British Actors Arthur Darvill and Joanna Christie Are Lovelorn Troubadours of Broadway's Once

By Adam Hetrick
June 25, 2013

This past spring Arthur Darvill and Joanna Christie began an adventure. A whirlwind audition and a subsequent rehearsal period of less than a week would find the London-based actors starring in the soulful leading roles of Guy and Girl, respectively, in the Broadway production of the Tony Award-winning musical Once – which is now in its second year at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.



Darvill, best known for his role as Rory Williams on the BBC series "Doctor Who," has also appeared on stage in Our Boys, Dr. Faustus, Swimming with Sharks, Marine Parade, Stacy and Terre Haute.

Christie co-starred with Daniel Radcliffe in the West End revival of Equus. She has appeared in "Mr. Selfridge" as well as The Ramshackle Heart and One Night In November.

Playbill spoke with the two thirty-something actors about their lifelong love of music, the experience of making their Broadway debuts, and landing the roles of a lifetime.

I'm curious to know if you originally auditioned for the London production of Once or whether it was specifically for the Broadway production.

Arthur Darville: Just New York. We have no idea how it happened!
Joanna Christie: We're just as clueless as everyone else!

AD: I still can't quite get my head around it at times. I got a phone call from my drama teacher [in the U.K.], who said, "How are you doing? I'd love to catch up. Come up and see the kids," and I said, "I'm in New York!" And he said, "Oh my God!" And I said, "Yeah, Oh my God!" So then he sent me a text message that read: "I've just looked it up – You're the lead!" and I said, "I know!"

I think American theatre fans were both surprised and delighted to see that two actors from the U.K were coming over.

JC: Honestly, we don't know why because Declan [Bennett], who's in the London show, is based here. So it's a bit mental.
AD: We were so clueless about the casting process and for us, it was a matter of a week and a half from the first audition to actually getting the job.
JC: And that includes flying out here for about four days.

That's a crash-course in Once. You're not just learning sides, you have to play instruments as well.

JC: It was horrendous! [Laughs.] I got a call on Monday saying, "Can you come in in 24 hours and play and learn the Mendelssohn piece, learn the song 'The Hill,' that my character also plays, then learn three scenes in a Czech accent." I remember being really annoyed because I thought, "There's no way I'm going to be able to do a good audition. This is a waste of time, and I'm not going to get it." Then I spent nine hours on a piano to learn that Mendelssohn because I thought, "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this really well." It was pretty nerve-wracking. I've never played piano in any professional capacity, so that was pretty daunting.
AD: I had bit longer to prepare, actually. I had about three or four days. I got really into the music – I had about three or four songs to learn. And the scenes to look at. But that makes for the best auditions, because there was a part of my brain that was like, "There's no way I'm going to get this." So, it made me really chill out about it.
JC: It was almost a joke! Broadway - as if!
AD: I kept thinking, "They're going to get an Irish actor to do this, surely. There's got to be lots of Irish singer-songwriter people... They're not going to go for me at all."
JC: Or they'll get a Broadway star.
AD: I also looked up Steve Kazee on the internet and thought, "God, he's got such an amazing voice." It's so far away from what I do and am as both an actor and a musician that I thought, "I'm so not right for this." But I love the music and spent most of my time learning the songs and annoying my upstairs neighbor by screaming. I couldn't really sing the songs at first because they were too high and I'd just stopped smoking. I had to really warm up to be able to hit the notes. And I initially thought, "There's no way I'll be able to do this eight times a week."

Arthur Darvill
Photo by Joan Marcus

Did the two of you initially audition together?

JC: I knew Arthur was coming out to New York [for the second round of auditions]. When I was done auditioning, I said to the casting director's assistant, "Is Arthur Darvill here?" Because I thought, "If I'm reading with him tomorrow, I want to meet him and practice." And he stood up and said, "Hello, that's me! I'm Arthur." So we did have a chance to do the scenes together.
AD: I arrived on a Friday and it was snowing. It was really horrible. I walked all around New York and had to buy new socks. Then we came out of the audition and it was blazing sunshine. We went for lunch outside.
JC: Then they called us.

So you found out about your casting at the same time?
AD: I found out first.
JC: We had both our phones out. It was half an hour before I found out I had been cast. My agent was out to dinner, so she didn't get the call. I had to call her and say, "I don't think I've got it because Arthur's found out and I haven't." So I genuinely thought Arthur had gotten it and I hadn't. I was gutted!

How long was the turn-around from your casting to New York?

AD: We were told, "You'll be flying out to New York straight away." So, I thought, "I need to say my goodbyes." I'd just moved into a new flat in London. Then we had no contact from the production for about a week.
JC: And I thought, "Was this a joke? Is it April Fool's Day?"
AD: Then we got a call saying, "Your first rehearsal is tomorrow morning."

This is truly an ensemble piece as far as the acting and musicality go. What kind of rehearsal did you have with the cast?

AD: We had no interaction really.
JC: We came straight in. We had two rehearsals with the cast and then went on. We flew in on a Sunday and they said, "Your first show will be Friday," and we only had two rehearsals that week. So we hadn't even met everyone, and we knew we were going to do a show in less than a week.
AD: It was like being in a band. We kind of lead most of the songs we play. So we learnt it [with just the two of us playing] and we knew it would only be the worst it would be with just the two of us. So, we really hammered it. We spent most of the time with the music.

How did you find your groove with the cast? Once is a true ensemble of actor-musicians. 

AD: I remember playing "Falling Slowly" for the first time here in New York and that spine-tingling moment where suddenly a violin comes in behind you, and it gave me a really strange emotional response to the music. Just having these people with you. It forces a good relationship with people, having to play music with them. We all kind of said "Hello," but then you start playing music together, and everyone is playing together, and we play slightly differently than whoever's played before, but everyone is suddenly excited about it and in tune with it. Suddenly there's a bunch of people doing something in complete synchronicity. It's brilliant.

Joanna Christie
photo by Joan Marcus

Has music been a large part of your lives?

JC: Definitely for me. My mum's a musician and my brother's a musician. I played piano from when I was six. That's all I did when I was younger. That's why I'm called Joanna. (I'm named after the piano, like, "The old Joanna.") I was a music scholar at school and did competitions and concerts, and then when I was 16, I played a concert and I just completely got the fear. I was playing this Beethoven sonata and looking back, it was utter stage fright - for the first time, I'd never gotten it before – and my hands seized up. So then I said, "I never want to play in front of anyone again." And I didn't. It was a massive deal. I had this amazing concert pianist as my piano teacher, and he refused to teach me after because he said, "You're wasting your time," because I just wanted to play for myself. He said, "Well, I don't want to teach you if you have such low expectations of yourself and low ambitions." So, I had to move teachers.
AD: Have you gotten in touch with him?
JC: No, I haven't.
AD: Well, you should: "Look at me now!" [Laughs.]
JC: From then, I never played in public again. To the point where if I were in a rehearsal room, and I'd see the piano, I'd go over, but if somebody walked in the room, I couldn't play. I always wanted to act, but music was always a big part of my life. So with this show, I told myself, "I have to get over this." That's why I spent nine hours on the piano for my audition, because I thought, "I've got to do this for myself." Also, now I realize, what a shame [it's been], music was a massive part of my life and I wasn't doing anything with it. Just because of fear. So, now it's really special to me.

AD: Music is completely in my bones. My grandfather Arthur, who I'm named after, was a church organist. My dad is a Hammond organ player, and he played for Fine Young Cannibals and the Ruby Turner Band. He played lots of reggae and soul and rhythm and blues stuff, and he was always on tour growing up. There was a keyboard in my bedroom, and my mom's a puppeteer. I've just kind of grown up in that environment. Music and theatre have been the two biggest influences in my life, and I never thought that it came from my parents. I thought, "This is my thing that I do." I've always acted and been in bands and written songs and used them as therapy. It's completely because my parents were so creative and great.

Both of your characters have difficulty expressing their desires in dialogue, but the songs are deeply confessional - to the point that it has to be almost raw for an actor at times.

Arthur Darvill and Joanna Christie
Photo by Joan Marcus

AD: It's very funny being in this country, and this is a vast sweeping statement, but what I've learned here – a really great thing actually – people are far more open about to talk about how they feel about things here as a culture.
JC: Whereas in the U.K. we're notorious for being repressed.
AD: I think what I did as a young man was not talk about things and write a song about it. You can sing it at a gig and people go, "What's that about?" And you go, "I don't know." But when you're singing something, you can pour your heart out in it. And something I relate to in this play so much is the ability to say in song what you cannot say in words, which is what the best musicals do – and this is different, it's more a play with songs. But they can't say what they feel – well, my character can't really say what he feels.

JC: My character doesn't necessarily say what she means. I was talking to a director friend of mine about why [Once book writer] Enda Walsh is such an amazing writer, because it's real. It's so complicated as life and relationships are. It's not just, "I like you and you like me. Let's get together." When you're grown up, there's so much more to it.
AD: I think there's something very telling about the two of us both being over 30. We've both experienced a lot of life and you get to a point where, I feel very sorted now.
JC: I wouldn't have understood this story and these characters five years ago. I really wouldn't.

Once has kind of perfected the actor-musician musical concept. I'm curious to know how playing an instrument while singing these deeply emotional songs roots you in the work. 

 

JC: I've never done musical theatre, but I think there's something very different in a musical when you're singing a song that comes out of the scene. In this, I am playing a song. I'm not playing it and pretending I'm doing something else, I am actually in character playing a song, and that to me is very different. I feel free to just play as well as I can play instead of "acting." It doesn't feel like I'm acting when I'm playing.
AD: It definitely roots us – the fact that we're all making that sound on stage together – the entire cast and there's not a separation of musicians and an orchestra. Sometimes I look around and go, "We are just a bunch of people making a sound." It's incredible. I think it roots us all. We're all responsible for telling this story.

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Visit oncemusical.com for more information.

View the Entire Photo Gallery
Anne L. Nathan, Arthur Darvill, Joanna Christie, Eliza Holland Madore and Katrina Lenk
Photo by Monica Simoes