Paul Chahidi on Hugh Jackman's Soft Hands & Falling Head Over Heels for London's Shakespeare in Love

Q&A 07/10/14

Paul Chahidi stole the spotlight on both sides of the Atlantic with his sublimely funny and commanding turn as Maria in Twelfth Night, the all-male production of Shakespeare’s comedy that stormed Broadway last season, netting the Englishman a Tony nomination in the process. Since that play—and its companion piece, Richard III—closed on Broadway in February, Chahidi has by no means been sitting idle. He returned home to London to appear in James Graham’s dazzling play Privacy and he is now in previews at the Noel Coward Theatre as the comically beleaguered producer Henslowe in Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love—the same part that garnered Geoffrey Rush an Oscar nomination.

Welcome back to the West End, this time in a play not by Shakespeare but about Shakespeare.
It’s great to be here, especially in a play that is both a love story and almost a love letter to the theater—there’s the love story between Shakespeare [played on stage by Tom Bateman] and Viola [Lucy Briggs-Owen in the Gwyneth Paltrow role] and then around it are numerous stories about the transforming powers of theater and the degree to which people fall in love with the theater sometimes to their own surprise.

Some people have assumed—wrongly—that your play is a musical.
I know, and we have live music on stage and do sing at various points, but this is very much a play, though one with a cast of 28 working alongside the genius of [playwright] Lee Hall, who is a theater animal par excellence and understands how the theater works. He in turn, of course, has a brilliant screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman to work with, though our play is very much its own thing. Not to take anything away from the film, which I adored, but this is not something being shoehorned into live performance; it sits very well in the theater. We have all the elements people loved from the film—plus more.

You play Shakespeare’s producer, Philip Henslowe. Have you modeled your performance on any real-life producers—Sonia Friedman, with whom you worked on both Twelfth Night and on this, perhaps?
[Laughs.] For a start, Sonia doesn’t have a beard and a bald head, before we go any further! I also think Sonia is far more relaxed and calm and composed than Henslowe in the play ever is. Basically, Henslowe is teetering on the edge of the abyss every time you see him, as if something awful is about to happen every time. That said, some of the biggest laughs we’ve had from Sonia have had to do with Henslowe: clearly she understands the producer’s lot!

The thing about Henslowe is that he does keep going.
Very much so. I think he realizes as all of us who work in the theater do that the creation of any work of art in the end remains a mystery. There’s a point at which something will either work or it won’t and when it does, there’s a strange alchemy that comes from a piece resonating with an audience’s imagination.

Did you find that with the pairing of Shakespeare plays that brought you and the company from the Globe to Broadway last season?
What was extraordinary there was that I was very hesitant at first about doing Twelfth Night in New York, if only because I had first done it 10 years ago in London and that has been such a defining moment and I thought, "I don’t want to ruin this perfect experience." Little did I know that I would end up having another perfect experience.

You interrupted your Shakespeare in Love rehearsals to fly to New York for the Tony Awards. What was that like?
I’ve never encountered anything like it in my life. I flew out with my wife on the Saturday morning and went straight out to a party and then dinner with our cast. The next day, we walked through the busy streets of Manhattan to Radio City Music Hall, which even under the awning on the red carpet must have been about 95 degrees. We then went through into the auditorium itself, where I had never been, and it felt like the Colosseum—that’s probably what people in the far-flung Roman Empire felt when they went to the Colosseum.

What are your memories of the ceremony itself?
I can die happy because I high-fived Hugh Jackman! I don’t need anything else now; my life is complete.

Is Hugh a good high-fiver?
He has very large, very soft hands.

If you had to lose, it must have been nice to do so to a colleague from the same play [three-time Tony-winner Mark Rylance].
Absolutely, yes, and Mark mentioned me and Sam [Barnett] and Stephen [Fry], which was a lovely thing to do. He was delighted for us and kept telling us to just enjoy it. And it really was wonderful to see the way in which he has put Shakespeare’s Globe back internationally on the map; in fact, he’s very keen to maybe come back to Manhattan and do some more classical plays—to do this all again some time.

Had you been expecting your nomination?
The funny thing is that I was Privacy at the Donmar during all that time, so in my head, I had kind of moved on, and then I started getting emails telling me about the Outer Critics Circle and the Theatre World Award and by the time the Tony nomination came, my phone nearly melted. The truth is that my expectations were so low that it made it all the sweeter when [the nomination] did happen.

It must be nice given how special your New York experience was that you have been so busy since returning home to London.
An actor’s fear is always that they will never work again—even Judi Dench has said she feels that! My particular worry was that New York had been an extraordinary time and that maybe no one in the U.K. would remember who I was and I would have to kind of remind them.

Do you have a favorite moment amid the recent whirligig that has been your life?
I did love the way in New York I kept being called a “fresh face”—at age 44! I wish people would call me a fresh face more often!

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