"We spent the whole time on the set just talking about the play," Alessandro Nivola laughed, remembering co-starring with Bradley Cooper on the 2013 film "American Hustle" and discussing a decidedly different work: The Elephant Man.
Nivola plays Dr. Frederick Treves, an up-and-coming surgeon who finds the titular Elephant Man, John Merrick, in a "freak show." After inviting Merrick to live and be studied at the London Hospital for the duration of his life, Treves discovers that the disfigured man is actually a thoughtful and brilliant man. As the years pass, he becomes emotionally attached to Merrick, viewing him as a man rather than a medical subject.
"My character says in his own writings about the Elephant Man, about Merrick, that when he first met him he thought that he was an imbecile," Nivola said. "He just had such severe mental retardation that he couldn't speak or anything." To prepare for the role of Treves, Nivola read a large amount of research, some of it provided by Cooper himself, whose dedication to the play has been highly publicized.
"There's actually a huge amount of background material on both Treves and Joseph Merrick," Nivola said. "And Bradley got back from London having visited Merrick's bones and presented me with a little memory stick that was full of all this stuff he'd been compiling because he's totally, in a geeky way, obsessed with all of the background detail. There was more to research than most roles. I could still be reading right through closing night and not have got to the bottom of it."
Nivola made his Broadway debut in 1995 in A Month in the Country, followed by the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of The Winslow Boy in 2013. His extensive film work includes "Ginger & Rosa," "Howl," "Junebug," "Mansfield Park" and "Face/Off."
Due to the time that had passed between the Williamstown production and the Broadway opening, Nivola admitted he was apprehensive about returning to the character of Treves; his main concern was that the experience would be too similar to that of Williamstown.
"I'd never reprised a role before, in any play, so I guess I was a little apprehensive about what it would be like coming back to rehearse the play," he said. "Rehearsals are all about discovery and finding new things that spark off the ideas about the character and drive you into your performances with a spontaneity and life."
On the first day of rehearsals, his fears were quickly calmed, he said, adding, "It became clear that we were going to treat it like we'd never done it before. We sat down from the start, just as if it was the first time that we'd ever grappled with the play."
The complicated relationship between Treves and Merrick is a source of both joy and devastation to Nivola's character; the more Treves got to know Merrick, the more tragic the situation became. "The thing that was most upsetting to him was to discover that in fact there was this poetic, romantic, young man that was trapped in this body, and that was the worst of all possible things," Nivola said. "And yet they developed a profound relationship as a result of it. That reality of this hidden person inside that body — it's just so painful and he is such a heroic figure for being able to not be turned into an ugly human being as a result of his experience. It's uplifting sometimes."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)