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Corey Johnson On ... Acting in Enron & its Broadway Closure

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Corey Johnson recently took over from Samuel West as Jeffrey Skilling in Rupert Goold's award-winning production of Lucy Prebble's Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre.

Born in the United States but now based over here, Johnson has notched up myriad theatre credits including The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Almeida), Frost/Nixon (Donmar Warehouse/Gielgud/Broadway) and A View from the Bridge (Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse), the latter of which won him a TMA nomination for Best Actor.

His recent film credits include Kick-Ass, The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93, while on television he recently starred in The Last Days of Lehman Brothers on BBC2.

Corey Johnson: I hadn’t seen the show before I was offered the part. And that was a conscious choice on my part because Sam West had received such exceptional notices for it. There’s always a thing about taking over a play – you immediately want to make it yours and I tend to resist trying to copy what someone else has done, for any reason. I'm slightly shameless in the sense that I will borrow liberally from what I see people do. If it works, I’ll say, "look can I borrow the way you did that thing" or "I really liked that gesture you made at the end here and I’m going to use that" – I mean you can say it’s stealing but I’m going to say it’s a tribute to exceptional ability.

Right now I’m in two minds about it; wishing I’d seen it for the sake of the production - if I could have ignored what Sam was doing, I could have gotten a sense of how the production moved and it would have saved me a lot of time figuring it out. But it means that I’m now in the show and figuring it out as I go which is a much better process. I don’t have any way of knowing what he did. All I can go on is what I’m feeling and what I’m experiencing as I’m doing it which is a good thing.

There’s only one cast member now from the original production. Those guys in the original company had been doing it for close to a year. For them to have done it for that amount of time and especially for them to have had that remarkable success - taking it from virtually a workshop production, from Chichester to the Royal Court to the West End and having the success it had in the West End - was a career-pinnacle achievement.

Enron's failure on Broadway

There are a number of reasons for a play working and not working on Broadway. And mostly they have nothing to do with the play itself. When I was doing Frost/Nixon over there about three years ago, there was a play that opened up right across the street from us called Coram Boy that was huge over here. It had rave reviews but it didn’t draw the audiences. So it closed after a few weeks. And it was nominated for Tony Awards – it was a very successful play and still, it closed. It’s too trite to say, “Americans won’t have a British author and a British director telling them what it is they can or cannot do.” We all tell stories about one another.

If you look at the Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times, he found the play “all style and no substance” but that’s exactly what Enron was as a company. Who would have thought someone would create a hedge model and name it “a raptor”? You can’t make this stuff up. So to say “it’s all style and no substance” – it’s what happened!

The other thing you have to realise is that there was a bomb in Times Square the weekend right after they opened which, unless you’re a major musical with a track record, was the worst time to have just opened the play. And the review came out and within a few days the Times Square bomb happened and it kind of lost its feet before it had a chance to find them. And it doesn’t work the same way over here as it does over there. Here you have four major papers and you’ll get a consensus. Over there, if the New York Times doesn’t give it a glowing review then it’s on dangerous ground. But I think there were a number of factors conspiring against it that had nothing to do with the piece itself or the writing, direction, acting or anything like that. It was just a series of unfortunate events, to quote Lemony Snicket.

Similarities with Lehman Brothers

Someone once said to me: “Americans don’t actually invent anything” and I said “No, no, no but we do perfect it”. And in the case of Enron, Enron kind of invented corporate bankruptcy in America but the Lehman perfected; when Lehman went bankrupt they were the 17th largest economy in the world - three-quarters of a trillion dollars with $60billion an assets. Having recently played Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman in the The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, it’s interesting seeing the similarities with Skilling in Enron.

In a book that’s just come out called The Big Short by Michael Lewis, it reports that Fuld said “I hate short sellers, I want reach down their throats, open up their chests and rip their hearts out and eat it in front of them before they die.” Dick was notorious for speaking his mind. But I was emailing Michael Lewis back and forth when I was doing Fuld, because he started out working for Salomon Brothers 20-odd years ago in New York. And Michael said to me, “the one thing I can tell you is that they feel that they are the victims, that they are being victimised.” And you’ve got to think of it in their terms. In business, it’s a pure Darwinian system. And that’s what Dick Fuld believed - that it was a rollercoaster, saying “sometimes you go down below the line you need to be at but if you just hang on that thing’s going to come screaming back up and you’re going to be way above and you’re going to be plush.”

And when Enron goes under, when Lehman goes under – those affect every country on the earth. You can’t say that this is just an American problem because it did affect the rest of the word. But I think part of what art is supposed to do, like what Skilling says, is “to hold the mirror up to nature.” There’s a remarkable speech at the end which really walks the line because he’s saying if somebody told you how difficult would be, you’d say, “you know what? I’ll just kick back here.” But when we look back we don’t remember how difficult it was we just remember how good it was. Going back to Fuld, it’s a rollercoaster – you don’t remember what it was like at the bottom when you stop, you remember was it was like going up and then coming zooming off the curve and coming down. You remember those exciting moments. Being at the bottom is just another way of being able to go up to the top. Sometimes the rollercoaster goes up and sometimes the rollercoaster goes down and it’s just about staying on and finishing the ride.

Enron is currently booking at the Noel Coward to 14 August, after which it commences a regional tour at its original home, the Chichester Festival Theatre.


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