Brief Encounter With … Elliot Cowan

Elliot Cowan plays Stanley Kowalski, the part immortalised on stage and screen by Marlon Brando, opposite Rachel Weisz’s Blanche Dubois in the Donmar Warehouse revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Cowan’s other credits include Frost/Nixon, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Don Carlos, The Internationalist, Women Beware Women, The Seagull and Henry V on stage. On screen, his credits include major roles in Lost in Austen, Ruby in the Smoke, In Love with Barbara and Angel on television, and the films The Golden Compass, Happy Go Lucky, Jonathan Toomey, Love and Other Disasters, Alexander and After Berlin.

Many people will be familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire, but how would you describe the story?

Originally, Tennessee Williams was going to call the play The Poker Night because it revolves around a group of poker players in New Orleans in the late 1940s. Stanley is king of the pride. He’s a man married to a woman, Stella, way above his station from another part of the South. When his wife’s sister, Blanche Dubois, comes to visit, the apartment becomes overcrowded, emotionally, physically and intellectually. There’s a sort of three-way battle and a deterioration of mental heath, emotional stability and honesty, between all of these people but particularly Blanche, who’s been abused by various people in various ways. It’s a kind of calamitous and slightly tragic downfall of a relatively innocent and helpless woman in her thirties.

Why do you think it’s considered a modern masterpiece?
I wondered about this when I considered doing it again. Streetcar is set in an intense environment, and a very specific one in terms of period and locale, but what men and women do to each other because of their desires, their passions or their fears is so well rendered by Tennessee Williams that the play has become universal.

When did you do the play before?
I played Stanley at school when I was 16 – it was part of the reason I chose acting for a career actually. I remember thinking, one day I should do this as a proper actor, as a proper man. This kind of thing bears scrutiny a second time. So, 15 years later, I’m working as a professional actor and I’d already thought about this play several times since leaving drama school, trying to work out a way of doing it. And it just so happened that the timing worked out with what the Donmar was doing.

How do you approach Stanley differently this time round, as a 32-year-old?
I have a distant memory of doing it the first time. There’s some familiarity but I’ve certainly had to relearn lines. As a teenager, I suppose I did latch onto the film and Marlon Brando as an opener. I completely have not done that this time at all. Even in school, my director told me to think about the role in terms of animal physicality. This time round, I suppose my instincts with that remain somewhat the same but my ability to get the results is a bit more effective. Back then, I was performing a preconceived notion in my head. That’s what young actors do, so they feel they can hold on to something. As you perform more, you realise the benefit of putting your attention on the people around you and simply on the language spoken to you; you’re acting, reacting, instinctively to that. Of course, I’m also now Stanley’s age.

Does playing a role made famous by Marlon Brando affect you?
It’s daunting, but it’s something actors have to negotiate all the time. I’ve already done it a few times in a way: when I played Darcy, for instance, people still had associations with Colin Firth, and there were quite specific reference points in the script to him as well. It depends on what your perspective on art is really: do you view art as something sealed in aspic when it’s deemed a classic or a masterpiece, or do you consider art something to be reinterpreted, time again throughout the ages and generations? Reinterpreting a piece gives the audience a chance to be very personally connected with the incidents of the play. If we do that with honesty and integrity, an audience will be given the opportunity to forget about Brando or Vivien Leigh and be a part of something extraordinary in the moment, something that we all share anew every night with every audience.

What does Rachel Weisz bring to the part of Blanche?
First of all, Rachel is the right woman at the right stage of her life to play the part; she brings that without even trying. She’s also very eloquent with her craft and brilliant at always staying in the moment and discovering the personal resonance of everything she says. Because some of the lines are so iconic, we’re in danger of repeating things the audience has heard before, but Rachel really gets under the skin of the words. I think she gives a real tenderness, a real vulnerability. And she’s wonderful to listen to and look at – from my point of view, it’s very easy for me to be bewitched by her because of her manner, her eyes and her voice. Similarly, Ruth Wilson is perfectly cast as Rachel’s sister. She’s wonderfully understanding and empathetic to Stella’s need. I feel very lucky – my job is halfway done by the brilliant casting of these two women.

Streetcar returns you to the Donmar where you originated the role James Reston Jr in Frost/Nixon before transferring to the West End. How did you feel watching that play go on to such success on Broadway and the big screen?
I rode that train as far as I could. I was glad to see it go on and achieve the things it achieved. Such a good film came out of it, too. I think Sam Rockwell, who had my part in the film, was far better cast. And it was really exciting to see somebody like that play something I’d kicked off with – the reverse of what usually happens, like in A Streetcar Named Desire, with me living in Brando’s shadow. I was so lucky to be asked to do the play and enjoyed every minute of it – including meeting the real Jim Reston. It was nice to be the guy who played him before anyone else had a stab it.

What roles would you like to tackle next?
Right now I’m thinking and talking quite a bit about Coriolanus. And maybe that’s an unoriginal idea, it gets done regularly, but I think I’m nearly at the time in my life where my skills are coming together and could match up well with such a difficult part in a difficult play. I don’t want to shy away from the challenge, I really want to get that lined up somehow. Other than that, there are some more modern plays out there that I’m talking to a people about, but right now I can’t say what because it would stuff up the rights probably. But plays within the last, you know, five to one hundred years.

Elliot Cowan was speaking to Terri Paddock

A Streetcar Named Desire opened on 28 July 2009 (previews from 23 July) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its sell-out season continues until 3 October 2009. The production is helmed by award-winning choreographer Rob Ashford (whose previous Donmar credits include Parade), marking his play directing debut.