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Chimerica: Stephen Campbell Moore Interview

28 August 2013 Rebecca White

"There is a mystery element to it which everyone is excited by. It gives the audience that personal challenge when they are watching it to find out what is really going on."

Critics have been lining up to praise Chimerica over the last few months. Superlatives have been exhausted and wrung dry for what many people are saying is the best play of the year. After wowing theatre goers at the Almeida a West End transfer was perhaps inevitable and you’d expect award nominations aplenty to follow...

London Calling's Becky White caught up with Stephen Campbell Moore who plays the lead character Joe, a young American photo-journalist who captures the history taking place in Tiananmen Square in 1989 on camera.

London Calling: How did you originally get involved with Chimerica?

Stephen Campbell Moore: I read a version when they were doing a lot of workshops on it and were just starting to cast my part. I went in to meet the director (Lindsay Turner) and Lucy (Kirkwood) the writer, we had a little read and I really loved the way that she writes.

The play wasn't fully formed at that point but my interest was seriously piqued. Then I got a call a few days later saying would you like to do it! So it was as simple as going in and having a meeting, I'd never worked with either of them before.

LC: The play seems to have engaged with so many. What do you think gives it such mass appeal?

SCM: There is a mystery element to it which everyone is excited by. It gives the audience that personal challenge when they are watching it to find out what is really going on. The audience follows someone who is on a journey, who is searching for something.

Joe has taken an iconic photograph twenty years previously and suddenly he gets a tip off from his friend that the tank man, the man who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square, is still alive and probably living in Chinatown.

I think in a way that is enough for an audience to go 'who is this man?' in real life nobody knows who he was or why he did what he did, what was the impulse he felt. Of course there had been the massacre the day before but it was a real act of heroism to stand in front of the tanks, whether that is from desperation or a complete sort of carelessness for his own life.

At that same point there is something that has lain dormant in Joe's mind for a long time because he has sort of built this man’s act into the perfect form of heroism although he doesn't know who he is. I think it is that idea that he needs to meet his hero, he needs to find out who he is although he is not fully conscious of that. It is more a kind of physical impulse, it is not fully thought out.

I think it appeals on that level but also it is particularly prescient because it is about the world today and something which is bizarrely a bit of a blind spot for people. It is something that people are aware of, that China and America are completely interdependent, one is in credit, one is in debt and it is almost too big a subject for people to look at. I think that following a personal journey is a great way to look at the two different worlds of Beijing and New York.

LC: This is a play being put on in England with English actors written by an English playwright. How differently do you think the play would be received in America or China (obviously it would be very difficult to stage it in China)?

SCM: I think you are right, in China it wouldn't go on and in America I can't say exactly how it would be received but in my experience of American audiences receiving plays about themselves it can go either one of two ways. If it rings true then people will embrace it, I think that is the way America works. If they feel that they are being lectured or it is unbalanced then quite rightly they will respond in a way that is a little bit more aggressive but my personal opinion is that it would do very well in America.

There are a lot of Americans who have come to see it in Britain both at the Almeida and in the West End who really love it. I don't think in the end when people watch a play they necessarily think about whether the playwright was British, American or Chinese, they watch what they are given and that is the great thing about it. The wonderful thing about this play is that people go in not knowing what the play is going to be about. They suspend their judgment all the way through.

LC: Do you think that the audiences have differed in the two theatres that you have performed this in - the Almeida and the West End (Harold Pinter Theatre)?

SCM: Yes in the West End firstly you are going to get the overspill from people who weren't able to get the original tickets at the Almeida and then because you are in the West End you just get such a mixed demographic.

It is always brilliant because it means that you don't get such a uniform response, which makes it a little more volatile. I had that experience with Clybourne Park as well which went from the Royal Court Theatre to the West End. It was thrilling to have that mixed audience.

I loved the Almeida audience but there was a certain uniformity to their backgrounds, their professions and all those kind of things. People are who they are and those audiences brought an intelligence to a certain aspect of the play but perhaps some other things went unfelt because it was not part of that audiences existence.

I think a West End run of something like this that isn't a classic and obviously not a musical, it is a serious subject (although it is very funny) so you rely on word of mouth more. If people enjoy it that is probably the best thing you can have, people saying that they went to see the play and they loved it. Then quite often people who don't normally come to the theatre would come and watch a play like this, which is my ideal as an actor that I am not performing to the already converted.

LC: Have you ever been to China?

SCM: I have been to Hong Kong and Kowloon but that is perhaps not quite the same. When I was cast I had about two weeks before I started work and I thought about going to Beijing but I would probably just have wandered around looking confused!

LC: I ask this for the people who have seen the play (where they mention the journalistic focus on the seemingly irrelevant details of subjects lives), what did you have for your breakfast?

SCM: Actually this morning isn't that interesting but yesterday was much better, I went to a restaurant that my friend has recently opened on Frith Street called Koya Bar. I had bacon, eggs and mushrooms with a kind of rice porridge and Bali Tea. It was amazing!

Chimerica is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre until October 19th. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for!?! For more information and to book tickets please click here.

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