"Oh no! I think I might have to do this!"
Those were Clive Owen's exact thoughts after his first time reading through Harold Pinter's Old Times. It was one of the only Pinter pieces he hadn't explored at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his current Broadway director, Douglas Hodge, also studied drama.
"I've always appreciated Pinter," says Owen, who stars in the three-hander at the American Airlines alongside Eve Best and Kelly Reilly. "I've been flirting with the idea of doing a play for some time, and then after reading that play, I was like, 'Oh, this is such a good play and such a good part,' so I knew I'd have to follow it through."
It was the same for Keira Knightley and Bruce Willis — 30 years apart in age (their birthdays are in March) — with both taking a break from the film world to make their Broadway debuts this season. Knightley officially bows Oct. 29 as the heroic and lovelorn Thérèse Raquin in Helen Edmundson's play of passion and betrayal at Studio 54; and Willis opens Nov. 15 in the stage adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery" at the Broadhurst.
"Randomly," Knightley reveals, Thérèse Raquin is "the only thing I've been offered more than once — not this adaptation of it, and obviously not this production. But, I think I've been offered it twice before, and each time I've turned it down because I thought, 'Whoa! That's too dark and too difficult, and I don't know what to do with it,' and I think I was really frightened of it. Suddenly, it came back around again, and I thought, 'Okay, why does this thing keep coming back around?' I guess I was just in a place where I felt like I wanted to give it a go."
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Knightley is known to take on intriguing characters; she likes to uncover what makes them tick. In Thérèse Raquin, the 19th-century story of a woman who tries to shake a loveless marriage by entangling herself in a dangerous affair, "they could all run away," she explains. "They don't because psychologically they can't — not because physically they can't, but psychologically they can't, and I think that's still what we do today."
In Willis' case, however, he physically can't move. The prolific film star ("Moonlighting," "The Sixth Sense," "Die Hard") plays novelist Paul Sheldon, who's being held captive by his biggest fan (played by Laurie Metcalf) until he rewrites a book's ending to her liking.
Misery was a project that Willis couldn't pass up. In fact, he turned down a starring role in Woody Allen's upcoming film to keep his Broadway plans in place. "I was committed to it, and I still am," Willis says about turning down Allen.
Willis got his start performing Off-Broadway in the '80s while simultaneously tending bar at an art bar, Kamikaze, on 19th Street.
"I never thought of it as a job," he says. "It was always fun to do. Even when I was doing stuff back in my hometown [of Carneys Point, NJ] at the YMCA, it was always really rewarding for me… The thrill that I get from just stepping out on stage is really cool, really exciting and very different than doing multiple takes on a film." What's more, Willis will follow his daughter, Rumer, who made her Broadway debut in Chicago. "Of all the things that I could have imagine, having my oldest daughter and myself onstage at the same time, it just seldom happens."
Though twice Oscar-nominated — for "The Imitation Game" and "Pride & Prejudice" — Knightley would say that a film set could be a more daunting place than the stage. "About 100 people [are] watching you the whole time, but you're literally doing it with absolutely no rehearsal whatsoever," she says. "You're doing it with very little preparation, and you're doing it without having met the people who you're working with, and it's completely out of order, and you have no idea where you're going… At least in the theatre, the actors are very much a team — you have to be a team — and that's what's so fun about it. You live and die by each other."
For Owen, also an Oscar nominee for his performance in "Closer" (based on Patrick Marber's Tony-nominated play), going to drama school and being part of the team Knightley refers to was vital. He came to that realization after passing up a drama school years before attending London's RADA (and spending quite some time without a gig).
"I look back now," he says, "and I didn't know that when I turned down that first drama school that I was going to be two years unemployed in my hometown. I thought other things were going to happen, and that was the reality… I think there are certain points in your life where you travel down certain roads, and it can have a very big effect on where your life pans out, and it can do all sorts of things — in your personal life, in your work life — [but] I don't necessarily think that there's a 'divine' thing that happens for a reason. I think that every life is full of those crossroads, really, where you make a decision about something, and it takes you down a different path. And some of those are luckier than others."
Here, all roads have led to Broadway.
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)