If you frequent Broadway, then you’ve already bore witness to the affable slapstick sensibility of British actor James Corden, who portrayed the man with two masters in the 2012 U.K. import One Man, Two Gunvors. New York became smitten with Corden, lauding him with a best actor Tony award. But Hollywood fell for Corden harder. Not only was the actor fast-tracked into an audition for Rob Marshall’s big screen version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods following his Tony award, but Corden also seized prolific roles in two Weinstein Co. films: One Chance as Britain’s Got Talent opera champ Paul Potts, and as Keira Knightley’s crooning, shoulder-to-cry on friend in Begin Again. Then Corden achieved the ultimate coup: He landed Craig Ferguson’s hosting chair on CBS’ The Late Late Show. The opportunity blossomed after Corden met with and wowed CBS president/CEO Les Moonves and entertainment chairman Nina Tassler for a comedy series writing gig. But before U.S. TV viewers stay up late to watch Corden on March 9, they’ll have to see his turn as the melodious everyman, The Baker, in Into the Woods. With Corden already on the precipice of a great bigscreen musical career, one begs the question: Why walk the tightrope as a U.S. latenight talk show host? Responds Corden: “Why not? Because there are any number of reasons why I never wanted a career that is (just) one thing.”
How and when did Into the Woods come your way? Was it after One Chance?
Oh, no, it was much before. I think (producer) Marc Platt came to see the play on Broadway, and Rob Marshall and John DeLuca also had seen it. The day after the Tonys, I went to meet Marc, and we were talking about a couple of different projects and then, two weeks after that, I got asked to go and sing for Rob and John because they were pulling together a rehearsed reading of the movie version of Into the Woods to show Alan Horn and the executives at Disney. The only people who are in the movie from that workshop are myself, Anna Kendrick and Christine Baranski. We finished the presentation and he said to me, “I promise you, if we ever make this into a film, you’re coming with us.” I was hugely touched by that, but in the back of my mind thought, “Well, we’ll see.” Not that I ever thought he wasn’t telling the truth, but I know how studios and the process works, and to Rob’s credit it shows how he widened the casting net. I think that’s a very rare thing these days in a director, who could have gotten a bigger budget to make the movie if he had gone with some bigger names. I will always be indebted to him, and also it was a great learning experience for me. We started rehearsing for the film 10 months after that workshop at Juilliard. I shot Begin Again in the summer whilst I was in the play and I shot One Chance a week after the workshop.
For critics and fans, The Baker always stands out from the melange of characters in Into the Woods. Why is that?
I think the Baker and the Baker’s wife are the characters in the show who are representing the audience entering this world of fantasy and make-believe. They are the ordinary heartbeats in the center of this story of wolves, beanstalks and slippers. The thing with the Baker that I always tried to hang on to was that he always reacted in the most everyday manner because he is just an everyday guy himself, which can be quite hard at times because you can feel like, “Oh, when do I get those pizazz moments?”—because it’s a musical, you know? Then you realize that’s not who the character is. It’s maintaining that consistency and that heartbeat. He’s the man on the street thrust into an extraordinary world trying to find his way out of it. (The Baker and his wife) —these modern-day heroes who, when things happen, when stuff happens in the world, whether it’s a natural disaster, an attack, or whatever it is—are the people who may not want to take on responsibility but stand up and do. He’s that sort of guy. (When the Giant attacks in the second act) the Baker doesn’t want to defend the kingdom against it, but he looks around and sees no one else is. In a world of princes who may walk, look and talk like they should do these things, it’s rare when those people get their hands dirty and run toward the fire.
Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, despite being avant-garde, are often hailed as being very actor-friendly when it comes to the performance. Do you agree?
I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t think it’s ever easy. There are couplets that are really, really tricky like, [Corden speaks rapidly] “Wait a minute, magic beans, for a cow so old, that you had to tell a lie to sell it, which you told.” It’s tough, but I think the reason that that would be said is that Sondheim is never fluffy. He’s never writing for writing’s sake. He is always driving the story, and it always comes from a point of truth. There are wonderful musical-theater songwriters and composers who will compose you the most gorgeous song ever, but essentially, you could switch it out for another. You could switch songs from a (Alain) Boublil and (Claude-Michel) Schonberg musical and put them in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and vice versa, and they would all work fine. They are beautiful, rousing, great big ballads. What Stephen is is a storyteller, and it’s all rooted in truth. He is, I think, the best musical composer alive right now.
Photograph of James Corden by J.R. Mankoff