It was “a strange twist of fate,” according to Tom Sturridge, that brought him together with fellow stage and film star Jake Gyllenhaal for the showSea Wall/A Life. After the actors’ mutual agent suggested that Sea Wall and A Life — respectively written by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne, two of the U.K.’s most esteemed contemporary playwrights — shared enough thematic turf to work in tandem, they discovered that Stephens and Payne are in fact “close friends,” Sturridge says, and that rising British director Carrie Cracknell “is best friends with both of them.”
Now, following an acclaimed run at the Public Theater earlier this year, Cracknell’s staging of Sea Wall/A Life is scheduled to begin previews at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre July 26, in advance of an Aug. 8 opening. Gyllenhaal and Sturridge will again play devoted husbands and fathers who share deeply personal accounts with the audience. The show is a rollercoaster ride through all the big questions of life.
“For me, this is a play about love, a love letter to a wife and child, to family,” says Sturridge, who like his character is father to a young daughter. “There are extraordinary connections to my life. My daughter and her mother are the two most important people to me.”
Gyllenhaal notes, “The most beautiful thing is that it’s really a show about two men who are deeply in love with their wives which feels like a rarity in dramatic theatrical work today, a lot of plays seem to be about the tumult and complications and betrayals in relationships. Here you have men who worship their wives, and know deeply inside them that they wouldn’t be able to survive this life without that partnership.”
For Gyllenhaal, Sea Wall/A Life is also “a show about imagination and memory. Both of these men have a profound need to exorcise the stories of their lives and the events that have affected them, that have changed them.”
Sturridge says he “didn’t realize what we were doing until we got in front of the audience. We talk a lot about these pieces are a dialogue between our two characters and the audience, and it was astonishing to realize how influential they are every night. Sometimes people have gone through experiences similar to the ones we’re talking about, and sometimes people are learning what it’s like to be a father, or to be in a loving relationship. I’ve never had an experience like it.”
Gyllenhaal agrees: “Different things inspire you every night. Throughout the process, I obviously think about my family. There have been nights when my parents have been there, or I’ve had friends who have been through similar things to our characters; I had a friend who had just recently had her first child come one night. She came back in tears and we hugged and laughed and didn’t even have to say a word. The show spoke so much already.”
Payne had performed an earlier iteration of A Life himself, and collaborated with Gyllenhaal in revising it “It’s been a very intimate process, one where he trusted me with things,” the actor says, “I didn’t know Nick’s father, but I feel like I know Nick’s father because of this show and I love him. You can say about many shows that, ‘We’re a family.’ But this show is legitimately about family, and there’s no way it would succeed if we didn’t all bring our families into it and if we all of us who are a part of it didn’t feel like a family too.”
The two actors have also grown close, regularly giving each other notes after rehearsals and performances. “Tom is going to cringe at this,” Gyllenhaal begins, “but people may perceive him as isolated or quiet, but he’s one of the funniest, most outgoing, loveliest people I’ve met. A lot of the roles I’ve seen him in are very serious and intense, but I’ll just set the record straight—I haven’t met a lot of people with a heart as big as his, and I love hanging out with him. And he can sing really well too.”
Sturridge responds, after a sheepish pause, “I’m English, so I can’t be as nice as that. But what’s been surprising is that we barely share any time onstage together, and yet I can honestly say it’s been the most intimate and collaborative experience I’ve had, professionally. I’ve never felt so in tune with another actor, and yet I don’t speak a word with him.”
Gyllenhaal is confident that those good vibes will extend to theatergoers when Sea Wall/A Life begins performances again this summer. “The show has evolved,” he notes. “I think at the Hudson Theatre, the idea of joy and light will be more present, because that’s what we got from the Public. We walked into this thinking it was one thing, and the audience told us something else. So often they were telling us, ‘Thank you’ – there was this great joy, and that will be infused into the experience of walking into the theater, into the design, into the show as a whole. And everything else will be left to people’s imaginations.”
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