Patti LuPone meets Jonathan Bailey: ‘You’re the biggest star in the world!’

Patti LuPone and Jonathan Bailey starred in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company in London in 2018. The pair, who had lockdown Netflix hits with the series Hollywood and Bridgerton respectively, caught up to talk about rehearsal-room nerves, the best night of the week to watch a musical and the Covid crisis for the arts.

Patti LuPone: Johnny, you’re the biggest star in the world!

Jonathan Bailey: Not bigger than Patti LuPone!

PLP: Much bigger – and sexier. The next season of Bridgerton is all about you, right?

JB: Apparently so. More about me and my bum.

Chris Wiegand: When did you two first meet?

PLP: On the first day of rehearsals for Company. I was very shy. Everyone else knew each other. We were told to choose partners to dance and nobody chose me!

Patti Lupone as Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 2018.
Patti Lupone as Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

JB: We were doing ice-breaking games and trust exercises on that first day, which demand you to be as exposed as you can be. You don’t want to be the person who drops Patti in a trust exercise! You wouldn’t for a second think Patti LuPone would get nervous on the first day, but you were coming back to the stage having said you wouldn’t do any more musical theatre. It took the director, Marianne Elliott, to get you back into the rehearsal room. You came all the way over to London.

PLP: The standard set by British actors is very high, so walking into rehearsals with them is an intimidating thing. It was the same when I did Les Mis in 1985. In London, acting is a time-honoured job as opposed to what it is in the US, where it’s like, “I wanna be a star and make a thousand million dollars”.

JB: My perspective was: yes, I’ve worked before in London, but, my God, I’ve never done a musical in the West End and I see myself as someone who’s predominantly known for TV, so can I prove my worth? Anxiety is a leveller – the anxiety never changes. The structure of theatre is always: turn up, do the job, be present and be kind, and work hard. It’s about being as honest, as technically on point and as healthy as possible in order to do the show.

PLP: For actors, so many people pass through our lives in such an intense way. You have an intense emotional experience with them, and then they’re gone.

JB: It’s like a love affair. You can’t explain it – only another actor will get it. You kept me going in Company. I had the patter song, Getting Married Today, and you had performed it before. When we were rehearsing, you whispered to me that it was all about the beat and to let the beat do all the work, so you can sail through. That completely unlocked it.

Rosalie Craig with Jonathan Bailey (in the blue shirt on the right) in Company.
Rosalie Craig with Jonathan Bailey (in the blue shirt on the right) in Company. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

PLP: That’s paying it forward. People have rescued me in moments of desperation on stage. You need that kind of support. This isn’t a competition, this is a community. We are all here for the same reason, which is to do the best we can on stage, individually and collectively, for an audience.

JB: Theatres are like sacred places – you hear the stories of previous performances and people who have strived to find that sweet spot on stage and succeeded, and failed, in the same space before you.

PLP: There’s a story about Laurence Olivier after the curtain call: he’s cursing, yelling, slams his dressing room door. Everybody’s shocked. They send the dresser in, and he says: “Sir, what’s the matter? You were brilliant tonight.” Olivier replies: “I know – and I don’t know why.” It’s elusive.

JB: It’s an alchemy that you can’t put your finger on. I was in a production with a very famous actor a few years ago, and he said to me, sadly, one night: “Oh, I’m in ribbons.” I asked: “What’s going on?” He said: “Well, I gave my best performance last night.” I said: “Yeah, you were great!” He said: “No, no, no. It was at one in the morning, and I was having a spliff!” The answer to that for the modern actor would be, maybe I’ll just have a little spliff in the interval …

PLP: I did that once when I was at school, which was, like, a million years ago. It was an opera, and I was in the chorus. I smoked pot, and all I did was look at the audience, and I thought: “They all know I’m stoned!”

JB: Narcotics aside, if you have a wobble during the day when you’re performing, you feel as if, the moment you step onto the stage, at least half of the audience can smell it on you.

PLP: If I’ve done the work in the rehearsal room, I don’t have to worry about going on stage. One time, I was doing the play The Cradle Will Rock, and I was having a really hard time with this guy [a boyfriend]. I went through the rehearsal period for the show and all of a sudden it was previews, and I thought: Holy fuck! I haven’t done anything! I hadn’t really rehearsed because I was thinking about him. So I thought of three adjectives and that was my performance. Then when I was doing Les Mis in London, I was still having a hard time with this guy, and he broke up with me, and I let out a wail that woke up Michael Ball, who was living in the same house. And I took the square bottle to Hampstead Heath in my pyjamas. I don’t know how I did the show that night, but that particular experience informed I Dreamed a Dream for the rest of the run.

JB: You can get straitjacketed into one way of saying a line. You’ll try anything, do a cartwheel before you go on stage, and it comes out the same way. Your best performances are in the shower the morning after the show!

PLP: Is it because the pressure has been taken off? Any role reveals itself in some bizarre way after the fact. I was taught very early by David Mamet: wipe your feet at the door. Leave all your personal stuff outside, leave the role on the stage. So I’m not obsessed with it, but you don’t leave your characters behind – they’re part of you.

JB: A couple of months into Company it started to take over my sleep. I felt like I was in the middle of that song at 2am. Sometimes, your character doesn’t allow you to wipe your feet at the door.

PLP: You have to have a bit of a cold heart. You have to be completely emotionally open, but not let it take over your life. The roles I’d love to go back to are Nellie in Sweeney Todd and Rose in Gypsy. It was incredibly difficult, physically, to do Gypsy. Boyd Gaines would come off stage panting. It doesn’t let up. In musicals, you’re stronger at the end of a run than you are at the beginning. The strongest voice is on Saturday night; the weakest is Monday night because you had a day off. What I love about a long run is the muscle you develop, the physical technique, the mental strength. We’ve all been off stage now for almost a year. I am questioning whether I have the ability to rev up that energy again.

JB: In Company, we were all behind you in your scene. We’d listen every night and there’d be a new and fresh crackle every night.

PLP: Before the show, I like to look at the audience. I want to know who I’m playing to. I want to find the guy who is least interested in being there, and that’s the guy I’ve got to get to that night. It is necessary for our culture to continue to be expressive – it’s the soul of a nation. In America, the entertainment industry was left out of the two original stimulus bills and my community is decimated. I’m not just talking about actors. I’m talking about drapers, stitchers, costume houses, scenic shops, the ushers, porters, box office people, the delis, restaurants, all of the people who support and make a living from our theatres. All of them decimated. Why are we considered in my country to be third-class citizens? My entire career it’s been like that. Especially for a stage actor.

JB: Our government had its “Fatima” campaign – suggesting a dancer retrain to go into cyber! That was our government’s suggestion – that anyone who considers themselves to be a performing artist should retrain. That was very plain and clear about our value. But this is the time when we are all talking about communication, identity, having a moment of quiet to work out who we are. Well, go to the theatre to find out who you are. See how you respond to that weird mercurial thing that happens in the theatre – it reminds you how it feels to be alive.

CW: What are the shows you saw that made you both feel alive?

PLP: The productions I remember to this day are Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade, with Glenda Jackson, and his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those productions transported me. When I went back on to the street, things felt different. As a kid it was less theatre that did that, but Bette Davis and Busby Berkeley movies.

JB: My grandma had a dressing-up box – that was my idea of transforming and having a safe space. I remember seeing Oliver! when I was six and having vertigo in the theatre – I experience that even when I go to theatres now. There was no sense of professional artistry in our family, but I said to my parents: I’m going to do that! Within a year, just by chance, I got scouted. I ended up playing Tiny Tim with the Royal Shakespeare Company in A Christmas Carol at the Barbican in 1995. I remember a smell like dry ice, makeup, sweat, the detergent they used to clean the costumes. All these actors would be around the pool table and you’d hear actors being called to the Pit and to the main stage, and I just thought: these are the most extraordinary people I’m ever going to meet. I still watch actors perform and don’t understand where their performance has come from. That awe has never left me.

PLP: Me neither. You know why? We’re still fans.

CW: Patti, you were in previews with Company on Broadway when theatres were shut by the pandemic in March 2020.

Alex Lawther with Jonathan Bailey in South Downs by David Hare in 2011.
Alex Lawther with Jonathan Bailey in South Downs by David Hare in 2011. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

PLP: We were days away from opening when there were rumours that Broadway was going to shut down. We thought we’d be back in two and a half weeks. We were allowed to go back in the theatre, and I went to clean out my personal stuff and put my costumes in garment bags. There was just the ghost light on stage. I realised on my way home to Connecticut I was saying goodbye to my life in the theatre and I burst into tears. It’s been close to 50 years in theatre. It was scary and heartbreaking. There was a silver lining because in my career I had not spent that much time with my family. I just went home and saw spring and summer, and it was beautiful to be at home and live in life.

JB: For an actor working in theatre, there’s 10% of you that never switches off because that phone is going to ring at some point, and you don’t know what it will mean. You’re an actor because you’re defined by the idea that you could wake up tomorrow and the phone could ring. It’s a battle cry for us in the theatre now – we’ve got our war paint on.

PLP: Art is not celebrated in my country. It’s a tragedy. But I was really happy to see the performances at Biden’s inauguration, where you saw the diversity of the people that live in this country.

JB: How hungry were we all for Amanda Gorman’s poem? The sense of physicality she had. That was theatre, wasn’t it? The words travelled through her body. It was a moment of beautiful performance. That was exactly a moment of showing everything we’ve been talking about. The world stopped and looked.