Ben Miles has had no shortage of high-profile stage roles—he played Bolingbroke to Kevin Spacey’s Richard II at the Old Vic and Kristin Scott Thomas’s husband in the West End’s Betrayal, and he was part of the sublime company of British actors who transferred to Broadway in the Tony-winning 2009 revival of The Norman Conquests. But the ever-engaging actor has arguably his best role to date as Thomas Cromwell, the English lawyer and statesman at the center of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the six-hour sequence of vividly realized history plays adapted from the best-selling Hilary Mantel novels and now at the Aldwych Theatre through September 6. Broadway.com caught up with Miles to talk event theater, going Hollywood (or not), and New York at Tony time.
You have the leading role in a pair of plays that have become the must-see event of the season. That must be satisfying, to say the least!
It is, but what’s been especially nice for us is to bring these plays home, as it were, to London where the stories are set. Early on, I think the concern was whether as magnificent a novel as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall could be condensed into two-and-a-half or three hours on stage, and Bring Up the Bodies, as well. When we first started, it wasn’t always easy to see what we were doing or know where it would head, but now it feels as if we can really begin to enjoy it.
You take an often-vilified figure from history like Thomas Cromwell—the chief adviser to Henry VIII—and render him complexly human.
I hope we’ve given Cromwell a fair hearing with these plays and, judging by the response, I think we really have. What’s important, at least to me, is that people feel as if they are seeing not only a period of history but also the evolution of a human being who does what he can to survive. Of course he’s not without his faults: Cromwell was canny, devious, at times violent, but I do feel as if I’m honoring his memory, in a funny sort of way. I like to think of myself as his spokesperson [laughs].
One achievement of this production is that six hours of history onstage never feels stuffy or fusty.
That’s probably because you’re watching the story of a man bent on survival who in a way was the sort of original working-class hero and therefore has a sort of Everyman quality to him which reaches out to audiences today. A lot of it, too, has to with the way Hilary has so brilliantly written [Cromwell] in her books, so that you forget you’re reading history and feel as if this is happening in the present.
Is this sweeping saga of Tudor-era stealth and intrigue relevant to our world today?
Very much so. Thomas Cromwell lives on in the same way that all the motives and narratives in these stories live on. Humans haven’t changed much at all in hundreds of years. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, and how we get from A to B may be different, but the central tenets of power and politics and survival are with us still.
A BBC TV series is being made of these books, with Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. Have those actors been in to check out the plays?
Damian came to see us, which was lovely, and I’m fascinated to see what they come up with on screen. Certainly with Mark Rylance and [director] Peter Kosminsky and [writer] Peter Straughan, you couldn’t get a better trio leading that project. Hilary’s stories lend themselves to a six-part series very well.
During your visits to New York, have you been to the Frick Museum to see the Cromwell portrait that hangs prominently on view there?
I certainly have! The last time I went, I stood for such a long while in front of that picture that I think people were beginning to wonder who I was [laughs]. What’s extraordinary is that this is the only pictorial record we have of Cromwell: the enigma of the man has a lot to do with how little pictorial evidence there is of him let alone historical written evidence, so a painting such as the one at the Frick is doubly enthralling.
What are your memories of your time in New York when The Norman Conquests won the Tony for Best Play?
That production was also my New York stage debut, and what was just astonishing was the great feeling we all found within the Broadway community. From the moment we arrived, we encountered nothing but genuine warmth and a wish to succeed, and luckily we did: it was a fabulous four months, it really was.
Matthew Warchus, director of The Norman Conquests, has been named the new artistic director of the Old Vic, following on from your former Richard II co-star Kevin Spacey.
Yes, I’m thrilled for Matthew and for the Old Vic as well. He’s just a great director, not least because he’s willing to take risks and is not afraid to do what he wants to do. At the same time, Kevin has transformed that building—absolutely transformed it. He’s been a wonderful leader and champion of that theater and of English theater ever since he arrived [in Britain]. He should get a knighthood!
You have such renown here. Have you been tempted to uproot and try your luck in Hollywood?
That’s not really part of the game plan. I have a wonderful family life and a good career here, for which I feel very fortunate, and I don’t really think I’m at the age anymore to go over to L.A. and hang around and try to get hired. But the world has got so much smaller: It’s possible now with technology for me to be in a room talking to a whole panel of people in L.A. if I need to be!
And in the meantime, you get to play Cromwell. Do you find the demands of this run exhausting or exhilarating?
Both, really [laughs]. It’s exhilarating doing it and then exhausting the morning after. But then you soon recharge, and you’re excited about doing it again: to tell this great story to a different bunch of people.