British actor James Corden first set foot on a Broadway stage six years ago as one of the title school chums of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. For his second Rialto run, he’s reuniting with History Boys director Nicholas Hytner to play the title Man in high-spirited slapstick One Man, Two Guvnors. Between his two Broadway outings, Corden hit it big in the BBC comedy Gavin & Stacey, which he co-created and wrote as well as acted in. Now he’s bringing those well-honed comedy chops to One Man’s ravenous and none-too-bright Francis Henshall, who ends up working for two low-rent thugs in 1960s Brighton. Corden recently sat down with Broadway.com for a pre-rehearsal chat, despite having been roused at 4AM by his one-year-old son, Max. Settled on his dressing room sofa at the Music Box Theatre, Corden reflected on his roller coaster year and role of a lifetime, his emotional history with History Boys, his love for Philip Seymour Hoffman and much more.
It's been a hell of a year for you! A new baby and a hit show all at the same time. How are you holding up?
I wouldn't swap it for anything. It's kind of overwhelming sometimes, how well it's all going.
Let's start with the show. How did One Man, Two Guvnors first cross your plate?
A couple of years ago Nick Hytner called me and said, "Do you want to do a play at the National Theatre?" I said, "Are you directing it?’" He said, "I’ll direct it if you'll do it." And I said, "I’ll do it." He said, "Do you not want to know what it is?" I said, "It doesn't matter. If it's with you at the National, then I'm in." The chance to work with him in that building is something you don't pass up.
Well, I think that the eight of us boys, The History Boys, have an emotional pull, a kind of romantic attachment to that building and to [Hytner] because of what it did for us. He is one of the best theater directors in the world—his taste, his class, his understanding of what an audience might want is just the best. So he said, "I'm going to talk to Richard Bean about doing a new version of Servant of Two Masters. I'll be in touch." Six months later, act one arrives, then a few months later we went into the rehearsal room. We were going to do this play for like 95 performances, and that would be it; we would then carry on with our lives. Now here we are in New York. It's been quite an experience.
Is it tricky to rehearse a show that relies so much on audience interaction?
It was a lot of going, "When this bit happens, I'll do something like this," and Nick saying, "Sure." But the truth is, I never know what I'm going to say. I genuinely don't know, and I've never done the show the same way twice. It's terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, to know that there's a moment in the show where you really could ruin it for everyone [laughs]. Luckily, it's been terrific. I think I’m the luckiest person working on Broadway.
Normally you have to ask actors how they keep their shows fresh eight times a week, but in this case…
Exactly. For me, it's a joy. It's the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on.
Have you gotten any bizarre audience reactions?
Oh there's been any number. It's hard to recount them because they seem so ordinary out of the context of the show. There's a moment when I ask a woman what a good first date might be, from a woman's point of view. Normally people say dinner, or the theater, cinema, whatever, and one night this woman said, "Just do it as quick as possible." It was kind of a gift, that one. I think I said, "Every man in here has just fallen in love with you."
I’ve read that you discovered your love of performing when you were four, hamming it up at your sister’s christening. Is this the kind of role you dreamed of?
Yeah, I never dreamt of playing Hamlet or whatever. I dreamt of doing something like this. I went to see Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre when I was young, and I came out and said to my dad, "I want to do that."
And he said?
He said, "Then go for it." I'd never been back in the Adelphi Theatre until we opened this play in it, and it was the loveliest feeling you could ever imagine. It's not lost on me how fortunate I am, especially to be working here again. I almost wish that the American actors who work on Broadway could feel what it's like for a person who is not American to come here, because it's the most incredible place to work.
What makes Broadway different from your side of the pond?
The warmth of it, the passion for it as a place; the audiences feel so appreciative that you're there. There's an energy in these nine or ten streets which you can't find anywhere else. When we did The History Boys, it was so terrific, so emotional and such an incredible experience that I thought the rest of my career will be a constant quest to try and come back and do something like that in this town. I never thought it would be this quick.
So after your Me and My Girl moment, did you go to school for acting?
I've not done any training, ever. I was doing a school play when I was 12 and there was an agent from a children's stage school—but it wasn't like the Fame school, it was like the Fame school for two hours on Wednesday—and that was it really. My first job was a musical on the West End called Martin Guerre. I was in the chorus and I said, like, three words.
Who were your comedy heroes growing up?
There's a guy called Ronnie Barker, who is in a great double act at home called The Two Ronnies, and he was a real inspiration for me. I have this theory that all actors idolize people who look a little bit like them. So if you meet an actor who is short, they'll love Al Pacino. For me, it’s people like Ronnie Barker. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, for me, the most complete actor around at the minute, in that there's just nothing that's out of his limits. I’m sure I will be the only person you'll hear say this, but I honestly believe his performance in Along Came Polly is as good as his performance in Capote. Absolutely.
And you're on Broadway at the same time!
I'm not going to get to see [Death of a Salesman]! Can you believe it? And I love Andrew [Garfield]. I've met him a couple of times in London and I'm a huge fan of his. Maybe they’ll do a weird Sunday night show and I’ll get to see it.
You've done a lot of TV as well. As someone who loves a live audience, was that something had always intended to do?
Yeah, I want to do it all, really. I was writing Gavin and Stacey while we were doing The History Boys. We actually wrote episode six on the Upper West Side, and we did our last read of it on a lovely day in the park, me and [show co-creator] Ruth [Jones] and her laptop.
You’ve also written an autobiography. What possessed you to write that at 32?
Well, when I wrote it, I’d met my girlfriend, who is soon to become my wife, and we were expecting our first child. It felt like a nice time to perhaps take stock of what my life was, in the interim period before this whole new phase was set to begin.
How has being a father changed you?
I think it's changed me in the same way it changes any man. It's lovely, it's terrific, it's hard, but it’s great.
You must be having a very different experience on Broadway this time around as a family man, not with a bunch of boys.
Oh god, we didn't see the day last time! I'm going through a lot less condoms than I did last time [laughs]. That's the truth, but at least we were being safe, right?
See James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors at the Music Box Theatre.