Exactly two months to the day they closed their acclaimed run in London, the cast of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” is stepping into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway for the first look at their new surroundings. On Aug. 14, they will begin previews of the drama for a 17-week limited engagement of what is widely regarded as one of the Noble Prizewinning writer’s greatest works.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, who has become one of the foremost interpreters of Pinter, this version is designed so that none of the actors ever leave the stage. The trio are all recognizable from their screen exploits — Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox are beloved characters from the Marvel universe as Thor’s trickster brother Loki and blind attorney Matt Murdock in “Daredevil,” respectively. And Zawe Ashton recently made a splash opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Netflix’s “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
Told backwards in chronology, the play tracks married couple Robert (Hiddleston) and Emma (Ashton) as their relationship unravels after Emma begins an affair with her husband’s best friend Jerry (Cox). But it also dives into the destruction of Emma and Jerry’s affair, as well as Robert and Jerry’s friendship. As with most Pinter, the characters are often sparse in their language in emotion, and words left unsaid often cut the deepest. A simple game of squash takes on much significance — the camaraderie, the competition, and ultimately what it means when they stop playing together.
The cast sat down with Variety to discuss squash and other games people play, with what Pinter means to them, and how their paths have crossed in the past, leading to this moment.
What does it mean to you to be here in New York, making your Broadway debut?
Zawe Ashton: It is a dream come true, actually. I’ve seen some of the best things I’ve ever seen in this very theater, including the show previous to us, “The Ferryman.”
Tom Hiddleston: I first came to Broadway with my dad and my sisters when I was 17. It was my first time seeing the city and I remember going into Times Square and we went to see “Follies.” This was before I was even thinking about being an actor — or maybe in the back of my head I had decided. The first time I was in this theater I saw Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett doing “The Mountaintop.”
Charlie, you actually live out here, are you planning on showing them around?
Charlie Cox: Oh, yes. There’s a few places I want to take them.
Ashton: [Laughs] How can you make that sound sinister?
Cox: I’m not sure the places I like will be what you’re imagining. I want to take them to Bubby’s. It’s a restaurant with a great all-American brunch.
What does “all-American” mean to Brits?
Cox: Fried chicken and waffles.
Hiddleston: And big portions.
Cox: And coffee that keeps being filled up. You have to put a napkin over it to stop them.
Hiddleston: Right. If you have a second coffee in the UK you have to pay for it.
Cox: It’s crazy. When I get my coffee, I need to put my milk and sugar and the proportions have to be right. When they fill your coffee up over here, the proportions are all off. Also, you feel like you’re on rocket fuel and you don’t know why.
Ashton: Anything else we need to experience?
Cox: Well, these two are too healthy but I’d love to introduce you to half-and-half. It’s one of the best inventions in the world. It’s cream and milk.
Hiddleston: I know about that. This isn’t, like, my first time in America.
Cox: Oh, and I’d love to introduce you to McDonald’s. [Laughs.]
Hiddleston: I’m really excited about the seasons. I’ve spent time in New York before but it’s only been for like two weeks at a time. To be here from summer into fall into winter…
Cox: Fall is an illusion in New York. You get a weekend in the 70s, and that’s it.
Ashton: No, but the colors and the trees! And Thanksgiving is going to be amazing!
How did you first become familiar with the work of Harold Pinter and specifically “Betrayal”?
Hiddleston: For my A-Level English literature, we did a play of Pinter’s called “The Homecoming.” What I found so interesting was “The Homecoming” was so spare and so precise and so grown-up. I remember my teacher encouraging us to think about this play as about power and sex and family, all in a very brutal way. That it’s a father and sons competing for supremacy. I remember thinking: “This is reading a bit too much into it, isn’t it?” But it isn’t. As a 17-year-old, I just didn’t realize there was a writer engaging so consciously at this level.
Then I read “Betrayal” at the Royal Academy of Dramatic arts as an exercise for a dramaturgy class. I read it in one sitting and I did think, at the age of 21, “This would be an amazing thing to do one day.”
Ashton: We did a couple months of scene study at drama school and I played Anna in “Old Times.” I was 19 and I loved it and we actually nailed the scene study. I mean, we were 19-year-olds, maybe it was terrible. But my head of year said to me: “If I had known how easy Pinter was going to be for you, I would have given you something else.”
Was it easy?
Ashton: No! It wasn’t easy! But what I think he identified that if you vibe with Pinter, you’re kind of a special breed of person. If you can lean into all the violence and brutality and also see the tenderness and experience the special viewpoint he has of human relationships, you have a friend for life.
And you vibed with him from the start?
Ashton: 100%. And now I love him even more. Doing “Betrayal” is about having to invest in a love affair with these two men, but I also feel I’ve invested in a love affair with Pinter. I’ve wanted to read his poetry, I’ve wanted to think about him, I’ve wanted to read the books Joan Bakewell and Lady Antonia Fraser wrote about him. Just to try and piece together the man who I’ve never met. Charlie has.
You’ve met Pinter?
Cox: The first play I did in the West End was with Jamie Lloyd, “The Lover/The Collection.” Harold was part of numerous rehearsals and came to see the play many times. I got some great Harold stories that I’m still dining out on! During that time, I read “Betrayal.” Harold died the following year. It’s funny, my wife and I live in Connecticut and when I was offered this play I walked into my local bookshop and it was sitting right there.
A year ago, you didn’t know you’d be doing “Betrayal” in London, let alone here.
Cox: Four weeks ago we didn’t know we’d be here! It all happened very fast. When we closed in London, we thought we were done.
My understanding is this all began last October, when Tom and Zawe did a reading from the play at the “Pinter at the Pinter” gala?
Ashton: It sprung from that gala and people thinking we were rehearsing it already. People kept coming up to me and asking if we were doing a full production. So at the gala I basically came up to Tom and said, “What are you doing in March 2019?” And you were like, “Uh, get away from me, crazy lady.”
Hiddleston: It was an interesting night because it was celebration of all his work as a gift to [his widow] Antonia Fraser and it was 10 years after he died. But it wasn’t a heavy night, it was a celebration. And people came back to do extracts. The production Jamie Lloyd directed of “The Homecoming” came back. Jeremy Irons came back to do “No Man’s Land.”
Wait, Jeremy Irons starred in the film version of “Betrayal.” Were you intimidated to do a scene in front of him?
Hiddleston: Well, less intimidated because I played his son in “The Hollow Crown.” There were several “Betrayal” alumni. Sam West was there, who played Robert at the Donmar Warehouse. Kristin Scott Thomas, who has played Emma, was also there. There was something very generous about this company of great, established actors who had made a great impact with Pinter’s work saying to Zawe and myself, “If you’re not doing it, you should do it.”
Ashton: It was such a compliment.
Hiddleston: Then Antonia Fraser also said, “Would you like to do it?” And Jamie leaned across and said, “Let’s do it!” So it came together very fast. And Jamie’s first suggestion for Jerry was Charlie, but he said you couldn’t do it.
Cox: The show I was doing [“Daredevil”] was going to be scheduled for another season at the time. So they went out to find somebody else. Then my show got cancelled and I called my agent and said I would love to do a play. I didn’t hear for a bit and I finally got him on the phone and was about to say “I’ve been trying to call you!” — but in a very nice, English way. And before I could say anything he said, “How would you like to do ‘Betrayal’ with Zawe Ashton and Tom Hiddleston?” I paused and said, “I’d like that very much.”
Ashton: If “Daredevil” hadn’t been canceled you wouldn’t have been able to do it.
That has to take some of sting out of cancellation.
Cox: It did, yeah.
This play doesn’t work without the chemistry between the characters, even when they are constantly competing and one-upping each other. Did you know each other prior to working together and was that chemistry pretty instant?
Cox: Tom and I knew each other. We were bouncing around L.A. at the same time early in our careers.
Hiddleston: The truth is, we first met bumping into each other auditions for the same films that neither of us would get. After like the fourth time, we said, “Let’s go get a burger.”
Ashton: We’d been intersecting for years. Weird things have happened: Tom and I sat next to each other years before at the theater. We did the gala but weirdly, we’d also done a reading a couple weeks before that. And then Charlie and I realized we had auditioned together years ago.
Cox: I’m almost sure it was you. I didn’t get it.
Ashton: I didn’t either. And it was definitely you.
Hiddleston: That’s how most actors know each, they audition for things they don’t get.
Ashton: This could be the most unpleasant experience; it could really be toxically bad. What has happened is it has been the most joyful experience ever. That’s not to say we’re not completely embedded in the raw pain of the play. But I think you realize when you get to a certain age that you don’t need it to bleed into your lives and you don’t need to carry it home. I don’t want to do that with Harold Pinter because you can and you will go mad.
Hiddleston: It’s one of those things, you can’t put your finger on why it works, but it works and it’s a great pleasure.
Cox: That one-upmanship you talked about that’s in the text; if that were to manifest between us as actors, it would be awful.
Ashton: However…there was a squash game.
Cox: Let’s not talk about that.
Ashton: It did spill over into that game.
Cox: Look, it’s not about who wins or loses, it’s about who’s fitter. And Tom is fitter than I am.
Hiddleston: It was very instructive, playing squash. Some of those scenes, the competition is in the subtext, the brutality to each other is underneath it while they’re being civil on the surface. After we played squash, those scenes played themselves.
Cox: I still have a buttock injury from that last game. I was desperately trying to reach a ball because I was so determined to keep up! We had one day where we had five solid sessions and then Zawe joined us for the spa.
Leaving behind these characters at the end of the day could be a challenge. Are you able to do that?
Cox: Sometimes I’ll be at the end of the day and I’ll be agitated in some way and then I remember; of course, I just got off stage.
Ashton: I’ve often said I’ve felt like a baby who needed to be burped. There’s so much repression in the play and people aren’t saying what they mean and you want to cry but you have to hold it in. Sometimes I want to cry for three days.
Hiddleston: My favorite actor of all time Paul Scofield said: “The emotions are real, but they aren’t mine.” Which I think sums it up. Actors investigate something real but the situation doesn’t belong to them. So I know consciously I’m not Robert, I know I haven’t been betrayed. But when I investigate his sadness, some aspect of that belongs to me. It sometimes leaves a shadow.
“Betrayal” has been performed in America before, obviously, but are you curious about how Broadway audiences will respond versus London audiences?
Cox: We get a lot of Americans in London. I don’t think it’s going to be radically different.
Ashton: I think it’s going to be radically different. I think there’s going to be some exciting new things having an American audience is going to illuminate. I think it’s going to be interesting.
“Betrayal” runs at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through Dec. 8.