STAGE TO SCREENS: Phyllida Lloyd and Dominic Cooper Talk About "Mamma Mia!" Movie

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Phyllida Lloyd and Dominic Cooper Talk About "Mamma Mia!" Movie The film version of the hit musical Mamma Mia! gets released in July. Director Phyllida Lloyd and rising star Dominic Cooper, who plays Sky, discuss the project.
Dominic Cooper in
Dominic Cooper in "Mamma Mia!" Photo by Peter Mountain

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Back in 2002, Mamma Mia! was nominated for five Tonys, but won none. Since then, not only has the musical prospered on Broadway (currently in its seventh year), and in London (where it just started its tenth year), but also has appealed to a worldwide audience. As of last year, it had played to 30 million people, and grossed $2 billion. (The "Dancing Queen" has proved ABBA-solutely amazing!) The movie version — made by the same director (Phyllida Lloyd), writer (Catherine Johnson), and producer (Judy Craymer) who created it for the stage — opens July 18. Will this be another instance when "The Winner Takes it All"?

Set on a fictional Greek island, the film focuses on Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) whose daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, of TV's "Big Love") is about to marry. Sophie's choice is Sky (Dominic Cooper, who played Dakin in The History Boys in London, on Broadway and around the world), and the bride-to-be wants her father to give her away. But no one's sure of dad's identity. So she invites the prime suspects: American architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), British banker Harry (Colin Firth), and Australian author Bill (Stellan Skarsgard).

Also arriving for the impending nuptials are Donna's two best friends: Tanya (Christine Baranski), a three-time divorcée, and Rosie (Julie Walters), who's never married. Two decades ago, they were a singing trio called "Donna and the Dynamos."

The stage show was the brain child of Judy Craymer, who realized the theatrical potential of songs by the Swedish pop/dance group (1972-82) ABBA — an acronym for the first letters of the quartet's given names: Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad. In 1997, Craymer commissioned Catherine Johnson to write a book for the musical, and the next year selected Phyllida Lloyd to direct.

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Phyllida Lloyd says, "Due to Judy, Cathy and I are along for the adventure, which is remarkable. When Cathy and I were developing the screenplay, our biggest challenge was to maintain the essence of Mamma Mia!, to not disappoint 30 million people who know and love the show.

"At the same time, we needed to give the story flight, to give it wings. For a theatre director [she has extensive British theatre and opera credits], directing a movie is like having the level of pressure and tension of an opening night, every day for 30 days. Far and away, this is the most challenging project of my career."

Were there changes for the screen?

"Inevitably. We've made alterations in the story and the structure. We had to delete songs ["Under Attack," "One of Us," "Knowing Me, Knowing You"; "Thank You for the Music" is heard over the closing credits.] Some others have been moved around. 'When All Is Said and Done' [from the ABBA catalogue] has been added for Pierce Brosnan.

"'Dancing Queen,' in the stage show, takes place in Donna's bedroom. It would have been very hard to sustain that setting on the screen; it had to explode beyond there — to become sort of a pied-piper journey of rock 'n' roll.

Meryl Streep and Phyllida Lloyd on set.
photo by Peter Mountain © Universal Pictures

"The fundamental thing was to get inside the action. In 'Voulez-Vous,' for example, the only way to make it Sophie's point-of-view was to have the camera in my hand. That also told me where the energies and rhythms of songs were. The camera just sort of moved with the songs. There were other modifications: A lot of things necessary onstage don't need to be said on the screen. "We've made adjustments to the dialogue, but the characters have remained fundamentally the same. Onstage, there's a separation between character and audience; onscreen, you can go to a deeper place. I hope that people feel that each of the numbers has been shot completely differently [than on the stage], in accordance with what's required in the story. The process of shooting it that way was crucial."

According to Lloyd, a fourth female in the formula was Meryl Streep. "Meryl and her daughter had seen the show many years ago. It was only a dream that, one day, she'd play Donna. Meryl had written a letter congratulating the [Broadway] company — a letter which we all had copies of pinned to our britches, for some time.

"Judy, Cath, and I have all been 'paid-up' members of the Meryl fan club, since at least 'The Deer Hunter.' We knew that Meryl could sing, and that she loved Mamma Mia! Her enthusiasm for it was matched only by our admiration for her work.

"She's very, very musical. She sang onscreen in 'Postcards from the Edge' and 'A Prairie Home Companion,' but no one was prepared for her power and precision in singing these songs. She owns them. I think it will be a huge thrill for audiences." Lloyd laughs heartily when I ask if, due to a recent movie success of the two-time Oscar winner (and 14-time nominee), the title of the movie may be changed to "The Devil Sings ABBA."

Says Lloyd, "There's no doubt that Meryl's commitment to the movie gave us a credibility that we otherwise may not have had. [Laughs] We had theatrical and rock 'n' roll credibility, but Meryl gave us an extra dimension that made people curious, and excited to join the party.

"We were so lucky to find Amanda Seyfried, and to be able to bring together some of our best-loved British actors — Colin Firth and Julie Walters, who's a national treasure. And there's Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgard. We were unbelievably lucky to have this cast — to each man and woman."

Impossible onstage, close-ups worked well for Lloyd. "They enable you to see a character's inner life. The power of a close-up can be extraordinary, but you have to have actors who are able to reveal themselves. Of course, we did."

Camaraderie with Craymer and Johnson facilitated filmmaking. "We're the same age; we're like 'Donna and the Dynamos,' except I won't tell you who's who. But I'm definitely not Tanya. [Laughs]"

Lloyd's claim light-heartedly refers to her orientation. Openly gay, she'd hardly identify with a character thrice-divorced. Bristol-born, Lloyd has a brother. None of her family's in show business. "I think I'm generally regarded as a changeling."

Determined to be an actress "since I was five," Lloyd switched career goals "at university. When I began to direct, I discovered that I was much more comfortable than I was acting. I began my career in television, at the BBC in my 20s — and have taken a rather circuitous route back to cameras."

Her first name is pronounced PHYLL-id-ah. "I think the only other one in England is Phyllida Law [Emma Thompson's actress-mother]. We get muddled up a lot. She's very funny about it. We've never met, but we have a correspondence. She's even had a letter saying how brave she was to be taking up directing at her age. [Law is a quarter-century Lloyd's senior.] We write to celebrate our mutual successes or failures. [Laughs]"

Among Lloyd's directing credits are theatre (including Six Degrees of Separation, The Threepenny Opera, Mary Stuart, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and opera (e.g., Carmen, Medea, La Bohème, and Wagner's Ring Cycle).

Recalling the Broadway opening (Oct. 18, 2001), Lloyd notes, "9/11 had just happened, and people questioned if a musical was really an appropriate thing to be doing. It was extraordinary to experience Mamma Mia! What an injection of good spirit and heart it was.

"When we considered the possibility of a movie [version], [the show] just flew out of a cage onto the screen. I'm sure the studio was apprehensive; I'd only directed one short television film ["Gloriana," 2000]. But we were able to persuade them."

In the wings for Lloyd is a 2009 return to Broadway, "with Mary Stuart, starring Janet McTeer [1997 A Doll's House Tony winner] in the title role, and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth I." Walter last appeared on Broadway in 1983, as gentlewoman to the Countess (Margaret Tyzack) in All's Well that Ends Well.

Speaking a day before flying back to England, Lloyd sums up her cinematic adventure: "It's been a thrilling, life-changing experience — so hard, so physically and emotionally demanding — almost too daunting. It's only worth it if you feel possessed. Of course, one feels possessed about stage projects, but no feeling was tantamount to this."

Cut. Print.

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Dominic Cooper in "Mamma Mia!"
photo by Peter Mountain © Universal Pictures

As we speak at Manhattan's Ritz Carlton Hotel, Dominic Cooper is on a whirlwind "Mamma Mia!" publicity tour. On Sunday, he'd been in Milan; Tuesday would find him in Greece. (Ah, an actor's life can be difficult, but someone's got to do it.) Since we had a limited amount of time, I didn't inquire about his remaining itinerary. One imagines that the role of Sky should make the charismatic Cooper quite popular, although he tells me, "It's something I never thought I'd be doing. I went to great lengths to avoid it.

"I was working in Dublin at the time I got a call: 'Can you sing?' I said, 'No.' There were more phone calls. I knew of the show, but I hadn't seen it. I knew of the director, who's terrific. Finally, I said, 'I'll go, but it's going to be excruciating for everyone.'"

Continues Cooper, "I practiced the song ["Lay All Your Love on Me"], but was told, 'You can't go. That sounds awful.' I had great fun at the audition. I sort of laughed my way through it. Next thing I knew, I'd been offered the part. It was very surprising."

He went to see the musical, "and was amazed at the reaction. The audience became euphoric! I thought: This is what the film has to be like. I, personally, believe it is. I've been privileged to be part of it. No matter what anyone says, people are secret fans of ABBA music. I grew up with it; I get nostalgic when I hear it."

Remarking that he'd be good as another Sky — Masterson — should they ever do a new film version of Guys and Dolls, Cooper confesses, "I don't know the show, but I should look into that." Was there a particular actor he admired growing up? "I'm embarrassed to say there wasn't. There were the old, classical actors who I knew were impeccable — like Olivier." Adds the just-turned-30 actor, "I have flashbacks about classic '80s films: 'Back to the Future' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' The world of film intrigued me, and I was taken to the theatre and saw really good stage actors. But no specific people influenced me."

Born in Greenwich, London, Cooper has two brothers, a half-brother, and half-sister. He began acting while in school. "It was the only way I could continue on and do my A-levels [tests required to apply for college]. I wasn't very good academically.

"They had a fantastic drama department, and the person in charge begged the head [master] to let me play the Emcee in Cabaret [Cooper's sole previous musical credit], insisting that I was the only person who could do it. It was a very exciting production, my first proper taste of performing. I loved it. That's a character I'd love to play professionally. Unfortunately, it's just been done in London."

Graduating from LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) in 2000, he was hired by Nicholas Hytner to play a male prostitute in Mother Clap's Molly House (Cooper's 2001 stage debut). Among his roles since have been Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a 12-year-old in His Dark Materials, Parts I & II (also directed by Hytner), and the one that's given him the most satisfaction, to date: Dakin in Alan Bennett's 2006 Tony-winning Best Play The History Boys (again with Hytner directing). "Alan and Nick worked so well together."

With the drama since its first reading, Cooper appeared in all subsequent productions (London, Hong Kong, Wellington, Sydney, Broadway), as well as the radio and film versions. While Dakin's enamored by a younger student — and by the school's new (male) teacher, he's involved with the head master's (female) secretary, which later leads to his being able to save (through blackmail) an older teacher's job.

Explains Cooper, "It's quite easy to think of Dakin as someone who's manipulative, and uses his sexual prowess for his own gain. That's one way it could be played, but that's not really him. Alan's writing is challenging and brilliant. It's an extraordinary character to play."

Saying I wish that "The History Boys" film had fared better with a youth-dominated, action-fixated movie audience, Cooper feels that it will do well "over time. Kids who didn't see it will, someday, and be affected by it. That's the wonderful thing about film. It hopefully will reach more people than it did as a play."

Cooper's 2001 screen debut was as a clerk in "Anazapta" (a thriller, set in 1384, about the Black Death). Other appearances include "The Gentleman Thief," "From Hell," "Band of Brothers" (TV), "I'll Be There," "Breakfast on Pluto," "Starter for 10," "Sense and Sensibility" (TV), and "The Escapist." He has four upcoming releases: "An Education," "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," "The Duchess," and "David Copperfield" (reuniting him with "Mamma Mia!" co-stars Julie Walters and Colin Firth).

Of Broadway, Cooper observes, "It's a much closer community than the West End, where theatres are more spread out. New York audiences are much more amicable, much more willing to approach [at a restaurant or bar], and say how they feel. If they like something, they come and tell you. In England, people would be a bit more embarrassed to go and do that. Everyone loves to hear how a piece of work has affected them, and that they've enjoyed it."

Hopefully, claims Cooper, he'll be "working again with Nick Hytner — soon in London, and then on Broadway — though it's not absolutely definite. We're doing Phaedra, starring Helen Mirren." Of course, that's the musical version. Cooper laughs: "I only do musicals now."

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Various and Sundry

A fascinating documentary, "Chris and Don: A Love Story" (at Manhattan's Quad Cinema), details the relationship (1953-86) between British writer Christopher Isherwood (1904-86), author of the "Berlin Stories" — the basis for I Am a Camera/Cabaret — and 30-years-younger American portrait artist Don Bachardy. Included are excerpts from Isherwood's diaries (read by Michael York), Bachardy drawings, comments by Leslie Caron, footage on the set of "The Rose Tattoo" (1955), with Anna Magnani, Burt Lancaster, Tennessee Williams. The New York Times termed it "extremely touching...elegantly structured."

Two-time Tony winner (How to Succeed...; Tru) Robert Morse relates that he's shot five episodes, so far, for the sophomore season of AMC's "Mad Men", about which Alex Witchel wrote in last Sunday's Times magazine.

Guest starring on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (USA cable, June 29, 9 PM ET) are Christopher Lloyd (a fine Pellinore in the recent "Camelot" telecast) and "Late Night with David Letterman" music director Paul Shaffer as himself.

On a recent PBS documentary, Billy Wilder explained that he became a director to protect screenplays he wrote from misinterpretation. Asked should all directors be able to write, he said, "Better they should be able to read."

(Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between artists who cross freely between theatre, film and television. Michael Buckley may be contacted at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)

Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters in "Mamma Mia!"
Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters in "Mamma Mia!" Photo by Peter Mountain