Ms. Thurman and Mr. Willimon Go to Washington
This season, Uma Thurman makes her Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman, a new play by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, who’s also stepping onto the Great White Way for the first time after making his name in 2008 with the off-Broadway success Farragut North (which later became the Oscar-nominated film The Ides of March). Five days into rehearsal, Thurman—resplendent in a gauzy white peasant blouse—and Willimon—laid back in a navy T-shirt—sit down to talk about the play, which focuses on a Washington, D.C., socialite who’s trying to secure her husband a high-level judicial post during the Trump administration. “It’s fast, witty, economical,” says Thurman. “The story just pounds out in five acts.” Willimon corrects her: “Five scenes. We don’t have four intermissions. That would take hours! But ours? Ninety minutes later and you’ll…” Thurman interjects: “You’ll wait longer for your main course afterward!”
Congrats to both of you on your Broadway debuts. Is this a dream come true?
Willimon: As a playwright, you never imagine that Broadway is a possibility—if you don’t write musicals and you’re not Eugene O’Neill or August Wilson. So it’s a dream come true in that respect. And to be able to work with Uma at the same time? Well, it goes from unreal to heavenly.
Thurman: Aww! For me too. It was a dream, a fantasy, to be on Broadway. It was almost sadly so unreal that I really should have pursued it more [laughs].
Uma, it’s been 18 years since you last appeared onstage, in an off-Broadway play. Why is now the right moment for you to do theater again?
Thurman: It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be onstage all that time. I just didn’t have the agency to do it. I don’t mean the professional agency [laughs]. It just didn’t happen. But it was always on my mind. What I was really praying for was a great new work, a character that hadn’t been done a hundred times, something that wasn’t a resurrection. Because I do have a passion for new writing. There are a lot of really special people for whom I’ve been involved with their earliest work—in films. So I love contemporary pieces. I knew Beau’s work, and I met Pam [MacKinnon, the director], and it was like a mad God shot because it was exactly what I had pictured would be the inexcusable, no-brainer-yes opportunity. So to me it was like, Oh, I guess I was waiting to do this.
The play is set in Washington, D.C.—familiar territory for you, Beau—and takes place now, as in right now, with Donald Trump in the White House and talk of health care bills and NAFTA. Why don’t you think more playwrights create political plays that are of their time?
Willimon: Well, I believe all theater is political. My Fair Lady is extremely political in terms of what it says about class and gender and self-identity. It’s also a great musical that you want to sing the songs to.
Thurman: The Sound of Music is political, but it’s a story about love and family.
Willimon: So I think you could look at anything and see the politics in it. But I wouldn’t consider this play political theater simply because it exists in Washington, D.C., in the here and now and we refer to the world around us. The goal of the play was never to react to current events or comment on them in a topical way. The goal of the play was to explore this woman’s journey.
OK, but how much does the current political climate shape the play?
Willimon: Obviously, when you invoke the here and now and you name names, that affects people’s reception of it in terms of whatever they’re bringing into the room. I think that’s electric and exciting. Theater is one of the few mediums—perhaps the only medium—in which you can respond with that sort of immediacy to the world around you. Film can take a couple of years from the moment you start shooting to when people see it. A novel takes years to write. Here, we have the opportunity to work on an evolving thing.
Yes, and our government really is evolving daily. Politics is always theater, but now it’s so far beyond that.
Thurman: It would be silly to compete. And we’re not. No one is going to out-Tweet the White House. The reality of the setting shimmers under an emotional narrative, and it’s fascinating and informative—the external pressures on the characters, as well as the internal motivations and internal desires, sort of buzz against each other. It’s not about [adopts an over-the-top theatrical voice] Oh, what happened today? If you did that, you’d really just…
Willimon: That’s SNL, and they do it great.
All right, so, Uma, what’s the cocktail party synopsis? “Oh, I’m in this new play. It’s about this woman…”
Willimon: That’s exactly how to sum it up! [Laughs and claps his hands.]
Thurman: Yeah. She’s a liberated woman with a lot of personal and marital ambition. I would also say that it’s very much an ensemble. And we have such an un-believably high caliber of performers in the other four parts because it really is a five-hander. I just happen to be the thumb [laughs].
What are the formative theater experiences that set you both on this path?
Thurman: I think dyslexia sent me on my path. And it’s so true for a lot of actors, actually. Theater is used as a therapy for some dyslexics—memorization is a way that helps dyslexics learn to read. I read late, and then I couldn’t stop reading. So for me it was probably my relationship to story that made me fall in love with acting as a child. I remember being in silly plays from the time I was tiny—those are some of my earliest memories from school. And then some agents came to see me in my high school play.
The Crucible, right?
Thurman: Yeah! And it was through that that I started…
Willimon: You played Abigail?
Thurman: Of course [laughs].
Willimon: I played John Hale—Reverend Hale. I was so pissed that I didn’t get John Proctor.
Seems like it still hurts.
Beau, what led you to theater? I know you saw Spalding Gray perform in St. Louis when you were a teenager—that must have been pretty amazing.
Willimon: His niece, Liz, was a good friend of mine, and she asked if I wanted to see him do this monologue called Gray’s Anatomy. I said sure, though I didn’t know who he was or what “monologue” meant. I was 16, I guess, and all I’d really seen before that were the traveling road shows like No, No, Nanette or Miss Saigon coming to The Muny. It blew my mind that a guy could just sit behind a desk with a glass of water and notebook and nothing but his voice and body and create an entire world. He boiled theater down to its essence, and it felt vast. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s probably the moment when I really felt the power of story and writing and how much you can evoke with just the word.
Both of you are returning to theater after a long time doing film and TV. What’s the biggest difference between the mediums?
Willimon: Theater is a dialogue. The audience is actually speaking to the performers with their energy or sometimes with a laugh or a gasp or their silence.
Thurman: It may have been a while, but I do remember the shocking difference of one audience to another. I mean, just bizarre. It’s like swimming upstream with one group, and it’s like static with another. It can be a dramatic difference.
Willimon: It’s a different conversation every night. Whatever it is that night is what it was meant to be that night.
So what do you want the audience to take away from this play?
Willimon: I want their hands to be bloody from clapping!