On nights when Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal perform the two monologues that make up the Public Theatre’s critically acclaimed Off Broadway double bill Sea Wall/A Life, the British half of the duo silently takes his place on stage as the audience finds its seats. Before the actor says a word, the presence of his character Alex is felt, and a weighty presence it is. Alex will later tell the audience – the play, written by Simon Stephens, is performed by Sturridge as if in intimate conversation with this room of strangers – that people often make a startling observation about him:
There’s a hole running through the centre of my stomach. You must have all felt a bit awkward because you can probably see it. Even in this light. Mostly people chose not to talk about it. Some people tell me that they’re sorry but that yes, they can see my hole. “What’s that Alex? “ They say. “You appear to have a great big hole running right through the middle of you.”
The cause of that void, we learn over the course of the one-act – and if you’re planning to see the play and don’t want any clues, it might be best to save this article until later as THERE WILL BE SPOILERS – is the death of his 8-year-old daughter. Alex tells us of his life before and after he watched, as he swam in the ocean during a family vacation, his beloved little girl stumble and fall to her death from a six-foot cliff.
Deadline recently spoke to Sturridge, the 33-year-old father of a six-year-old daughter (with actress Sienna Miller), about his powerful performance, its costs and rewards, how he prepared for it and how he leaves it behind. We also spoke about his friendship with Jake Gyllenhaal, his co-star now in two recent projects: In Sea Wall/A Life (both directed by Carrie Cracknell), Gyllenhaal performs Nick Payne’s A Life, in which Gyllenhaal’s character chronicles the birth of his daughter and the death of his father. As with their other recent collaboration – the Netflix darkly comedic horror film Velvet Buzzsaw – Sturridge and Gyllenhaal co-star but share no scenes (well, almost none) on stage or on screen.
And I couldn’t pass up a chance to ask Sturridge about his front-row seat to the 2013 Broadway contretemps that was Lyle Kessler’s absurdist drama Orphans, a well-received production that earned a Tony Award nomination for Sturridge and Page Six headlines for Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, whose backstage disputes and arguments reached a level that prompted LaBeauf to walk before opening night. Actor Ben Foster took over the role.
Sea Wall/A Life runs through March 31 at The Public’s Newman Theater. Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: This is your third collaboration with the playwright Simon Stephens. You did Punk Rock and the other one was…
Tom Sturridge: Called Wastwater at the Royal Court.
What brought you back together? And how did your collaboration with Simon end up combined with a similar collaboration between playwright Nick Payne and Jake Gyllenhaal?
Simon Stephens is the person who made me do theater. His Punk Rock was the first play that I ever did. I didn’t go to drama school. I didn’t do theatre in school. It was a totally alien notion to me, and Simon for some reason saw something in me. That was quite the genesis of our relationship. As far as Sea Wall goes, he came to see 1984, which I did on Broadway a couple of years ago, and afterwards we went out to dinner. We had a conversation about [Sea Wall], with no real plan other than the idea that it would be nice for me to do it. He didn’t have a venue or anything like that. Then Jake totally separately had always wanted to do A Life and never quite found the medium in which to do it, and the genius of our mutual agent John Buzzetti was to bring the two pieces together, and we then took it to The Public [Theatre]. We did a reading for them about 18 months ago, and it exploded from there.
It really was kind of inspired to put these two monologues together. They are so closely related in theme and in tone.
Absolutely, and initially it was a fortuitous connection because A Life had never been produced before. It evolved [through] the writing process over the last 18 months and, whether consciously or not, I think in a way it did have a relationship with Sea Wall. I think that kind of thematic connection just kind of grew.
This was before or after you and Jake got involved in Velvet Buzzsaw?
It was before.
So it wasn’t you and Jake on the Buzzsaw set saying, you know what, we should do a play.
That is a beautiful story, but unfortunately, no, no. We knew each other a little bit before, but no, Buzzsaw came after.
Even though you both now have done these two projects together, you didn’t really work together in either one. You don’t have scenes together…
We had one scene together in Velvet. It’s pretty brief. But having said that, this process has been…I mean, even though we don’t share the stage, I would say it’s one of the most collaborative processes with an actor that I’ve ever had. From beginning of rehearsals, it just became very clear that if these two pieces were going to form a singular evening, that we’d have to kind of be together all the time and learn from each other. We didn’t really rehearse together but we would watch each other’s rehearsals. We would contribute in a way as you would if you were sharing a scene. It’s difficult to articulate, but the energy that each piece leaves an audience with really inflicts on the other. I don’t want to speak for Jake, but his experience [each night in A Life] will be different depending on how Sea Wall goes, and what the audience is left with after Sea Wall, and in that way, it feels extraordinarily collaborative.
How would you describe the tone of Sea Wall? It’s more than just personal sadness, maybe a recognition of something much larger.
To be completely honest, I’ve really tried not to intellectualize my experience of it or look too closely at thematic ideas, because I think the only way that it works is if it doesn’t feel like a play. Basically, it needs to feel like a group of people coming into a room to listen to a man’s story, and so in a weird way, I’ve got no idea what it’s about. For me, it’s about my [character’s] memory and my need to share that memory. I’m trying to stay as far away from its deep meaning as possible, because I think that will poison the experience.
You might play to that deeper meaning?
Yeah. Exactly. Completely. I really try to go into every single performance just as open-heartedly as possible. And even though the audience doesn’t speak – well, they do a little bit – it really is a dialogue. If you saw this play on three different nights, I think I could confidently say to you that you would have three diverse experiences. It really is based on the energy of the audience.
For example, it’s a play very much about parenthood, and if you have an evening with a group of 25-year-olds, with a kind of younger audience who perhaps aren’t parents, that conversation is going to be incredibly different than if you’re having it with a group of people who are young parents, or who have been parents for years, or people who have never had children. There’s obviously a difference between people who have an idea of what it’s about, and people who have no idea, and all of that stuff kind of really affects the way that it goes, in a beautiful way.
I’m guessing there must be some nights when you hear sobs.
Yeah. There are. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away about what happens in the play, but there’s more than just hearing sobs. I can see everyone, and actually I try as much as possible to see them with direct eye contact, and so yes, I definitely witness that. But it’s more than even that, it’s, I don’t know, witnessing a shared experience.
Do you take it home at all? Are there nights when you can’t leave this story behind? You have a daughter and…
Yeah. It’s…I don’t know how to put this. Yeah. Yes. I mean, it’s…when you leave the theatre, what’s scary about it is the more we’ve done it, it’s starting to feel like an [actual] memory…if that makes sense. When you’ve done it 70 times, it starts to get in your bones. That’s a little frightening, but at the same time, you have to separate yourself and…I mean, I don’t know. I try…I’m being inarticulate because it’s something that I try not to think about.
But I know that it does stay with me because the play affects me without me having to do anything, if that makes sense. It’s just…it’s there. But for mental health, you obviously have to responsibly disengage.
You did Orphans on Broadway, and with all the backstage stuff [between Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf] it must have been a completely different experience than what you’ve had this time around with Jake.
It was what it was.
And what was it, exactly?
The beautiful thing about the rehearsal process of a play is the safety of it being a private experience, so I will allow it to remain safe and private.
That was about as politely said as you could possibly manage with that question. So what’s next for you? What do you have coming up?
Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I want to do this play and then I want to have a little rest because my mind is a little bit frazzled, and then I’ll figure out something to do in the fall.