John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a classic so ingrained in the American psyche that it is perhaps no surprise that both the director and star of the new Broadway production of the 1937 play version of the novel have a longstanding personal relationship with the text.
"He was writing about California, which is interesting to me," said James Franco, the hyperactively polymathic Hollywood actor who makes his Broadway debut with this production. Because he was born and raised in Palo Alto, CA — not too far from the Depression-era fields worked by George Milton and Lennie Small, the itinerant workers at the center of the story — Franco feels a connection with the duo, as well as figures found in the Steinbeck canon.
"I think I could identify with a lot of the characters," he said. "They have this way of life that they were sort of OK without any approval from any authority figures. All these characters had created their own ideal worlds in circumstances that you wouldn't think were very ideal. When I was very young, that was very appealing to me. Before I declared I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a marine zoologist like Doc in 'Cannery Row.' When I got a little older, I realized it's not exactly the marine zoology that I like about this character. It's the way he turned his work into art, almost, and the way he conducts himself as a person. What I realized was that I wanted to be an actor and play characters like Doc, rather than be Doc."
Director Anna D. Shapiro (best known for staging Tracy Letts' towering August: Osage County), meanwhile, said, "My relationship to Steinbeck started when I was in my early teens and I saw Of Mice and Men at Steppenwolf. Strangely — and I know it's not possible that I had read it before — but even then it felt so familiar to me, so inevitable. It's a story and a cast of characters that I think lives in the collective unconscious of Americans my age and a bit older."
You wouldn't imagine the production's Lennie, Chris O'Dowd, born and raised in Ireland, would have had the same close relationship with the novelist while growing up. You'd be wrong. "We studied it in school, I remember," he said. "It was in the syllabus. I remember reading 'The Pearl' as well. 'The Grapes of Wrath' — I know we did that. I guess that teacher was just a Steinbeck fan."
A 21st-century production of Of Mice and Men has been been a prospect for some years, but has stubbornly refused to gel until now. "I had been involved several years ago — with different producers — and was heartbroken when it fell apart at the last minute," said Shapiro. Franco, too, remembers past conversation with some producers and Shapiro about acting in the play. "It's had different incarnations," he recalled of the project. "For whatever reason, it fell through."
Then producer David Binder gained the rights to the play and approached him a second time, and it seemed destined to be. "I was in a place where I was ready to do it," said Franco. "Anna wasn't on board yet. I had been flirting with Broadway. It was just something that I wanted to do. There had been a couple of productions that I talked to people about. Then this came back around. I thought, this is probably it." Franco than spoke to Shapiro. ("I'm pretty sure he was interviewing me," joked the director.)
O'Dowd climbed aboard next. "It came out of the blue," the actor recalled. "I got a call September or October, and was asked if I'd be interested. Then I didn't hear anything about it for months. I figured something came up and it had fallen through. Then I heard it was happening and I signed up that day."
Franco is glad that Shapiro is involved for reasons that go beyond her proven talent. "It was so clear after the first table read that it's such a man-heavy play," he explained. "Really, there's only one female part. It's nice to have her very strong female energy conducting everything, giving it something new that maybe past productions haven't had. It's nice to have that in the mix."
Franco's instincts were sound, for, just as he was excited about what Shapiro's less testosterone-oriented viewpoint might bring to the play, Shapiro is pointedly interesting in exploring "the maleness of the story."
"I'm fascinated by how the promise of the American Dream plays itself out in, and on, the men in my life and have been for a long time," she continued. "And I'm particularly occupied by their obsession with this idea of usefulness and worthiness — how they determine their own value and by what measure — because I think there is a kind of cruelty they perpetrate on themselves in this conversation that is heartbreaking to me. Hopefully I'll bring an outsiders' compassion, but other than that, I'm not sure it really matters that I'm a woman, per se. I think it mostly matters that I'm fascinated."
Though this is the first Broadway staging of the play in four decades, Shapiro doesn't plan to reinvent the script via some grand directorial concept. "In my work with Tracy and [playwright] Bruce [Norris], the inhabitants of those worlds use language — and a lot of it — to manage their situations," she said. "This is not that kind of world — this is a practical, pragmatic and, in some ways, more natural environment, and so the rules are different."
Despite his reputation as an artistic risk-taker, Franco is just fine with that straight-ahead approach. "As an actor, it feels like a very clear ride that these characters go on, in a very solidly constructed way. One thing very clearly leads into the other in a way that everything feels inevitable. As an actor, that's great. I can let the material work on me rather than try manufacture something to make the material work. It's almost all there.
"I'm not one who subscribes to the idea of: Just say the words and it will all happen," he said. He then laughed and added, "but in some ways it kind of feels like that!"