Written by Douglas Carter Beane, The Little Dog Laughed is a cautionary tale of Hollywood film actor Mitchell (Friend) who wants to come out of the closet, his agent Diane (Greig) who wants him to stay in it and the love triangle created when Mitch falls for rent boy Alex, who has a girlfriend named Ellen (Arterton).
The play premiered Off-Broadway in January 2006 before transferring to Broadway later that year, when it was Tony nominated. The title refers to a short story written by the fictional character Arturo Bandini in John Fante’s 1930s Los Angeles-set novel Ask the Dust.
Last night’s Q&A was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. Click on the 'play' button above to listen to it in full, and see our Outings Blog for additional info and photos. Edited highlights follow …
On the inspiration behind the play
Jamie Lloyd: It’s inspired by a lot of different things. Douglas actually started writing the story of Alex, the rent boy, almost as a sort of diary of a rent boy and it kind of evolved into who he may have slept with. I think originally he was a politician, and therefore there was some kind of neo-con political leader that was trying to cover it up. That gradually got turned into the character of Diane and the agent. He said to Armistead Maupin, who did Tales of the City, "I’ve got this idea about this closeted Hollywood actor but it seems sort of dated, it seems like a very Rock Hudson – 50s issue." So Armistead listed about 40 or 50 well known actors who are in the closet, so it seemed like a totally relevant issue. He didn’t tell us the names (laughter), I don’t think I should do that.
On the plays central theme – being gay in Hollywood
Tamsin Greig: When you’re no longer a common sex symbol, then you can come out of the closet. It’s alright to be an old gay, isn’t it ? But not a young gay, if you want to be taken seriously as a heterosexual either in film or on stage.
Gemma Arterton: Yes it is, you just don’t talk about it, even in Britain. It's true though that you can be an actor and gay in Britain, but I think there are young actors in Britain that people know are gay but they just don’t talk about it. Otherwise people may not see past it, it’s a real shame. I have definitely come into contact with it, on the Hollywood side; where there’s no way that you could come out if you wanted to be a leading man.
Jamie Lloyd: The bottom line is, Hollywood thinks about sales. They think about bums on seats.
On celebrity culture
Tamsin Greig: We are all obsessed with what people do in their private lives. If you pick up the Metro or the Evening Standard and you looked at two of those pages, you’ll see it, we’re all complicit. There’s that and also the problem of knowing too much about people’s private lives because you know so much so when you see them in a movie and you think “I know this so I can’t believe that”. If we didn’t know anything we’d go “wow what an interesting story”. It is not just about Hollywood, but about the general public. We’re all complicit in the duplicity.
On what drew the actors to their parts
Rupert Friend: Jamie sort of bullied me. I honestly believe that you should look for things that scare you in your life to do every day. At the point in my life that Jamie suggested this play I couldn’t think of anything more frightening to do. To try and make myself believe, or to tackle in a theoretical and a real sense the idea of someone who would discover true love and throw it all away for the sake of their career. The idea of playing a gay man and the idea of not just being on any stage, but on the West End stage - all combined to make the most frightening thing that I could think of. So I had tea with Jamie and explained all that and said “so you see that really what I’m saying is” – “is that you want to do it”. So I said “Yeah, ok”.
Gemma Arterton: I was very interested in playing someone who uses humour as a weapon or defence mechanism. It’s lovely to play someone that’s very sad and desperate but who is covering it with humour. It’s a really lovely thing to have to conjure everyday and then put a lid on. It’s hard but that was the challenge for me. The flip side is she’s fun. And it’s also about the story, saying “this is what it’s like and isn’t it a shame”. Also, there’s an irony of me doing a play which takes the piss out of Hollywood, having done Hollywood movies. I thought that would be quite funny!
Harry Lloyd: I remember reading the script and I remember the bit which really got me, the bit after the interval when you can hear the boy’s thoughts. Something was really interesting about this guy who is thinking 'I love this guy, but I don’t want to be gay' that must be a real conundrum. I think that was fascinating and playing a guy, who opposed to Mitchell, allows himself to go down that path.
Tamsin Greig: When I first read it I thought I can’t play it because I didn’t like her. I thought that was the reason to do it because I thought, 'I can’t do this. I don’t know who she is', I don’t think I can spend time with her. And the whole thing about how she interacts with the audience so much, I just thought that’s impossible. I had a meeting with Jamie and he’s very clever. He doesn’t look it but it’s a clever little disguise, he’s really clever. He triple dares you, in rehearsals and previews, not just double dares, triple dares you to do stuff. He’s very playful and I thought this is such a tricky play that you have to have someone who knows how to play in order to help you.
On the energy in the play
Jamie Lloyd: Douglas Carter Bean has that energy. I always have the writer read bits of the play to me, before rehearsal to get a feel of the energy, rhythm and the intent. No to say Doug did it like this so you have to do it that way but just to get a general feel. He really has that energy. Every line is a witty remark.
Gemma Arterton: When we were in rehearsals on the first day he said “and my agent was fantastic and then she died of heroine” and I laughed and he went “no really, she died”. And I felt terrible but we have a tendency to be British and quite reticent but you can’t be like that you have to say here’s what I’m saying and leave it out there, like he does.
Jamie Lloyd: It is the only way it works. It is so inherent in his writing. It’s his voice. And the stakes are that high, it is that important. It’s so important for Diana to get this done in the right way unless it’s that important it doesn’t mean as much.
Harry Lloyd: Something which makes it even more intense is something we worked out early on – it’s what we call topspin. Like in the scene when we are sitting outside the club, Ellen is reeling from being dumped but so much of what she is saying is, “I’m fine, I’m laughing, isn’t this funny, but oh my god”. So you are playing against what you are feeling. When you are upset you get that manic energy because you are trying so hard to convince everyone that you are fine. So that is the energy that a lot of the play is powered by, the fact that these guys are lying all the time.
Jamie Lloyd: I think you play the contradiction more than you should. Some of our rehearsals were really miserable. The subtext literally rises to the surface. It’s like Coward or some Pinter, you have to create this volcanic well of emotion and then you have to cover it up. That’s how these people negotiate their way through life.