Co-stars Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams may live very different lives, but that only serves a new play which has them coming to blows in the rehearsal room, finds Caroline Bishop.
When I arrive at the South London rehearsal space where Neil LaBute’s play In A Forest, Dark And Deep is being knocked into shape, actor Matthew Fox has nipped out for a cigarette. His co-star Olivia Williams doesn’t smoke, but it is at times like these, she tells me with a smile, she wishes she did.
It is quickly clear that Williams’s desire for a calming puff of nicotine is due to the fact that rehearsing a two-handed black comedy written and directed by American playwright LaBute has been more than a little intense. “I just beat up poor Matthew today and I’m convinced he’s going to come up in bruises,” says Williams.
Exactly what has been going on in the rehearsal room this morning, I wonder? Luckily, when Fox comes to join us, post-fag break, he doesn’t appear to have physically suffered at Williams’s hands. Tall and ruggedly good-looking, with a salt-and-pepper beard and tattoos winding their way round his muscular forearms, Fox looks eminently capable of defending himself, even if Williams strikes me as a woman who knows how to throw a decent punch.
They are a good pairing, then, for this new play which pits brother against sister in a psychological – and obviously physical – battle played out in the woods of rural America on a dark and stormy night.
“If you’re coasting, sooner or later it reads in your acting. This is a very, very long way away from coasting”
“I read the script and was really attracted to it for a bunch of different reasons, but I thought it was a beautiful piece of writing,” says Fox. “Neil, I really like how he writes, and I also thought the subject matter – this relationship between this brother and a sister – I thought it was going to be a real challenge.”
“And you were right!” chips in Williams with a laugh.
The tone is set for a chat which reveals the very different, yet complementary nature of these two actors: Fox for the most part serious and contemplative, Williams more naturally garrulous and open, teasing a smile or a laugh from her co-star with her witty, unreserved responses.
It is fair to say that on paper, these two don’t have a lot in common: he is an American who grew up on a farm, has just spent six years in Hawaii and now lives in rural Oregon; she is the daughter of barrister parents, a born-and-bred Londoner who still lives in the capital. Their careers, too, have gone in different directions: Fox has spent years filming long-running TV dramas Party Of Five and Lost, while Williams has mixed it up by combining television with extensive theatre in the subsidised sector and, more recently, a string of successful films.
They hadn’t met before signing up to In A Forest – their producers threw them a dinner and “none of us got fired after that which was a relief” quips Williams – but it is clear that, despite their different backgrounds, they get along and have a mutual respect. Both in their 40s, married with children, they have found shared ground in each other’s approach to work and family; Williams has given her co-star Time Out London For Children for when his two boys come over to join him. However, says Fox, “actually the play would be served even if you didn’t get on so well”.
“It’s important to be able to work together,” adds Williams, “but it’s important to see where you can flip the other person’s switch, you can see someone ignite and what makes them tick.”
“Most people try and shed their emotional baggage and I’m trying to add to mine”
That is because the third figure in the triangle – LaBute – has created a play which requires friction to make it sing. “When you meet him you think how can this crazy twisted stuff come out of this genial, teddy bear of a man?” says Williams. “He’s wicked! He’s like the kid in class who’s trying to wind you up. There is the sense that as an actor he’s trying to get you angry and he does! But it’s all done with a sense of humour.”
Antagonising his actors is part of the point, as Williams and Fox play siblings who, having not seen each other for years, have an intense yet prickly relationship. “They are two very, very different people, from a socio-economic standpoint, from a language standpoint, from an education standpoint, and so pretty much everything about the two of them doesn’t fit very well together and upsets each other,” says Fox.
“What’s great is that Neil has caught that thing where just a tone of voice or actually just one word can light an incredible touch paper of a row,” adds Williams. “One of the joys of acting is that in real life you can’t actually be as rude or as unpleasant as you’d like to be when someone’s about to irritate you, but these two just step right in and go all the way! Neither of them seem to have any editing system at all, they just say the nastiest thing that comes into their heads.”
It is no wonder their characters come to blows. “He’s really strong!” laughs Williams of her co-star. “If I really, really want to get away I really can’t!”
“She’s tough,” retorts Fox. “I knew that going in and I think that really serves the thing very well. Honestly, this role in someone who’s going to shrink would have died, I think. It needed somebody that has a very stiff upper lip and is tough.”
“The character is having to put a lid on her instinctive response,” explains Williams of her character Betty. “So she’s having to behave in a way that she really, really doesn’t want to. If I was in this situation I would go as crazy as she does. So in that sense I identify with her completely.”
But Williams is thriving on the craziness. After several high profile films of late – including playing the wives of the Prime Minister (The Ghost) and Ian Dury (Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll) – the actress is relishing being back on the stage where she can “fill up again on [my] emotional baggage”.
“You need emotional baggage to be an actor I think,” she adds. “Most people try and shed their emotional baggage and I’m trying to add to mine. Doing theatre you sort of fill up again on some neuroses and some madness and then you use it up when you go and do film, because you have to produce it so instantaneously. So I love this, I love the rehearsal period where you make yourself a bit mad.”
“This role in someone who’s going to shrink would have died, I think”
While Williams’s career has included many stage appearances, including a period at the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays at the Donmar Warehouse and Barbican and, most recently, Happy Now? at the National Theatre, Fox’s only theatre experience has been in student productions and a period with an LA-based theatre company, before Lost elevated him to household name status. So I imagine he might be picking up tips from his more experienced co-star. I would be wrong. “I don’t think that’s the situation at all,” responds Williams immediately with a glint in her eyes. “Not at all!”
“Everybody has their own way of approaching the work, and I would say we approach it slightly differently,” says Fox, more seriously. “That’s part of what the journey of acting is all about, finding the way that works for you.”
If this appears to indicate surprising self-confidence for a man who hasn’t been on stage for years, Fox says it is actually more that the level of insecurity is no different from any other job. “I find every single job I go into has a certain element of ‘am I going to be able to pull this off?’ I’ve done 300 hours of television and if I were to get involved in one more hour of television playing a new role I would still have those moments. Acting is so much about that.”
“I don’t do anything unless I’m forced into it by fear of humiliation,” agrees Williams with a grin. “I think you need that balancing-on-the-wire feel in order to get your act together and do something extraordinary. If you’re coasting, sooner or later it reads in your eyes, in your acting. This is a very, very long way away from coasting!”
Fox guffaws, and again I wonder exactly what fearful things have been happening to them in the rehearsal room.
Coasting, however, must surely be an occupational hazard of spending six years on one series, as Fox did playing Dr Jack in surreal drama Lost. “I think it’s ripe with the potential for that; it depends on the individual,” he says. “I am very hard on myself that way. If I even get remotely close to the feeling that I was coasting then I think it’s time for me to exit stage left, honestly, because that means I’ve lost my curiosity and my desire to really reach deep and try and bring something forth that’s meaningful.”
“When you meet him you think how can this crazy twisted stuff come out of this genial, teddy bear of a man?”
“What most people don’t know about episodic TV in America is that they are making up the story as they go along,” adds Williams, who spent two seasons in Buffy creator Joss Whedon’s drama Dollhouse. “If audience numbers are telling them that you are coasting, then your character stops taking centre stage. So in that sense it’s brutal for keeping you on your toes. You’d better turn in something interesting when you’re given a morsel otherwise you’re unemployed.”
Their lives have converged then, in part. Williams’s time in LA for Dollhouse and various films – including her 1997 breakthrough, The Postman, and Bruce Willis hit The Sixth Sense – have given her knowledge of her co-star’s professional world, while Fox’s long marriage to an Italian-American has imparted in him “a firm grasp of European humour and sensibilities” says Williams.
With In A Forest, there is a sense they are sharing a watershed moment, too. Lost now behind him, Fox is entering a new phase of his career on the back of a huge public profile, while it is no coincidence that Williams’s first foray into commercial theatre comes as her own star burns bright. “You can’t do a two-hander in the West End if you haven’t got some of that energy behind you,” says Williams, referring to the profile that has come from her recent screen work. “And that’s a terrible injustice of our job but I’m not going to start saying ‘I’m not going to do it because the principle sucks’. I’ve finally got to a stage where enough people will come and see it because of the reputation of our work. Great, grab it with both hands.”
It sounds like they both are. I only wonder, given the dark and intense nature of LaBute’s play and the physical bruising they are taking, whether Fox’s West End stage debut will be a pleasurable enough experience to make him to return to theatre in the future. “If I’m having a f**king awesome time then yes,” he says. “I have a suspicion that I’m going to really enjoy it.”
Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams will be presenting an award at this Sunday’s Olivier Awards with Mastercard. For full details of how you can follow the ceremony visit olivierawards.com