Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, which recently returned to Broadway after 25 years, was a stark and hallucinatory portrait of gay life in the ‘80s when it first debuted in 1993. The Marianne Elliott-directed revival, which originated in London and stars Andrew Garfield as the AIDS-stricken protagonist Prior, depicts a cultural landscape both familiar and foreign; while the AIDS epidemic and President Reagan’s deafness to it may feel like a bygone chapter in history, one of the play’s central characters—the real-life McCarthyist Roy Cohn, who mentored and represented Donald Trump who before dying of AIDS in 1986—has drawn a flurry of comparisons to Trump himself and more recently to Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen.
If Roy Cohn, portrayed in the latest production by Nathan Lane, stands for the toxic single-mindedness in our current political discourse, his nurse Belize, played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, represents the quixotic possibility that those on opposite ends of the political spectrum might one day come together; as Cohn’s caregiver who also just happens to be Prior’s best friend, Belize is the intermediary between the seven-and-a-half hour play’s parallel plot lines. And while Belize may stop short of actually liking Cohn, who was a notoriously gay-bashing (read: self-hating) closeted gay man, Stewart-Jarrett says he develops a strange intimacy with the monstrous Cohn.
“Their relationship is a strange one because he’s essentially leading Roy to his death,” says Stewart-Jarrett. “So it’s a really, really weird dynamic. They hate each other but are stuck with each other. When you are that close with someone, in such close proximity, it breaks something down.”
For Stewart-Jarrett, the role of Belize, which he began in London in 2017, came with a learning curve. Besides the historical-nonfiction elements, the 32-year-old actor notes that the AIDS crisis affected England differently than it did the U.S. “I’m sure there was a [British] AIDS crisis, but it wasn’t as much in the fabric,” he says, “It’s there but Londoners are far more stoic and don’t talk in that way. And the health services are different as well. So it’s different. It does feel like New York was on the frontlines.”
But his preparation for the role wasn’t all doom and gloom. Given that Prior and Belize met on the New York drag scene, Stewart-Jarrett and Garfield trained in the age-old drag tradition of throwing shade—or the practice of playfully deriding another drag queen. “Andrew and I had some shade lessons,” he says. “We did a lot of that to help with our backstory. It was fun but don’t realize how hard it is.” So just what degree of shade did he and Garfield throw? “I think I blocked it out because it was hurtful,” he actor jokes. “Andrew was really good at coming up with insults.”
Since kicking off at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater in March, Stewart-Jarrett hasn’t caught much shade. Garnering rave reviews and star-studded audiences (“I did meet Glenn Close. That was a big deal,” beams Stewart-Jarrett, recalling the plays opening night bash), the play is expected to seek heat at the Tony nominations on May 1.
And while he may be rubbing shoulders with Broadway glitterati, with his back-to-back runs in London and New York, who can blame Stewart-Jarrett for setting his sights on Los Angeles? Here, the rising theater star tells us where he goes on his escapes to the City of Angels.
Power Lunch: I have two. One is Winsome. It’s all about the decor there. It’s very, very calm and you can relax with a bloody Mary. Or 101 Coffee Shop, which is pretty famous. I have a thing for pancakes—it’s not something you get in London.
Cocktail Hour: Taix is a kind of faux French restaurant and bar where you can get a really good dirty martini. It’s not very fancy but its lounge-y and all the seats are on wheels. And the staff are really cool. It’s usually really quiet, except on Wednesdays. For whatever reason all these crazy art people come in on Wednesdays. I also like hotel drinking, and the L’Ermitage is good for that.
Retail Therapy: The bad part about New York is you can walk and easily shop wherever you go. The good thing about L.A. is that you have to actually make the decision to shop. I like to shop on Net-a-Porter but I do make the occasional pilgrimage to Opening Ceremony.