The Brightest Light On Broadway: Will Keen

by Natasha Wolff | April 23, 2024 10:29 am

It may have taken until 2022 for the British stage, film and television actor Will Keen to break out, and he did it as playing Vladimir Putin in Patriots [1]by Peter Morgan (The Crown). Told from the perspective of billionaire Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky (in London played by Tom Hollander; now, on Broadway Michael Stuhlbarg) about the rise of the Russian oligarchs, performances originated at London’s Almeida Theatre before moving to the West End, winning Keen a prestigious Olivier award. The production, directed by Rupert Goold, just began playing at the Barrymore Theatre in New York this week.

Why is Vladimir Putin an interesting character to play?

His stillness, his mask; what I can observe of how performative that is has been really helpful. Imagining the inner tension through the outer stillness has really interested me. I love the physicality. More generally, I’ve found the crossover between the personal and the political a really rewarding area to explore. It’s a paradox that someone who has such a massive role and presence, such tremendous influence on the world stage might be reduced in people’s (or my?) mind to something two-dimensional, morally speaking, almost mythologically speaking. But to be afforded space to think into that head or to experience that journey imaginatively is a privilege and a revelation to me. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about medieval ideas of kingship; whether in such a position you could come to believe that your will is, intrinsically, the land’s will, the nation’s will, that in some sense your body is the land. And then I’m fascinated by how that impacts on the intimate sense of loyalty and betrayal, of duty and responsibility, then of ambition, of appetite of what it feels like to grow into a power you might perhaps never have expected.

What’s the most intimidating thing about playing the role?

I expected to be more intimidated by Putin’s presence in the collective imagination; by the pressure to live up to an audience’s collective idea of him. In actual fact, that’s never felt like a problem; quite the contrary. It’s a huge privilege to play someone who is so alive in an audience’s imagination. It creates a really dynamic dialogue; a conversation which feels new every day, because of the daily news cycle. There’s always a new perspective, what feels like a new pattern to discern. Even though the play finishes in 2013, we’re examining formative events.

How has your performance and relationship to the material changed as you’ve moved from the Almeida to the West End and now to New York?

Like I say, it feels like such a living relationship. The material allows it to land minutely differently every day. We’ve moved from a small space progressively into bigger spaces. While the intimacy of its beginnings was a joy to play, it feels hugely enriching painting on bigger canvasses. And the material is so big, so epic, I think it grows in a bigger space. The hope is that it’s always growing and deepening.

Will you miss Tom Hollander on Broadway?

I love Tom as a friend and I admire him so much as a colleague. I’ve just been so lucky to share a stage with him in every way. His work was so dazzling on this, so rich. It always is. And now Michael Stuhlbarg, who is mercurial and meticulous and powerful, and intelligent, and intense, and organic, and surprising, capable of such huge depths and such delights. What an enormous privilege! It’s a whole new dream. I’m just loving working with him. I’m in awe of his rigor and his virtuosity. It’s a real joy to be playing a whole new dynamic. Michael’s making something very special indeed.

What do you expect to be different in New York as you start performances?

To be honest, I just don’t know what to expect! I’m so interested to see how the play lands here. Every nation has its own psychology. How will a play about patriotism, power, money, ambition, single mindedness, opportunism, friendship, rivalry ignite in the mind here? Obviously, America has a different relationship with Russia from the UK’s relationship with Russia, so I imagine an American will be coming to the play from a slightly different angle to a British person. Is Putin’s place in the imagination in some way different here from there? I’m so excited to find out.

Why should New Yorkers come see the show?

Rupert’s production is so astonishingly agile, so captivating. It’s slick and witty and disturbing and profound, and he makes it feel so effortless. And at the simplest level it’s really entertaining! I won’t start enumerating the whole cast, but  I’m very proud to be a part of it.

What’s your favorite thing about working with Peter Morgan?

Peter is masterful at making a complex argument dramatically clear; taking on big ideas and putting them within our grasp without debasing or simplifying them. He’s a brilliant examiner of power, both in the world and in the domestic space. It’s really exciting watching how he molds a story. And he’s very generous and unprecious about listening to the actors, being in conversation with what an actor feels they need from the inside, in terms of rhythm for example. He’s collaborative and supportive and infectiously enthusiastic and funny!

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