Steinbeck Country: James Franco and Chris O'Dowd Share the Story Behind Bringing Of Mice and Men Back to Broadway

By Robert Simonson
23 Mar 2014

Then producer David Binder gained the rights to the play and approached him a second time, and it seemed destined to be. "I was in a place where I was ready to do it," said Franco. "Anna wasn't on board yet. I had been flirting with Broadway. It was just something that I wanted to do. There had been a couple of productions that I talked to people about. Then this came back around. I thought, this is probably it." Franco than spoke to Shapiro. ("I'm pretty sure he was interviewing me," joked the director.)

O'Dowd climbed aboard next. "It came out of the blue," the actor recalled. "I got a call September or October, and was asked if I'd be interested. Then I didn't hear anything about it for months. I figured something came up and it had fallen through. Then I heard it was happening and I signed up that day."

Franco is glad that Shapiro is involved for reasons that go beyond her proven talent. "It was so clear after the first table read that it's such a man-heavy play," he explained. "Really, there's only one female part. It's nice to have her very strong female energy conducting everything, giving it something new that maybe past productions haven't had. It's nice to have that in the mix."

Franco's instincts were sound, for, just as he was excited about what Shapiro's less testosterone-oriented viewpoint might bring to the play, Shapiro is pointedly interesting in exploring "the maleness of the story."

"I'm fascinated by how the promise of the American Dream plays itself out in, and on, the men in my life and have been for a long time," she continued. "And I'm particularly occupied by their obsession with this idea of usefulness and worthiness — how they determine their own value and by what measure — because I think there is a kind of cruelty they perpetrate on themselves in this conversation that is heartbreaking to me. Hopefully I'll bring an outsiders' compassion, but other than that, I'm not sure it really matters that I'm a woman, per se. I think it mostly matters that I'm fascinated." 

Though this is the first Broadway staging of the play in four decades, Shapiro doesn't plan to reinvent the script via some grand directorial concept.

"In my work with Tracy and [playwright] Bruce [Norris], the inhabitants of those worlds use language — and a lot of it — to manage their situations," she said. "This is not that kind of world — this is a practical, pragmatic and, in some ways, more natural environment, and so the rules are different."

Despite his reputation as an artistic risk-taker, Franco is just fine with that straight-ahead approach. "As an actor, it feels like a very clear ride that these characters go on, in a very solidly constructed way. One thing very clearly leads into the other in a way that everything feels inevitable. As an actor, that's great. I can let the material work on me rather than try manufacture something to make the material work. It's almost all there.

"I'm not one who subscribes to the idea of: Just say the words and it will all happen," he said. He then laughed and added, "but in some ways it kind of feels like that!"