Jake Gyllenhaal has been speaking to a beekeeper in preparation to play one, Roland, in Constellations. Is the actor going totally method, hanging out with bees and eating lots of honey? “Eating lots of bees and hanging out with honey,” he replies, slaphappy after a long day of rehearsal.
“We’ve got some amazing honey,” says British playwright Nick Payne, equally punch-drunk. “Try some!”
The American premiere of Constellations, which opens January 13 for a limited engagement at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, reunites Gyllenhaal with Payne and director Michael Longhurst, who all make their Broadway debuts with the production. They previously collaborated on the 2012 Off-Broadway premiere of If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, Gyllenhaal’s New York stage debut.
Constellations, a romantic drama about life’s infinite possibilities, toys with the cosmological theory of a multiverse in which many different scenarios can simultaneously coexist. Before it transferred to the West End, where it earned the Evening Standard Award and an Olivier Award nomination for Best Play, Gyllenhaal caught its 2012 premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre. He met Payne for breakfast the next morning.
“I fell in love with the show, and I just gushed over his writing,” recalls Gyllenhaal, who had been introduced to Payne’s work years earlier by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow.
“I’d seen all of Jake’s films,” says Payne.
“He sees everything, so that doesn’t mean much.”
The casual meeting led to their tackling If There Is, which ultimately emboldened them to brighten Broadway with Constellations. “Without our experience Off-Broadway,” Gyllenhaal continues, “I don’t know if we’d be here now — closer to Bar Centrale, Orso, and Shake Shack.”
Ruth Wilson, a two-time Olivier winner and star of Showtime’s The Affair, also makes her Broadway debut in Payne’s two-hander as Marianne, a quantum physicist. “Although she and Roland have very different jobs, they’re both searching for why we’re here and what we’re meant to spend our lives doing — the ultimate theory of everything,” the playwright explains.
“A beekeeper may see the elegance of the universe displayed in the lives of bees,” Gyllenhaal adds, “but we’re all driven by the idea of finding our purpose.”
Because he is not British like his lovely co-star, Gyllenhaal’s purpose includes perfecting the British accent he used in If There Is. “I get off on working out those details,” he says. “There’s something inherently British about Nick’s writing, which gives me confidence. It sounds weird, but I feel very comforted by British culture.”
“More important than the accent is that cultural and emotional understanding of British repression,” says Payne, only half-jokingly. “But I’d seen Prince of Persia, so I always knew Jake’s accent was spot-on.”
Gyllenhaal got a taste of British culture while making his professional stage debut in the 2002 West End production of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. Then, taking a decade-long hiatus from theatre, he went on to star in films such as Jarhead, The Day After Tomorrow, and Brokeback Mountain, for which he received an Oscar nod. “Actors that I really admire always find their way back to the stage,” he says. “Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber... my sister.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal made her own Broadway debut earlier this season in a revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. “Two Siblings Doing British Accents on Broadway,” her little brother suggests as a headline. “Not to get too sentimental, but I was my sister’s stagehand when she’d put on fake performances of stuff like Cats when we were kids. She’d make me drink out of a bowl of milk. And now we’re both on Broadway? It’s crazy.”
The Los Angeles native also fondly remembers seeing shows such as The Secret Garden, Miss Saigon, and Angels in America on family trips to New York. “Even as a kid, I could feel the extraordinary energy, the history in the seats,” he says. “Broadway is a crossroads in a career that you hope to reach. It’s an inexplicable honor.”
“I’m too pessimistic and British to ever see Broadway as a goal,” Payne says. “But some of my favorite playwrights are American, so being here is exciting.”
“Bee-ing,” Gyllenhaal snickers. “How many bee puns can we fit in this piece?”
Witnessing their camaraderie and shared sensibility — a hive mind? — one might assume these pals are already planning a third collaboration. “It’s not that I wouldn’t want to,” Payne shrugs, “but I’m not thinking that far ahead.”
“That’s a very British answer,” Gyllenhaal says.
“You’re right. I should’ve just said, ‘Yes, I’ve already written something!’”
For now, at least in this universe, both men have Broadway buzzing. But what would they be doing in a parallel world where they’d never met? “Feeling a lot less humbled,” says Gyllenhaal without hesitation.
Payne considers the cosmic query more carefully. And Britishly. "Sleeping," he says.
Playbill, January 2015 issue.