How to Get Keira Knightley, Jessica Lange and Clive Owen to Work on Broadway for Peanuts

Keira Knightley in Therese Raquin 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theatre Company

Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director Todd Haimes and casting director Jim Carnahan discuss what it takes to pack their 50th anniversary season with top talent.

Keira Knightley is more or less paying Roundabout Theatre Company to make her Broadway debut in Therese Raquin, now in previews for an Oct. 29 opening at Studio 54. The movie star is making $1,300 a week — the scale rate for a main stem show at a non-profit theater — which likely doesn't cover her living expenses. (She does have a new baby, after all.) If Knightley headlined a commercial Broadway show, she could make between $50,000 and $100,000 a week, perhaps even commanding a portion of the box office receipts.

It's no secret that Roundabout and other non-profits pay their stars scale irrespective of the box office clout they bring to a project. But for successful actors eager to sharpen their stage chops, the paycheck is often significantly less important than the enticement of taking on adventurous work that might be too risky for commercial producers, in an environment known to be supportive of its artists.

Knightley isn't the only A-lister currently taking the stage with Roundabout, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this season. Clive Owen is making his Broadway debut alongside Eve Best and Kelly Reilly in Harold Pinter's Old Times, running at the American Airlines Theater through Nov. 29. Mamie Gummer is appearing off-Broadway in Ugly Lies the Bone, which just extended through Dec. 6 at the Underground, the company's program for new plays. And Jessica Lange will wrap up the Broadway season in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, alongside Michael Shannon, John Gallagher Jr. and Gabriel Byrne.

Not to mention the top-tier theater names powering the ensembles of The Humans (Jayne Houdyshell, Reed Birney, Sarah Steele) and Noises Off (Megan Hilty, Andrea Martin, Tracee Chimo, Campbell Scott), and the return of She Loves Me, the first musical the company ever produced, which will feature Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel.

"I've been offered a lot of plays over the years and none felt just right," Owen told The Hollywood Reporter. "But Old Times is a really stunning piece of writing, with three great parts. And it is such a rare play to be produced on Broadway. I think only a company like Roundabout would produce a play like this in the Broadway landscape."

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes and casting director/director of artistic development Jim Carnahan, who have been working together for more than 20 years, to talk about their "strange daytime marriage," how they put together a season, and what keeps the big names coming back to the company.

When you're starting to put together a season, how does the casting conversation between the two of you begin?

Haimes: In today's environment, it's really not enough just to do a play well. You have to do a play well and have — in most cases — a name-value star. But it's particularly tricky for us because of a couple of things. The name-value star has to do it for $1,300 a week and they have to do it in our subscription slot. On top of that, we really only cast "stars" who we think have the chops to do this work. Are we 100 percent right all the time? No. But I think we're 90 percent right. So we don't take any television star just because they're famous and plop them onstage to sell tickets if we don't think they can handle the work.

Carnahan: Also, with people like Clive and Keira, it's their Broadway debut, but it's not their theatrical debut. Todd and I both saw Clive do Closer in London, which just happened to be the last play he did. He did audition for us. Do you remember that?

Haimes: I remember that very well.

Carnahan: Clive auditioned for us for our [2000] production of Betrayal, which ended up being Liev Schreiber and John Slattery with Juliette Binoche. Croupier had just come out and he hadn't become a big thing yet. I'm sure it was his last audition for anything probably ever in his life. So Clive has been on our list for 18 years. It was a great audition.

Haimes: Don't ask why we didn't take him. I have no idea. The process can work in one of two ways. Seventy-five percent of the time, it works by picking a play and then finding a really great director for the play.

Does the project sometimes start with the star?

Haimes: Well that's the other 25 percent of the time. We're doing Long Day's Journey for Jessica Lange. But Eugene O'Neill is also one of my favorite playwrights who we haven't done in ten years, so it's a perfect coincidence. We generally do a reading of the play just to hear it and we try to pair them up with a director that we think they'll love and will serve the play well. We've done readings of Therese Raquin over the years in different incarnations.

Did Keira do a reading?

Carnahan: No. We did a couple of readings where Keira, as you can well imagine with her schedule and with having a baby, wasn't available. There was a minute where it looked like The Children's Hour [in which Knightley starred in London's West End in 2011] was going to come to New York, so there was a long period of time she wasn't available. And then [director] Evan Cabnet came to us and said I really want to look at Therese Raquin, and Todd said we have this adaptation that we commissioned and really love. Again, we went, well let's try Keira. We didn't know she was pregnant.

Haimes: I don't think she was. I like to think that she planned her pregnancy around the show.

What made Keira the right person for the role?

Haimes: Well, first of all, you can't do Therese Raquin on Broadway without knowing who Therese Raquin is. Keira is an exquisite actress with the requisite skills to tackle a difficult role like Therese.

Carnahan: Keira's said in interviews that she's been offered this role in various incarnations three or four times, and this time, she finally went, "If it keeps coming to me, there must be a reason. It must be time for me to do it." In the case of both Old Times and Therese, we weren't going to do them unless we got the right star. I guess there's a world in which you could maybe find an unknown to do Therese. You couldn't for Deeley in Old Times. Undiscovered 45-year-old, sexy, funny, dangerous, leading men do not exist — I will stake my reputation on that.

Haimes: Making an offer is complicated sometimes because — how can I put this nicely — unless their clients are clamoring to do theater, agents are not necessarily falling over themselves to have them do theater for $1,300 a week. So sometimes we have to be fairly aggressive. Sometimes the agents are cooperative. Sometimes we try to get to the clients through a director who knows them. Sometimes we try to get to the clients because we have a personal relationship with them — just to make sure they know the offer's out there. I do get it from the agent's perspective. And sometimes the actor may say, "I'm not interested." But at least you get an answer rather than getting nowhere. It's never 100 percent clear — when you're dealing with big stars — whether the agents bring these offers to their clients.

What makes high-salaried stars willing to come to Roundabout for much less than their going rates?

Haimes: First, it's the work. The actors are attracted to the role, of course, and usually the project and directors are extra incentive. We typically produce shows that wouldn't be done elsewhere, despite the draw of a star. The stars don't need the money, and as you can see by who has come to Roundabout, they are usually artists who started their careers with serious theater training. Second, while we don't pay above scale, we do believe the experience should be enjoyable and rewarding. My job — Roundabout's job — is to make sure it's enjoyable off stage too. That means we promise everything from open and honest communication, great housing, help with their young families, transportation, and anything else we can do to keep them content while they're focused on the work.

In Jim's role as director of artistic development, he also helps pick which play revivals and musicals you choose to produce. How did the return of She Loves Me come about and how did you cast it?

Haimes: The problem with She Loves Me is there really are probably only five actresses in America, who have some stature in the industry, who could sing the role Laura Benanti is playing. Because there's a song in it called "Ice Cream," which has one of the highest notes in the American theater. And you can imagine who they are and they're very busy and they're very successful. And ultimately we went to Laura Benanti, who was our only choice that really turned us on.

Carnahan: And it was a big deal for Laura to decide that. One of the big problems is we cast nine months to a year in advance so an actor has to say, "Okay, I'm not going to take another job." With Laura, that was a big decision because she had to decide not to become a series regular on Nashville. She had to say no so that she could do She Loves Me. And her Supergirl deal was predicated on the fact that she'd be available to do She Loves Me.

What happened when Josh Radnor dropped out of She Loves Me and you replaced him with Zachary Levi?

Carnahan: Well, you panic at first. So you sit there and you go, "Okay maybe we'll get really lucky," and we did. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that no one ever knows. We think we have one person and then they get a TV job or a movie job, and we have to scramble before we announce it to keep the project on track. That happens a lot. Within two and a half weeks, Zachary was in. It was a very happy thing. There aren't many people that can be the lead in a Broadway musical but the vocal requirements are not as stringent for that role.

Haimes: If Laura Benanti dropped out of She Loves Me, we would cancel the show.

Have any of these stars that are involved in the 50th anniversary season or other seasons started their careers at Roundabout?

Haimes: The perfect example is someone like Adam Driver, who did three plays for us. Did I know that he was going to be a big star? No, I thought he was just a great actor.

Carnahan: I don't think being a star was ever Adam's thing. There are a lot of actors you meet where it's very clear that's their goal. There are other actors like Adam that their goal is just to be a really good actor. And you know, who knew that a Lena Dunham series would lead to Star Wars? That doesn't compute.

Haimes: The hope — not the guarantee — is that when he decides that he wants to do a play again, he'll think favorably about doing it at Roundabout.