STAGE TO SCREENS: "The History Boys" on Film; A Chat with Keith Powell of "30 Rock"

This month we talk to four actors and the director of the film version of Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning The History Boys, and rising American actor Keith Powell, who runs a regional theatre and appears in the NBC sitcom "30 Rock."

Keith Powell
Keith Powell

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Set in 1983 Yorkshire, "The History Boys" follows the course of eight students as they prepare for possible acceptances at Oxford or Cambridge. Overseeing their progress are two teachers: Hector (Richard Griffiths), who seeks to expand their minds, and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who's been brought in by the headmaster to apprise them of techniques that could attract an examiner's attention.

Intelligent and entertaining, the film preserves the play's superb performances and contains many moments to be treasured. It opens Nov. 21.

How the Fox Searchlight picture fares at the U.S. box office remains to be seen, especially in a market where "Borat" has been No. 1 for the past two weeks. During Manhattan press-conference "roundtable" discussions Nov. 8, Nicholas Hytner commented, "Our film was made for two million pounds, and already has [grossed in England] more or less four million. Everything's a bonus now."

*** Richard Griffiths, upon entering, apologizes to journalists for being "brain damaged," explaining, "I sat up and waited for Montana [results in the previous evening's elections]. I don't think you realize just how important [American politics] is for the rest of the world. America catches cold; we [England] get pneumonia. [Bush] really is president of the world, you know, and what he says makes a difference on our domestic fronts."

Another brain damaged instance occurs to Griffiths — the crazed circus between the Oct. 1 closing of the play on Broadway and the Oct. 2 Royal Premiere of the film in London. "It was: finish onstage, get on a plane, go to a hotel, take a shower, and meet the press. 'What time is it now?' It was ludicrous!"

Winner of a Best Actor Tony as Hector, Griffiths describes the character as "a very understanding person, because he's so damaged and wounded. He's very forgiving. His life is the school. At home, there's nothing: the ticking of a clock, nose deep in books, supper, TV news at nine, bed.

"His students are way ahead of Hector. Dakin [for example] has a great gift. He knows we are all alike. We are all individuals; everybody's as different as one snowflake is from another — but we're all snowflakes. That's why Dakin can look at a boy or girl and make moves. He knows if he feels it, they probably do. Hector thinks he's the only one with problems; Dakin knows everybody has problems."

From time to time, Griffiths reveals, some audience members complained about the play's coarse language. He defends it. "That's how the boys would talk amongst themselves. Besides, the word 'fuck' these days has been reduced to the status of a single adjective that everybody can rely on. It's devalued its offensiveness."

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Frances de la Tour reprises her Tony-winning role as Mrs. Lintott, who teaches history and is involved in two of the script's descriptions of the subject. Asking [student] Rudge (Russell Tovey) to define history, she elicits the response: "Just one fucking thing after another." A bit later, Lintott declares, "History is women following behind — with a bucket." That line "became more powerful," relates the actress, "as I became stronger with it. I think her frustration just came out. It's not a feminist stand."

Speaking of the camaraderie of the eight actors who play the students, de la Tour observes, "It is absolutely real. It is not put on. Obviously, most boys at grade school [the British term for high school] don't talk the way [the characters] talk, or know quite as much poetry, or know anything about anything. But that's the crux of the story. They're talking in 'Alan Bennett language,' as if they were talking rhyming couplets. It's not like young people speak on the whole, but that's the art of it."

Appropriate language reminds de la Tour of a recent code-of-conduct memo from England's National Opera Company. "You cannot call each other 'darling' anymore." Richard Griffiths concurs, "It represents sexual harassment. Established members of the company who already use the term may be excused, but henceforth no new members will be allowed to use it." Laments de la Tour, "I would be in prison." With a laugh, Griffiths adds, "At the same time, Nick Hytner issued a memo at the National Theatre saying, 'It is now compulsory to refer to each other as darling.'"

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Dominic Cooper, who plays the charismatic Dakin, believes that the movie "probably would have been a more definitive version" had it been filmed later. "We found stuff on Broadway that isn't in the film. It's probably stuff that you wouldn't notice, but that we do."

Concerning his character's sexuality, Cooper states, "He's up for anything. He has self-assurance. He knows what he wants, and that he's going to get it. Suddenly, [Irwin] comes along and turns everything on its head. He's very attracted to this guy, probably because he can't just charm him and can't stimulate him intellectually."

Some lines in the play were English phrases that had to be changed for Broadway; however, a few lines remained. One such instance occurred when Dakin has received good news and tells Irwin, "I thought we might push the boat out." Explains Cooper, "In England, that's a well-known phrase [that translates as] 'Let's roll out the red carpet.' Changing it didn't work. It came down to the actors to make lines work."

A scene in the film that was only referred to onstage has Dakin interceding with the headmaster (Clive Merrison) on Hector's behalf, and it makes Dakin more of a pivotal character than he was in the play. Notes Cooper, "Nick was anxious not to shoot anything that could end up on the cutting-room floor. Some scenes were done in one take. It was scary in that, for the only time in the three-year process, we didn't have any control."

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Samuel Barnett considers "the most exciting moment of my life" is that he sings "on 'The History Boys' soundtrack — three tracks!"

Playing Posner, the youngest of the students, Barnett is pleased that "we have a record of what we've done for three years. We've become a family. I miss the work, but I know there are 11 other actors I can depend on — personally and professionally."

Still, he admits, "It's very odd to see the work you've been doing suddenly up there [onscreen], and how different the character actually is from how you perceived it to be. Nick got me to lighten some of the scenes [from how they were in the play]. At the time, I just had to have faith. Watching the film, I'm so glad he did it, because otherwise [Posner] would have been too tragic."

Barnett reflects on some of Posner's actions: "He goes to Irwin [to discuss his homosexual leanings]. Posner knows Irwin is gay, and Irwin says, 'It will pass.' He goes to Hector, the last person in the world to get any solace from and he connects with another human being through a poem — and their loneliness. That's what I love about Alan's writing."

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Nicholas Hytner: "We realized that [the play] was a film that we wanted to make — to capture these performances and this material. It's totally character-driven and dialogue-driven. It's an opportunity to get under the skins of these 12 actors [portraying the eight students, three teachers, and headmaster].

"There's a huge audience that is interested by worlds that it's unfamiliar with — when those worlds are conveyed by writers, filmmakers, and actors who know what they're talking about.

"School is the world of 'The History Boys.' In terms of stage-to-screen adaptations, it's like — and I’m not comparing it to them — 'Streetcar,' 'Philadelphia Story,' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Those three stay in a small world; their energy is put into the exploration of the people. The camera acts as a participant in their world."

How was the film's structure decided? "We [he and Alan Bennett] came to that together. Irwin doesn't end up in a wheelchair [as onstage], because unless it's prepared for, it would seem totally gratuitous. And Posner has a much more satisfying [fate]."

Missing are the play's video sequences. "One reason for them was to cover scene changes; the other was to give the piece an element of reality. There's always been this tension between the way [the characters] speak and the world they're from, which is rough and ready."

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During my one-on-one interview with Richard Griffiths, he tells me that Hector "is now the role with which I'm most known." Born in Thornaby-on-Tees, Yorkshire, England, his parents were deaf mutes. Did having to communicate with them by sign language have any influence on his acting? "Yes, in body language, I can't really explain it, but it has benefited me greatly."

Whenever his father would see movies, he'd come home to recreate them for his wife and son. "When I saw some of these movies years later, I found out the plots were far different [from his dad's versions]." Griffiths left school at 15, and some time later was persuaded by a shopkeeper for whom he was working to continue his education. Originally, he hoped to be an artist, but chose acting instead. "My father was against it. He didn't think it was a profession for a grown man, and he was afraid that some old queen would get me."

Radio work preceded the stage, where Griffiths became known as a Shakespearean clown, progressing from "lower than a spear carrier" to playing kings. "When you can play kings, you've arrived." He's appeared in several British-TV series, including "Pie in the Sky" (1994-97), in which his character wanted to retire from his police job in order to devote time to his restaurant, and "Nobody's Perfect" (1980), in which he played opposite Elaine Stritch. "I was 29 and playing her husband; Elaine was not 29 anymore. I once asked her about her expert phrasing, and she told me that she had learned from listening to 'Francis Albert Sinatra.'"

In the film, as in the play, Hector's students re-enact scenes from 1940s films, such as "Now, Voyager" and "Brief Encounter." I question whether 1983 teens would be interested in those pictures. "That's not fully explained. Hector had a tin box with cash, and the students would try to stump him with scenes from old movies to win the cash. Rudge finally stumps him by performing something contemporary that Hector wouldn't know. Hector admires his initiative and gives him the money. But the scene was cut. For Broadway, we had to eliminate 20 minutes."

Next up for Griffiths is a London revival of Equus, with Daniel Radcliffe making his stage debut as Alan Strang. (Griffiths plays Radcliffe's Uncle Vernon in the " Harry Potter" movies.) Might the production come to Broadway? "I'd come back in a minute. But the earliest that might happen is 2008. At the end of the [West End] run, Daniel Radcliffe's committed to the next 'Harry Potter' film.”

*** Meet Keith Powell, the young actor who plays "Toofer," one of the writers on NBC's behind-the-scenes sitcom "30 Rock." The character's nickname is because he's both a Harvard graduate and a minority; they got two for the price of one. (Shouldn't it be Twofer?) Powell's break came about in an unusual way. "I was working on my theatre company [Contemporary Stage] in [Wilmington] Delaware. I had a meeting with an agent about a designer. I had gotten friendly with the agency over the years because I hired some of their designers. They asked if they could submit me for this television project. I said, 'Sure.' When I got the sides for '30 Rock,' I said, 'It's my part to lose.' I knew the character very well. Thank God, they agreed."

"I tell this to interns who work for me over the summer: 'You have the power, especially in the theatre, to form your own career. Will you get paid is another story. Don't wait for parts to come to you.' I'm kind of a workaholic, I've always been able to provide for myself an environment where I'm busy, working in the theatre or in the profession that I love. Now am I getting paid all the time? Not really.

"Not enough actors in this world are passionate about learning what to do and how to do it. They want to get the big jobs. They don't really care about working. Do it for the love first and the money second."

Does he foresee any conflict between the show and remaining as producing artistic director of Contemporary Stage? "It's a summer theatre, so it conceivably will work. But I don't know how the show will fare." (It was just moved to Thursdays, the last in a four-comedy lineup that directly precedes "ER.")

Establishing a theatre company came about "after I was told that my grandmother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I went to Delaware and stayed with her for a year. That was four years ago, and being 23 in Delaware, you're kind of bored. I started to see that the community needed a professional theatre that would speak to them.

"One thing led to another and through some crazy coincidences Lynn Redgrave agreed to do my first play there — Collected Stories, by Donald Margulies. And when you have Lynn Redgrave, you're on a train where you're along for the ride."

The train has been steaming along since 2004. "I always say that I owe anything in my career to Lynn Redgrave. Even my acting career improved. Who would have thought that putting your career on hold and going to Delaware would be the best thing for your career? I'm happy with where I am in life."

Powell directed a production of The Fourposter, starring Jasmine Guy and Keith David. It will play the Stamford Center in Connecticut early next year. "We're trying to put together a mini-tour. My concept of the play is that it happens during the Harlem Renaissance.

"I, as a young black man, have not seen black people onstage fighting through issues that have nothing to do with their race — and actually taking pride in their race and fighting through issues like love and marriage. I've never seen that onstage, and I was passionate about wanting to see it. I've always been curious about how relationships last for 40 years. My relationships haven't lasted very long, or I'd be married now. To be quite frank, in the family I come from, that's never happened, with one exception. I have a great aunt, my grandmother's sister, who's been married 50 years."

Born in Philadelphia, Powell moved to California and then to Delaware. He was raised by his mother and grandmother. An only child, he grew up with two aunts, "whom my grandmother had late in life. They were five and seven years older than I am, so they were like my sisters. We fought like brothers and sisters."

When did he know that he wanted to be an actor? "Being the youngest — and the only male — in a family of four women, I was the center of attraction. I always knew that I wanted to be in the arts. I was very confident when I started college. I thought: I'm going to be this great actor. Then I was knocked down a few pegs and thought that I'd never be able to be as good as I wanted to be. So I stopped for a while. That's when I got my degree in directing. My last year at NYU, I decided that I was going to learn acting."

Does he prefer directing to acting? "I can't imagine my life without being an actor. But I'm passionate about getting projects done in a certain way. If that means I have to direct it....

"I've been very, very blessed this past year. The 2005-2006 season was probably the best year ever for me as an actor. I had three theatre roles I just adored doing and then this [TV] show. My role in The Nerd was almost exactly like Toofer. I think that kind of informed me on '30 Rock.' I did Lobby Hero in Maine — with the Portland Stage Company, a wonderful group of actors. Then I did the pilot. Between that and episode two, I did The Island at my theatre company, with Sean Patrick Thomas. It's probably the best acting experience I ever had."

Powell's previous TV experience includes "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Says Powell, "The man who gave me that job just directed an episode of '30 Rock' — Don Scardino. I owe him part of my career, too." He also appeared on "Law & Order," and made two features with Patrick Flynn: "Dog Eat Dog" and "Jargon." Flynn is "a friend since high school. He makes loopy little films, sort of guerilla filming — no money's spent and you improvise with a group of actors on the street. Somehow, a movie gets made."

Keith Powell is enjoying his TV experience. "I'm continuing to inch myself. I laugh far too much at work for it to be work. I think our goofing off when the cameras are off is just as funny as the material. It doesn't feel like a job. I love going to work every day. Everybody on the set gets along. There's no ego battle. Everybody's really supportive of each other. Even if I didn't get the part, I'd still be watching this show."

Richard Griffiths and Dominic Cooper in "The History Boys."
Richard Griffiths and Dominic Cooper in "The History Boys." (Photo by Fox Searchlight)