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Making Admissions: Alex Kingston and Ben Edelman interview
Alex Kingston & Ben Edelman play mother and son in Admissions, Joshua Harmon's play about a university admissions scandal. Just before going on stage they talked to The American about the show – and found out a few things about each other
By Michael Burland
So Alex, what’s a nice girl from a girls’ school in Surrey doing in a job like this?
Alex: I’m numerically dyslexic, I couldn’t get my math ‘O’ Level, so there was no chance of going to academic higher education for me, so it was either art school or drama school. But I was always acting, in my fantasy world! I lived very much in my head, as a child. I thought I wanted to be a barrister or an air hostess, but actually I just wanted to wear the costumes. My mother’s brother is an actor so I’d go and see his plays and be backstage as a very young child, breathing all that in.
You’re British, but you’ve worked for years in the States?
Alex: I lived in America for 20 years, I’ve only just moved back. I still have a house in LA, and my daughter is finishing her school over there. I feel… I don’t know what I feel. I’m a citizen of this planet, I don’t want to be bound to one place in particular. I don’t feel inherently British. I do love parts of England, but I also fiercely love Europe. I feel comfortable anywhere in the world. I spent six months in South Africa last year and I felt so at home there.
And your job is very transportable.
Alex: You’re a gypsy really, you just pick up your suitcase and go wherever the work takes you.
Did you concentrate on screen acting in LA?
Alex: Actually it’s not so easy, living in Los Angeles, to find theater work. I was actually rather naive. Being a theater actress I thought it would be easy, but it’s quite cliquey in America and if you’re not in that clique it’s not easy to get in, irrespective of how much is on your resume.
Is it a shock coming from screen work to Admissions? You’re on stage the entire 90 plus minutes.
Alex: Not really, I started out doing weekly rep and although I wasn’t the lead you’re constantly ‘on’, whether you’re in your dressing room waiting for your call. You still burn energy waiting. When I was doing ‘the Scottish play’ [Macbeth, in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s 2013 production] playing Lady M. I was sort of on stage all the time in the way that production was conceived. When I wasn’t on I was running round the back to get to the next entrance. Ken was really on stage all the time and I was aware of how he protected his energy – we’d all go for a drink or a meal as a cast, but Ken would always disappear. You have to protect yourself or you wouldn’t be able to do the run.
You did ‘that’ show in Manchester then New York, but you didn’t bring it to London. What happened?
Alex: We were supposed to, we had an extraordinary offer when Martin Scorcese became obsessed with the play in New York and he wanted to film it in London, theatrically, as we’d done it, backstage and on stage. He and Ken were in talks, but neither of them could find a time when their schedules allowed them to do it. We were on hold for a year then it all fell apart.
If it came up, would you go for it?
Alex: Oh! Absolutely!
Ben, where in the States are you from?
Ben: I’m from Lower Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, which is famous for the facts that Kobe Bryant went to my high school, and that the school district spied on us through the laptops the schools gave the students! We thought that was very exciting!
What got you into acting?
Ben: Well listening to Alex’s story was amazing...
Alex: Why, did you want to be an air hostess too?
Ben: [laughs] I didn’t dress up and play pretend, like some of my friends who were actors later on... I lied. I was a liar, as a kid. But they were weird lies. If I was in gym class I would say, I can’t take my jacket off. My dad’s a doctor so I’d make up these strange medical conditions - “my homeostasis is off” - I’d just make these things up. Eventually somebody called me out on that and I was embarrassed and I left that stuff behind. Around that time I went to summer camp and they had acting – I’d tried everything except acting. I did a play and fell in love with being inside a character. I realized that I had been a creative kid and I was playing pretend, but in real life. My family were supporters of the arts but no-one was professional. I loved learning but I was a slacker. I would spend my time writing Physics Labs in Old English rhyme and other ridiculous, ‘creative’ things. When the time came to apply for college or university I realized I didn’t have the grades to go somewhere academic, but also I realized that I wanted to act anyway.
You did a lot of magic as well?
Ben: That same summer camp was a sleepaway camp, I was five or 6, and it was my first sleepover. I did all sorts of perform-y things. I did a youth circus thing [laughs] and yeah, I ended up doing magic for birthday parties and I was really into it. I was like, ‘I want to be a professional musician’, ‘I want to be a magician’, you know, something creative and performing, but it wasn’t until I did acting that I found something that I stuck to.
Did the magic affect your acting?
Ben: Yeah, in magic, you have to read the crowd because you learn the different types of audience members – the person who is blown away by everything, the person who doesn’t want to be impressed, the person who finds it hard to follow what’s going on – so to get the amazement out of them you have to present yourself in a certain way. There is a feeling of hosting, like ‘I’m welcoming you into this magical world’. At the beginning I’m sure everyone was just being generous in applauding me, but after a little while I really liked the idea of practicing not just the skill, the slight of hand, but also the patter. The story is what really sold the show to people. I didn’t think of it at the time, but looking back, I think that idea of showmanship and of storytelling and interaction with other people started there.
Alex: I did magic too! When you watch magicians now, are you able to read what they’re doing to distract the public when they’re doing their slight of hand?
Ben: Usually. Part of that wasn’t from just doing magic myself, but also because my dad – I would show him new things and he would – nicely – tell me if he saw how I did something. I became obsessed with trying to figure out something he couldn’t work out how I did it. I started to think very mechanically and when I see magicians I go into the ‘dad’ mode. Was yours like that?
Alex: Oh no! My magic was a box that I’d been given for Christmas. Again, it was all about the dressing up. I created a character – this is when I’m about 10 or 11 – and I had gotten into James Bond, Dr. No, and I thought it was so exotic. It’s awful, but the white man who’s playing Dr. No, I decided that was the look I needed for my magician! I literally dressed up as a sort of Asian and my sister, who was much younger than me, had to be my assistant. She hated it because it was all about me... I maybe sometimes allowed her to take a bow!
Ben: Beyond magic/piano/summer camp and further study at Carnegie Mellon, I really fell in love with acting and found my way professionally in working with my coach in NYC, David Vadim, who showed me that acting is about the embodiment of life, and is so specific and personal to every individual. It’s the exact opposite of the cookie cutter approach. He has been my mentor and friend and I really credit him with my growth as a professional. I can’t overstate his role in my personal development and the development of my career.”
Is that interaction with an audience why actors, who can be paid a lot of money, for being in a film or on a TV series, still go back to the stage?
Alex: If you’ve had theater training and that’s your background you have this thing that you can do forever and it just gives you longevity as an actor in a way that, especially as a woman, you don’t necessarily get to have if you are purely working in film or television. I love working on stage – I love that immediate response – and you’re in control in a way that you never are in film or television. You film out of sequence and when your filming is done it goes to the edit and you have no sense of what the outcome of the piece that you’ve been involved in is. In a play, every night there is a beginning, a middle and a definite end and I find that ultimately more satisfying. Do you feel the same way, Ben?
Ben: People say film is a director’s medium, TV is a writer’s medium and stage is an actor’s medium. And on stage there’s something continuous. In TV and film it’s out of sequence and there’s breaks, whereas here it’s all one. There’s kind of an accountability, I think, that goes along with the response from the audience. It’s within your control and it’s also your responsibility because it’s within your control and it really makes you reflect on like ‘what did I just do an hour ago, not yesterday or a week ago, but when I was on stage in scene one’. There’s something really exciting about that continuity.
Alex: And the audience are another part – another player. They’re another part of our cast, our ensemble, and I would say they definitely affect each performance. And it’s much more live – if you make a mistake you have to figure it out and keep on going, whereas if you’re filming they say ‘cut’ and you go again. It’s control but it’s also vulnerability – you’re completely exposed on stage in a way that you’re not in front of a camera.
Ben: In your saying that, there’s something especially exciting about theater because the mistakes are a part of it, because human beings make mistakes. If you represent a perfect human being, that is not relatable at all. Great directors and writers and editors recognize that and include that stuff on camera, but in theater it’s included.
Alex: I think also you can be a not particularly good actor, or a lazy actor even, on film because the editors can make you look brilliant. In fact, really rather not good actors have won Oscars because of the editor who’s made them look amazing. You cannot be a lazy actor on stage, because you have to work together with your company, you’re all there together, it’s like running a relay race – you pass the baton onto the next person and they take it and run with it and so forth. If you are sh*t, an audience will pick it up straight away because you are so exposed on stage.
Alex, a lot of the work you’ve done in the States is in a British accent.
Alex, a lot of the work you’ve done in the States is in a British accent.
Alex: Yeah, some of the things I auditioned for and got were for American characters, and then on the day the director would just go ‘You know what? There’s no need for them to be American, we love the British accent’. It was frustrating that I would always have to play British, but I guess I understood why for them it seemed like a different texture.
As you’ve lived in the States for 20 years, have you absorbed the accent?
Alex: My daughter wouldn’t allow me to speak with an American accent because she said I didn’t sound like her mummy. If I was going out, shopping or something, I’d play with the accent just to feel that I knew what I was doing. But this is the first time where I’ve really done it in a play.
Does it feel natural?
Alex: It kind of does!
And is it any good?
Ben: Yes! I’ve just realized you were British! [Laughs]
Tell us about Admissions
Alex: We really have quite an international audience, which I was not expecting. I had not experienced that as much doing other plays in London. And it’s a much younger audience than I was anticipating, which is fantastic. I don’t know whether it’s the subject matter?
And the playwright?
Ben: Josh’s second play [Significant Other] was the first thing that I did out of school. It was the first time I had ever seen a play that captured the world I was living in, as a 21 year old. Josh has a certain heartbeat that appeals to everyone but seems to really make sense to young people.
Alex: A lot of people are following Josh, they know his Bad Jews, he has his own fans. Some friends of my daughter, who were all 17, turning 18 – they are this play – they loved it. When they saw the textbooks on stage they were all, “Oh my God, we have all those books, it’s so authentic!”.
Ben, you were in Admissions at the Lincoln Center Theater. What was it like?
Ben: Amazing, it was a dream come true. It was all of the surreal things about working in a hallowed hall. Every day when I walked into the theater there would be posters on the wall for previous shows, so I was like ‘Oh my God that was here, that production, I saw that, that was amazing, I’ve heard about that, we studied this!’ Being a part of that, and working with great actors and a great director and a great production, was excellent.
Alex: The set was different wasn’t it?
Ben: Yeah, there are technical differences – it kind of rhymes, like they aren’t the same but there is an echo. It was in thrust so there were people on three sides and the audience was much less deep because they were spread out more, whereas this one is in proscenium, plus this theater, [the Trafalgar Studios] it’s funky how steep it is. But after the first day or two I haven’t even thought about it.
One reviewer in the US said Admissions is an ‘acclaimed hit comedy’, another said it’s a ‘scorching new drama’, so in your minds what is it?
Alex: For my character it’s a tragedy with some humor along the way.
Ben: I think it captures something that is hard to pin down without necessarily solving it in any way and sometimes that is hilarious, like, ‘Oh my God this is impossible to figure out’, and sometimes it’s really tragic, like, ‘Oh, we actually have to live through this, we can’t just toss it away. This is really complicated.’
It does seem to have perfect timing with the Felicity Huffman business going on at the moment?
Alex: It was our press night when that was all going down and we came off stage with journalists asking ‘Can you give us a quote about...’ We didn’t know what was going on! We had to become informed very quickly. I think the truth is a little bit like #metoo – I think this has been going on for a long time and it’s only just now being exposed, and it’s being exposed in the States. I have no doubt that something will happen in this country or other countries, too. People who are absolutely desperate for their children to get to these hallowed institutions will do what ever they can. If they have the money and the influence, they’ll use it. The thing that hasn’t been talked about is, if these kids are being bought into these extremely academic places, the teachers and the faculty are having to actually try and work and pull these kids up who really, ultimately do not have the academic chops to be there. The faculty should be able to voice their gripes because it’s not fair on them, or the kids. But it will run through any institution, nepotism is just unfortunately who we are as people. You use what you have to get ahead, that’s Darwinian.
Finally, what’s the best thing about being Ben Edelman and Alex Kingston?
Ben: Oh boy! I, uh, like to be alive?! That’s kind of it. I wonder at the experience, and when I don’t enjoy being alive I have been fortunate in my life so far to recognize that that is what’s happening and I want to get myself back to that place of really enjoying it. I think that’s the only thing you can do, really, with life!
Alex: I’ve never heard anybody say that before and that’s exactly how I feel! I thought I’d been odd thinking that way. I’ve never taken a single day for granted, I’ve always felt like being alive is such a gift. I’ve always noticed stuff, like the texture of bricks – I see all the time, everything. It’s like I’m devouring it because I’ve been given the chance to be able to, and I look at people who don’t and it upsets me because I feel like the greatest thing you can do is to really love every single moment, even the horrible stuff, because the horrible stuff makes you appreciate the good stuff even more.
Admissions runs at Trafalgar Studios from February 28 to May 25, followed by a UK Tour: Richmond Theatre (w/c 27 May 2019), Cambridge Arts Theatre (w/c 3 June), Malvern Festival Theatre (w/c 10 June 2019) and Lyric Theatre at The Lowry in Salford (w/c 17 June 2019)