Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster on A Streetcar Named Desire: ‘We’re not doing a full-on sex show…’
Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster tell Sarah Crompton about their suggestive, violent new Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire
Gillian Anderson walks into a rehearsal room in south London having just hit her head with her own car door at the end of the school run. The large swelling on her right temple does little to dent her beauty – those sculpted cheeks and large, compelling eyes – nor her sharp intelligence, but it is a cause for concern.
“Headbutting children again,” teases Ben Foster, her co-star in a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, as we fuss around, finding an ice pack, while Anderson settles down, elegant in a yellow chiffon dress, laughing at her own incompetence.
Seeing them side by side, you can’t imagine more suitable casting for Tennessee Williams’s dark, daring play about sexuality, need and madness. Her refined delicacy and his grounded intensity make it easy to see them stepping into the roles of the damaged Southern Belle Blanche DuBois and her volatile brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, parts made famous on Broadway in 1947 by Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando, and on screen four years later by Brando with Vivien Leigh.
Yet it is the insight with which the two actors talk about the play, directed at the Young Vic by Benedict Andrews, that makes you hope this might be a production to remember. “It’s really a thrill. It’s very scary in the best way,” says Foster. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
Anderson has wanted to play Blanche for years, and was conscious that if she left it too long – she is 46 next month – the protective Williams estate might deem her too old. She told a producer that it was the only play she was interested in appearing in and made the further stipulation that it must be played in the round.
“I’ve never seen a production where I felt I was a fly on the wall in New Orleans and I felt that that version of it would not only be exciting to perform, but the version that I’d want to see,” she says. “I’d want to sit in that room and be hot and sweaty with the actors. And after I’d had that idea there was no changing my mind.”
After much toing and froing, the production she had initiated ended up at the Young Vic with Andrews (who enjoyed a triumph with Three Sisters there in 2012) attached as director and Foster “lassoed” – as Anderson puts it – to play Stanley.
But that decision to perform in the round means that the play’s brutality, its suggestion that Blanche’s descent into madness is triggered by Stanley raping her, is exposed. “We’re not doing a full-on sex show,” says Foster. “But it is suggestive and we’re not hiding the violence.”
Foster speaks with rumbling, low-voiced fervour. Over the past few years, he has built a reputation as one of America’s most exciting young actors, appearing on screen as William Burroughs in Kill Your Darlings and as a Navy SEAL in Lone Survivor; and also on Broadway opposite Alec Baldwin in Lyle Kessler’s Orphans.
In their initial conversations, Andrews suggested to Foster that he think of Stanley as a soldier returning from Afghanistan. “That made sense and undid any concerns I might have about getting stuck in the historical locks of the play,” he says.
Anderson has also escaped the long shadow cast by previous productions; she has never seen the film and has not allowed herself to watch Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s update of the story, starring Cate Blanchett.
“I wanted to come at this completely fresh,” she says. “I’ve never studied the play, but I have always known I wanted to do it. I didn’t really know why and now I do. I have completely fallen in love with Blanche and I was unprepared for that.”
For Foster, the play is a challenge partly because it set a template for a new kind of drama. He calls it “a powder keg shift in culture”, a moment when the melodrama of the 19th century was definitively replaced by a realistic treatment of working-class life and acting rooted in genuine emotion. “We’ve all been influenced by American naturalism, and to ignore that entirely would be impossible for me, as someone who works primarily in film.”
He points out that the legacy of the Actor’s Studio method that Brando represented has been distorted over the years. “We’ve turned film into such an industry that we pursue naturalism just by shaking the camera, and cutting the film to ribbons to provoke a bogus sense of documentary. But we haven’t done the homework. To push the depth that the Actor’s Studio did or the Russian theatres did with their actors, is to rehearse, to spend time, to dig, to excavate. And that is what we are doing.”
The difference between screen and stage is a subject that interests both actors; they each found fame on television (Anderson in The X Files, Foster in Six Feet Under) and have gone on to pursue the majority of their careers on screen. Anderson is acutely aware of the limitations of working in film. “These days, in my experience, you show up and you have to have [your performance] all figured out. Everything I’ve done in the last few years, I rely on my own resources and you get two takes and you move on.”
Foster agrees. “Film’s much more private. I usually have at least five weeks to prepare but rehearsal is a solo deal for me. I don’t like to rehearse, and the film-makers that I have been drawn to are interested in provoking something between people rather than nailing a scene in advance. Doing Streetcar is drilling in; you feel you can’t get to its bottom. Every pass, something blooms and you feel so much more connected to the whole piece.”
His preparation for a film role is, however, intense. “The luxury of this job is you get to listen to specialists and engage in questioning people you are interested in talking to.” Researching his part as disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, in the forthcoming Stephen Frears biopic, he spent time with cyclists who are now riding on the Tour de France.
His admiration for them was intense. Filming was “brutal. I break into tears every time I see a bike,” he says, laughing. But he is serious when he adds “I lost my f—— marbles on that shoot.” “Why, the physical strain?” asks Anderson. “The man’s story isn’t over,” he responds. “I get to go home at night. He’s waking up, and he’s got his kids and those who have suffered because of him. And those who have been enriched by him. Half a billion dollars raised for cancer research. That’s something.”
His voice trails away and the conversation switches to Anderson’s work. She has just shot the second series of the hit BBC drama The Fall in which she stars as Stella Gibson, a cool, collected police chief on the trail of a vicious serial killer who doubles as a devoted family man (Jamie Dornan).
“I am a lover of film and so I am always on the verge of being disgruntled about television,” she says. “And then something like The Fall comes along and it’s such a gift and I just shut up.” It even took her time to appreciate that in playing Agent Scully, in The X Files, she was “part of an extraordinary movement and that I had an opportunity to play one of the greatest female characters ever.”
It is perhaps because she has played such women, that people think Anderson herself is as icily analytical as they are. In fact, the opposite is true. In person she is warm, witty and laughs a lot. She is so far from being calculating, that she admits her film career stalled because she came to live in London in 2002 and stayed to bring up her sons, now five and seven. “I am so devoted to this city and my little ones are British. I can’t imagine being anywhere else so I work with that.”
She goes to the theatre once a week and spends some time telling Foster what he should see. In return, he tells her – laughing – that as a boy without friends, in Fairfield, Iowa, “I would come home from school every Wednesday, order pizza and watch X-Files. I was devoted.” Anderson has continued the science-fiction theme by co-writing a sci-fi novel with Jeff Rovin in part, she admits, “to create a character I could play in films. Hopefully it is good.” That reveals, I suggest, an unusual degree of motivation and self-determination. “With The Fall and Streetcar I feel that if I died in September then I could look down from up there feeling I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.
“But on the other hand, I don’t feel like I have even begun.” She pauses. “That is mostly because I just love film. I love the medium and there are so many directors I haven’t worked with and experiences that I have not had.
“I have been putting my responsibilities as a mother first and as my children get older at some point I can pursue it in a different way than I have been, probably when nobody wants to hire me because…” she sucks in her breath, widens her eyes and shouts, “I will be 50. So then nobody will want to make my novel unless the lead is actually 33 and they’ll hire a 12-year-old to play her.”
“It’s changing,” says Foster, who is engaged to the 48-year-old actress Robin Wright, who recently won a Golden Globe for her performance in House of Cards on Netflix. “The worship of youth has always existed. But in terms of how we receive entertainment, it’s like the Wild West. If you have content you can get it to people. No matter what age or place, there’s an appetite for intelligent content. So that’s encouraging.”
He laughs at his own enthusiasm. “I have to be optimistic. Maybe that is overly American. But I am.”
A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Young Vic, London SE1, from July 23. Tickets: 020 7922 2922; youngvic.org