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Chimerica's Stephen Campbell Moore: 'The Tank Man is an ongoing source of fascination'

As Lucy Kirkwood's epic play Chimerica transfers from the Almeida to the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre, its star Stephen Campbell Moore discusses the issues it raises, and where it might go next

Stephen Campbell Moore in Chimerica
© Johan Persson

The word 'Chimerica' was coined by historian Niall Ferguson, in his book The Ascent of Money. It encompasses the idea of Chinese and American economic inter-dependence, though I couldn't go any further than that because my economic knowledge is zero minus one.

Lucy [Kirkwood] worked on it for about five years, though we were making changes right up to press night. If you buy a playscript you'll probably think it bears no relation to the actual play on stage!

Sometimes during previews at the Almeida we were rehearsing changes in the morning then putting them in that evening's show, which is something I hadn't experienced before. So as actors we were in survival mode in those early stages, but it's nice to be more relaxed and able to play with it now.

There's a very intricate relationship between the set and the structure of the play. I'm always a little bit scared of strong designs in case they overwhelm the play, but in this case I think the balance is absolutely right. There's a great use of projection and music and a revolving cube to evoke locations from Beijing to Los Angeles in a single scene change. Es Devlin (designer) has worked on huge-scale projects like Take That tours and puts all of that knowledge to use. I can't really imagine the play being staged another way now.

The cast of Chimerica
© Es Devlin

I think what Lucy was trying to do was create a very filmic play, using snapshot scenes to keep the action flowing. Theatre more usually dwells on particular ideas and settings, but in this case there are 41 scenes, which makes it quite thriller-like to watch. I've noticed that people who don't often come to plays see Chimerica and say "that wasn't like a play at all, I loved it."

I didn't base Joe on anyone particularly. I know there were about five people who took the original photograph of the Tank Man, from the same hotel, though it was a guy called Jeff Widener who won most of the accolades for it. Lucy found a little pocket of freedom in the fact there were a number of people who took the photograph, so she was able to create someone completely fictional, who isn't based on any of them in particular.

During rehearsals I spoke to a real-life photojournalist, who was a relation of the director. He was very interesting on what his drive was. He said that photojournalism was addictive and involved a lot of adrenalin; it's a way of being involved in something but also being separate from it. I also looked at the work of an American guy called James Nachtwey, who has a very zen approach to being out in the field, even in the most hellish situations. And I know that Donald McCullin was another big inspiration for Lucy.

The camera Joe uses is quite archaic - it's his father's camera which was given to him. So he has an attachment to the history of photography, and how it's changing rapidly in recent times. There's perhaps a feeling now that we are immune to images to a certain extent; so what's a photojournalist to do? I think the journey he goes on to find the Tank Man and find him alive is about him trying to find a positive story and set himself on a different path.

Joe's a great part in that he's not massively introspective. Characters who work out their problems through action really appeal to me, and Joe is one of those people.

The Tank Man is an ongoing source of fascination because we still don't know who he was, why he did what he did, and what became of him afterwards.

Is he a hero in the classic American sense? Or has he lost everything and so has nothing left to lose? There's a quiet, modest, unsung bravery about him that speaks to a world in which everyone's shouting louder and trying to draw attention.

The way he moves in the original clip is almost like a dance. He has a sense of deep righteousness about him – he shoos away the tanks as if to say ‘I know I'm right, and you're wrong, go away'. It's an incredible sequence, and I think all of us ask ourselves if we would do the same in that situation.

I've no doubt a film adaptation is on the cards, though whether any of us will be involved is a different matter. The thing about Chimerica is that, even though it's written by a 29-year-old girl from Hackney, it has a certain gravitas that maybe other British plays about America don't have. I certainly think it will have another life, be it on Broadway or in Hollywood, or both.

But more immediately it's very exciting to be moving it from the Almeida to the West End, especially as it coincides with Michael [Attenborough] leaving and Rupert [Goold] taking over.

Michael has created a theatre that is hugely welcoming and makes you feel part of a big family. It helps, it makes it a really joyous experience – we all go for company meals and share food after matinees. Long may that continue.

Chimerica is booking at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 19 October 2013