Playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon, best known as the creator and former showrunner of the series “House of Cards,” makes his Broadway premiere this month with another work involving Washington, D.C., politics, The Parisian Woman (previews began Nov. 9 ahead of a Nov. 30 opening). Loosely based on Henry François Becque’s 1885 play La Parisienne, the new piece stars Uma Thurman as a D.C. socialite, in her own Main Stem debut.
In mid-September we chatted with Willimon, whose earlier play Farragut North was based on his real-life experiences working on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, about his thoughts on the current political moment and why he loves working with theatre people in any medium.
RUSSELL M. DEMBIN: How does working on Broadway compare with what you expected?
BEAU WILLIMON: I worked on an earlier version of this play with Pam MacKinnon at South Coast Rep several years ago, so in some ways, it feels like a continuation of that experience, which was wonderful. In other ways it’s completely different. The scale of it, of course the nervousness of putting something on Broadway, and it’s such a big audience with all the stakes involved. Any time you’re returning to work that you first began working on years ago, and looking through all those things you want to fix and change, how to make it better, is always an exercise in fear, because you’ve changed as an artist and you’re confronting things that you did in the past.
What do you get out of working with theatres like the Flea and South Coast Rep?
The Flea, who originally commissioned this play, has been at the forefront of provocative and engaging theatre in New York for many years. My very first production, Lower Ninth, was done at the Flea, and their willingness to take chances on new writers, their intrepid desire to explore and present provocative works, makes them special. I think that the same can be said for South Coast out in California. It’s always a risky thing to put out new plays because you’re never quite sure of what you’re going to get. That sort of risk I think is the most intriguing and exciting thing about theatre: The opportunity the audience has every time they walk in and sit down and the play begins—that they may have an experience they’ve never had before.
How have the changes in U.S. politics since the play’s original 2013 staging affected the play?
Once Donald Trump got elected, it felt like a paradigmatic shift in the country, and if you were going to be writing about people in Washington, D.C., it would feel anachronistic if you were not confronting the fact that D.C. suddenly was going to become a very different place than what it had been several years before. I saw that as an opportunity, and so did Pam, to really put a finer point on the specifics of what this particular milieu of people were navigating. When I began to do that, I found that the central character, Chloe, really came into focus in a way that she had not as much in the previous iteration.
There’s been some reporting that we’re actually changing the play weekly, or based upon Trump’s tweets, and that’s not the case. We just have to be cognizant of the fact that the world around us has been changing quite quickly, and we may have to respond to that in some minor ways. But the point of the play isn’t to be an ongoing response to what’s happening day to day. The story of the play is universal. The story of the play is about self-discovery and self-reckoning, and that’s an age-old story.
What public figure would you most like to see the New York production?
[Laughs] What public figure, huh? That’s a good question. For purely selfish reasons, I think I’d most like to see Bob Dylan watch The Parisian Woman, only because one of my lifelong dreams is to meet him, and maybe that would give me the opportunity to. The reason I love his music is the collision of fearlessness and poetry—those are the things I’m always trying to emulate.
What is theatre’s role in these fraught times?
What theatre is able to do is not only respond immediately, but to do so in an environment where the only way to experience it is to have people convene in a room and have a shared experience. The right to assemble is a fiercely guarded right that we protect and value as Americans because assembly is a political act.
Who’s your favorite U.S. president?
I have three. They would be Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ. Lincoln because the enormity of the challenges he faced required such intelligence, human understanding, diplomacy, discipline, courage, and largeness that it feels almost superhuman that he was able to keep the country together in the way that he did. Yet at the same time, he was this deeply human figure who didn’t shy away from his own flaws or humanity.
FDR for me shared a lot of those qualities, and of course he was plagued by polio and managed to lead a country for over three terms despite the fact that he was dealing with quite a physical disability. He had a real evolution over his presidency: He took a lot of risks, he tried new things. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. He led a nation through war, and in some ways—Lincoln was assassinated, and FDR died of illness—he made the ultimate sacrifice for his work and his leadership. The responsibilities he bore were so enormous that they contributed to his ill health and untimely death. And that sort of sacrifice is something that I deeply respect.
And LBJ, more out of generosity that anything. You have a deeply complex man, filled with paradoxes and contradictions, who had both admirable and despicable aspects to him and yet managed to achieve some of the most important legislation that has ever been brought to Congress, and at the same time conduct a war that ultimately alienated him from those that he sought. The greatness and smallness were existing at the same time in someone who was incredibly capable of being the president, but was also battling his own demons and his own contradictions. I find him just so richly fascinating that he goes in the top three, because he’s just endless in terms of what he says about the human condition and what he personified, at least in part, in terms of where the country was at that time.
You’ve worked in a number of different art forms: theatre, visual art, film, TV. Is there a medium you haven’t tried that you’d like to?
[Laughs] I’m scared shitless of writing prose fiction. I have made some attempts here and there that I haven’t shared with the world, but what scares me about it is total world creation. Everything must exist purely in the words before you. When you’re writing for the performative arts, whether that’s theatre, film, or television, the vision and story come from the script. One of the things I love about it is that script then goes into the hands of the director, it goes into the hands of actors and designers and dozens of other people, who then start to three-dimensionalize it in a way that transcends the parts of self. So it becomes this collaborative endeavor that’s bigger than any one person.
If you’re writing a novel or short story, you have to provide everything just from that text. There’s no collaboration—it is purely one voice. That’s exciting. I’m drawn to that in the same way I’m drawn to painting, where there’s no interference, which means that between the artistic intent and the final product, no additional transformation takes place. It’s purely what it is, but it’s also terrifying because you don’t have the benefit of all those wonderful collaborators to help make it bigger than yourself. So we’ll see. One day maybe if I write something that I’m not completely embarrassed by, that’s just pure prose fiction, I’ll attempt to share it with the world. I’m not there yet.
Speaking of collaborators, you involved a number of theatre people in the first seasons of “House of Cards.” What do you like most about working with theatre folks?
I love working with playwrights, and I love working with actors who have a theatre background and remain active in the theatre. The reason I like working with playwrights is because on a stage you can’t rely on editing, you can’t rely on tricks—you have to really understand human behavior in its most elemental sense. If you’re writing a 20-page scene that is dialogue-driven, where dialogue alone has to give you insights into the behavior of the characters, you really have to have a nuanced and subtle understanding of the human heart in conflict with itself. So when a playwright starts writing screenplays or teleplays, rarely are you going to have that 20-minute scene—you have the opportunity to rely on visual storytelling and a lot of other elements that you don’t have to the same degree onstage—but you maintain that elemental understanding of human behavior, and I think you have more colors on your palette.
I also love working with playwrights because anyone who begins their career in the theatre as a writer ain’t doing it for fame and fortune. Even the most successful playwrights out there aren’t necessarily making a great living purely from their work. Often they’ll work in film and television or teach because the compensation in theatre is not anywhere close to what it is in those other media, which means that someone who is writing for the stage is doing it because they have a deep need to say something. They’ll crawl across the desert to tell a story. That hunger, that desire, that need to communicate with others, is a sort of passion that you can’t construct. It has to be deep within you, and it means that you’re writing for the right reasons.
I love working with actors who have stage experience because I can’t imagine anything more terrifying—at least artistically—than putting yourself, your body, up in front of strangers and trying to create a reality which they completely invest in. It is an act of duty that I don’t think I’ll ever completely understand. I don’t know how they tap into the inner truth and find a way to express it through their bodies, where they create an illusion that is so honest that it becomes the truth, it becomes an outward truth. When you are acting onstage, again, no editor can save you. It’s not about how many takes until we get it right. You have to do it right in that moment. And when you don’t, you have to accept and live with that momentary failure and see it as part of the process and welcome that lift.
So there’s just something that theatre people bring to their craft that is special and different than folks that only work on film. That’s not to diminish the extraordinary work of actors that have only worked on screen; it’s just to say that actors that have a theatre background have this other tool available to them that I think often can enrich their performance. And there’s a certain element of pure craftsmanship that comes from the discipline and the rigor of getting up and doing the play eight times a week that often involves professionalism on set that makes everything more enjoyable and smooth.
What was your most memorable theatre experience?
My most memorable theatre experience was seeing Spalding Gray for the first time in St. Louis, where I grew up, in Gray’s Anatomy, at the Edison Theatre at Washington University. His niece was a good friend of mine. Her mom was my principal, and she was married to Spalding’s brother. I was really interested in the theatre at that point. I was about 16 years old; I didn’t have any notion that it would be what I did with my life, I just knew that I liked it. And Spalding Gray comes out onstage, he sits down at a wooden table. He’s got a notebook and a glass of water, and that’s it. And then he creates an entire world simply with his body and his voice over the next couple of hours. I was completely, utterly enthralled. It felt like I had just watched sorcery. It was theatre stripped to its barest essentials: the story and the human voice.
What would we find under your bed?
Probably a lot of fur balls from my cat, Eliot. And that’s “Eliot”—one L, one T—after T.S. Eliot. He loves to hang out under the bed and then leap out and attack your feet when you least expect it. You will either find Eliot’s fur balls or Eliot himself. I’m glad that he’s there. [Laughs]
What’s the last song you sang in the shower?
The true answer is the last one I hummed was “Gnossienne No. 1” by Erik Satie. The last one I sang out loud with lyrics was the Proclaimers, [sings] “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more.” Because when my girlfriend and I were in Scotland, we were at Loch Ness, and I wanted to send a video to my friend about being at Loch Ness, and I thought it would be a lot more interesting if we were walking along by the lake and singing that song out loud. And they of course are Scottish.
It isn’t theatre if…
You’re not taking risks.