Ivo van Hove’s dynamic multimedia staging of Network has wowed audiences and critics alike since the start of its Broadway run last November. The stage is transformed into a live television studio; swirling action integrates actors with cameras projecting images on multiple video screens to create a compelling vision of a media-dominated world in which the boundaries between real life and entertainment are irretrievably blurred. The London National Theatre production, adapted by Lee Hall from the Academy Award–winning movie written by Paddy Chayefsky, has shattered all-time box-office records at the Belasco Theatre and recouped its investment in just 15 weeks. Among other accolades, Network has received Tony nominations in five categories: Best Performance by an Actor in a Play (Bryan Cranston), Best Direction of a Play (Ivo van Hove), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Jan Versweyveld), Best Lighting Design of a Play (Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden), and Best Sound Design of a Play (Eric Sleichim). Now that Network will end its limited run in New York on June 8, we asked the three stars — Cranston, Tatiana Maslany, and Tony Goldwyn — and director van Hove to share with us their experiences of working on the celebrated production.
The star of the TV series Breaking Bad, who previously received a Tony Award for his performance in All the Way, has been widely acclaimed in both London and New York for his masterful performance as Howard Beale, the anchorman in Network. Dubbed the “angry prophet of the airwaves,” Beale has a dark vision of the news and entertainment business that has proven to be scarily timely and accurate.
What does the Tony nomination for Network mean to you?
Well, I’m very grateful for it. I really don’t do any of my work to try to get any nomination of any sort. That’s all the cherry on top. It’s really about finding interesting and compelling stories to tell. I’m delighted to have found this one and to be at the Belasco Theatre nearly every night to tell it. And, as exhausting as it is, it is also exhilarating. I think the most exciting thing remains — and it’s the quest of every actor whenever you are performing — when I can see and get feedback from audiences that are deeply emotionally affected by the storytelling.
What is it like giving a live performance on stage while also being projected in close-up on a TV screen?
I don’t concern myself with where anybody may chose to look at any given time. I just concern myself with telling the story from the character’s point of view. I know that it is of great concern to Ivo and [designer] Jan where they want the audience to be focused on at any given time. They’ve done a marvelous job and I was very happy to see that both of them were also nominated.
How did the scene where you interact with the audience come about?
It is one of the few times that an actor in a play is left to do improvisation. Every night is different and every person who I interact with is different. I really find that refreshing. But it wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t also germane to the story line. At that moment, Howard has drunk the Kool-Aid and he thinks that all of us should just acquiesce to the powers of the machine, because we are just “bees in the hive.” I said to Ivo, “I need to go into the hive and be with the other bees.” So that’s why that blocking was created. In there, my temperament is anything but the angry man that we’ve seen earlier [in the show]. Howard has let it go: It is not our individuality that we should celebrate, it’s our communality. We should just let the big machinery tell us what to do and we will be happier, because — the final line in there is — “each and every one of us is just a tiny node in the grand, glorious network.” Now Howard is singing the praises of this network and it’s frightening to the audience; they go, “Oh, my God, now he’s really crazy!”
Is there anything you discovered over the run of Network that you think will stay with you?
Well, one of the realizations that came to me when working on the show was the value of anger. It’s an emotion that is not acceptable in society. In most circumstances that’s a good thing — we shouldn’t live our lives filled with anger. But in this sociopolitical odyssey of our lives right now, perhaps anger is the appropriate emotion.
The Emmy Award–winning star of Orphan Black plays Diana Christensen, the ambitious young programming executive who represents the new order at the television station’s revamped news department — where the quest for higher ratings supersedes the actual reporting of the news.
What do you like most about playing Diana?
I just love that she is a really complicated and divisive character. People have an extremely visceral response to her; they have since Faye Dunaway did such brilliant work with the character in the film. She is this kind of icon and extremely difficult in a way that I find challenging for myself as an actor. She is constantly engaging — there is always something new for me to explore.
What is it like working on a production directed by Ivo van Hove?
Ivo makes you jump in right away. On Day One you are on your feet. We had the cameras going, the sound going, the video projections, we had costumes, we had sets. It was really full force immediately. There’s no thinking too much, which is so challenging and exciting. And he definitely wants to push the boundaries of how people engage with theater as actors and as an audience. When you come and see Network, the kinetic nature of the media involved and the staging and music — it really sets you in a kind of disoriented position as an audience member and forces you to engage with the piece in a way that isn’t passive.
How do you feel about your scene on the street outside the theatre with Tony Goldwyn?
I think Ivo really wanted that sense of “anything could happen.” People could be looking at the camera, they could be talking to us. But people have been pretty polite, actually. No one has done anything too nuts. I think Bryan sometimes watches from backstage and hopes that something wacky will happen! It very rarely does. I think that’s because New Yorkers are pretty used to seeing strange things on the street and not really caring. We’ve had people stop and stare, and I often hear, “Oh, my God, that’s the guy from Scandal!” or whatever. The most exciting part of doing that scene is that you get to be out in the real world. And again, Ivo is working with the idea of what is real and what isn’t — the way we go from outside, in this real-world situation, back on to the stage and right in front of everyone eating in the [onstage] restaurant. It’s such a fun scene for me to get to do. Tony and I really enjoy it.
And what about that very intimate scene you play, which some of the audience watches from very close quarters?
I love the boldness of it and I love how uncomfortable people get with it. I often find women will tell me afterwards how it just hit them and that they loved it. As an actor — I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing — you become so used to doing intimate things in a public space. That’s something that I’m interested in always exploring and challenging. And because I trust Tony so much and I just trust the moment, I forget about people with a fork in their mouth staring! It is sort of hilarious that the people who spend the most money to sit on the stage then have to deal with the fact that somebody is having sex right in front of them and their reaction is on camera. I think it’s great!
What do you think you will remember most when you look back on your time with Network?
Truly, the ensemble has been just the most amazing thing. Just watching [the actors] navigate every night and be so present. This is my first Broadway show, and I had no idea what to expect. I’ve learned so much about stamina and specificity. Watching Bryan work every night is like a master class. There’s nothing like doing theater. I think I’m going to be very devastated when it is over.
Stage and screen actor Goldwyn, best known for the TV series Scandal, plays Max Schumacher, the head of the news department who loses his head over Diana, the woman who is poised to destroy everything he stands for.
What was it about the role of Max that attracted you to Network?
The first thing that grabbed me was just the screenplay as a whole. It is such an extraordinary piece of writing and it speaks so vividly to the time we are living in right now. Specifically, the character of Max I find fascinating because he is in one sense the moral center of the play, at least when it begins. He’s the one who is trying to hold the line against the forces of corruption. At the same time, he’s a guy who is corrupted himself; he strays from his moral compass and destroys his life. I always find that men who are in a kind of a struggle for their moral soul are very interesting to play, and very human.
Is this unlike any other theater work that you’ve done?
Working with Ivo was completely unique. He works extremely fast. Everyone is required to show up at the first rehearsal off book with the whole play memorized. Usually you can be on book for two or three weeks in a rehearsal process. And there’s not a lot of discussion about the play. Ivo requires actors to be extremely inventive and bring something to the party, as opposed to waiting for him to dictate what he wants. He really gives the actors tremendous freedom. He doesn’t give you any blocking at all. He wants the actors to take ownership and demonstrate to him what we thought worked best.
This play requires a kind of a concentration that I find endlessly challenging. You are doing a scene where you are in front of a thousand people in a theatre and yet you have got a camera in your face, which is projecting that image on a giant screen for the audience. That takes a lot time getting used to, having to calibrate your performance for both the camera and the theatrical audience. I found it a fascinating challenge.
What is your takeaway from working in Network?
The stylistic innovations of this production are just amazing. Ivo’s concept, the multimedia style and energy of it, that’s been incredibly exciting. Also, this play is so alive and so impactful as a reflection of our society at the moment. Ivo has really connected the dots between what Paddy Chayefsky was writing in 1976 and what is going on in our culture right now. I feel so privileged to be part of this production and to work with the actors I’m working with. It is an inspiring and humbling experience to be on stage with Bryan Cranston every day. He’s an old friend of mine and he really is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. He never brings less than 150 percent to every single performance. I’ve learned so much from him. I feel very, very lucky.
IVO VAN HOVE
The internationally acclaimed Amsterdam-based experimental director received a Tony Award in 2016 for his visceral revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. His work — which has ranged from revivals of classics, new plays, stagings of movie screenplays, musicals, and opera — is sometimes controversial but always innovative and thought-provoking.
How do you feel about receiving a Tony nomination for Network?
I must say it was the greatest news I got in a long, long time. I was happy for Bryan, of course, and also that the team got so much praise.
How did the production evolve over the two years or more that you worked on it?
It is more than two years because there was the preparation time for it, and it also got delayed at a certain moment. Coincidentally, after we postponed it, the world suddenly started to change, with all of these issues on the table — with Trump there, and with Brexit there. So these things became more urgent and hard to ignore as we were preparing the production. It became like a force for the production.
We played in London for a long time, and that means also that the production has deepened. Like Bryan. If you sit with the character for such a long time, you become almost the character, or the character becomes you. Bryan was already great in London — he got the Olivier Award for it. It is very great to see how he deepened even more after we came to New York. Then doing it with an American cast, fresh people, that also gave a new kick for me to revisit the production. It wasn’t like we did a copy from what we did in London. It is really a political production — not party politics, but in a deep way about things that concern the society that we are living in. It puts forward questions about where are we as human beings. [It asks] is this what we want with our lives?
How do you manage to keep the audience’s focus balanced between the live action on stage and the video images on the television screens?
That’s the secret of the cook! Over the years I have found a way of dealing with video where I only give part of the information — if you look at the video only, you will miss a lot. And the audience feels that immediately. I try to make video productions where you have to be very active in the audience. You have to go on a search, you have to make choices — where to look, where not to look — that’s built-in. I have little tricks, you could say, so it doesn’t give you the feeling of being in a movie. It worked very well with Network because of the fact that we are in a television studio is already part of the story. Of course, we expanded that a little bit more: It also gave us the opportunity to go out of the building, out on the street. Everybody thinks that scene is prerecorded, but then [you see them coming back] into the theatre again. You always have to keep looking and to keep listening. You cannot stay passive. That is also what Chayefsky wants. He wants you to think, to listen to what Howard Beale has to stay, to sometimes hate him, to sometimes praise him, and sometimes be moved by him. It is all these different emotions that you have during the whole evening.
What’s it been like for you to create this production of Network?
Oh, I’ve enjoyed every second of it. Already, when we started the first preview, I felt that it resonated with the audience. It was like a fire. It turned out to be a necessary production at this moment. I’m really in love with it. When I am in New York I always try to see it again. I never get bored with it. The balance is pretty good, I think, between a spectacle and real content.