John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a classic so ingrained in the American psyche that it is perhaps no surprise that both the director and star of the new Broadway production of the 1937 play version of the novel have a longstanding personal relationship with the text.
"He was writing about California, which is interesting to me," said James Franco, the hyperactively polymathic Hollywood actor who makes his Broadway debut with this production. Because he was born and raised in Palo Alto, CA — not too far from the Depression-era fields worked by George Milton and Lennie Small, the itinerant workers at the center of the story — Franco feels a connection with the duo, as well as figures found in the Steinbeck canon.
"I think I could identify with a lot of the characters," he said. "They have this way of life that they were sort of OK without any approval from any authority figures. All these characters had created their own ideal worlds in circumstances that you wouldn't think were very ideal. When I was very young, that was very appealing to me. Before I declared I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a marine zoologist like Doc in 'Cannery Row.' When I got a little older, I realized it's not exactly the marine zoology that I like about this character. It's the way he turned his work into art, almost, and the way he conducts himself as a person. What I realized was that I wanted to be an actor and play characters like Doc, rather than be Doc."
Director Anna D. Shapiro (best known for staging Tracy Letts' towering August: Osage County), meanwhile, said, "My relationship to Steinbeck started when I was in my early teens and I saw Of Mice and Men at Steppenwolf. Strangely — and I know it's not possible that I had read it before — but even then it felt so familiar to me, so inevitable. It's a story and a cast of characters that I think lives in the collective unconscious of Americans my age and a bit older."
You wouldn't imagine the production's Lennie, Chris O'Dowd, born and raised in Ireland, would have had the same close relationship with the novelist while growing up. You'd be wrong.
"We studied it in school, I remember," he said. "It was in the syllabus. I remember reading 'The Pearl' as well. 'The Grapes of Wrath' — I know we did that. I guess that teacher was just a Steinbeck fan."
A 21st-century production of Of Mice and Men has been been a prospect for some years, but has stubbornly refused to gel until now. "I had been involved several years ago — with different producers — and was heartbroken when it fell apart at the last minute," said Shapiro. Franco, too, remembers past conversation with some producers and Shapiro about acting in the play. "It's had different incarnations," he recalled of the project. "For whatever reason, it fell through."
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