The haughty, snobbish accent he affects for the role is something you'd never expect from someone named Alessandro Nivola, but he comes by it honestly and honorably. "Half of my career has really been in the U.K. It wasn't by design. The way it happened was Michael Winterbottom, the film director, was going to direct 'The Cider House Rules,' and he really wanted me to be in it, but he got in a fight with Harvey Weinstein and went back to England. Then, he sent me this other script instead. It was to play a fisherman from Hastings. I'd been to London only once at this point, so, of course, I said yes. The next thing I knew I was living in Hastings, which is a strange, small town on the south coast of England. It used to be a somewhat glamorous resort town and is now a derelict place with an insane asylum on the outskirts of town. It was such a surprising thing for me and for everybody else in the U.K. film community that they just started asking me back, so I did 'Mansfield Park' after that and Kenneth Branagh's 'Love's Labour's Lost,' where I met my wife, who's English, so I lived over there a couple of years. Ever since then I've just sorta gone back and forth, so I'm bilingual or something."
This role is a homecoming of sorts for him. "I had my Broadway debut with Roundabout doing A Month in the Country with Helen Mirren. That was the play that sorta started my career. I worked with Helen after that in a film called 'The Clearing.' She was my mother in that and my lover in A Month in the Country. How about that!"
Sir Robert, who is based on Sir Thomas Carson, the King's Counsel who vigorously prosecuted Oscar Wilde, is now obviously the piece de resistance of the play, but it wasn't always. Alec Guinness, for whom Rattigan wrote the role, turned it down because of its brevity, as did Eric Portman, leaving it to Emlyn Williams to originate in the 1946 London production. Frank Allenby, a workaday actor in his only Broadway appearance, introduced Sir Robert to New York — although some effort was made to throw a Hollywood name on the Broadway marquee. Clive Brook declined, noting the father and the daughter had bigger roles than the lawyer. Then, Robert Donat was asked (it would have been his only Broadway performance), but he thought the role too small. He thought again for the 1948 movie when Alexander Korda offered him a tidy sum and top billing, and the courtroom scenes that the play scrupulously avoided were written into the film to beef up his role. Cedric Hardwicke and Margaret Leighton, who did the heavier-lifting in the film, followed in billing.
Another American reclaimed from England is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who plays the Winslow matriarch, Grace. She began her career at The Public Theater and, after a couple of decades in London, returned to New York two years ago. "Sometimes, the Roundabout reminds me a bit of The Public in that it's a very thriving infrastructure that's there to look after and protect the whole process, so I'm comfortable here."