When Red premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London nine years ago, the buzz about the new play by John Logan started a tidal wave that eventually reached across the Atlantic in a Broadway transfer.
A clash of ideals and personalities, Red opens in the studio of famed artist Mark Rothko as he takes on an assistant—the fictionalized Ken—to help him on a commission of works to be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant. Tackling the always-at-odds motivations of art and commercialism and the threat of the new guard to the older generation, the debate grows as heated as the titular colors of Rothko’s murals.
This past summer, Molina returned to the role with his original director Michael Grandage but a new sparring partner in Alfred Enoch’s (How to Get Away With Murder) Ken for a limited run at London’s Wyndham Theatre. This time, courtesy of Michael Grandage Company and Trafalgar Releasing, the play has been captured and will be screened in select theatres throughout the U.K. and North America November 7.
Ahead of the showings, Playbill Skyped with the two Alfreds (known as Fred and Alfie) to talk about making Red, how they keep the two-hander exciting, and what cinema audiences can expect.
Fred, what's it like coming back to the role nearly a decade later? How has your Rothko evolved?
Alfred Molina: Actors constantly come back to great parts because there's something there that is very fulfilling. There's always something to rediscover. The great treat about Red is that in all the iterations that I've done with the play, I've always had a new partner. As each actor has played the role he's brought something special and something unique to it, so that's been fantastic. That makes it very exciting for me. It's less of a revival and becomes more of a rediscovery.
What is the thing that Alfie's Ken brings out in your Rothko that is perhaps different from other times you've done it?
AM: Well, he gives me a big bag of money in the beginning of each week to be nice to him because he has no friends. [Laughs] It’s weird talking about it with Alfie here. In the nine years since we did it originally, the world has changed. There are themes in the play now, that nine years ago didn't quite resonate in the same. A perfect example is when Rothko, at the end of the play, finally hands over the kind of responsibility of the future. He says, "When I was your age." That line never hit me quite the way it does now. I did the play originally when I was 56, I'm now 65, so I'm looking to a young actor. When my character is talking to a younger person now, when I say, "When I was your age," it’s got a resonance now that it didn't have originally. There was one night when we got to that line and it just hit me with such force. I just kind of burst into tears onstage.
Alfie, coming into a team with Alfred and Michael Grandage, who've worked together now for nearly a decade, what's the logic of the play that you had to find and learn and discover?
Alfred Enoch: Any rehearsal process you try to find the mechanisms of the play, right? What makes it work, what makes it tick. Coming into a room where everyone's done it before, I was thinking, “How am I going to make myself space to work, and not feel over-awed by that or not feel, sort of pan-struck by it?” The real thing is what happens between these two characters. What happens between Rothko and Ken. The real heart of it is that relationship. There's something urgent to these individuals and it lives in that relationship between the two. It has a real motive.
Much of the dialogue contemplates the value of art, so Red could come off as this meta-statement or lecture and it falls to you guys to make it buoyant, and make it kinetic, and make it questioning. How do you two tackle that as a challenge?
AE: It's not just a play about fears, it’s a play about two people. Two very specific people with very specific interests, passions, very articulate, and very talented and skillful when it comes to exploring those ideas and working with them. Therr are intellectual conversations that go into the birth of tragedy and Nietzsche. I've never read any Nietzsche before this. [But there’s] potential for it to be activated in the script. Like, if you didn't understand the rules of tennis, but you saw, you know, Nadal and Federer playing that Wimbledon final, you wouldn’t have to watch [anything else to understand]. (I'll gladly cast Fred as Federer, but I wouldn't cast myself as Nadal.) The idea is that these characters have that virtuosic ability. So when there is that back and forth and it really lives, and the stakes are there and it’s important for both of them it makes sense and it’s [engaging]. As Mark Rothko says: this is something he lives for. Ken likewise. There's that investment in someone who is committed to their art and their work. I think that feels like the engine of the thing.
AM: There's an interesting kind of technical thing as well in the play that stops it from just becoming an intellectual exercise or a lecture, which is the number of times that each character asks a question of the other. We are constantly asking each other questions. What that portrays is both characters’ need. It boils down to Ken's need to understand and Rothko's need to be understood. That explains this kind of urgency that Alfie's talking about.
One of the lines that struck me was about this idea of art as the way we handle truth. What is the truth, for you, that this piece helps you to reconcile?
AM: I think it's art, generally. I don't just mean fine art, I mean just any kind of creativity. At its best it can change your life. At its worst it can be merely something that peaks your curiosity for a while. It's never a waste of time. I think the play has given me so much in terms of understanding the nature of art, theatre, my own work, the craft of acting. This is a very demanding play. It's a very demanding role. It calls on all kinds of things, on one's technique, on one's energy.
Both of you have worked in theatre and television and movies. I think the beauty about theatre is that you get to reinterpret every night. It's not that you have to get it right for a single take, but here we are, we're going to capture it for one evening. How do you find the take that you want to choose to preserve on camera?
AM: All I can say is that what we record will be the very best that we can give that night.
AE: And it's a nice thing I think, to have that audience in there, we're not doing it for camera, which, in a way, removes that temptation that might exist to make something for posterity, that's not what it is. It's an immediate thing that lives in the moment.