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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ryan Gilbey

‘I gasped when I read it’: Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis and Louisa Harland on Ulster American

‘Frickin’ phenomenal’ … Derry Girls star Harland and Harrelson rehearse.
‘Frickin’ phenomenal’ … Derry Girls star Harland and Harrelson rehearse. Photograph: Johan Persson

What could be cosier than lunch beside a crackling fire in the company of three affable actors wearing autumnal knitwear? Nothing really – although the subject that has brought Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis and Louisa Harland together, in this quiet London pub, is about as cosy as a hand grenade.

They are in the middle of rehearsing Ulster American, David Ireland’s savagely funny three-hander about the explosive misunderstandings between Ruth, a principled playwright; Leigh, a well-meaning director; and Jay, a domineering Hollywood star. As the three prepare to stage Ruth’s incendiary play about Northern Ireland, which features decapitated priests and the ghost of hunger striker Bobby Sands, they find they’re not even in the same bookshop, let alone on the same page. Jay is having trouble getting to grips with the Troubles, Leigh mistakenly believes the whole play is about post-Brexit tensions, and Ruth is refusing point-blank to do any rewrites. She has been promised an introduction to Jay’s pal Quentin Tarantino – but the way things are going, there could be enough blood spilled before opening night to make even the Kill Bill director queasy.

Thankfully, life isn’t imitating art today. Harland, 30, best known as the enchantingly offbeat Orla in the sitcom Derry Girls, is described as “frickin’ phenomenal” by Harrelson, now 62 and playing the Hollywood star. He directed her in 2017, in his daredevil comedy Lost in London, the world’s first (and to date only) single-take movie to be livestreamed to cinemas as it was being shot.

Meanwhile, Serkis, 59, is “a beautiful spirit” according to Harrelson. The pair met in 2016 while making War for the Planet of the Apes. “Andy became that fucking gorilla!” says Harrelson admiringly. Serkis clears his throat. “Chimpanzee, Woody. A minor point.”

Explosive … Harrelson and Serkis.
Explosive … Harrelson and Serkis. Photograph: Johan Persson

Harrelson last trod the boards in a West End revival of The Night of the Iguana in 2005. Or as he calls it: “The Night of the Living Hell.” That bad, eh? “Yeah. I didn’t love the production, the part or how I was doing it.” It’s been even longer since Serkis was on stage. He was Iago in a 2002 Othello but has been tied up ever since, acting in blockbusters (Apes, Jedis, Hobbits, Avengers) or directing one (Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which starred Harrelson and Tom Hardy).

“Being away for so long,” says Serkis, “you feel you’ve got to come back with a big Richard III number.” He was set to play Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem revival last year until Mark Rylance returned to the role for a victory lap. “Then Woody sent me Ulster American and I went, ‘Bang! That’s it.’”

What grabbed him? “David’s language is so muscular and musical. And, because it’s a comedy, it gives you the freedom to think more openly.” Serkis sees the play as a reflection on the “post-truth” world. “You can be cancelled at any second. There’s disinformation everywhere. Common decency disappears. Theatre is supposed to be a place to voice the erroneous thought, the unspeakable comment, but nowadays that’s a dangerous thing to do.” Harland agrees: “We go to the theatre to be challenged. David’s writing certainly does that.”

Ulster American skates on the brink of bad taste. It opens with Jay pondering his right to use racist language. Next, he proposes an offensive thought experiment involving a member of the royal family. “I gasped when I read it,” says Harrelson. “There’s a real chance of making people laugh hysterically, but you have to move through some heavy sledding at times.”

‘He’s a chimpanzee, Woody’ … Serkis as Caesar.
‘He’s a chimpanzee, Woody’ … Serkis as Caesar. Photograph: AP

He is optimistic that British theatregoers will take the play in the probing, analytical spirit in which it was written. “American audiences get offended by words and ideas. They’re much more woke than here. Me, I’m a lot like Jay.” Harland quickly steps in. “Not as extreme,” she points out. “No,” says Harrelson. “But I can be a provocateur. My youngest daughter is extremely woke. Boy, does she ride me roughshod. I’ll be like, ‘It’s a joke! I know you’re woke, but can you take a little nap?’” What have they clashed over? “Oh, let’s not go into specifics,” he says in a sing-song voice. His co-stars respond with relieved laughter.

Harrelson had a taste of controversy earlier this year, after he hosted Saturday Night Live and joked about drug cartels buying up the media and politicians, then manufacturing a crisis to make the world dependent on their product. As the penny dropped that he was making a satirical point about the pandemic, an eerie silence settled over the studio. He must have suspected the audience might not be on his side. “I knew they wouldn’t be,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “It was ironic that it was interpreted as anti-vax when it was really anti-profiteering. I’d feel better if trillions of dollars weren’t pouring out of our pockets into the hands of big pharma.”

Provocation is one thing, but Harrelson’s character in Ulster American combines A-list power with toxicity. Have the cast ever encountered any real-life Jays? “I have,” Serkis says. “But I can’t say who.” Harrelson shakes his fist and demands: “Out that motherfucker!” How did Serkis deal with such a dysfunctional presence? “You try to change the temperature in the room to deprive that behaviour of any oxygen,” he says. For her part, Harland says she feels broadly positive about her workplace in the post-#MeToo climate. “There’s definitely a greater understanding, but it’ll take time to undo the damage. There’s a lot to undo.”

Lovably dopey … Harrelson as Cheers bartender Woody, with Ted Danson.
Lovably dopey … Harrelson as Cheers bartender Woody, with Ted Danson. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

What leads the play’s characters to an impasse is their stubbornness, each defending their own territory. “That’s what the play is about,” says Serkis. “How far will you go to fight for your truth? Leigh wants to engage with the complicated nature of Northern Ireland, but his understanding only goes so far. The question of whether you can ever really tell someone else’s story is put under scrutiny.”

This prompts a thought from Harland, whose character in Derry Girls was widely interpreted as autistic. “It’s lovely that people identified with Orla,” she says. “But I’m not autistic and nor were the choices I made specific to autism. I was really moved, though, by all the letters I got from girls who felt like they were the odd one out.”

Ulster American makes repeated jibes about how childish actors can be. Did that ring any bells? “I became a professional actor when I was 23,” says Harrelson. “And it is kind of like being a kid. If there’s not someone to bring me to the next thing, I don’t know where I’m going. I get led everywhere by the hand.” He adopts a docile expression and offers a floppy arm to an imaginary babysitter. “I even got lost biking home yesterday. I couldn’t remember the name of the road I’m staying on. And I don’t have a phone. That was awkward.” Doesn’t he have a map? “But where I am is just off the map,” he says, making it sound like a metaphor.

Serkis says he too has felt infantilised as an actor, which surprises Harrelson. “You seem like the kinda guy who can change a flat, fix an engine,” he says, then addresses Harland and me: “Doesn’t Andy seem like he could do anything?” Serkis looks bashful. “I can get myself out of situations in a Boy Scout fashion,” he says.

This all takes Harrelson back to his career-making role as a lovably dopey bartender, also named Woody, on the sitcom Cheers, co-starring with Ted Danson. “First day on set, Teddy found out I played ping-pong. He plays ping-pong, too. ‘Hey, can we get a ping-pong table?’ The next day, there it is.” He shakes his head. “People are constantly taking care of you. Anything you want. Thing is, it’s OK if everybody tells you you’re great. The problem is when you start believing it.”

Did he? “I certainly did. When I was younger, my ego ran away from me. Or with me. It’s almost inevitable. Either you catch yourself and realise what’s happening, or you’re fucked as a human. Now I’ve got a good handle on it. I feel an appropriate level of humility.”

Right on cue, his assistant arrives to escort him back to rehearsals. “I mean, we’re not surgeons,” says Harrelson, as he clambers to his feet. “We’re not saving Mother Earth here.”

Ulster American is at the Riverside Studios, London, 4 December to 27 January.

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