Leslye Headland’s The Layover opens with two strangers next to each other on a plane, waiting for takeoff. The woman and the man, who is engaged, start talking about their jobs and why they’re heading to New York. When the aircraft fails its technical inspection, the pair disembark and have a one-night stand.
Headland was partly inspired to write the play, which runs at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre Aug. 9-Sept. 18, by a similar exchange she had on a flight. “I met this guy on a plane and we had this great conversation,” she recalled. “And then he was like, ‘I’m getting married in a week.’ He hadn’t been inappropriate or anything, but I was like, ‘Wow, I wonder if we just passed something very authentic between us or something super deceitful and terrible.’”
Headland also said she wanted to craft a drama in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, and had been toying with the idea of a romantic version of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. But don’t expect Headland to reveal any answers, particularly the play’s central question: Who’s the boring one and who’s the crazy one in this tryst?
“When you’re writing about morality, as I am interested in, it does end up always sort of feeling a little like, ‘Hmmm,’ as opposed to ‘Aha!’” Headland said. But that murkiness is the most fascinating part for her. “I don’t think I’m going to make any major insights into the human condition. There are much better playwrights that have done that. I’m a little more interested in, What did you see?”
American Theatre chatted with Headland about her characters’ bad behavior, open-ended conclusions, and adapting her work for the big screen.
You’ve worked with Trip Cullman on all of the plays you’ve done in New York: Bachelorette, Assistance, now The Layover. But you direct your own films, like the Bachelorette adaptation and Sleeping With Other People. Have you thought about directing your plays?
I did when I was younger. I directed a couple of the “Seven Deadly Plays” series at IAMA in L.A., but I have to say, I don’t think I’m a very good director. I think it was good to do when I was younger and I was learning how to write, because then I could see what a bad writer I was. You really get the feeling firsthand of how bad the play is if you’re directing it and you wrote it. But I don’t really feel the need to direct my own plays anymore. In a weird way, I don’t really trust myself to direct them in the same way that I do with film and TV. With film and TV— especially TV—I love directing stuff I didn’t write. With film, if you can be an auteur—little auteurs out there, I would say, please do it. If you’re a writer and you have any desire to direct and if you’re a director and you have any desire to write, try doing both. I think you’ll get through your vision a little bit more with the way that process and that kind of collaboration goes.
But I think with theatre, where the writer is king, I can still really get through a lot of my stuff. This is also why I like Trip. He knows that I have to direct a little bit in order to understand what the scene’s about.
Has it always been that way or has that evolved over the years?
It’s definitely evolved because I was doing more directing in film and TV. I also stole a lot from him as a director. I really stole how to treat actors. I was much more of the idea that actors are cattle before I started working with Trip. I was like, “Why don’t they just say the words? What’s the fucking problem?” But Trip is so diplomatic and so loving, and he creates these little families. Especially with Assistance, all those guys, we got so close. [Michael] Esper and I are still, like, so close, like he’s singing at my wedding.
With film, you can’t really do that as much, but I try to. [Kirsten] Dunst said to me when we were doing Bachelorette, “You have this way of making everybody feel like we’re all in this together, as opposed to, I want something from you.”
I love how you call all your actors by their last names.
When I’m on set, I call them babies. I’m like, “You know, the babies are all going to be here in five minutes.” And everyone’s like, “Are you talking about the movie stars?” Maybe I call them by their last names because I think of them like players on a team too. I’m like, Dunst for the win!
I want to talk a little bit about how you end your plays. Bachelorette, Assistance, and The Layover all conclude somewhat irresolutely. But in the film of Bachelorette, for instance, we find out what happens to the coked-out bridesmaid in the tub. Is that something that you like about theatre, that you can leave it more open?
I just realized that in all three plays that a character kills their god. Maybe all of my plays end that way. You know that William Temple quote, “Religion is what you do with your solitude”? Whatever you think about the most, you end up worshiping. So a lot of my characters end up worshiping these things they really shouldn’t be worshiping. I do think all three of them, while they don’t necessarily wrap up narratively, they do let you know that this particular experiment in what I’m going to worship did not work out on many different levels for different characters. There’s usually a character that’s pretty indoctrinated, like a Regan [in Bachelorette] or Dex [in The Layover] or a Nick in Assistance. But I do think all of them end up being brought to their knees, so to speak—I mean, Regan literally is on the floor.
And I just don’t think the film Bachelorette was about that. The film was about a bunch of kids that should have been in a John Hughes movie and ended up in this movie. It was like, if everybody in Heathers made it and didn’t die when they probably should have. They never should have made it to adulthood. It was more of a cinematic experiment than a moral experiment. And I think that part of working in different genres is knowing that. A full-on adaptation of what you did onstage doesn’t really always work. I’m trying to think of a good one and I can’t off the top of my head. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof? is pretty good.
A Streetcar Named Desire.
Streetcar is really good. But also those were different audiences. Those were audiences that were more used to theatre, meaning they were very used to a proscenium, that was what they wanted. They didn’t want the camera right behind people or seeing the fucking ceilings. People just didn’t want to see that stuff.
You seem like a very happy, nice person, but your plays are incredibly dark.
They’re so dark!
Where does the darkness come from? Do you think people need to be unhappy to create drama?
No, no, no, no. I definitely thought that when I was 25. So, all of the 25-year-olds out there: It gets better. You definitely don’t need to be in fucking pain all the time to write something. I don’t know why I write about such shitty behavior and people. I don’t really think of them that way when I’m writing it. It’s more when Trip and I get it up, that’s when I go, “Oh wow, these people are really being terrible to each other!”
And I think that’s why I really have veered so hard in the area of comedy in film. Whereas in theatre, I really do get to explore a lot more complicated stuff. I’m interested in bad behavior more than bad people. I definitely act out in my own life, but it doesn’t make me an unhappy person. It’s just more that I’m like, “Ooh, I did something bad, I should probably put that in a play!” Also, I feel like I am so happy in my life, I don’t need to inject drama into my life. I don’t need to act out in crazy ways like I did when I was 20. I save all those bad feelings and I sort of collect them and store them and then when I sit down to write I’m like, “I’m going to put them all in here.”