Bertie Carvel on his Tony-winning role in Ink
In This Episode
ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host Elysa Gardner and I’m here today with Bertie Carvel who is currently starring in the Broadway premiere of Ink at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The James Graham play casts Bertie as a young Rupert Murdoch during a time of transition in British journalism and it collected six Tony nominations, including one for Best Play and one for Bertie’s performance as the now international media mogul. In London where the play premiered, the role won Bertie his second Olivier Award. He won his first playing the comically terrifying school headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical, a part that also earned him a Tony nomination on Broadway. His many stage credits across the pond include productions at the National Theatre, the Almeida Theatre, the Royal Court, the Old Vic, and Donmar Warehouse. He’s also appeared on TV in series such as “Babylon,” “Doctor Foster,” and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” and in the film adaptation of “Les Miserables.” Bertie, welcome to Stage Door Sessions and thank you for joining us today.
BERTIE CARVEL: That’s so…I was impressed by my own CV…
ELYSA GARDNER: Well there it is, I left stuff out I’m sure.
BERTIE CARVEL: I started listening to these wonderful podcasts that the Royal Court Theatre put out which, for a while began with very glowing sort of essays by Simon Stephens. Listening to the tone of silence that people have when they’re listening to themselves being flattered, I’d never thought I’d be in that chair, but it’s sort of faintly embarrassing but also kind of golden.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, it’s all stuff you’ve done, and now you get the offer to play Rupert Murdoch, this hugely influential, hugely controversial figure, certainly to us who work in media, but generally I think. And someone who is still very much alive.
BERTIE CARVEL: Have you ever worked for a Murdoch paper?
ELYSA GARDNER: I have never worked for a Murdoch newspaper, as far as I know, because [laughs] his reach is pretty wide.
BERTIE CARVEL: It is.
ELYSA GARDNER: But what was your first reaction when you go this offer?
BERTIE CARVEL: Excitement frankly. I’ve worked with James Graham, the playwright, before. He wrote a film about the coalition government that came into the UK in 2015 in which I played Nick Clegg and I very much enjoyed doing that. And I’ve loved his plays. He’s got a sort of deep love of our political machinery in the UK and democratic machinery in general which I feel a close kinship to, largely because my father and his father and his father were all political journalists reporting on Westminster over the last hundred years. So although I am the one that got away, I sort of feel like James, a real nostalgia for and love of and respect of our kind of democratic machinery. And he’s got this incredible gift for writing about that with a light heart. He seems to be able to kind of write on deep harmonic levels that are really about serious subjects and ones that couldn’t be more urgent. But, making it into a comedy and giving people a good time and so I knew from his track record that that was what was sort of on the cards and at that stage, it was an early draft that… In fact, James rang me about something else and we were chatting about and he said “Oh, by the way, Rupert and I have been working on this play, he’s commissioned a play about Murdoch and I think he wants you to be Murdoch.” And so I was, even before I got the script, I was very exciting to see what shape that would take. And then, you know, picked it up and read that opening scene which is uh, just you know grabs you instantly and I thought, okay, I could see this happening. You kind of know more or less straightaway actually when I think when one reads something and the imagination catches light in a certain way. I think it has a very distinct kind of feeling and body and yeah, that was that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, you’ve got a Rupert for a director as well.
BERTIE CARVEL: I have two Ruperts yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: Coincidentally, who makes it a wonderfully theatrical production as you mentioned. It really hits you in the gut from the get-go. And the brain. I mean, it’s a wonderful play. And you play Rupert Murdoch when he was still in his 30s because the play starts in 1969 when he bought and remade the British tabloid “The Sun”.
BERTIE CARVEL: That’s right.
ELYSA GARDNER: We obviously have this image of him now, of Murdoch now, as a much older man. Someone who has seen his fortunes and his status shift a bit recently with Disney owning much of his empire, his elder son now runs a good deal of his business. Was it hard to put all of that aside and approach him as kind of this hungry young businessman?
BERTIE CARVEL: I’m wondering whether I did put it aside. I mean, I don’t think I did put it aside. I think part of the fun of the meeting of this character is that you’re meeting someone about whom we think we know a lot, but before any of that had happened. So yes to some extent the job is to kind of peel away the assumptions and get to what it might have felt like in that moment. But part of the fun is playing with the knowledge of what comes after. So it’s not exactly… it’s not, I don’t think it’s an act of like archeology. Also, we, James, Rupert, I, none of the cast were there in 1969…
ELYSA GARDNER: Or alive right? [laughs]
BERTIE CARVEL: …so, it is as an act of imagination. And actually, there is a sort of, I try very hard and whether it’s a real character or a fictional one actually not to kind of editorialize about the character I’m playing and not to sort of take a view from outside of what, you know whether they’re good, bad, or ugly. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not aware of other people’s assumptions and part of the fun with this play is that you get people rooting… you know we opened at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, which is sort of a relatively kind of liberal theatergoing audience, and part of the fun is watching those liberals who one can safely assume have a certain view of Mr. Murdoch and his enterprises rooting, rooting for him and hearing actually the ideology that he, in the play, espouses. The kind of full-throated argument for a certain kind of libertarianism, certain kind of capitalism that James puts into his mouth in the play. And so that’s part of the fun. So, it occurred, yeah. I didn’t really put it aside. But then, you know, there’s video and there’s photographs and there’s the imagination. I mean I think the main resource for me is just kind of doing as much research as you can and like a journalist actually checking your facts, but unlike a journalist, I don’t have to, I’m not bound by sort of needing to have multiple sources. I can, at the end of the day, I have the liberty to just imagine it for myself. I think there’s a line, I mean I think this is sort of a point at which you might feel you were certainly looking after a character who is a real person. One has to use one’s judgment to know when you might be being unfair. And like, I think that’s what I mean about editorializing. The key is not to be unfair, but it’s up to me what that means. [laughs] I’m like a journalist I suppose. I mean, or maybe you might disagree, I mean suppose that one of the themes of the play is what the responsibility of journalism is to the truth. And actually, it’s artistic. It’s not science, is it? Journalism, you know, there is an element of judgment about how you, what your editorial stance is, and when you’re reporting, you’re supposed to be reporting facts. We see all over the place now, don’t we, reporting facts; that has a very high degree of subjectivity. I’m sorry, I’m spinning off on one…
ELYSA GARDNER: No, that’s very true and I think it’s very pertinent because there is a blurring of the lines sometimes between news and editorial, editorializing and that’s something that enters into this as well.
BERTIE CARVEL: That’s right. And I think, I mean what James is so smart at doing is he’s not, you know you might expect from the monologue that I’ve just given, that this is going to be some sort of a very turgid treatise on journalism and actually he writes a musical comedy and manages to skate very, wear all of this stuff very lightly and yet have one think about these. So he’s asking an audience to consider a world and consider a kind of intellectual question without very lengthy, high minded scenes. I mean those are there, but I think they are placed neatly within a framework of fun and something that resembles “The Sun: newspaper which is a kind of appealing, populist tabloid.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well, you mentioned him being a real person, you know playing Murdoch who is a real person. And something that struck me and many critics about your portrayal is how human it is. You know, you’re playing a man who could have been made into a cartoon character, certainly by his detractors. And your last Broadway role was kind of cartoonish, Miss Trunchbull, certainly more so. You obviously wanted to flesh out this actual person a lot more.
BERTIE CARVEL: Yeah, I mean I’m sure there are people who think my performance in this is cartoonish, who knows. My way into Miss Trunchbull was oddly really you know through, I don’t believe in naturalism in the theater. Theater is like an intensely un-naturalistic space because you’re in the same room with people you know who are not who they say they are. So there’s nothing naturalistic about that. Nevertheless, all the kind of homework that you get taught to do when you learn about sort of acting, Chekov or Stanislavski stuff, I did about Miss Trunchbull and you’re right that the same is true here. But I think you can arrive at what you might term cartoonish or buffoon or kind of grotesque performances which are nonetheless extremely deeply, fully imagined and deeply thought out from what you might think of as a naturalistic point of view. And the reason for that is that there’s a sort of volume, I suppose. Or a, you know in that production, in Matilda, you want… it’s almost impossible to get out of one’s mind the incredible, jagged, inky, hand-drawn quality of Quentin Blake’s illustrations even though he wasn’t part of the production. So one holds that. And indeed that is, I think responding to a quality of Roald Dahl’s writing which is sort of somehow, you know the volume is cranked up. And so even though one might be thinking, you know a lot of my work there was about thinking about how this little girl, Miss Trunchbull who is called Agatha and who had a sister who she thought was more beautiful, more daring, more athletic, more feminine, more you know, and her relationship to herself is kind of defined in those terms and hence—jealousy. But it cranks the volume up and he turns her into, he takes her to the end of that scale and she becomes kind of child-hating psychopath who finds her nemesis in Matilda. And you know, but all of that comes out of a very humane place for me, and then you just sort of go but how do I wear that at a scale that responds to kind of the temperature of the writing. The same is true here actually, so it’s easier in a way to see the root to naturalism because I can go and dig around and read biographies of Rupert Murdoch and you know, talk to people and I suppose I could have rung him up and interviewed him and I decided not to. Not because I thought he wouldn’t pick up the phone, I don’t know I may have been wrong actually, but actually, there’s still then a lens of the play. And then coming to the play I remember early on thinking I can’t put on stage a sort of very finely drawn.. what if I tried to put on stage is a sort of mimetic representation of you know an exact, to disguise myself as Rupert Murdoch, I don’t think it’s going to work because I don’t think that’s what the play is delivering. The play is, the volume is turned you know, I don’t know whether it’s north, south, east or west, but it’s, it’s not a kind of copy of reality. James is commenting on that. You have to kind of lean in that direction and I hope that’s not too long an answer to…
ELYSA GARDNER: No, and I guess that’s what I meant, that it was more you know, with Matilda it was more, certainly the humanity and the reality was there, but it was a more exaggerated sense of it.
BERTIE CARVEL: Yeah, yeah I suppose so. Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well on Broadway, you’ve appeared in new works, but in the U.K. you’ve done a number of classics going back to Shakespeare, to restoration comedy. Do you seek a certain balance in introducing new things that excite you and revisiting old classics?
BERTIE CARVEL: I just want to do stuff I think I’d be good in frankly. And without shutting off risk because it’s important to carry on taking risks and challenging oneself and sometimes that’s what’s exciting. But also, one’s also kind of looking for some sniff that, well the sensation that I described earlier about, I kind of know when the touch paper of my imagination has been licked. And that’s enough. And sometimes it burns hot and bright and sometimes it sort of peters out and you know, it’s not always a guide to what’s going to be good, but it’s necessary for me to feel excited. I feel so lucky to go into work with that spring in my step. Even when it’s to face down huge challenges or, I love those challenges, but when it’s coming from a place of I imagined something, I saw you know, through a glass darkly, I saw something that I thought was really interesting, right. I just sensed it was around the corner. It’s an amazing place to go to work from and, so that’s the only criterion and I don’t have a, you know, I feel the same about musicals, theater, film, television… it’s all the same in as much as these are things people have invited me to do with my skill set that are, you know, interesting and actually, almost always comes from words on a page. Once or twice I’ve done stuff where there hasn’t been any words on a page and that’s been interesting and challenging in a different way. But, I mean I have a very strong imaginative response to reading things and I find it much harder I think when, or hearing things. I’m quite auditory like I learn my lines by listening. I’ve realized that my brain works faster that way actually then, I read quite slowly. But, both things kind of have a root in my imagination in a way that you know, if somebody says this director wants to do a project with that producer and they’re interested in talking to you, I find that a very unsteady space when it’s… not that I don’t like the idea of devising, but I just don’t, I don’t feel the sense of confidence that comes from going even if it’s just a fragment I’ve read or heard something that is like “ahhh a world has opened up.” So we did Damon Albarn’s opera, Dr. Dee. Rufus Norris came to me and said look there’s no libretto, there’s been a couple of attempts to make the libretto for this, but here’s some music that Damon has written and we’re gonna, we’re going to work around that. And that was really exciting because one could… in walked Damon had created already, that was already this rich world and that was about a real person so what good is it going to do. Sorry I digress, please interrupt me.
ELYSA GARDNER: No, no, this is great.
BERTIE CARVEL: This will tend to happen.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] No, it’s good, we like that. I know that you made your directorial debut a few years ago with Strife which also looks at British politics and culture. What was that like?
BERTIE CARVEL: Ah, it was, it was incredible. It’s one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.
ELYSA GARDNER: Traumatic or dramatic? [Laughs]
BERTIE CARVEL: Traumatic! I felt, I was, I had been so excited to direct for such a long time and finally I was given this incredible opportunity, by Jonathan Church who ran Chichester Festival Theatre and trusted with a huge play that I brought to them and with 20 actors and an incredible cast who had all bought in. And there was I, with literally no experience of directing except having been directed. And I mean that was an incredible baptism of fire. I, there were things I was… I loved it. I mean I absolutely loved it and I was extremely proud of it, extremely proud of what everybody made. I mean I think it was really good and I think my input was a mixed bag frankly. I think there were things I got right. I think the production we made was extraordinary and way better than it deserved to be for a neophyte director. And actually, I was really really proud of it. But there were things I got hugely wrong and it was so, an incredible way to learn. I can’t wait to do it again.
ELYSA GARDNER: I was going to ask if you’d like to do that
BERTIE CARVEL: I would love to do it again. And frankly the reason it took me so long to do it and the reason it will probably take me some time before I do it again is the schedules of a director and an actor couldn’t conflict more. So, you know I’ve been trying actually since then to work on the next project, but the thing is a freelance director you will have to be continually pitching ideas and sharpening up stuff that may or may not ever happen. And then as it, when it moves into a vaguely might happen phase, there’s still, you have to do an awful lot of work for nothing essentially. Way more so than an actor actually. And I don’t think it’s appreciated actually how much, particularly freelance directors, it’s different if you run a building or if you’re, you are so successful that people are asking you to do productions all over the world. But as a freelancer or starting your career, you know you are essentially producing as well. You’re pitching continually and making commitments to projects that can fall through at last minute and that’s not really compatible with a successful career as an actor which I happily enjoy for the time being. So, I would have to sacrifice that if I was really serious about doing a lot of directing and I’m not prepared to do that. So, unfortunately, I think that means I won’t get to do as much as I’d like.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well at some point hopefully. Yeah, a juggling act I would guess.
BERTIE CARVEL: When I’m fantastically successful.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Well before we let you go, you have provided voices for at least a couple of video games.
BERTIE CARVEL: Yes!
ELYSA GARDNER: I want to ask you about that. I know absolutely nothing about video games, but given all you can do with your singing and speaking voices, I was hoping maybe you could discuss it or give us a little example. I know it’s early in the morning right now.
BERTIE CARVEL: It’s a huge topic, this. I think it’s… apart from anything else, the game industry is now worth more than television, film, theater put together.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh it’s huge!
BERTIE CARVEL: It’s absolutely huge. And it’s an area in which the artists are under-recognized, unsung, and massively underpaid by a large amount. There’s work going on across the performer’s unions to try and address that. And you know I’m very pleased to be able to say publicly that I think it’s something that needs to be looked at. I don’t think that the industry has kept pace with the rapid expansion and exciting expansion of that industry. But this skill set is huge and because it’s not visible, literally, I don’t know that the, I mean apart from what the artists are doing, incredible motion capture stuff, but really making an incredible input. My own experience has been relatively low key. I turned up for an audition I thought was for a commercial actually, a voice over commercial, and I said no to it because I wasn’t really into it. I was teching a play at the time at the Royal Court and my agent told me what the fee would be if I got the job per hour, which was you know modest, but it was half my weekly fee at the Royal Court Theatre upstairs for a single hour, which is what I thought the gig was. I thought, oh okay, get over yourself and turn up. Then I turned up and then said no more about it, anyway, it turned into this incredible long-running voice-over gig which has been extraordinary. And the amount of material is vast because this is a world that is populated by… I’m now regretting telling you vaguely what I earn because I signed a nondisclosure agreement… [laughs], but it’s hardly a king’s ransom. Anyway, the point is that it was a huge opportunity and I was very pleased I went to the audition [laughs].
ELYSA GARDNER: It sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, a lot to juggle, prospects for the future.
BERTIE CARVEL: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s exciting, that’s great. I’ve just been doing ADR for a TV project that I’ve got coming out later this year down the lines to London and in the same booth actually that I was recently there doing some stuff for a computer game. You know, to be able to earn one’s living in this varied way and to be able to be invited to come and talk to you and speak in sentences with not enough punctuation, it’s a great honor really. Thank you for having me.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, thank you so much for joining us and have a couple of great shows today.
BERTIE CARVEL: Thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.
In this podcast, we’re speaking with Bertie Carvel on his Tony-winning role in Ink. Find out how Bertie brings humanity to his roles as notable real-life figures and famous literary characters.
Please note, this podcast was recorded prior to the 2019 Tony Awards ceremony.