Chukwudi Iwuji: 'Ivo van Hove gave me more faith in the industry'
The actor talks about the upcoming NT Live screening of ''Hedda Gabler'' and his extraordinary journey into theatre
Currently starring as Lovborg in Ivo van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, British actor Chukwudi Iwuji has had a long career in both the UK and the US. Last year he starred in Hamlet which ran at New York's Public Theater after a tour of prisons and homeless shelters. His other stage work includes Henry VI for the RSC - in which he replaced David Oyelowo in the 2006 revival - and Welcome to Thebes at the National Theatre in 2010. Now back at the National, he gives a superb turn in van Hove's avant garde production as the troubled writer in a storming ensemble that includes Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall. Ahead of the NT Live broadcast of Hedda he talks about how he got into theatre and why the live broadcast will be a very special evening.
Hedda Gabler has been running since December, how has it been?
It's an incredible piece and we're in great hands with Ivo [van Hove]. It's great to be back at the National, which was sort of my stomping ground before I moved to the States. It's a show that people seem to be talking about after seeing it. I think those are the shows I love: when people come to you a week or two after seeing it and they are still discussing it.
In a way, it is quite a radical adaptation, what did you think when you first read the script?
I wasn't surprised, because I had seen The Crucible and I had heard about A View From the Bridge. There's something very lean and to the point about Ivo's directing and Jan [Versweyveld's] design. I admired the way Patrick Marber [who wrote the adaptation] can make three words do what three sentences did and still contain the essence of the line. This Hedda is very Marber-esque: tight, to-the-point language. All the ideas in the play are there, but there was beauty in the simplicity and I loved that.
Had you worked with Ivo before?
No, although I had auditioned for The Crucible about a year and a half ago. I got the message back that he liked me and wanted to work with me, but that The Crucible wasn't the right project. To which I thought: 'whatever', because you hear that a lot as an actor. But fast forward about a year and I got a call saying he wanted to meet again. The fact that he remembered me and was true to his word made me have a bit more faith in the industry.
The NT Live screening of Hedda Gabler is on Thursday (9 March), do you have to prepare much for it?
We have a couple of rehearsals mainly so we see where the cameras are. There are about six cameras on the stage, but we are encouraged to do the show as it is because the whole idea of NT Live isn't to do a film of the show. It's to bring audiences from around the world into the theatre. The rehearsals are so we can make slight adjustments, because the camera broadcasts things in a very different way. So you don't look out to the back circle like you might normally do as people might get a shot of your nostrils.
NT Live has been very successful, but is there something that you lose watching it on screen, rather than in the theatre?
It's true that there's nothing like being in the space and watching the play. That said, there is something extraordinary seeing 30-foot tall characters on a big screen. That's why we are so in love with cinema. I have a lot of friends all over the world who can't get here to see it, so for me the payoff is them being able to see a version of this, especially one that is so carefully managed and as close to the real thing. I think that far outweighs the drawback of not being in the theatre. There is an immediacy in the live broadcasts too. Suddenly there's a few hundred thousand people across the world watching it and for the performer, that's as close to bringing it back to the first preview. So for me there's a new energy, I am looking forward to feeling that rush again.
You originally trained as an economist, what made you change to being an actor?
My earliest games as a child were re-enacting things I had seen on TV. But when I went to boarding school in England, in those days you were either arty or sporty and I was sporty so I didn't have time for theatre. When it came to choosing what to do next, I knew that America had a liberal arts system and in the first two years you could do anything, so I asked my dad if I could study in America. He said: ‘If I'm going to pay for your education in America, then you have to get into an Ivy League university'. So I applied to Yale and got in! I did lots of history of art classes while I was there and acted a bit. But then I got the role of Thomas Becket in a university production of Becket - a play I had loved growing up - and the head of a drama school came to see me and offered me a scholarship right there and then. And I remember at that moment, knowing that I was going to do it.
Did you finish your economics degree?
Yes because I never like to leave anything unfinished. My parents, who I thought would freak out, wrote me a letter saying 'our responsibility is to give you the best education possible and now please go and enjoy and live your life'. It's an incredible story. A week later I got a call from one of the top economic consulting firms in the US basically offering me a job. And I just told them I was going to drama school.
Hedda Gabler is broadcast across the UK in cinemas on Thursday 9 March. The show runs at the National Theatre until 21 March and then tours the UK.