It's an hour and a half before curtain time and The History Boys' heartthrob, Dominic Cooper, is sweating bullets. But his perspiration has nothing to do with pre-performance jitters.
It's a humid summer afternoon, and the young British actor has just hopped off his bike, which he frequently rides to the Broadhurst Theatre from his apartment in the Meatpacking District. He's joined in his cramped dressing quarters by co-star Samuel Barnett. The two actors are talking about their roles in the Alan Bennett play, which has become one of the hottest tickets on Broadway thanks to a chorus of critical hosannas and a slew of Tonys, including the Best Play laurel.
The dark-haired Cooper, 27, who plays the charismatic lothario, Dakin, may seem like the epitome of hipster cool, but he's also engaging, funny and surprisingly down-to-earth. The same can be said of his fair-haired cohort, Barnett, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance. Perched on the small cot in Cooper's dressing room, the 23-year-old actor projects an innocent boyishness that belies his intelligence and lively wit.
In the play, Barnett portrays Posner, the sensitive young gay lad with a penchant for torch songs and an unrequited crush on Cooper's smart-alecky bad-boy. Dakin, meanwhile, learns how to use his sexual magnetism to his advantage. "He's a character that can come across as extremely arrogant and unlikable," explains Cooper. "But that's what has been exciting - trying to keep the charm about him and make him still be very appealing to the audience. It's about finding the right balance." While Cooper insists he's nothing like Dakin in real life, Barnett believes that all of the cast members imbue aspects of their personalities into their characters. "At the end of the day, our own personalities bleed into and inform what we're doing onstage," he says. "Dakin wouldn't be as attractive a character if he didn't have the charm that [Dominic] puts into it. And I have quite an acerbic wit anyway, so I can put that into some of the great one-liners that Posner has. And it works the other way around. They bleed into each other."
Despite their current success, acting was a career choice of last resort for both young men. "I was academically hopeless and on the verge of being chucked out of school," says Cooper, who was raised in Greenwich, England. It was then that the drama instructor urged him to try out for the Emcee role in Cabaret. That changed his life. "If I hadn't gotten involved in acting, God knows what I would have done." Still, Cooper never considered training professionally until his drama teacher suggested it. "I hated that age. It was just absolute panic and angst. Guidance [counselors] kept saying things like, 'What are you going to do with your life? You're going to be destitute. You're going to be on the streets.'"
Growing up in North Yorkshire, Barnett, too, was lost when it came time to decide on a path in life. Although he was a straight-A student and had been performing since the age of ten, he was reluctant to try his hand at drama school. A friend eventually filled out his application forms because he wouldn't do it. "I had these preconceptions about drama school. I said, 'No, that's what proper actors do.'"
So where do the two young men stand in terms of The History Boys' debate about education in a results-driven world? Do they sympathize with Hector (Richard Griffiths), the inspiring idealist, who advocates learning for learning's sake? Or are they on the side of Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a contrarian who argues that it's not what you know, but how stylish and interesting you are in the presentation of that knowledge?
"Different pupils react to different things. Some kids would react very badly to a teacher like Hector. [He] would do them no good whatsoever," replies Cooper. "And other kids - more artistic kids - would flourish."
Barnett believes that there's got to be a happy medium between the two approaches: "You've got to get students through school because that's the system. But you've also got to teach them how to be human beings and how to grow up so they can get through life. If you don't do both, then I'd say you've not got a good system. I think you need Hector and you need Irwin. But you need more diluted versions of the both of them."