Since his 2006 run as a teacher in the Broadway transfer of Alan Bennett’s much-laureled play The History Boys, English actor Stephen Campbell Moore has played Americans in the UK premiere of Clybourne Park, a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and now as a New York photojournalist in Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (Harold Pinter Theatre). Boasting a title coined by historian Niall Ferguson, the play spans several decades and continents to tell the story of Chinese-American relations in political, social and even sexual terms. Broadway.com caught up with the warm and candid Moore one recent morning to talk Brits playing Yanks and the serious illness he has triumphantly put behind him.
What’s it like to be playing your third American in as many West End plays?
I’m the go-to guy for playing Americans [laughs]! In the past few years, I’ve been quite picky because it’s important, if you are going to involve yourself in something that goes on quite a long time, to choose things you think are very, very good writing. I loved Clybourne Park when I read it, and it was a similar thing with Chimerica: When people see plays like this, they are treated like an intelligent audience.
Give our readers a preview of Chimerica.
This is a serious subject treated in incredibly humorous ways for quite a lot of the time. You’ve got this American photojournalist—my character, Joe Schofield—who takes an iconic photograph in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and you follow his journey, 20 years later, to try and find the man he was photographing [the so-called “Tank Man”]. It becomes an unusual journey for Joe in that he’s not absolutely sure why he’s doing what he’s doing; it’s a quest or a mini-odyssey, in a way.
Though the playwright is British, comparatively little of the play has much to do with Britain, Joe’s love interest aside.
I think it was very important to Lucy that this was about a photograph of a man in China that was taken by an American, and I feel very lucky to play so unusual a part. We’re not long into our West End run, but I can already tell that the audiences are loving it. It’s natural to try and cater to a West End audience, but there’s nothing wrong with something that is a little bit testing; an audience appreciates not being treated with kid gloves.
Have you been to China?
I haven’t. When I was cast, I thought I might have time to go, but I had to learn my lines. Besides, when you are rehearsing a play on an Almeida salary, you can’t quite justify a couple of weeks in Beijing [laughs]. But I have, of course, spent many a time in New York and the Chinatown there.
Indeed. Your performance as the younger teacher, Irwin, was crucial to the Broadway triumph of The History Boys, which won six Tony Awards in 2006.
Looking back, I can say—without blowing my own trumpet—that I fully appreciated what happened to us at the time. I was living an experience and thinking, “It doesn’t get much better than this!” I’m fairly sure the boys thought that our experience on Broadway was how all plays go, and I sort of loved that about them. I was only a couple of years older, but I felt like their teacher in an out-of-control school, trying to keep everybody under control [laughs].
Did you consider settling down in New York?
I have an American agent and I did live in New York for a little bit; I was in love and was living with someone there. But I’m not sure I have that great dream that some British actors have of wrestling America to the ground [laughs]. I love living in London, I really do, and I wonder whether that thing we are taught as young actors about having to go out and conquer America doesn’t sometimes get in the way of what we really want to do. That said, I would happily go there again!
I noticed that your actual name is Stephen Thorpe. How did you come by Stephen Campbell Moore?
I was at Guildhall [the London drama school], and found that there was a Stephen Thorpe [in British Equity]. So I stayed up all night with my girlfriend at the time thinking up 300 different names and came up with Campbell Moore: My grandfather was called William Campbell Moore Preston, my middle name is Moore and my brother’s is Campbell, so I thought that the combination would be fine.
It does sound classy.
[Laughs.] The minute I gave myself that name, it took me three years to do anything but period drama! I don’t think I had any idea at the time how much a name meant; people can project so much on to you, which is why the American roles have been liberating, bizarrely. As an actor, they give you a freedom and muscularity and ease.
Any idea what comes after Chimerica?
I wish I could say I was one of those actors that has the next few years lined up, but I’ve got to a certain age where I just want to do things I really love. I went through something quite heavy last year involving brain surgery, so you realize that life is too short not to be doing what you want to do.
I didn’t know. Are you okay?
I’m absolutely fine. I had a pituitary tumor, which meant that I wasn’t creating the necessary hormone in my body, so there I was, working and feeling as if I was anxious and nervous and going slightly mad.
That must have been pretty scary.
It was, especially when I felt as if my memory was going. But it was diagnosed and I was treated, and I’m back to full energy and more. I feel as if I’ve had 10 years put back on my life, and I’m so pleased to go on stage and to be able to enjoy it.