It’s the perfect summer for the West End debut of Chariots of Fire, Mike Bartlett’s stage adaptation of the 1981 Oscar-winning film about two British runners competing in the 1924 Olympics. A hit at North London’s Hampstead Theatre, the show is set to resume performances on June 23 at the Gielgud Theatre just as London enters the home stretch of preparation for hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics. Chariots of Fire provides a career-making opportunity for James McArdle, the gifted Scotsman who inherits Ben Cross’ screen role as Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams. Broadway.com caught up with the instantly likable 23-year-old one recent afternoon to hear about steering clear of the movie, keeping fit on stage, and playing a Cambridge-educated Englishman when you are neither of those things in real life.
I’ve never seen a play so full of activity and movement, with the cast hurtling around the perimeter of the auditorium. No wonder everyone is on stage stretching as the audience comes in!
And the audience can feel the breeze from the runners and the vibrations under the seats! That’s what is really exciting, I think, and one of the big differences between stage and film. Film is majestic and beautiful to look at in slow motion, whereas this is visceral and high-energy and high-octane.
So you’ve seen the movie? After all, you weren’t even born when it first came out.
I hadn’t seen the film though I was aware of its iconic status mainly because of the Vangelis music [preserved in the stage show], so I obviously knew what the film meant and the status of it. I then started to watch it and stopped halfway; I wasn’t sure if seeing it would actually be in my best interest.
Fair enough, since you need to create your own Harold Abrahams.
Exactly. I wanted the two Harolds—Ben’s [actor Ben Cross] and mine—to be very different. If I were playing a classical part like Hamlet, I would never look at the last person who played the role. It was really important that this was my version of Harold.
You’re Scottish, and yet you are not playing the other leading role of Eric Liddell, the Scotsman played on screen by the late Ian Charleson [and on stage by Black Watch alum Jack Lowden].
Actually, I walked into the auditions and read for Eric and they stopped me halfway through and said, “He’s Harold.” It really impressed me that they thought I could be English and speak Hebrew and all that kind of stuff; I never thought the casting people would have that kind of imagination!
You bring an intriguing vulnerability to Harold, even at his moments of greatest triumph. One never feels that your Harold is entirely at peace with himself.
I’m so glad you say that. I felt that the role could easily be played as totally arrogant and aggressive, but that the arrogance should be something of a mask and the audience should be aware of that duality. In some ways, his gold medal comes at the price of total loneliness. He’s had to scratch and claw and bite and punch just to be accepted, and the sacrifice Harold makes is that of being totally alone.
With all that running eight times a week, you guys must be the fittest cast in town!
Well, that was definitely part of the requirement, but they knew Jack had done Black Watch and that I’d just finished playing Robin Hood for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and had had to learn aerial acrobatics. But this is on a different level; it’s just relentless! We did the British Military Fitness course at a park in south London for several weeks; in fairness to [the play’s director] Edward Hall, he did it with us. And whenever we went out to train, the hailstones started!
Have you always been a runner?
Are you kidding me? I used to run like Forrest Gump! [Laughs.] I’d been a swimmer, but I thought to myself, I can’t be the fastest man in the world if I run like Forrest Gump, so I had to go and train how to run properly. I was so nervous about running badly.
What about playing a student at Cambridge University, and portraying issues of class and status in Britain that are with us still?
The thing is, Harold’s an outsider at Cambridge and I know what it feels like to be a Glaswegian at RADA [the prestigious London drama school], so it’s quite similar. It’s been interesting to see the reaction after the show from people who don’t know me. They’ve seen me on stage being posh and then they hear me speaking normally and they go, “Oh my God, you’re Irish!” [Laughs.] Wrong country, since I'm Scottish, but there you go.
Did attending a competitive school like RADA help you relate to the competitiveness at the heart of Chariots of Fire?
Absolutely! They often say these days that actors are like athletes, and a lot of the reasons that make me want to act and be the best are similar to the reasons Harold needs to be the best runner. The point is, if you’re meant to be doing it, you’ll do it, but the commitment has got to be in every single fiber of your being. They’re both all-consuming—athleticism and acting.
Was acting an inevitable career path for you?
Well, I was always an attention-seeker and was always performing, and my dad’s side of the family is very extrovert. But not in professional terms, no. My dad’s a welder and my mom works in an office. In some ways, I attribute my choice of career to my mum’s mum: She looked after me a lot when I was wee and constantly told me stories and nurtured my imagination. That’s what informed me as an actor.
Has this play given you a unique perspective on the forthcoming Olympic games?
I think I’m going to be into the Olympics in a way I probably wouldn’t have been. Instead of watching from a distance, I’ll know what [the sportsmen] are going through: their mindsets and neuroses and the antic pitch that they have. I’ll probably have a much more emotional response than I would have otherwise.
The Olympics organizers should offer you front-row tickets!
Jack and I are determined to get into the 100-meter final!