The fast-rising Broadway actor Seth Numrich began the season in Lincoln Center Theater’s acclaimed revival of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, and now the Juilliard-trained 26-year-old is getting set to star in the eagerly awaited London revival of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic. Numrich plays gigolo Chance Wayne opposite Kim Cattrall as aging movie star Alexandra del Lago, a character known as The Princess. Broadway.com caught up with the chatty, articulate Numrich in the days leading up to the show’s June 1 debut to talk about acting an American abroad, disrobing (or not) on stage, and what it’s like to be out of town during Tony Awards mania.
Does it seem odd to be away from New York at the very moment that Golden Boy is getting Tony-time love?
I’m happy to be working, and to have that to focus on rather than all the other stuff, which is exciting for the shows that are nominated. I know it’s important, but I’m just feeling very happy to be here digging into something new.
You're starring in Tennessee Williams during a London summer season that looks to be awash with American plays.
I’ve been surprised by the level of awareness and reverence for American playwrights here, particularly Tennessee Williams. I imagined that Williams would be a bit exotic, but it turns out that he’s done here a lot and people really respect and appreciate his work.
Yours is the third major London revival of Sweet Bird of Youth during my time here. Did you know the play?
I’ve never seen it, but my friend Finn Wittrock played Chance recently in Chicago [opposite Diane Lane], so I was able to share with him how terrified I was of the role [laughs]. I spent time picking his brain about discoveries he had made because I’m always blown away by the work he does; it was nice to get a little bit of his wisdom!
As with Maggie and her slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there’s a lot invested in Chance’s apparel. Have you got your pajamas all sorted?
Yes, I’ve got a beautiful pair of pajamas [laughs]. I think Williams described them as silk and white, but we’re going for a shimmery, silvery blue pattern. We’re still playing with how much of the pajamas I wear and at what point. It’s interesting with this character to see the level at which he is using his sexuality in an ambiguous way, so there are choices of what to reveal and what not to reveal.
Which, in turn, throws even greater emphasis on the actor’s body.
Absolutely. You had to bring that up and make me nervous about it! [Laughs.] But you’re right: The play is very much about how to use one’s body and the effect that has on other people. It’s not something I’m personally very good at or have had much experience with, so you can imagine my anxiety at doing it in front of 1,000 people a night!
Golden Boy had its share of flesh, as well.
It did, but what’s interesting with Sweet Bird of Youth is the degree of consciousness to the visual aspect of it all. When I was doing Golden Boy, it was apparent to me that a boxer doesn’t think about how his body looks; it’s more about how his body functions in the ring, so I was doing a lot of boxing training and focusing on that.
Whereas Sweet Bird is very much about appearance and looks—and the fear of losing them.
It is. For one thing, Chance Wayne isn’t an athlete, so his concern is about trying to use the way he looks, along with his personality, to impress and sometimes to manipulate people. He’s very aware of how he looks: he talks about his hair thinning, for instance, which is something he thinks about a lot, and that can be a somewhat distressing place for an actor to be in. But you do what you do! I try not to think about the fact that I’m not believably a college student anymore.
The play is eloquent on the topic of not letting yourself get consumed by thoughts of aging.
These are characters whose lives are stifled and stunted because they’re obsessed by this idea of youth and beauty as the only things that might redeem them and make them special. So, if anything, working on a play like this makes you want to figure out even more what other things in your life define you rather than age or career. These people are so far down that rabbit hole that this is sort of a wake-up call and a warning sign.
It must be a fascinating challenge for Kim Cattrall, since her role is very much about exposing the underbelly of the sexuality and glamor that made her name on Sex and the City.
Yes, and I have to say it has been very inspiring being in the room with Kim because of her incredible courage and willingness to be vulnerable and to let herself go to these dark areas—the really awful places—that the play requires of all of us, but particularly with her role.
No vanity then?
Not at all. A lot of actresses would look at the role and shy away from it generally or try and make themselves look good or save face, but Kim has been entirely prepared to go to some pretty ugly and dark places. If you skirt around or hold back or try as an actor to make yourself look good, you’re never going to achieve the real depth of the play.
Did your director, Marianne Elliott, mention this play when you and she were working together on the Broadway production of War Horse?
Marianne reminded me once I got here that she had told me about it as something she was going to work on, but it was never with the sense that I might be involved. As I understand it, what happened was that [Old Vic artistic director] Kevin Spacey and [producer] John Richardson came to New York toward the end of the run of Golden Boy and saw that as an audition in a sense for this. Getting the call that they were interested in me was a total surprise and a huge honor.
So, here you are settling in for a run through August 31. Are you feeling homesick?
Not too much. I feel like I have a love/hate relationship with New York, having lived there for 10 years. I miss friends and family and being part of the theater community, but on some level it’s nice to have a retreat from the chaos of New York. To be doing my first professional Williams production is really exciting and, beyond that, to be doing it here in London and at the Old Vic: All of it really is a dream.