(Photo: Johan Persson)
Broadway actor Michael Esper has made a sizable impression on the London stage of late, moving from his acclaimed performance opposite Michael C. Hall in the U.K. stage debut of the David Bowie-scored Lazarus to his current run as Tom, opposite Cherry Jones's Amanda, in The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York's Theatre. With a list of credits that further includes Nicky Silver's play The Lyons, the Green Day musical American Idiot and the Sting musical The Last Ship, the immensely charming Esper took time early one recent evening to talk about the excitement of being a theatrical expat.
What's it been like doing two shows back to back in London?
Totally insane! I went home for about a month between doing The Glass Menagerie last summer [in Edinburgh] and starting Lazarus here in order to see people and get my affairs in order and then I darted back [to London]. All told, and not including Edinburgh, this will have been a seven-month stint.
How did that come about?
Honestly, it wasn't really intentional at all. Lazarus came up first and I knew I wanted to be part of that and didn't want to let it go, having done it in New York, and then The Glass Menagerie came up as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, so I did that and while that was happening, the word came that we might be moving to London and Sonia [Friedman, producer] and Cherry [Jones, star] and everybody managed to time it out so that I would be able to take part in it on the West End. I'm bursting with gratitude about how it has all gone.
Was there a period when Lazarus and The Glass Menagerie overlapped?
Yes, I was rehearsing Menagerie during the day for a week and a half while we were still doing Lazarus: it was wild! It certainly felt pretty psychologically nuts to be working on both those shows at the same time, but it always feels good to be thoroughly used up creatively.
Had you seen John Tiffany's production of Tennessee Williams's classic when it was on Broadway with Zachary Quinto as Tom?
I did see it, and it was totally stunning—so stunning and so moving. Even though it's a play I had known so well since I was a kid, something about the production felt very fresh to me, and I was experiencing things in the play as an audience member that I had never experienced before, no matter times I had read or seen it. There were so many things that surprised me, and I was moved in places where I was never moved before.
What were your thoughts on stepping into the production, first for Edinburgh and now London?
Very strange, not least because I'd never had that experience before. I had trepidation not in terms of not wanting to do it but maybe anxiety is a better way to put it. But luckily, I had this incredible team of people on both sides of the line [onstage and off] who somehow magically allowed me both to find my way into the role myself and also to brilliantly guide me. There's something also about the play that is so porous that the experience of seeing it wasn't the obstacle that it might have been with a different type of show.
What are your feelings about Tom, who, of course, narrates the action and is seen by many as a surrogate version of Tennessee Williams himself?
I think he is a haunted, hunted person. Tennessee describes him as someone not without pity but who is forced to act the way that he does in order to escape from the trap that is that home. The speech he gives at the end comes from someone who cannot escape the memory of the family he has left behind and, thinking outside the play, knowing what we know about Rose [Williams' sister] adds weight to it, as well.
Is it a cathartic role to inhabit?
It is very beautiful and rejuvenating in a strange way, but a lot of good writing is like that. Really excellent writing can ask a lot of you, but it also gives back: it returns the investment. The tricky thing for me, I've found, has to do with the lyricism of the text. The fact is, those words will speak themselves but it can be so easy to just say the beautiful thing and lose sight of the action and intention behind the thought.
How does it feel that your director on the musical The Last Ship, Joe Mantello, is currently playing Tom in the new Broadway Glass Menagerie, with Sally Field?
I'll tell you, I love Joe so much and loved working with him as a director and he's also a fucking astonishing actor—a real artist. I got to have this experience with him where we got together over the summer to talk about this part together, which is something you just never get to do as an actor where you're normally working in isolation. So, to get to talk to another actor who's working on the same material, especially one I admire as much as I admire Joe, was something else. He's going to be so remarkable in that part, I just know. I wouldn't miss it for the world.
What about your musical theater resume, which embraces an astonishing array of rock and pop legends from David Bowie and Sting through to Green Day?
None of that was part of any plan on my part: I mean, I'm always happy to work on anything. But I think I'm more suited towards music that is written in that style and so it's much harder for me to imagine doing a more traditional musical; I don't know if I could do it. Also, I write music and play music and have a little sister, Shannon, who is in an amazing band called The Echo Friendly. I'm a songwriter, but there's a big difference between being a songwriter and being able to write a musical.
How would you contrast working with Bowie and with Sting?
They're very different people. They are—or in Bowie's case were—exceptionally kind and supportive and wonderful to work with in different ways, but Sting, I would say, was much more hands on, whereas Bowie would sort of watch us and would say supportive things without being in the center of it in quite the same way. Sting was much more involved in that he, of course, stepped into the show for a period and that process also involved several workshops, so it was a much longer developmental period.
Was it difficult performing Lazarus here in London given that the production inevitably had a commemorative feel?
It just felt incredibly charged, especially the night before we closed. There was something about that Saturday night that just felt like—I'm not sure how to talk about it, really. I know that was a show and an experience that will be with me forever.
What are your plans once Menagerie finishes at the end of April?
I'm going to go home to New York and see my family and friends and take a little while to recoup and catch up and then start hustling up work—and protesting.
Has it felt odd to be out of the U.S. during so tumultuous a period?
I thought maybe that would be a good thing, but I've felt such a deep need to be around my community and to take action that it has felt hard to be away. But in the last few weeks, I feel as if there's been a strong sense of alarm and action [in the U.K.] as well. I've found the activism here to be very comforting.