Ted Sod, Roundabout’s Education Dramaturg, sat down with actor Matthew Rhys to discuss Look Back in Anger and his role as the iconic Jimmy Porter.
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to play the role of Jimmy Porter?
Matthew Rhys: Look Back in Anger was instrumental in me choosing to be an actor. I’ve been slightly obsessed with this play since I was a very young boy when I saw Richard Burton in the film version. Consequently, it’s always been an enormous ambition of mine to play the part.
TS: Jimmy seems to be a character that wasn’t seen on British stages prior to 1956.
MR: Obviously, I wasn’t around when it premiered, but we are all privy to the play’s impact. There are people I’ve worked with who remember seeing Jimmy on stage for the first time and certainly felt the impact it had at that time. Sometimes, when the play is revived, the pressing question becomes how relevant is it? There are still great elements of the play that are incredibly relevant I think. And that’s why the play means so much to me; I can relate to Jimmy so easily.
TS: Is it premature at this point in your process for you to tell us who Jimmy Porter is?
MR: I can give you a sense of what I think of him now. He is an incredibly passionate and intellectual young man who’s confined by many aspects of society. To me, he seems a man that’s imprisoned by varying incarcerations. He’s incarcerated in every sense; he’s like a caged tiger on so many different levels. The small attic room he lives in physicalizes the fact that there’s a class system in place that restricts him. He’s incredibly frustrated by the job he has, because he’s so over-qualified. He’s obviously a working class man who had the intellect to go to university, but he feels confined for many reasons. On another level, there’s this great insecurity that goes hand-in-hand with his relationship with Alison. He is desperately in need of her and wants her, and when their relationship has fallen apart, the presence of his friend Cliff doesn’t allow him to say how he feels. Cliff is a reminder that he has to share everything. Cliff’s presence in the flat reminds him that he’s not succeeding as he should. Although he loves Cliff and he’s incredibly loyal to him, there are elements of Cliff that frustrate him enormously and because of his presence, he can’t really be who he wants to be with Alison. All of these things are conspiring against Jimmy. It snowballs towards these outbursts and monologues that come from this pressure cooker he is in.
TS: How much of Jimmy’s emotional life is influenced by the death of his father?
MR: An enormous amount. On a schoolboy, psychoanalytical level, I think so much is defined by the early years, and when he goes into the monologue about his father’s death, it’s an instrumental moment for the audience. You understand where his anger comes from and his sense of the injustice of it. You understand very quickly where his seething violence comes from.
TS: You’re Welsh, correct?
MR: I am, yes.
TS: What kind of preparation will it take to become Jimmy?
MR: I think I know a number of Jimmy’s, or indeed, I know a number of people who have very strong elements of Jimmy. I think the approach to his actions will be interesting because of the references to the family he has, to his education, and the other references that are worked in. There’s an Irish reference to him, which I think is quite fitting. His accent intrigued me quite a bit because of who he is and where he’s from and now he’s in a flat in England.
TS: I have to say, it seems to me Jimmy Porter might be part of the Occupy Wall Street movement if he was living among us. Would you agree?
MR: Yes, definitely. I think, in a certain way, the financial world in the United States (my impression of it) takes on what was the old class system of the United Kingdom, in that there are those who are extremely privileged. I think Wall Street is certainly where Jimmy would be if he were in New York City today.
TS: What do you think the play is about?
MR: The beauty of this play and why I love it is because I’ve seen it many times with different actors and it means a number of things for different people. There are those who think it’s a play about the abuse within the relationship and then there are those who think it’s about being trapped. The play will always bring up different things for me. I find it hard to confine it to being about one thing. It’s about a lot of things, which is why it appeals to a wide audience and why it’s so universal.
TS: Do you think the fact that the Colonel (Alison’s father) does not appear in this version is going to make the play more of a pressure cooker?
MR: Absolutely. I love that. I love the claustrophobia that builds; the play comes on far more intensely. There’s no opportunity to breathe, it just builds and builds until this moment that stops your breathing.
TS: What’s your take on Jimmy and Alison’s relationship? Do you think they are truly in love?
MR: Yes I do. I am a die hard romantic at heart; I think he has to be in love with her otherwise nothing would matter. Then it would be a play about abuse, a relationship that is finished. I think, in those final sentences, he has to be in love with her, so we can believe that there is hope for them.
TS: How do you like to collaborate with a director?
MR: You nailed it on the head for me. The word “collaborator”; that’s what I look for primarily. Pardon the cliché, but I love to go on the journey with some one. We lead each other at times and help each other along.
TS: Can you tell us about your training? Did you have any teachers that influenced you in any way?
MR: I had a great number. I trained at the Royal Academy about 15 years ago in London where there were a slew of great teachers. There was an acting teacher, Martin Ledwith, who really influenced me.
TS: Can you tell us if you have any advice for young people who might want to be actors?
MR: The list is as long as my arm, but I think the biggest thing is your tenacity. You need that in your work ethic. You have to need to act because it’s an incredibly difficult profession.
TS: Is there anything else that you want to tell us about the role or the play?
MR: There are people who think the play is a bit dated, but when I read it, I know it is relevant and will relate to a modern audience.
TS: What’s interesting to me is that, on some level, there are still households like this.
MR: There are families where people can be so cruel, only because they love each other.
TS: It reminds me of that saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt”
MR: Yes, absolutely.
Look Back in Anger plays at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre January 13, 2012 through April 8, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Look Back in Anger, Upstage