan as well – a veteran actor and a real theatre man, who was just here at the National a few months ago. It was a great team, who came up with such an original idea and I was thrilled to be part of it.
Finally, our traditional last question: what's the best thing about being Adam Godley?
What an extraordinary question! Right now in London it's the warm feeling I get when I see people's eyes light up when they recognise me from the shows I've been in – I'm not doing anything, and I'm only slightly in the public eye, but if it brightens their day and they smile at you instead of scowling, it's really nice!
The Lehman Trilogy is at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre from July 4 to October 20, 2018.
A series of Talks and Events runs alongside the play:
The Stages of Translating a Play, Tue 10 July, 5.30pm
Actors Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles on The Lehman Trilogy, Thu 26 July, 3pm
Up Close: Talks and Show package Tue 7 Aug, 10.30am – 5.30pm and Wed 8 Aug, 10am – 4.30pm
Director Sam Mendes and Adapter Ben Power on The Lehman Trilogy, Thu 13 September
The American Dream on Stage, Fri 14 September
Is the American Dream Dead? Fri 14 September
Designing The Lehman Trilogy with Es Devlin Studio, Mon 17 September
Modern Jewish Identity, Fri 21 September
Information & Tickets