Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell only had a few rushed weeks to prepare before starring in Fool for Love, but when looking back, it's clear the duo's pairing has been in the works for decades. One might even call the two actors star-crossed.
Sam Shepard's unforgiving portrayal of two codependent lovers had been slated for the 2014 Williamstown Theatre Festival starring Chris Pine and Lauren Ambrose. When the two withdrew from the production, Arianda and Rockwell were cast with less than a month of rehearsals before opening night.
"I had wanted to do this since I was 12," Arianda says, as she recalls being introduced to Shepard's work through a local production of True West. An immediate fan of the blistering playwright, the aspiring actress found a reason to be in the theatre every night, even selling concessions in order to see the performance.
Rockwell first encountered Fool for Love's long-time lovers, Eddie and May, in an acting class before watching a recording at the Lincoln Center Archives. When acting in the 2007 film "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" with Shepard, the actor told the playwright over a drink that he would like do his play. Arianda had also added the work to her performing bucket list. Years ago she had mentioned in passing she'd like to play the role of May. Actor Yul Vazquez told her that Rockwell had also expressed interest in the show.
"I thought, that's never going to happen," muses Rockwell. "That's passed me by. Mercutio [has] passed me by. Hamlet [has] passed me by. That's another one."
Careful what you wish for. Just like that, Pine dropped out and Rockwell was asked to take his place. "It's funny when you're presented with it, you're kind of like, 'Oh, s—t!' Then I was like, 'All right. Let's go.'"
The short prep time proved to be an asset for the duo, who found themselves deeply immersed in the dysfunction between the two characters.
"I think when you live with something and dream about it for a long time, you already kind of have lived with it in a certain way," says Arianda. "So when you come together, you have opinions [and] if you're both receptive and you listen, it's really amazing."
Fool for Love's stage directions instruct that the play is to be performed "relentlessly, without a break," as the wandering Eddie returns to his longtime, on-again off-again love May and begs her to take him back. Guarded from more than a decade of disappointment, May painfully tells him to leave. A battle of wills ensues as the two fight against their desire for each other. Drinks are poured, doors are slammed (repeatedly), and innocent outsiders are dragged into the scuffle.
"He can't help it," Rockwell says of Eddie. "This intimacy he gets with her, he can't get with anyone else."
"It's equal to grieving — the love that they have for each other," Arianda adds. "I think it is the definition of unconditional, which is both very positive and very negative."
Positive reviews followed the Williamstown production praising Arianda and Rockwell's onstage chemistry. A few months later, a Broadway transfer was announced with an opening set for next month at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The audience quickly learns that Eddie and May have a secret, but that doesn't keep the two from longing for a lifetime together.
Love for May is "cyclical and necessary," Arianda says, with Rockwell chiming in that Eddie views love as "habitual — like a drug habit."
Arianda first got noticed after starring in the 2010 Off-Broadway production of David Ives's Venus in Fur a year after receiving her graduate degree from New York University. Her star has been on the ascent ever since, taking home a Tony for playing the mysterious Vanda in Ives' Fur when it transfered to Broadway in 2011. In between, Arianda nabbed a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in Born Yesterday.
Rockwell is more of a household name thanks to work in big films like "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," small films like "Moon" and action movies like "Iron Man 2" and "Cowboys and Aliens." He made his Broadway debut in 2009's A Behanding in Spokane opposite Christopher Walken.
After decades of admiring Shepard's work, Arianda found herself star-struck when the playwright — who himself starred in the Robert Altman directed film adaptation of the play, opposite Kim Basinger — came to see a rehearsal of the play. "It was terrifying," she recounts. "I just thought he existed on the covers of my books. I had to take a knee before we did that run through."
"We didn't have much warning," Rockwell adds. "We basically performed the play for him after shaking his hand."
Arianda and Rockwell are relishing the chance to bring this dysfunctional couple to the stage, and they don't plan to call it a day when Fool for Love ends its Broadway run. Eddie and May's incessant need for each other brings to mind another classic couple of the stage — George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Will Arianda and Rockwell be featured in the next revival of Edward Albee's portrait of marital warfare?
"That's all I want," Arianda says.
"We were just talking about that," Rockwell adds. "I'd do that in a second. Let's shake on that."