Q&A: Tom Sturridge of ‘Sea Wall/A Life’

A prolific Tony and Olivier Award-nominated actor, Tom Sturridge has appeared on Broadway in 1984Orphans and American Buffalo. On screen, he has starred in Mary ShelleyJourney’s EndOn the Road, Far From the Madding CrowdSong to Song and Pirate Radio. He also appeared alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Dame Judi Dench in The Hollow Crown on the BBC. In his Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw, he starred with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Billy Magnussen and Daveed Diggs. Sturridge recently returned to Broadway to perform a quietly powerful monologue in Sea Wall, which was written by Simon Stephens. (Gyllenhaal performs a separate monologue, A Life, by Nick Payne.) Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Sturridge plays a photographer named Alex who recounts a deeply personal story about going on vacation with his family in the South of France.

How did you come to do Sea Wall?
Tom Sturridge:
Sea Wall was written by Simon Stephens. He actually came to see me in the play 1984 at this theater two years ago. Afterwards, he gave me the text to Sea Wall, and said “We should do this together.” It was one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I’ve ever read. I became obsessed by it. Me and Jake (Gyllenhaal) share an agent, John Buzzetti. 50 minutes didn’t quite seem to justify an evening of theater. So John brought us together. Jake had a play written by his friend Nick (Payne), and found this thematic connection.

What was really weird was, when I first read this, it was kind of terrifying. It was something I had never experienced before. As an actor, my personal preference is to hide within the role. I like to find people who are as far from me as possible. I find I’m not very good at telling the truth when I am myself. What I found very frightening was how similar he was to me. When I first read it, and this is a tiny thing, but it said, “Sea Wall.” And when you turn the page, it said, “Characters: Alex, 31.” And when I read it, I had just turned 31. I have a daughter who is a similar age to Lucy (Alex’s daughter). These people are very much in my life.

What do you adore about the experience?
TS: Obviously, some difficult things happen in in Sea Wall. But for me it’s a celebration of love. It’s so exciting to be able to do a piece in which every day you’d go out and express how wonderful it is to be a father, and to love an extraordinary creature.

Is it hard to describe how the experience has changed you?
TS: What has been so unusual about this experience is how important it was to bring as much of ourselves into these characters. This really is because of our extraordinary director, Carrie Cracknel. The experience hasn’t changed me, because I tried to make it me. Every day when I walk into the theater and come up on the stage to start, I try as hard as I can to be the person that I am that day. I try to have the performance be afflicted by whatever has happened to me. I think it’s very different at each time. And that has been incredibly thrilling.

Have you ever considered switching monologues?
TS: We definitely talked about it. The truth is that we joke about Nick taking a long time to be comfortable with this happening. And that was because A Life is almost a true story. It’s about his family and people in his life. And it was important to him that his friend (Jake) did it. And suddenly to start swapping them around becomes a kind of actor-ly game as opposed to us taking on the responsibility of what these words meant.

By Jeryl Brunner

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