British Actors Arthur Darvill and Joanna Christie Are Lovelorn Troubadours of Broadway's Once
By Adam Hetrick
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!
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.
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.
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.
So you found out about your casting at the same time?
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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: 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.
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.
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