Due to popular demand, Tamara Harvey and Terry Johnson’s production of Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is back in the West End for a limited run until 3 June. This time around, former ER doc Alex Kingston stars alongside Hollywood’s cheekily charismatic leading man Christian Slater. Caroline Bishop caught up for a chat with the pair at the Garrick theatre and found out that a post-show karaoke duet may not be entirely off the cards….
“Who thought of this?!” laughs Christian Slater. He’s just been sitting with his fingers in his ears humming to himself in an attempt to block out the effusive praise that his co-star Alex Kingston is lauding upon him. “Oh c’mon, I’m in the room! It’s much nicer when you’re not in the room hearing the praise!” he says bashfully, inasmuch as his loud, room-filling voice can be bashful. But Kingston is on a roll: “He’s just brilliant – really generous, amazingly open to trying things out, you know, no ego, no diva behaviour, nothing!” she says. “I would work with Christian again at the drop of a hat. He’s much more like an English stage actor than an American movie star because he’s very much part of the ensemble and not trying to be like ‘I’m Mr Star and you’re all down there’. He is just great.”
Slater removes his fingers from his ears. “Thank you,” he says to Kingston, with an embarrassed laugh. Uncomfortable joint-interview moments aside, Slater seems pretty comfortable to be back in the West End reprising his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He made his West End debut in Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel at the Gielgud theatre at the end of 2004, and is now sitting in a dressing room in the basement of the Garrick, where the play has been revived for a limited season. Co-star Kingston has replaced Frances Barber as the highly-starched control-freak Nurse Ratched to Slater’s rebellious psychiatric hospital inmate Randle P McMurphy, and the two seem to be getting along just fine. “I just want people to know that Christian is a really great actor… and I want you to do more theatre,” Kingston adds, turning to Slater and giving him a sisterly nudge on the knee to emphasise her point.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” says Slater, returning the praise. “I’ll say in front of her, it’s been phenomenal that she’s been able to jump in to this situation with the amount of time and the fact that we had done the play before and to sort of coast along, she’s been phenomenal.”
"He’s much more like an English stage actor than an American movie star because he’s very much part of the ensemble"
Despite the mutual appreciation, the two are an unlikely combination. Kingston, 43, is a RADA-trained, former RSC actress and ex-wife of Ralph Fiennes, with Pre-Raphaelite curls and a home counties English accent that hasn’t been affected by 10 years living in LA, where she starred as Dr Corday in TV hospital drama ER. New York-born Slater, 36, is a Hollywood movie star (as if you didn’t know) with a penchant for playing characters with a hint of craziness, somewhat mirrored by the wilder moments in his own life – roles in Heathers, Pump Up The Volume and Tarantino’s True Romance propelled him to stardom in the 1980s and early 90s, while a jail spell and several arrests have propelled him into the papers. Kingston, in a floral wrap dress over jeans, sits upright in her chair, hands in her lap, while leather-jacket clad Slater is fidgety in his seat, endearingly like a big kid who likes to be centre stage. Though quite opposite, they have an easy rapport with each other. Both are animated and chatty, and more than happy to talk about their roles, Slater to the point that he eagerly punctuates Kingston’s conversation with loud exclamations of ‘Yeah!’ or ‘Uh huh’ or a just a flash of his infectious laugh.
Anyway, their differences come in handy in a play which sets their characters against each other in a vicious power struggle. Kingston’s Nurse Ratched is a dominatrix who rules over the psychiatric hospital where she works with an iron hand. Slater is Jack-the-lad gambler McMurphy – a part played to Oscar-winning effect by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film – who helps his fellow inmates to stand up to Ratched, and as a result ends up a victim of her sadistic methods of control.
The experience of the play has also been very different for each of them; Kingston is brand new to her part, while Slater has had the chance to hone and refine his performance, which last time around was hampered by a bout of chicken pox in rehearsals. “I remember last year when I was doing the show, you’d be in the middle of a performance and you’d think ‘Oh God, I wish we could do this, I wish we could do that,’ and you’d get to the end of the show and by that point you were so grateful to have finished and that the audience was happy you’d forget all the things you wanted to do, so this really provided a great opportunity to be able to do that,” says Slater.
Kingston, by contrast, had the challenge of “trying to run on to a moving train” as rehearsals didn’t begin at the beginning for her. Rather than starting the process with read-throughs round a table, she was plunged into rehearsals in the existing sets, with props thrust into her hands. “That I found very hard because it was like I was putting on a mantle of something that was just empty inside, it was like a shell, there was no substance. And I found that actually a quite frightening way of working because I didn’t understand why I was reacting to or saying the lines in the way I was saying them, or why I was walking from one part of the set to the other – I didn’t understand the motivation for anything.”
It’s been a bit of a baptism of fire then, Kingston’s first foray into theatre post-ER and her West End debut to boot, but she’s delighted to be back on stage where her acting career began. Long before she became known for ER (1997-2004) and the TV adaptation of Moll Flanders (1996) she worked extensively on stage, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I love being on stage. It’s much harder and I think more rewarding, because you get an immediate reaction from the audience,” she says. “If you’re filming you know that ultimately the editor and the director are responsible for how it’s then shown to the outside world, whereas all the responsibility on performance night is ours.”
"When I got the opportunity to do this play last year I was a little worried because the movies were so popular"
The risk of live theatre in London was perhaps greater for Slater, who, though he has worked on Broadway (Side Man, 1999; The Glass Menagerie, 2005), could have seen his movie star reputation bashed by London’s critics. But the first sold-out run of the play only served to polish his star, and the whole experience has been, to use his favourite word, phenomenal: “I grew up in the theatre, started in the theatre, and when I got the opportunity to do this play last year I was a little worried because the movies were so popular. But it was actually my mother [Actress Mary Jo Slater] who said ‘C’mon, screw it, just go out there, it’s a great opportunity – to do something in the West End is the highest thing you can do as an actor’, and fortunately I agreed with her and came over and did it. It was a phenomenal experience and it’s been an equally if not more wonderful experience this time.”
He is hoping to build on his West End success with another plum part – while in London he will read for “a play I’ve wanted to do for a long time”: Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird Of Youth. “There’s that possibility and then we’ll see what else comes on down the line.”
“And the other thing is,” adds Kingston in a serious tone of voice, “if his career really goes down the toilet he can always be a Frank Sinatra sound-a-like.”
Slater’s booming laugh fills the room: “Yeah, it’s something to fall back on!”
Singing is something of a passion for Slater. Last year’s run of the show at the Gielgud saw several of the stand-up comics who had roles in the play at the time take to the stage post-show for an impromptu ‘Cuckoo Comedy Club’ hosted by Slater, who used the chance to belt out the odd tune. He also gets to stretch his vocal cords in the show itself. I suggest a duet with Kingston for this run’s after-show-extra: “Yeah! What was that Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman one? ‘Something Stupid’. Yeah we could do that, there you go,” and he breaks into the chorus. Kingston looks less enamoured with the idea.
Maybe not singing, but Kingston is open to ideas regarding future projects. After Cuckoo’s Nest she’ll be heading back to her husband, German journalist Florian Haertel, and daughter Salome at their home in LA, but feels that her time in London has “peaked people’s interest again and made people realise that I am available.” She’s even considering the possibility of acting in German, in which she is fluent. “There’s a TV series over there and the producer is quite keen to get me along to do something, that might be quite fun.”
"If his career really goes down the toilet he can always be a Frank Sinatra sound-a-like"
For the time being she’s having quite enough fun with Slater in Cuckoo’s Nest. While the PR tries to tell me time is almost up, Kingston talks animatedly about a young boy in the audience one night, about the same age as Slater’s oldest child, seven-year-old son Jaden (with estranged wife Ryan Haddon). “He was sitting three rows from the front. In the first act, every time there was a rude word you could hear him laughing because he knew he was hearing something he shouldn’t be hearing. Then when Christian came out in his boxer shorts the little boy had his binoculars, he thought it was fantastic! When we were bowing he was really thrilled, he was waving – he wanted you to wave to him,” she says to Slater.
Slater: “Oh my God, I didn’t see the kid! I didn’t even see him. Oh no!”
Kingston: “I gave him a little wave”
Slater: “Oh good, oh good.”
Kingston: “He was like, in awe of you.”
Slater: “Oh man! Oh, hi kid! Wow!”
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is booking until 3 June.