Written by: Tom Sturridge
In 2019, film and stage stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge joined forces to present two separate stand-alone monologues, Sea Wall/A Life at Off-Broadway’s The Public Theater before quickly transferring to Broadway’s Hudson. The limited run ended just a few months before COVID-19 forced the closure of all Broadway theatre.
More than a year later, both find themselves Tony Award nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play, even as Broadway remains in an unprecedented shutdown that has left the industry and its audience hungrier than ever for the return of live performances. The two actors recently reconnected to discuss their experiences working on these deeply personal monologues and to reflect on a year without theatre in this conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Jake Gyllenhaal: I’ve heard you speak about this before, but maybe you can start by talking about why you wanted to do Sea Wall in the first place?
Tom Sturridge: I think the first thing was my relationship with [Sea Wall playwright] Simon [Stephens]. “Literally” is a boring word to use in a sentence, but he was quite literally the reason I do theatre. He gave me my first job in the theatre. I don’t know if it’s the same in America, but in England the theatre is quite a difficult community to get into if you’re inexperienced. I’d never done a play before I met Simon—Simon was the first author to believe in me. And then a few years ago, he came to see me in a show I was doing in New York and he handed me Sea Wall— it was one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I’ve ever read. Obviously a major part of it is about fatherhood— being a young father—and I was a young father, so it spoke to who I was and am. And that was a part of my life that I never explored in my work, and I really wanted to. What about you and A Life?
Gyllenhaal: It’s odd how parallel our journeys are in terms of both of these pieces… Both of us followed our passion for these two pieces for years. The difference for me was that I had to beg Nick Payne to do A Life and Simon just came to your show and handed it to you! [Laughs.] But, and perhaps most importantly, we couldn’t do them on their own, they weren’t complete somehow without the other and then the fates stepped in and brought them and us together… To me, that’s the show. The pieces exist separately from each other on the page but can’t be fully expressed without the other on the stage.
When I read A Life I was so deeply moved by it. How vulnerable, how specific, and how intimate the storytelling was. The specificity, humor and honesty of Nick’s dialogue is why I love his writing in the first place. But this piece was different from the two other shows I had done with him and it was a double responsibility, because it was dealing with real stuff, real moments that had happened in Nick’s life. And I think the lack of fiction is what made me want to do it: the idea that so much of what we do as performers is really a performance, and the effort of it is trying to move it as close to what actually was in the moment. And that is hard to do with writing that isn’t as good as Simon and Nick’s.
Sturridge: Do you think we knew that from the start that it was necessary not to act—or at least not to interpret the text in a way that we had interpreted texts before?
Gyllenhaal: What I felt from my connection to A Life and what I felt from your connection to Sea Wall, was that they were woven into us so deeply, that there was no other choice but that. I remember the summer before we did the show working with Carrie [Cracknell, director of Sea Wall/ A Life] and Nick in the apartment I was staying at in London and he was rewriting parts and I was just weeping as we read them aloud. When someone speaks to loss or love in the way that these two writers speak of it, it does so much for you. And selfishly as an actor, all I want to do is work on pieces that already have done so much of the work for me.
Sturridge: I know! And that’s the kind of strange part of it is that you just had to get out of the way of yourself.
Gyllenhaal: I was amazed to watch your process of getting there. Creating your boundaries and your barriers and your own assumptions, and then breaking them down. It’s so interesting because to me, as a performer, you are someone who is so astute and so keenly aware and so sensitive—and yet, you also are so deeply respectful of what is going to happen. You set up ideas for yourself and if they don’t work for you or they don’t work out or they do work, you move forward without a lot of friction or angst. I was so moved by your courage as a creator. I’m someone who likes to go into a room and tinker and think and I get all the answers, and come back—because I think I’m probably more afraid of a perception.
Sturridge: I remember several iterations of A Life during the rehearsal process that were kind of dramatically different from where you ended up.
Gyllenhaal: Yeah, but they weren’t by my suggestion! Those were all “oh this isn’t working, how can we help this guy to make it work?” Yours were, “I’m going to make these choices, I’ve thought this through.”
Sturridge: [Laughs] At which point, the response was by the audience: “This isn’t working!”
Gyllenhaal: [Laughs] Yes, there were also those moments in rehearsal where I just decided to stop a quarter of the way through my monologue…
Sturridge: Oh my gosh! I forgot about that! But it was so necessary. I would go and bang out Sea Wall, it was always fine. And then you would be up and we would all place bets on “at what point will Jake just stop and leave the rehearsal room? Will he finish the play? Or is it gonna go eight minutes today?”
Gyllenhaal: Part of my process is giving up sometimes! [Laughs.] But honestly, It took me a while to really feel at ease communicating directly to an audience. I think I had to walk through the shame of being terrible and get used to the newness of actually seeing their faces. The process of bringing random people into the rehearsal room was terrifying and humiliating but absolutely necessary. Such an important step early on, to speak to strangers—to understand that the show was about them and not me. And after some time I felt like: I got this. And you were still sort of working it out and I remember thinking, “ooh, I don’t know if Tom’s going to be cool in front of the audience.” And then you just banged it out. [Laughs] No, I think you have more experience in that space, of knowing that now is not the be-all end-all. I think for me, there was a fear of presenting myself and what a mess I am. What was your favorite passage of Sea Wall?
Sturridge: It’s weird. When you ask that question, the first thing you do is you go back to your memory of the text. But my memory is more of live moments. As in, not so much what I said, but there were moments within the play when we were doing it in front of an audience that I looked forward to. There’s a moment in the play when I describe the sea wall for the first time. Which was a kind of breathing point, and a space in it… It was the moment in the play when I wouldn’t know which direction it was going to go. And it was always telling how the audience reacted to that—how the evening was going to be. And it just makes me think about theatre and its unpredictability.
Do you know what, though? That question, “what’s your favorite part?” My answer was total nonsense. Maybe it’s true of all plays, maybe it’s specific to monologues—but there weren’t any parts. You just dived into this swimming pool. And really, I only remember when I got out. There were so many versions of who we were who walked on. I remember walking on, and walking off.
Gyllenhaal: I had this feeling when we moved to Broadway. That first night, that first preview where it was just packed.
Sturridge: That first preview audience was indicative of the difference between The Public and Broadway. They were so powerful in their response. And sort of, muscular in the way that they could interpret the play themselves, and pull it away from us. And so you could go on with all the intentions you wanted to, but I mean, it went where they wanted it to go. And that was the most liberating thing.
Gyllenhaal: Yes! But we had to prepare to get on that animal, you know? When you say “muscular,” I think it’s true. Every night, the thing that was so thrilling about the performances was that it was the audience’s show, and the audience told us where they wanted to go. In a lot of ways, the things I miss most about the theatre are the experiences that we got to have on that stage alone. You know? Something about not being a huge cast, and having to rely on each other. I was able to see the audience more. If we had had 20 people onstage, you feel the audience, but you don’t really see them in the same way. Whereas with Sea Wall/A Life it was just us and the audience. And I know that sounds obvious, but I got to experience why I miss theatre so much… because it’s all about them. It’s all about the audience. And it’s all about everybody congregating and the space we share. And we could see that, in a way that I’ve never been able to see that onstage. Because we were looking directly at them.
Sturridge: Yeah, looking at them. And they were talking to us. And you were walking through their handbags.
Gyllenhaal: [Laughs.] Yes. A few people lost their AirPods over the course of our run — I’ve got a bit of the Fagin in me! Kidding. I felt like it was our show. I mean, had it not been for you, Tom, the show would never have happened. Because I was going to bail before we did the show at The Public.
Sturridge: Talk about the producing aspect of it. Firstly the extraordinary thing that you were doing Slave Play at the same time, and how—obviously I’m privy to a lot of it—but how did we get it from The Public to Broadway? Because this is not an obvious Broadway show, and I’m still kind of astonished that it made that leap and that risk was taken—and you were running that train.
Gyllenhaal: Well, it was perfect timing in that we knew that the Hudson was available for a short period of time. Producorially, we thought: this show has proven to work, we have a certain amount of time, a certain amount of tickets to sell, and I believed we could do it when I looked at all of the analytics of what was possible, just on a purely financial level. And we agreed that it was possible to stage the show for a limited, late-summer run and get everybody their money back.
Sturridge: Is that based on the notion that if, within this time frame, if the theatre was full, then everyone would make their money back? Was it a mathematical decision, or are you talking about the possibility of getting people to go to the theatre when they don’t normally go to the theatre, i.e. in the heat of the summer when no one’s in the city?
Gyllenhaal: Well, I think it’s both. I looked at it as: how big is the risk? How big is the risk on the part of the audience? And how big is the risk for the people who will be investing? Because I believe when you’re producing or acting in anything, you have a responsibility to make a return on those investments. It’s not always possible, and it is very difficult when you’re doing it on Broadway. But we looked and I said okay, the math could work. And then I mixed into that concoction a little thing called faith—or maybe insanity. I thought to myself, this is a story that can bring people towards healing. And we just went with that.
Even though it had been initially kind of billed as these two monologues about death, I actually always looked at them as monologues about life. And so I felt it possible, and I knew somewhere in my bones, from the moment I read A Life and then when we came together to do this together, I knew that if we could communicate to people that this was a show about life and about the affirmation of life, that people would come. And they did come. And people spoke about it. When people would come backstage when we were at The Public—yes, there were people with heartbreak, yes, there were people who were in tears. But there were also people who decided to make choices towards the truth in their own lives as a result of hearing Simon and Nick’s words, which made me think: “we need to take that to a larger audience if we can. It just doesn’t feel right to stop now.” And then it was a matter of unabashedly trying to convince people to jump on the train, and… to our surprise, we had so many wonderful financiers who did. But to me, I think we approached it from a very different standpoint, which was: the nature of the show was about trying to be ourselves as much as possible, so we wanted to bring that to the stage in every way. So, we just tried different routes. We had a very small budget for marketing and… it’s such an incredible marketing team and advertising team.
Sturridge: How did the mural with JR on the back of the theatre come about?
Gyllenhaal: I’ve known JR for a number of years and he captures the human face so beautifully. We thought: let’s photograph the first preview audience and we’ll use that back wall, the space that is rarely used for expression. I don’t know how you feel, but I’ve always thought the backs of theatres are the coolest most intimate parts of a theatre.
Sturridge: I felt like it gave us—and the audience who took the photographs with us—such ownership of that space. It was an amazing feeling to walk past it every day. Galvanizing… Was Slave Play a similar approach?
Gyllenhaal: When I first saw Slave Play, I thought it was challenging in the way that Broadway needed and the world needed. I mean we’ve both benefited from a system that historically benefits white men and I recognize that I was born into privilege by the nature of being a white man. And Slave Play upended me and made me feel shook up and shattered and uncomfortable and it turned me on and it disturbed me and… And I think that’s what I love as an audience member, is when I walk out shook up. It’s a rare experience when you are really challenged by a whole piece. How else do we learn? How else do we grow? There have been so many artists in my life who have changed my personal trajectory by one show I’ve seen—I’m talking about my life.
I mean, it’s interesting, Slave Play and Sea Wall are so profoundly different but they have a similarity because I think they both shake you up. And I felt that way when I saw Slave Play and I felt that way when I read A Life and then when I heard you read Sea Wall. I mean shaken, and yet oddly at home. I felt comforted by someone saying there’s so much work to be done. As a producer, that is the art that I want to see. You know, art that changes the point of view.
Sturridge: Is there any other theatre that you’re trying to put on in these uncertain times now for the future?
Gyllenhaal: We’re working on it. I mean, to me it’s also not just about the stories, it’s about the minds. The minds of people who want to make, to challenge in that way. But don’t get me wrong, I’m also a huge fan of great joyous entertainment and I’m also a standard musical theatre fan. The joy of those experiences is also something I love. I don’t only need to be shattered and shaken.
Sturridge: Is Sunday still coming to the West End?
Gyllenhaal: Man do I hope so. We’re gonna try. We’re definitely gonna try. It was heartbreaking to cancel…
Sturridge: Do you remember our rituals during Sea Wall/A Life?
Gyllenhaal: I remember when you would come offstage every night, you would assess the audience and the energy of the audience in a way was just so honest so that I could have firm ground and know where I was headed. It was like you were the front lines and then you came in and you said, “This is what we’re dealing with. There’s this over there and that over there and this is a wonderful pocket.” You would always say that to me, “There’s a wonderful pocket just to the back over here” or “There are three people in the front that are just so loving,” or “beware of the man with the plastic bag full of candies in row two on the right side.”
Sturridge: Yeah, the front row was always scary because the front was the only row that you could fully see.
Gyllenhaal: [Laughs] Yes.
Sturridge: There were certainly some returning customers. What about offstage rituals?
Gyllenhaal: Oh yeah. I mean, I was talking about, I was talking the other day about pre-show and then in between shows for our Whole Foods sushi runs.
Sturridge: Did we try and deviate from Whole Foods sushi?
Gyllenhaal: We once had a really fancy meal! I remember we walked up by the park and we were said, “Let’s have a really fancy meal!” That was a mistake.
Sturridge: White tablecloth, three courses… just totally, totally wrong, totally not what you needed before a big show. Left feeling sick.
Gyllenhaal: [Laughs] We thought we’d have a fancy celebration and it was a disaster. Or like you, when you threw up into the trash can at the Public, that was great.
Sturridge: That was one of the scariest experiences of my entire life.
Gyllenhaal: I’m so proud of you that you did that, that was incredible. And you have done some pretty scary shit as a performer, so that says a lot.
Sturridge: The level of euphoria going through that show afterwards—I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Gyllenhaal: What are you most looking forward to when performances return?
Sturridge: Aren’t you just so excited about just going to the theatre again? High-fiving the person next to you and giving a standing ovation when a human being walks onto a piece of wood in front of you instantaneously, whatever they do, whoever it is. And just the celebration of, being alive and together again.
Sturridge: I will get a ticket to whatever it is. The first utterance of words in space. I do not want to go down the kind of polemic route, but we’ve reverted so much to technology in a great way, and it saved us. I mean, you know, our televisions and our streamings and our phones and all that stuff. You sort of forget that theatre is one of the last bastions of spaces where you are not allowed that stuff. Just to be in a room together with a bunch of people all focused on the same thing, it’ll be kind of exciting.
Gyllenhaal: It’s sadly the reason why it might be one of the last things back…. Oh, we should talk about our sacrosanct pre-show rituals. What were they?
Sturridge: Touching the seats.
Gyllenhaal: Touching the seats, and your raw scallions at night.
Sturridge: [Laughs] Raw scallions at night. That was a three week phase. It was not a sacrosanct.
Gyllenhaal: Your breath was not sacrosanct for 3 straight weeks but you said it was necessary so I took the hit and was thankful we were on stage by ourselves! Can we talk about our incredible crew, particularly our incredible stage manager and management crew. And I don’t know how you feel, but I think without them I couldn’t do the show. And their level – I think what is unbeatable about crew onstage is that they are so deeply emotionally invested in the same way that the creators or the actors are. We shared so many feelings between us and there was so much support when we were flailing and there was so much love throughout. I mean we would gather by Peter’s little stand [Peter Lawrence was the stage manager] before the show and then you would always go backstage. You would always go and then enter in through the front of the theatre.
Sturridge: That is the thing that I’ll never, ever, ever forget. I would enter through the front of the house, walk through the bar, get a beer from the bar, walk down the aisle as there were already, you know, a thousand people finding their seats. And it was just the most extraordinary feeling. Climbing onto the stage—sometimes without anyone noticing, sometimes it was kind of enormously controversial act that they all gasped at. It was my version of that canal that you talked about. It suddenly—it was very difficult not to tell the truth when you’ve kind of just stepped off the street onto the stage. It would take a lot of work to wrestle a character out of yourself and so it really helped murder all my attempts at that.
Gyllenhaal: What a special time. I cherish it so deeply in my heart. I cherish it so deeply. You know that feeling of: you’re in the right place. We were in the right place. It was the right thing to be doing. And those moments in your life are rare. I love you and I have loved working with you. There is nobody I know, who can assess and also give with such an open heart.
Sturridge: We were so happy. All I’m thinking about is us walking to Whole Foods sushi! It was just a wonderful summer.
Gyllenhaal: We will all have those times again. And we have to go back to Whole Foods sushi, right up there on 42nd Street, and do that. And then go see a show.
Sturridge: And then go see a show. The first show.
Gyllenhaal: Okay. I’m down.
Sturridge: Unless we’re in it!
Gyllenhaal: Even if we’re in it we have to go do it. If you’re in a show I’m going to see, you better meet me at Whole Foods sushi. Between the matinee. No raw scallions the night before though.
Sturridge: Okay. Deal.