Broadway’s seen its fair share of adaptations, wringing theatrical productions from children’s books (Matilda) and campy films (9 to 5). This week the Great White Way gets a double-whammy as A Time To Kill, a courtroom drama based on the John Grisham novel that spawned a 1996 film, opens at the Golden Theatre.
The play takes place in a small Mississippi town torn apart by an attack on a young girl, and follows the murder and mayhem that result. The book was originally published in 1986, but the story is no less harrowing today.
DuJour spoke with Sebastian Arcelus, the House of Cards actor who stars as good-guy attorney Jake Brigance, about Southern lawyers, popular fiction and why a good story works in any format.
What was your reaction when you heard that a John Grisham book—one of the biggest airport reads of all time—was becoming a Broadway show?
To be honest with you, it was surprising that no one had thought of doing a stage adaptation of it already. You, of course, think of it as a novel first and then a film, but at the heart, it’s a great story. A story like this, which is super-charged with emotion and character and stakes and drama, is ripe for telling live and in 3-D, for lack of a better term. The fact that we have the opportunity to tell this story with an audience literally in the place of the jury allows for that viewer to become a part of the story.
You had a run of the show in Washington, D.C. before coming to New York. How did things go?
They went great. D.C. is, of course, a town of lawyers, right? It was an interesting and wonderful place to try out this show because they understand the issues we raise. We have a wonderful group of actors that really fleshed out this story for the first time on stage, and it’s changed a fair amount since that D.C. production; we’re excited to bring it to this audience in New York.
How familiar were you with the book or film before taking this role?
I had read the book and I did very much enjoy the film. I actually got to work with Joel Schumacher, the director of the film, when he directed a couple of episodes of House of Cards this past season, so it was fun to talk to him a bit about the film as well.
What did he tell you?
He was very intrigued at how the story would be told on stage. It was wild to also tell Kevin Spacey about the show considering the fact that he starred as Rufus Buckley in the film as well. So there were these very interesting degrees of separation here.
People compare your character, Jake Brigance, to Atticus Finch. Do you think that’s fair?
He might be a contemporary version of Atticus on some level, but I’ll leave that to other people to decide. I think any story like this sort of grows out of tradition [similar to] To Kill a Mockingbird. I think Jake is probably not as intelligent—I think he’s an instinctive guy who isn’t quite as morally centered as Atticus Finch, maybe.
Is this show opening the door for more Broadway adaptation of popular thrillers? Might we see The Hunt For Red October next?
Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate. There’s a reason why John Grisham is so very popular. I think it’s because he’s compelling, his work is compelling, and that resonates with people. He is authentically a part of the community that he writes about and I think people can recognize that. He has a wonderful way of presenting the struggle to assume the best version of ourselves in his novels. So I certainly think that any or all of them could be adapted. When you think about The Firm and The Rainmaker, you’ve got all of these wonderful stories that are ripe for retelling.