PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Gallagher Jr.

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Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr. of Spring Awakening and American Idiot is a rare American actor in the English production of Jerusalem, now on Broadway.

John Gallagher, Jr.
John Gallagher, Jr. Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Jez Butterworth's critically acclaimed English play, Jerusalem, which began as an English Stage Company production at London's Royal Court, has been regarded by some as a State of the Nation play looking at the decline of England. At three-hours-long, the humor-laced ensemble drama is packed with references to myth, Romantic poetry, nature, innocence and experience, country rituals and the supernatural.

The Broadway engagement — again starring Mark Rylance as Johnny Rooster Byron, a rogue, a storyteller, a host, a glutton, a king and a fool — reunites most of the British troupe, plus Spring Awakening Tony winner John Gallagher Jr., who plays Lee, a small-town lad who, with a tribe of young people, serve as satellites to Rooster's sun. We talked to Gallagher about the dense and rich character study (or is it an allegory?) of Jerusalem the day after its April 21 opening.

I've been telling my friends that Jerusalem is such a meal — it's like this giant buffet.
JG: Yeah.

As an American digesting it, I was busy trying to decode it. Everyone thinks it's a sort of State of the Nation play or that it's about England — but, at heart, it's kind of this big, juicy character study, isn't it?
JG: Yeah, I think that if you talk to Jez, the playwright, there is a lot that went into it about that countryside lifestyle and people that live in these small places. England is just now feeling the affect of corporate globalization and the need to tear down these trees in the countryside to build houses, or build a shopping mall, or whatever. So there is that to it, but for everything that it stands for, it really is just a lovely story about these amazing kind of larger-than-life characters. Like any good play, it's not really over until the viewer gets a chance to go home and sit with it for a while. You have that — like you said — kind of "decoding it" and "translating it," because it is so culturally specific to that region of Wiltshire in England. I think a big fear amongst our creative team was how is it going to read over here? How is it going to play? It had a very successful run in London, but that can sometimes not mean anything for a transfer to the United States, and vice versa. Shows that have done really well [here] — new American plays, or new American musicals, or what have you — have gone to London and had a very short shelf life. It's always a bit of a risk to bring something over, and it's been thrilling to see how much the New York audiences from first preview onward…are really having a great time. I really like how you said that it's like a buffet, that it's like a meal. It really is like this three-course meal, because each act it just gets richer and richer and richer, and pulls out so many surprises along the way. When I first read it, I remember just each time an act ended, I thought, [I should] take a break and go get something else done. I ended up reading it in one sitting. I couldn't put it down. I was completely transfixed, and that was just from the page, and from Jez's writing. But the way that Mark Rylance brings his character to life is just so monumental and epic. And the way that Ian — our director Ian Rickson — has staged it, and given it such a kind of spontaneity and freedom onstage, that is really liberating for the performers. And I think that's contagious for the audience as well. I feel like by the middle of the second act, there is kind of the dissolve, where it's just this great story, that we are both helping each other to tell.

 

John Gallagher Jr. in Jerusalem.
photo by Joan Marcus

I don't want to suggest that it's a play that is a strenuous puzzle for people, but there are culturally specific references embedded into the script. The play takes place on St. George's Day, for example. There's a sign on Rooster's mobile home that reads "Waterloo."
JG: Yeah, totally. I read the play back in October of last year and I fell in love with it instantly. And for me, reading it as an American, the things that I didn't fully understand, there was something that I loved about that — about the mystery of it. About not exactly knowing what everything was, but Jez is such a great writer, that I feel with any great writer, it almost doesn't even matter what language you are speaking if it is told with a certain kind of energy and a certain kind of spirituality and pathos. It all kind of comes across, and when I read it, even the things I had to Google or look up to make sure I knew what they were, I always found, surprisingly enough, that I was pretty close to getting it right, even though I had no idea! I knew nothing about the kind of Wiltshire slang or anything out there, and then I just went in and auditioned with Ian, and we had a great time in the audition room together. A couple weeks later, I sat down and had tea with Mark Rylance and Jez Butterworth and we had a conversation about it and they kind of wanted to make sure I that I had digested it and understood it, and that I was game for joining the ensemble because it was a company that had been together for a couple of years, and they have about four new people now, myself included.

We got to go to London to rehearse, and we actually got to visit Wiltshire, the town where it takes place, and meet a lot of locals and talk with them, and that was so, so valuable to be able to do that. It was such an asset, especially, I think, for the American actors, to be able to go there and say we've stood on Wiltshire's soil, and we've met people from Wiltshire, so we can take that to New York with us.

We had an ongoing discussion at rehearsals about, "Should we change this? Should we change that? Are people going to understand it?" And there were so few cuts made. Our stage managers are both American as well, so [the creative team] had a constant discussion about, "Do you know what this means? We know what it means because we live in England, but is a New Yorker going to know what it means?" We were all part of that discussion together about making sure that we made it clear — as clear as it could be — to American audiences without diluting it, or watering it down, or compromising the story, or any of the integrity about having it set where it's set. It's set there for a reason.

Gallagher on opening night
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Stonehenge is in Wiltshire, isn't it?
JG: It is, yeah. Stonehenge and the Amesbury standing stones — it's a very mythical place. There's all these rock monuments, and it's actually where most of the world's crop circles appear every year. Tons of crops circles are always appearing mysteriously in Wiltshire, because it's this huge countryside — huge fields. It's very, very green. Lots of woodland areas. I always tell people that I think it kind of feels like it can be set in the Ozark Mountains, or somewhere in the back woods of Arkansas or something. That feels like kind of the equivalent to the play and these people that are very rooted in the very [rural] mentality and way of life. But all around them, in this strange way, there's all this history and all this mythology and all this kind of fantastical magic stuff that's part of the very soil that they walk on. So, it's that strange duality of feeling — especially with my character, who's one of the few people in the play that really longs for a change. [He has] the strange feeling of thinking, "The land that I walk on is touched by all of this ancient [experience] but the end of the day, what is my life about? Do I have any significance? Do I amount to anything?"

The Ozarks and Wiltshire are lands of tall-tales, and your character, Lee, really wants to set out and create his own story —
JG: Definitely. There's that kind of push and pull, we often said in rehearsals. I've always felt like it would ruin the whole mood, but I kind of feel that in the beginning of the play or the end of the play you could probably play, "Should I Stay or Should I Go," by The Clash, because a lot of the play is about time, and how much time we have left — and should I stay or should I go? It's always a question with these characters. Especially, for my character. He puts up the front about kind of hating this small town that he is stuck in and he wants to set off and have his own kind of mystical journey — but when he comes back to it, he actually loves the place where he comes from. "Do I stay here? But if I stay here, am I worthless? I've got to go out there and effect some kind of change in the world, even if it's just a change within myself."

Can you specifically say how Lee is touched by Rooster's character? There is an ensemble of followers around Rooster, and it's interesting to try to chart the relationships.
JG: Right, yeah. In rehearsals we always talked about the tribe being kind of like a kingdom that's faltering, that's crumbling, and that if it is the court of King Rooster Byron and he's this ruler, this king, that basically around him are his followers — we gave ourselves all kind of positions. We always felt that Ginger [played by Mackenize Crook] was the replacement queen, because the Queen in exile is Johnny's ex, Dawn, who shows up in Act Two. And Lee is kind of a prince-in-training. It's almost a betrayal for my character to want to leave, because throughout the play, you don't get hit over the head with this, we kind of slid in the text that Lee could possibly be the next Rooster someday. He can take over for him — he's in training to possibly be the next king. When I go away, Rooster says to Lee, "You're a piss-head and a wiz-head. You don't pay your own way, but you are the only one of these buggers that I trust with a lit match." You get the sense that there is some actual bond between these two characters, and I think that I have a love and an understanding for Johnny, and I'm one of the few that shows the most remorse when it's revealed in the end of Act Two that we may not be the most trustworthy or lovable followers of him…

Do you imagine what happens to your characters after the action of a play is done? Do you imagine what happens to Jesus of Suburbia from American Idiot and to Lee and others?
JG: Oh, yeah. I think it's part of the wonderment of performing. I always like to think of these people existing in real time in a way that they're all out there somewhere. That they're existing on some other plane right now. I'm always fascinated by that. I tend to go back and forth. I love waking up every day and having a different idea about where they might end up and what they might be doing; it shifts for me constantly and regularly. Some days I think one thing and some days I think other things, but I love to think about it. I always love to hear what people have to say, too.

Because Lee is positioned as the one who escapes, you sort of hope that it's a more positive life, but that may be my own prejudice — that I always tend to look for the hope in plays, for the love...
JG: Absolutely, I think you have to definitely look for that. Everyone does, most of the time. Yeah, I think he lands on his feet. One way or another. I'm sure there's some mistakes made along the way…  

Gallagher in American Idiot.
photo by Paul Kolnik

I love that in the recent Broadway shows that you've done, the physical worlds have been so striking: the shifting and spare space of Spring Awakening, the expressionistic expanse of American Idiot or the literal "wood" of Jerusalem. Does it jazz you, as an actor, to be working in a unique physical world rather than a literal kitchen-sink world?
JG: Absolutely. Oh, most definitely. I mean I love all kinds of playing spaces. Christine Jones, specifically, made these amazing sets for both Spring Awakening and American Idiot — but they're very symbolic, so there's something so literal about Ultz's [Jerusalem] scenic design of amazing woods and real grass and real leaves and these tall trees and the dirt. And the lighting design is so kind of subtle, and we constantly have the sound effects of birds chirping and leaves rustling, so it makes it so easy to really, really get lost up on that stage — really feel like you're out in the middle of the woods in Wiltshire. That I love. This one's just been a joy to play on, because Ian has set us up with certain amounts of spontaneity and freedom where he gives us the ability to push it with the direction each night, and there are certain sections of the show where, within reason, he allows us to play with it every night. So there are scenes in this play — and this is new for me, and I am having a ball doing it — where we go into it each night and not really know how it's going to play out, and that combined with the set, combined with how well Mark plays and leads us, like a bandleader on stage, once the curtain goes up, it really makes you really plug into the story and the character. It's never been so easy for me to not know what's coming, which is what you ultimately want to convey — that it's the first time for all of us.

Sounds like you are all up there doing intuitive work.
JG: Oh, yeah, definitely. Ian, our director, he's really big into his companies playing volleyball together. It's so contagious and so much fun…we play a game of volleyball before every show, and we go out into the house and set up a net. It's a great way to get ready for the show. And there is something, too, without even thinking about it, you are already starting to think as one, and read each others' minds. Theatre is very much the same — it's about keeping a ball up in the air, and not dropping it, and passing it back and fourth.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at kjones@playbill.com or follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

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