STAGE TO SCREENS: Audra McDonald, Kenneth Branagh, Craig Wright, Jill Clayburgh

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24 Sep 2007

From Top: Audra McDonald in
From Top: Audra McDonald in "Private Practice"; "Sleuth" director Kenneth Branagh; Jill Clayburgh in "Dirty Sexy Money."
ABC (Production Stills)
This month's column catches up with Audra McDonald (TV's new "Private Practice"), director Kenneth Branagh (the new film "Sleuth"), Jill Clayburgh and writer Craig Wright (TV's new "Dirty Sexy Money")

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"Grey's Anatomy" has McDreamy; its spin-off has McDonald. Audra McDonald plays Dr. Naomi Bennett, a fertility expert and major owner (55 percent) of Santa Monica's Oceanside Wellness Group, in "Private Practice" (ABC Wednesdays 9 PM ET), also launched by "Grey's" creator Shonda Rhimes.

How would four-time Tony Award winner McDonald describe her role? "She's divorced from Taye Diggs [Dr. Sam Bennett], who's part of the practice. We have a 13-year-old daughter [not seen on the premiere]. Naomi's incredibly efficient and smart; she's always done everything exactly right. The fact that her marriage has failed has thrown her into a tailspin. All of a sudden — for the first time in her life — things aren't going as planned."

It wasn't planned that McDonald be part of the ensemble cast. "I was doing 110 in the Shade and I got a call from my agent, saying they were recasting the part. 'Would I be interested [in playing Naomi]?' At that point, I wasn't totally sure of what I was going to be doing. I had a couple of options. I thought: Well, it might be interesting to go out and see what happens. I really hit it off with Kate [Walsh], who was at my audition."

Walsh reprises her "Grey's Anatomy" role of Addison, the surgeon whose affair with "McSteamy" (Eric Dane) ended her marriage to Patrick Dempsey's "McDreamy." The spin-off begins with Addison accepting the invitation of her medical-school friend, Naomi, to join the Santa Monica staff. Adds McDonald, "I felt very comfortable with Shonda [Rhimes]. I guess I lucked out." (The show certainly did.)

"Private Practice" marks McDonald's third series, following "Mister Sterling" (2003) and "The Bedford Diaries" (2006), both of which were short lived. Notes McDonald, "You never know [what may succeed]. It's so hit and miss. How many series has Nathan Lane done — or Kristin Chenoweth, or Donna Murphy? You do what you can, you make the money while you can, and hope that everything goes well."

Playing the series' other featured physicians are Tim Daly (Pete Wilder, an alternative-medicine specialist), Amy Brenneman (psychiatrist Violet Turner), and Paul Adelstein (pediatrician Cooper Freedman). Chris Lowell plays receptionist (and midwife-in-waiting) William Dell Parker, and KaDee Strickland appears as Dr. Charlotte King, who works at a nearby hospital and disapproves of the clinic.

While McDonald doesn't "necessarily like doing something eight times a week, which can get awfully boring, learning new dialogue all the time makes me feel behind the eight ball." Is juggling her personal and professional lives easier onstage or on TV? "I think television is more difficult, because you don't have a set schedule. You're owned by the network five days a week. On Mondays, you're [at the studio] at five a.m. and they shoot as long as they need to shoot. You really can't make any plans, you have to be available at all times. I go back to New York almost every weekend, and weekends I don't go home, my daughter comes out here." The beautiful Zoe Donovan (6½) is the child of Audra and her husband, bassist Peter Donovan.

Which stage role has given McDonald the most satisfaction? "I'd have to say 110 in the Shade. I feel proud of all of the work I've done — even the ones that might be considered failures. Right now, 110 is near and dear to my heart." Just before the revival of the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical premiered, Audra's father, Stanley McDonald, 63, was killed when a plane he was testing crashed. Doing the show during the tragedy's aftermath proved beneficial. "I was able to get a lot of my emotions out. 110 has to do with a daughter-father relationship, so it was therapeutic."

She's filmed Storyline's TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, which airs Feb. 25 (ABC 8-11 PM ET). Joining her are cast members from the 2004 revival, including Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan. "It was a great experience, working with Sanaa and Phylicia and P. Diddy [Combs]. We already had a working relationship, and we all had our friendships. Kenny Leon directed [as he had onstage]. It was an easy situation to jump back into."

Some difficulty arose due to shooting out of sequence. "It's constructed so well. The continuity running through the show lets you build out of each scene. For me, it was difficult to maintain [her character] Ruth's pathos and emotions the entire time. And you have to cover things from 500 different angles. I was able to see a cut of it recently. It looks great!"

Upcoming is "a concert tour scheduled for the spring. Our hiatus starts at the end of April. I'm going to be with the New York Philharmonic and, I think, I'll be with the Chicago Symphony. I sort of go where they tell me. [Laughs]"

If "Private Practice" succeeds, will she come back to Broadway? Exclaims McDonald, "Absolutely! Broadway's my first love. I probably will do a workshop over hiatus. I have no plans to ever leave Broadway — ever, ever! I never have, and I never will!"

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Says Kenneth Branagh, who directed the new film version of "Sleuth," which has a screenplay by Harold Pinter, "There's just one line [remaining] from the [Anthony Shaffer] play: 'It's only a game.' Everything else is Pinter's. Harold entirely appropriated it and made it a Pinterian piece." It opens Oct. 12.

People who saw the first movie version will be surprised by the changes, which go far beyond the original's unexpected plot twist. The Nobel Prize winner's screenplay, claims Branagh, "took an entirely different tack. It's ingenious in its dark humor and far away from the flamboyance of [the 1972 picture]. "This film is leaner and meaner."

Continues Branagh, "As an actor, Harold as David Baron [the writer's stage name] was terrific and played in many, many thrillers. He admires them hugely, but it's not his strong point [as a writer]. So, to inherit the theatrical mechanics of the central theme — two men [author Andrew Wyke and actor Milo Tindle] playing a deadly game and fighting over a woman whom we never see — suited him. [The woman is Wyke's wife and the younger man's lover.] Harold kept the center and turned everything else around."

Branagh read the screenplay "from start to finish [in one sitting]. I gave it to my wife [Lindsay Brunnock], and she couldn't put it down either. Pinter's last 'act' has a homoerotic possibility. Is Andrew attracted to Milo? Or is it his ultimate sick provocation?

"Harold said, 'I'm not good with plot. I'm not interested in plot.' For him, of course, it's all about character and atmosphere — which, I think, is quite a good marriage."

Onstage, both in the West End and on Broadway, where it won the 1971 Best Play Tony Award, Sleuth starred Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter. Shaffer wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and for which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine both received Best Actor Oscar nominations. This time around, Caine takes over the Olivier role and, as he did in the recent remake of "Alfie," Jude Law succeeds Caine.

Actors, all of whom were not seen, were listed in the credits of the play and the prior film. Was the extra cast considered for this version, which may (or may not) feature two characters? "It was," states Branagh, "but I suppose to not do so might be another way to distinguish ourselves from the original. We tried to stay away from that. The Mankiewicz film is utterly delicious and many people will know its twist. We tested [the new film] in front of a young audience, who had never seen the original. They gasped [at the twist].

"It's quite hard, you know, to come up with names of actors that don't sound a tiny bit phony." I mention that in the first film, Wyke's wife was shown in a framed photograph (actually of Joanne Woodward) and was billed as Eve Channing. "Exactly!" says Branagh. "Fair enough if you're Mankiewicz [to combine the names of two "All About Eve" characters], but we decided to avoid that pitfall."

Might the woman seen on a screen in Wyke's home be his wife, Maggie? "It was the actress whom we cast as Maggie," admits Branagh, "and indeed we shot a number of scenes with her. But we decided, during the course of filming that the more we showed of Maggie — even fleetingly — the less powerful she became. When we don't see her, she becomes enormously powerful. You're the first one, Michael, to actually ask if it's the wife. In fact, it is, but I've ducked the issue."

In this version, Wyke is very much involved with gadgets. He uses an ever-present remote control to remove walls, erect screens, operate an elevator, etc. Originally, Wyke was obsessed with games and puzzles, because the inspiration for the character was a composer-lyricist who's fascinated by games. The working title of the play was Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?

Branagh's New York stage credits include directing his play Public Enemy at the Irish Arts Centre in 1994, and directing the Broadway production of The Play What I Wrote in 2003. It was recently announced that, for the Donmar Warehouse's 2008-09 season at Britain's Wyndham Theatre, Branagh will play the title role in Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Ivanov, and direct Jude Law as Hamlet.

I inquire about an early scene in "Sleuth," where the two men share a drink, but only their midriffs are seen. Explains Branagh, "It was part of an attempt to unsettle the audience visually and put them in Milo's position. It begins with an overhead shot of Michael [Caine] introducing himself. Then they get into this ridiculous conversation about which of their automobiles is bigger. I try to discombobulate the audience a bit and not fully reveal the characters' faces until about 12 minutes in, when Michael sits down into a close-up and says, 'I understand you're sleeping with my wife' — although he puts it rather bluntly. It was an attempt to make it cinematic and not theatrical."

Relates Branagh, "I remember an example of Harold's love of ambiguity. When I asked in rehearsals what Maggie is saying on the other end of the phone in the two calls Milo receives in the last 10 minutes, he replied, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'What is Maggie saying?' Harold said, 'The phone rings, yes, and he appears to be talking to someone, but we don't know what's being said — or even if it's Maggie.'"

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