tv Amanpour on PBS PBS March 28, 2018 6:00am-6:30am PDT
good evening, everyone. welcome to the program. i'm christiane amanpour in london. the broadway phenomenon that defined its cultural and political moment. 25 years later, angels is back in a marathon eight-hour production that viscerally confronts the aids plague, russia and the death of roy cohn, the closeted right wing standard barrier of mccarthyism and mentor to donald trump. now in 2018, with trump in the white house, and a whole range of rights once again under threat, "angels in america" is just as relevant as it was a quarter century ago. andrew garfield stars in the production as pryor walter, a young aids victim who evolves into a modern day profit. here's a clip.
>> it's just a burst blood vessel. >> not according to the best medical authorities. >> what? >> help me! >> lesion number one. look at -- the dark kiss to have angel of death. >> oh, please. i'm a legionnaire. >> the play right transformed into a national treasure. he's been honored by president barack obama for his afcs to the arts. andrew garfield is known for his thriving movie career in "spiderman" and "hacksaw ridge." now he's tackling this role and i spoke with both of them in new york for their only tv interview together as they were preparing for this week's broadway premier. >> gentlemen, welcome to the program. i want to start by asking you, tony cushner, the creator of
this amazing enterprise, why now? why 25 years later? why is it still relevant? >> the decision to do it now had to do with 25 years later part. it was the 25th anniversary of the play opening at the national theater. none of us said anything about relevance at the time we were deciding to do this three years ago. we were all a little stunned at how timely it felt once we got to the rehearsal room and got it in front of audiences. >> what do you think sticks out in terms of the timeliness? it was about this awful moment in america where aids was rampant and politically poison as well. >> the political poison is in a certain sense come to its full flowering. i think the political play addresses the reagan counterrevolution and it has
come to the fore in the presidency of donald trump. you spend 40 years saying the government doesn't matter and you wind up with trump in the white house. there's a sense of crisis that we're all deep lly immersed in right now. the aids epidemic is a global pandemic. a little bit like the early '80s at any rate. it's become slightly invisible. you have to really read the newspaper to find it. >> andrew, you were barely a dplimer in anybody's eye when it first started. you were so young and you have this pivotal role as the star of this play. what do you think about the history of it and how do you sort of tune in with the politics of today? it is a political play. >> absolutely.
i was conceived in new york in the '80s. so that's my connection with that period of time. i have a very virs ral connection to this city during this period. and i had the privilege of diving into the great work that tony has created and the still is absolutely vital for a functioning american democracy in society, as far as i'm concerned. it's kind of a new chapter of the new new testament for how we move forward with humanity and empathy and compassion. >> i want to take you back, both of you, to the reagan administration where larry speaks, who was reagan's press spokesman, was asked by a reporter about this crisis. it was just beginning to be noticed in society.
and this reporter is not just -- is an ordained priest. so let's just play this. >> does the president have any reaction to the announcement of the center for disease control in atlanta that aids is now an epidemic in over 600 cases? >> it's known as gay plague. no, it is. it's a pretty serious thing. one in every three people that get this have died. >> i don't have it. do you? >> you don't have it. i'm relieved to hear that. >> tony, you must have remembered that, right? >> yes. >> what sort of memories? what sort of flashbacks? >> the immediate response is rage, which is what many of us were feeling at the time. the callousness and indifference of the reagan administration in the entirety of his
administration. finally by 1987, he mentioned it in a speech, at which point thousands of people had already died from it. he did nothing. he didn't call on the country to do anything. and it's a permanent black mark and an indelible stain among so many, in many opinion, of on the reagan administration and it speaks to a kind of a core of heartlessness and a lack of a sense of community and human connectedness that was very much the sort of battle flag of reaganism. it seems incredible that was the response. >> i want to read given that this play -- first, let me ask you, did you take anything from
that incredible exchange? again, you were just being conceived. >> i had listened to these tapes only a couple weeks ago for the first time. and it felt like i was there. it felt as urgent as ever to have the rageful response that that first response that tony said he had. it makes me ashamed to be a human being in a way that our species is capable of that amount of inhumanity, lack of connectedness. and a callousness. and we need tremendous healing. >> so jeffrey wright, who starred in the original production, said i think that the art from that period stone walled to act out the art over hodges is a pretty clear one. and i think that angels has a
meaningful place along that arc. so that case was the marriage equality act. you talk about the inhumanity that's past. yet there's been so much progress. do you see the light there? >> definitely. i mean, and yet there's still tremendous work to be done. there's still tremendous fear of the other whatever that means. whatever the other is specifically for the lgbt community. even though there's been evident strides forward and i think tony's play is a big part of that movement, as far as i'm concerned. the work seems to be not completed in my lifetime. >> political struggle is never completed. it's almost passover. we say in every generation a pharaoh arises to enslave us. the struggle for justice is never ending. >> you must have felt quite gratified.
i believe that you got married, and your wedding was the first same-sex marriage to be featured in the famous "new york times" vows section, which is a great stamp of legitimacy. >> the strides forward in adoption rights, in recognition have been enormous. we have to really -- the fact that the struggle doesn't end doesn't mean that the gains aren't real. they are very real. you can't keep struggling unless you're willing to say there's been progress. if you think it's all just sort of spinning on a pivot, why bother? and in point of fact, being a lesbian, gay, transsexual, bisexual, transgender person at this point in time is not the easiest thing in the world, but it's easier than it was a very short while ago. and we really everybody worked
very hard to make that happen. >> this is an eight-hour event with a break. do you do the eight hours every day? how does it work? >> we do it twice a week. wednesdays and saturdays. it's really a remarkable experience to do both shows in one day. i think some of the people have done it. you talk about community making. usually in the theater you're angry at your seat neighbor for infringing on your space. but over the course of eight hours, you have to fall in love with each other. that's what seems to be happening, which is a beautiful thing. you go through some form of transformation as the characters are going through. so for me, i have to really manage myself and take care of myself. but that's really my only job. then just say these amazing words. >> let's talk about nathan lane's character. he plays roy cohn. and roy was the acolyte to
joseph mccarthy, the worst times in modern politics in the '50s. and famously became a mentor to the current president of the united states, donald trump. just describe his character and what he represented in your play. and can you imagine that his actualment mentee is president? >> it's very strange. because for a long stretch of time in the early and mid-'90s, when they asked students if they heard of roy cohn, the answer was he was a character in "angels in america." people had really forgotten the mccarthy era. now he's having this new wave of infamy as the one for donald trump. he was a gay jew, i'm a gay jew, and i can sense that much -- at least that much connection. when i came to new york from louisiana where i grew up to go to college, it was the '70s.
it was studio 54. it was his heyday. then the epidemic happened. i was a long time reader of the nation magazine. there was an article when he died by an old lion of the left that was shockingly homophobic. sort of gloating about his death from aids. the last paragraph was just a horrendous description of roy's body at the end of his life and the sores. i found myself in this very weird position of feeling angry on roy cohn's behalf. something i never thought i would feel. that's a good place to start a play. so it was 1986. that's when i -- >> just to flesh it out a little bit to remind the audience. a lot has been written about the trump and roy cohn connection. one of his mos, if you get hit, fight back until you kill the other. not literally, but just devastate the other. he also lied about being
homosexual, and donald trump, much like the characters in the play, actually abandoned him when he knew that he was gay. >> which is the main difference between roy and trump. the reason i could write a character based on roy cohn. it would be difficult to write a character based on donald trump or ronald reagan for that matter. you need to have a core coherence to be interesting as a character. and roy had that. there was a deep loyalty in this guy, which is absolutely the antithesis in trump. so it's a strange thing to say, but he was a much finer person in his way for all the evil that he did than his client. >> that is quite a dramatic statement. i want to turn to you, andrew, and the angels. the angel is not the angel of the christmas tree fairy.
it's not the white winged, angelic, benign angel. some people who watch it are a little troubled by the portrayal of the angel. and that the angel is not necessarily there to save humanity. what is the angel to you, the angels in this play? is that a ph.d. thesis question? >> it's hours on stage trying to figure that out. >> and just when you think you're approaching some semblance of an understanding, it gets snatched away from you. i think that's the genius of what tony has written as well as the torture of it. what is it? it's a lot of things. i think where i'm landing more and more is that the character that i play, pryor, needs the
angel until he doesn't. and when he finally doesn't is when he accepts his fate. and falls in love with himself, falls in love with the mystery of being who he is with the particular disease or whatever. i think that's why it's a universally appealing and relatable character. no matter that he's kind of does drag and happens to be a gay man in the 80s. his disease is all of our disease somehow. and how do we incorporate our own sense of disease with being who we are as we are with all of our imperfections. >> it's really profound what you're saying. i want to read to both of you actually. what "the new york times" critic said on the opening of the national theater. this 25th revival confirms its
place in the dramas that stretch toward the heavens. the sky is not the limit and no work of theater since has quite matched its reach. >> what do you do with that? >> that's amazing. what do you do? >> do you ignore that, do you incorporate it? >> i mean, it's really lovely. thank you, ben, for saying that. i try to not think about it. >> can you match it? >> you can't. i said before that the first line of my obituary will be "author of angels qu sangels" a fine. i'm happy that thre will be an obituary. >> i know what you mean. >> how do you prepare for this humongous role? it's monumental. >> that's the question every day. it's a strange thing. and this is something that tony
says as well. i believe in this it being the intention every day. itas to feel dangerous. it has to feel we don't know as a company what's going to happen in the next moment, even though we do and we have rehearsed ad nauseam and got under the skin of this amazing piece of work as deeply as we can. and we continue to. but there's something about the terror of attempting it every time. which i think is what you need to stay in contact with in a strange way. it has to feel like you're sky diving without a parachute. hope you'll land somewhere soft. >> how does this compare -- i know you can't compare, but the films you've done recently, "hacksaw ridge," based on a true story of a pacifist during the pacific campaign of world war ii. tell me about these ascetic cha play.
>> i've been strangely drawn to a stripping away and a simplification, i've been longing to get to the core of what we're doing here. and i think culminating in what this character goes through and the sense of joy and hope that he gets to at the end of this epic and life affirming knowledge of the beauty and the mystery of being incarnate. of being alive and every breath of some kind of miracle if we are attuned to it. i know that's a kind of treat reduction of what tony's getting at. but it's my trite reduction. >> i'm sticking with it. >> i think that's what i have been drawn to all my life. i think what pryor has given me
is a series of answers and nonanswers and a kind of acceptance of things as they are rather than as i would have them be. >> he's saying come july he's available for a romantic comedy. >> you are straight and you play a very famous gay man in this play. i believe that that's what actors do. you take on other roles. but as you know, there's been a lot in the community of some questioning as to whether you should and should you have chosen a gay actor. there are gay actors. what's your answer to that? you're an actor. you play a role. but some don't believe it should be like that. >> the really interesting, important discussion, and i think the discussion is changing every day, and i think it's a very tender discussion. my stance right now is is i'm doing this play.
i just am. and i want to. and i believe tony wanted me to. that's enough for me. and that's enough for me. and i want to be engaged in the conversation around equality and people of equal opportunities in the arts. that's what the conversation is really about. how one's sexual preferences to get to the point where one's sexual preferences don't affect one standing in any career whatsoever in any industry, that's what we're all anyone with a heart and without the ignorance of whatever we're going to go into that. that's where we're all longing to head, i believe. but i'm very curious. i want to be involved in that discussion. >> did you ever have a second thought about that? obviously, there were many fewer
out actors when you first put this play on. >> i have to say i'm not as polite about this as andrew. maybe because i'm gay and i'm older. so it's okay to be grumpier about it. i agree the discussion is important. i don't denigrate the people having the discussion. i think the discussion has to be a discussion and not turn into a kind of attack mentality. or some sort of like purification or cleansing ritual. the idea of asking an actor who they sleep with before i cast them is repellant to me. i would never do that. i don't even think it's legal. it shouldn't be legal. it's none of my damn business. what i need to know is, either as andrew, i have seen a lot of his work so i know he's a great actor and i don't have to ask him to audition. or if i don't know his work that well, i'll ask him or her to read for me. if they can do it, their sexual orientation, their political
preferences, none of that is any of my business. this is a profession and i work with actors. i need to work with the best actors i can get. he's one of the best actors alive. this is a very big, difficult part. and as a gay man, i am enormously moved by how -- i have never seen any straight man perform a gay character with more intimate knowledge and things in andrew's performance that you usually can only see in gay men. but that's the miracle of the imagination. that's what actors do. i can learn from having the story of my tribes, jews, or gay people in america, told by
people who are not that. i'm very curious to see a british writer or french writer or afghan writer write about us. this crossing of boundaries. do we really want to build trumpian walls around human experience? >> i should say, obviously, everybody believes that you do this to perfection. it's really fantastic the reviews you have got. you're so young to be portraying these incredibly, i would say, tortured characters. in this play and in many of the films. i want to give you the last word about as a young person, what do you want this play to say in its 25th year as we go forward? why are you doing it apart from it's a great role? >> goodness. the end of the play is what i want to say. i want to just recite the end of
the play right now. that's what i want to say. the world only spins forward, the dead will be commemorated and we'll struggle on with the living. we are not going away. we won't die secret deaths anymore. the world only spins forward. we will be citizens. the time has come. you are fabulous creatures, each and every one of you. and i bless you, more life, more life, more life. and i think more life is the mantra right now. more life. i think that can mean whatever you want it to mean. the great work beginning, that can mean whatever you want it to mean. hope, community, an awakeness to the golden thread that connects each and every living thing on this planet including the planet itself and all the other planets and galaxies all around it. if we have an awareness of the miracle of life, i think that's a pretty good place to start. >> i thank you so much. that was wonderful. andrew garfield, tony kushner, thank you so much.
>> thank you. a dramatic flourish from a play that still resinates a quarter century through the ages. that is is it for our program tonight. thank you for watching "amanpour" on pbs and join us again tomorrow night. ♪ -- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com "amanpour" on pbs was made possible by the generous support of rosalind p. walter.