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Past/Present/Future for ... Mackenzie Crook

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Actor Mackenzie Crook, currently appearing in the UK premiere of American Annie Baker’s play The Aliens at the 80-seat Bush Theatre, is best known internationally for his roles in film and television, most notably the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise and Ricky Gervais’ sitcom The Office, in which he played Gareth.

However, since making his first foray into theatre in the 2004 West End revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (starring Christian Slater), Crook has fallen in love with the stage. He followed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with The Exonerated at Riverside Studios and Ian Rickson’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull (with Kristin Scott Thomas and, in London, Chiwetel Ejiofor) at the Royal Court Downstairs, as part of the Sloane Square theatre’s 50th anniversary season, and on Broadway.

Last year he returned to the Royal Court in another Rickson production, the world premiere of Jez Butterworth’s multi award-winning state-of-the-nation play Jerusalem (with Mark Rylance) at the Royal Court, which later transferred to the Apollo Theatre for a sell-out West End season, that saw returns queues stretching down Shaftesbury Avenue. For this performance, he was nominated for both a Laurence Olivier and a Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Supporting Actor.

PAST: I came to acting through an unusual route; I was a stand-up on the cabaret circuit for years and through that I got into television and through that into film. I never trained or had the opportunity to study theatre. As a result I felt like there was a big gap in my repertoire as an actor, so I really wanted to try theatre. It started a love affair and now I absolutely adore being on stage. Theatre takes a lot out of you, more so probably than film or television, so it’s a luxury I think I can afford perhaps once a year. To fully commit yourself to a play is exhausting.

Jerusalem was quite a journey. At the start I read the first couple of pages of the script and I remember thinking “this is something that I have to do,” although at that stage it was not a finished piece. The original script that I read changed a lot before we started performing and it evolved with us and with the characters. It turned into this epic, magical tale that nobody really predicted. We knew that it was a great premise, but it turned into something that got such a rapturous response from audiences, which was amazing and surprising. I still feel quite emotional when I think about it. It really captured something with audiences and I still get people coming up to me who are gutted that they didn’t get to see it.

It was so inspiring to work with Mark Rylance on Jerusalem – the man’s a genius! I watched him come into that first rehearsal as a blank canvas and discover the character throughout the rehearsal process. By the time we started he had completely inhabited this incredible character. I learnt so much from Mark. The awards nominations I received for Jerusalem were also really important to me. I’ve always felt a little bit like a pretender, like I was blagging it. I don’t have this depth of knowledge about theatre, so to be recognised meant an awful lot to me.

PRESENT: The Aliens is a very intimate three-hander with me, Ralf Little and Olly Alexander, set outside the back of a coffee shop in Vermont. Me and Ralf play a couple of wasters who have dreams and aspirations of being something better. My character would like to be the next Jack Kerouac, but he’s writing a novel that we sort of know will never get anywhere or be published. Olly plays a young guy who works in the coffee shop and who gets drawn into this world that these other two characters have created.

I wasn’t familiar with Annie Baker’s work, but it’s a wonderful piece of new writing and that was obvious from the first couple of pages when I started reading it. You have to jump on the opportunities when good work comes along. I must admit that I’m not familiar with the Bush – I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen anything here before, so it’s my first experience. It’s very intense; you’re right there, you can see the audience, whereas in a bigger venue you can block them out and you don’t have to focus on them. I’m just as tense and nervous and terrified as I was playing the Apollo or anywhere else.

It’s been great to work with Ralf and Olly, we all became firm friends during the rehearsal period. I already knew Ralf vaguely, although we’ve never worked together before. We all get on really well, there’s a good camaraderie. It’s also my first time working with director Peter Gill. I’m very new to the theatre world really, I feel like I’m only just learning.

FUTURE: I don’t have any future plans decided as yet, the only thing that’s almost confirmed is that we’re planning to take Jerusalem to Broadway early next year. I don’t feel like that story is finished yet, I’ve still got a lot more of it in me, so I’m very excited to do it again. It will also be interesting to see how an American audience reacts to the play.

It’s a dream for any actor to perform on Broadway. When we took The Seagull over, it was just incredible. I loved living life as a New Yorker for a few months. I noticed that Broadway audiences are very discerning theatre connoisseurs. I don’t know if that was a surprise to me, I think it was. They knew their stuff really well and I got the feeling that people coming to see the play were Chekhov fans and had probably seen other productions of The Seagull. That was a great challenge.

When people ask me what work I’m most proud of, it has to be Jerusalem and The Seagull. Those resonate more strongly somehow; I feel more connected to them. As much as I love The Office and I’m very proud of what we did there, it was different. I did my piece, came away and then, with TV and film, you don’t get to see the finished result for months, if not a year afterwards. Theatre is immediate, it’s right there and the audience will tell you if they liked it or didn’t. Theatre work is right up there with what I’m most proud of.

The Aliens opened on 20 September 2010 (previews from 15 September) at the Bush Theatre, where it continues until 16 October.


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