The Master Builder is one of playwright Henrik Ibsen’s greatest works, and in the 120 years since its premiere performance, innumerable theatre troupes have taken a turn bringing its complex, multi-layered and timeless message to the stage. Now, Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs) is bringing his adaptation to the big screen, setting a script ten years in the making into cinematic motion. Today, the film makes its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Forum.
The story is that of a prestigious and sought-after architect, Halvard Solness, who at the pinnacle of his career finds himself fearful of the younger generation he believes is soon to be “knocking at the door,” threatening to dethrone him. And just one such young person does arrive—a tenacious young woman named Hilde, who he had met years before when she was a little girl. She bursts into his life, determined to realize a dream she has built into an obsession, and claim what she believes is rightfully hers.
Lisa Joyce stars opposite Shawn Wallace as Hilde in her first leading role, and her performance is electric. She is breathlessly childlike, forcefully sensual and hysterically resolute. Laughing all the time—tenderly, mirthfully, or belligerently—she fills every scene with the precarious and manic determination of youth.
Joyce is an accomplished Broadway talent who has also held roles in a number of films and television shows, including a recurring role on Boardwalk Empire. Here, DuJour sits down with her to discuss her most recent project.
As I understand it, all of this came about because Jonathan Demme approached you after seeing your performance as Hilde in a low-key adaptation of A Master Builder in an East Village art gallery?
Yes, that’s right. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn have been working together since the sixties, and a lot of times they do their performances in non-theatrical spaces. I had rehearsed the part for a year, but they’ve been rehearsing this piece for over a decade, which is nuts. So we started performing for small groups of friends and family in this art gallery three times a week. It was salon style, really old-fashioned stuff. One night, Jonathan Demme came to the performance. When that month of shows finished, we had a little party and Andre said, “We’ve got great news… Jonathan wants to make us into a movie!” That was completely unexpected. I had thought that just working with these guys was the reward in and of itself and that it was going to be this wonderful theatrical experience, and I loved that; that was totally fulfilling. But then Jonathan Demme—this Academy Award-winning filmmaker—comes on and says, “Let’s make it into a movie!” So a year later, we did. He kept the same cast, which is kind of unheard of, and we shot the movie in the very same house that we did the play in—a little townhouse on Washington Square Park.
Did you have to audition for the part?
No, actually. One thing that’s so amazing about Andre is that he doesn’t audition his actors; he just meets with them for tea. Two different casting directors had mentioned me to him, so I met him for tea and we talked for like half an hour, a little bit about the play and his adaptation, which is different from the original, and also about where I was in my life—what my background was, what my family was like. It was just a really lovely, personable tea, and then the next day he sent me an email asking, “Would you like to do it?” and I was like, “Absolutely.”
Is there a specific character in a play or a film—or even a book that hasn’t been adapted yet—who is kind of like your dream character to play?
It’s funny; I’m not drawn to characters as much as I am to writers, which is why investigating Ibsen has been so fun. I read Hedda Gabler recently and I thought, that would be an amazing role—not because I identify with it, but more because it’s really dark and really human. So that’s one. But at the same time, I’ll be fine if I never play that role. Wallace Shawn is an avant-garde playwright, and to be in another one of his plays would be a dream come true. But also, I’ve done a lot of serious things and I’d love to do a comedy; a Woody Allen role would be another dream come true. You want to do different things, so after this I’d love to do a comedy because the last role was so intense and psychological. I get really excited about approaching a character that I don’t know how to do yet, because then I get to explore a behavior or a psychology that I don’t yet understand. And as I explore, I feel like I learn more about myself and about people in general.