Irish actress Denise Gough won her first Olivier Award in 2016 for the starring role as a recovering addict in Duncan Macmillan’s play People, Places and Things, and her second earlier this year for her turn as Harper Pitt in Marianne Elliot’s London revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Last week, Gough – along with co-stars Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Susan Brown – earned the Broadway transfer of Angels a record-setting 11 Tony Award nominations with her spot in one of the season’s most competitive categories: She’ll vie for Best Featured Actress in a Play, alongside her Angels co-star Brown, Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Deborah Findlay (The Children) and Laurie Metcalf (Three Tall Women).
Though better known in the U.K. (in addition to her theater career, she’s a familiar presence on British TV, including roles in Stella, Guerilla, and What Remains, to name a few), Gough has hit New York and hit it hard, reprising both her Angels performance and, prior to that, People, Places & Things at Off Broadway’s St. Ann’s Warehouse (she’s up for a Drama Desk Award for that one).
She’ll soon get an even wider audience with her role as Mathilde de Morny in Colette, the 2018 Sundance Fest biopic starring Keira Knightley as the French novelist, set for a September release by Bleecker Street.
Deadline spoke with Gough just days before her Tony nomination. Reflecting on her breakthrough London successes and Broadway audiences, Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, and Tony Kushner’s famous note-giving, Gough also took a deep dive into Angels’ Harper Pitt, the hallucinating “jack Mormon,” Valium-taking wife of the closeted gay Republican lawyer Joe Pitt. Harper is one of the great roles of the contemporary stage, a magnificent character in a magnificent play, and Denise Gough brings her to life on stage and, here, in this conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: I’m wondering if you had to recalibrate your performance in any way for a New York audience, after London?
Gough: Not really. I mean, I had to change everything because I have a new partner [Lee Pace plays Joe Pitt on Broadway; Russell Tovey played the character in London], so you’re reacting to an entirely different human being. I kind of feel like I’ve got to play two quite different Harpers, which is great.
But I feel like New York just owns this play, so there’s a real sense of it being at home, which I thought would be kind of intimidating but actually it’s really lovely. Like, people know Harper here. The very first night it just felt like everybody knew who she was. There was a tiny bit of that in London, as well that this was the first play I was doing after People, Places, & Things, and I had become something of a…I was everywhere. So it felt a bit like, “This is what Denise Gough does next in London,” and here I just don’t have any of that at all. I’m just playing Harper, with no baggage at all.
Deadline: Are you aware of what other actresses have done with this role?
Gough: I’ve never seen or watched [Angels in America]. I’ve never. And also I just don’t believe in an actor owning a part, you know? I believe that every actress who played Harper, played it for the time they were supposed to play it and they were exactly the right person that was needed to play it at that time. I’m exactly the right person at this time, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.
Deadline: And in the earlier productions, there were many different Harpers, whereas the Angel was so associated with Ellen McLaughlin, and Stephen Spinella was always Prior Walter.
Gough: And I’ve been playing Harper for a long time now. And this time around [on Broadway] I realized just how abusive her relationship with Joe is, you know? He gaslights her, tells her she’s crazy, acts like the problem is her taking drugs.
And then you have to ask the question, where is she getting the drugs? Like, she hasn’t left the apartment in four years and he keeps talking to her about taking pills, but if he really didn’t want her to take the pills he could take them away from her. He could stop her from taking them but he doesn’t. Joe has this line in the bar scene with Roy Cohn (Lane) where he says, What I’m afraid of is that what I love about her is the part that’s farthest from the light, farthest from God’s love, and that I’m keeping that alive for something. And I always hear that line and I think, That motherf*cker knows what he’s doing. He’s keeping her doped up in the apartment because it’s easier for him. I’m not saying that he does it consciously, but an abusive relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be somebody battering somebody.
Harper is an incredibly emotionally intelligent woman who was born into a fundamentalist religion that told her that her only role is to be a wife and mother, and she never fit that role. Tony talked to me about how Harper in Utah was like the punk, you know? She was the girl who never washed her hair and wore black eyeliner and punk t-shirts. She wasn’t a sweet little Mormon. She was always fighting. Then she was in love with this man and she knew, she always knew [that he was closeted]. Some of the first things she says in the play are, “Things are collapsing. Lies are surfacing.”
Deadline: There’s a thinking that of all the characters – and I think you touched on it in your description of Joe – Joe is the only one that the play doesn’t ever really forgive.
Gough: He never takes responsibility. If you don’t take responsibility for your actions you can’t move on. At the end of the play he goes back to Harper, and he would go back to lying again. That’s his choice. Joe is a brilliantly written part because of that. It can be difficult for actors to…you know, we all want to be the hero, don’t we? But there’s something incredible about being the person who doesn’t get redemption, and showing that to an audience.
Deadline: Someone once said about Harper that, despite her hallucinations, we meet her not when she’s in the fog of her pills – we meet her on the day the pills don’t work. She’s coming through, the denial is already fading by the time we first see her.
Gough: Yes. Yes. The greatest grief for an addict – and Harper has a mild Valium addiction, that’s how Tony describes her, and he has also said to me that the pills are sort of a side thing, something she uses to stop the truth from coming through – but the greatest devastation for an addict is that the drugs stop working. So you meet Harper at a point when lies are surfacing whether she likes it or f*cking not, you know? Even in her hallucinations, Joe keeps coming to her.
Deadline: In some ways Harper is the truth of the play…
Gough: When she gets described as drug addled and pill popping, I think, God, that’s just so reductive. That’s not her place in this play at all. And politically, especially now with #MeToo, she’s a female making her way in a world that has told her that her only role is to have babies and to be married, to the detriment of her own soul. And she walks away from that. By the end she’s so empowered.
In one of the books I read, Marcia Gay Harden [Harper in the original Broadway production] said something like, Oh, she never learns, she leaves her gay husband but goes off to San Francisco. And I was like, Hang on, her closest confidant and soulmate in this play is Prior [a gay character played by Andrew Garfield]. At every point that she thought she was falling apart, Prior comes along and they kind of steel each other up for the next part of their journey, so why wouldn’t she go to San Francisco? She’s not going to look for a man, she’s going to look for herself. And in my life the gay men are the ones who have always pushed me towards myself more than anyone else.
Deadline: Do you have a favorite of Harper’s speeches? You have one of the great monologues [the “Night Flight To San Francisco” scene near the end of the play]…
Gough: I know, but even Tony Kushner knows that it’s one of the great f*cking monologues. It makes me want to pick something else. [Laughs]. No, of course “Night Flight” is everything, and it’s so healing for me as an actress, too. At the end of it all, I get to walk away with hope. With both Harper and Prior, our journey through the play is devastation. When Andrew and I see each other backstage, we kind of feel like we’re willing the other person on. You’re like, Oh, God, you’re right in the center of your devastation and so am I, and they’re both seeking freedom, and we both get freedom. He gets his epilogue and I get my epilogue. So yeah, I do love doing that speech.
But there’s so much else. There’s loads. Her first speech is wonderful, though it’s really hard to do. It was harder in London. The character is talking to the audience about people who are lonely, and the rhythm of it is kind of…you don’t know whether it’s meant to be funny. And then her imaginary friend appears. London audiences were trying to work her out, whereas in New York as soon as I start speaking I felt the entire audience almost collectively say, Oh, there’s Harper!
Deadline: Much has been said about this era being a perfect time for Angels, with the connection between Donald Trump and the play’s Roy Cohn. Are you guys playing that at all? Does that even enter your minds?
Gough: No, I don’t think so. With this play I have discovered that no matter what you try to do, the play will do whatever it wants. Like, the play undoes you. So if I’m going to try to do anything that is not the play, it won’t work, you know? The beauty of this play is you just do it and it will have its effect.
I remember in London I was really nervous about playing [Roy’s friend] Martin because I’m onstage with Nathan Lane, who I love, and I’m playing a man, and I didn’t want to f*ck it up. So I was really nervous about it, thinking, Oh God, it’s going to look silly, and then the first night I went out and I spoke those words and I thought, Oh, just say the words. It doesn’t f*cking matter – you could be standing here dressed as a chicken.
Deadline: I seem to remember that in the original Broadway production [1993, the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency], when Martin talks about Republicans taking over the Supreme Court, the Senate and the Oval Office, that speech got a laugh. It does not get a laugh anymore.
Gough: It really doesn’t. What it gets is this really uncomfortable…People can’t laugh about it now because it’s so dark. You kind of think, when this was written audiences must have thought, Aren’t we lucky that’s not how it is anymore? And now you think, Oh, God, how did we let this happen again?
And it’s the confidence of these people. I wanted Martin this time around to be real sharp. These guys know that they’re winning. It’s terrifying. I enjoy playing that scene much more than I did in London, I must say.
Deadline: Tony Kushner has been known to give notes. Has he given you any?
Gough: He gave me one note and that’s all he’s ever given me.
Deadline: You may have set a record.
Gough: Yeah. I was finding a scene really difficult, the scene in the rain. He loves Harper very much, Tony, so I feel like he also knows that it’s a very strangely written scene, that little piece when Harper says, “Water won’t ever accomplish the end, no matter how much you cry. Flood is not the answer, people just float.” I was like, f*ck. How? What? So I asked him and he said, Oh, I dreamt that in its entirety and I’ve never touched it. The thing about Harper is that she is open to emotional interpretation, and Tony let me do that. Now, if it had been bad he would have stopped me.
And we talked about the pills. Joe talks about how Harper’s pill addiction is the problem, and if she just didn’t take pills everything would be fine. I was like, Hang on, where does she f*cking get these pills? I spoke to Tony and he was like, Yeah, from him. And you think, Oh, that’s a whole other…that’s like being kept drugged up by your partner, you know? That added a whole different element for me this time around that I couldn’t quite catch in London, but here I really catch it. So when he shames her – “how many pills today, Buddy?” – and she’s so ashamed of herself, he’s giving them to her.
Deadline: It just struck me, but I think in this production Harper doesn’t give Joe her bottle of pills at the end, right?
Gough: Oh, I think you might have seen the night where I didn’t give them to him because I forgot them! Which was mortifying. Mortifying. F*cking…
Deadline: Then I’m glad I mentioned it. I was going to build some big theory around it.
Gough: No. No. No. But there is something different. In the old production she would pour some pills out and give him some and then she would take the bottle, but in this one she gives him the whole bottle of pills and she walks away with no pills. She leaves them to him. Well that’s what’s meant to happen.
Also in this [production], she kisses Joe at the end, which is an idea of mine. It’s a difficult scene [for the audience] with Joe to be left like that, so I wanted, through Harper, for the audience to find a way to be kind to Joe, too, you know?
Deadline: You’ve won a lot of awards. Are you allowing yourself to think about the Tonys?
Gough: I just can’t get involved in it. I had no idea that I would win an Olivier for it, I really didn’t. I was sure that The Ferryman was going to win everything, so I was really shocked that I won. I was delighted though, because it’s not an easy gig, this. And I can wear them as earrings now because I have two.
But listen, I’m nearly 40 and things took as long as they took just for me to start getting regular work. So the fact that I’m on Broadway with Angels in America, and having done People, Places, & Things in one of the coolest theaters in New York at St. Ann’s Warehouse, I’m living my best life right now. So you know, it’s all cherries and icing at the moment. It’s just so nice. I feel so f*cking lucky.
Deadline: Tell me about Mathilde, the character you play in Colette.
Gough: She’s basically at the forefront of the trans movement, before anybody knew what that word meant. She dressed as a man and she was referred to as a man. At a time when it was illegal for women to wear trousers, she wore trousers, and she and Colette had a seven year love affair, and then she tried to kill herself by committing hara-kiri, and when she was caught doing that she was arrested. She eventually killed herself by sticking her head in an oven. Whether I would play it or not, somebody should play her story fully. Colette is fantastic, and Kiera Knightley is really great in the film, but there are so many female stories that you think, God, if this was a man Tom Hanks would have played it and won Oscars for it 200 times over. It’s just really exciting that we’re at a time when these women’s stories are starting to be considered as leading, proper Hollywood movies. It’s fantastic, isn’t it?