As Long Day’s Journey Into Night opens in the West End, Matt Trueman talks to one of its stars, Kyle Soller, about life as an American actor in London and how he is fulfilling an ambition by appearing in a Eugene O’Neill play
The thing about award- winning newcomers is they tend to have been around for a while. Lenny Henry was 51 when he picked up the Evening Standard’s Milton Shulman award for outstanding newcomer in 2009, while Daniel Kaluuya had two series of Skins under his belt before his win the following year. The most recent recipient, Kyle Soller, had been grafting away for almost four years since leaving drama school.
Soller found himself shortlisted alongside his wife Phoebe Fox, who was in the year below him at RADA. Both had had fantastic runs, each starring in three major London productions over the course of the year. “She just did it quicker than I did,” he says, adopting a faux bitterness to rival the black Americano he is drinking.
“At the time, we were like, ‘Whatever happens, happens. If it comes home, that’s all we want’. And then a week later, I was sitting in the kitchen alone going, ‘Hmm, I really, really want to get it’.”
In late 2010, Soller’s career suddenly burst into blossom. The Standard award capped a non-stop 12 months in which first rehearsals followed last nights in quick succession. When he opened in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Faith Machine at the Royal Court, his hair was still dyed a dazzling carrot after Richard Jones’ lurid Government Inspector at the Young Vic. Auditioning for Jones, he felt under-prepared, because he was doing The Glass Menagerie at the time, previews of which started just two days after he’d finished The Talented Mr Ripley in Northampton. No wonder he drinks his coffee black.
In fact, his performances also have a caffeinated quality. He brings a rush of jittery energy to the stage, as if his veins pump Red Bull rather than red blood cells. Nonetheless, this staccato quality has proved remarkably adaptable, variously suggesting social anxiety, deep-rooted insecurities and carefree Tasmanian devilry in different performances over the last 18 months.
One suspects it will come into its own again with his next role – the consumptive Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which opened in the West End on Tuesday with a cast led by David Suchet.
“It’s on a lot of people’s lists of the greatest American plays ever written,” Soller says. “It’s certainly one of the most challenging. It’s so deep and complex and psychological. Alongside Death of a Salesman, it probably changed American theatre in the 20th century.”
“I love the notion of it being in the West End. Putting it next to Thriller is kind of like a big ‘up yours’.”
Like Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night centres on a man spat out by the American dream. James Tyrone is a once-successful actor with a severe property investment habit. His wife is addicted to morphine and neither of his sons matches his expectations. O’Neill based the Tyrones on his own family, making younger sibling Edmund, something of a self-portrait.
Soller sums the playwright up with characteristic mellow dryness: “He was a pretty down dude. He never really felt he lived up to the poetry in his head or his heart. I kind of felt the same way when I started reading him in college. Something clicked and I’ve wanted to be in one of his plays ever since.”
In Edmund, however, O’Neill’s despondence makes for a fantastic character. He returns from travelling to find everything the same. He’s still blamed for his mother’s addiction and then diagnosed with tuberculosis. “It’s so attractive playing a character who’s a little in love with death,” says Soller, “It’s not devoid of humour. You’re kind of on the outskirts looking in. It’s like having a secret – maybe even, the secret. If anything it gives you more leeway with a bitter humour.”
It’s both ironic and apt that Soller’s success has come playing young Americans, since he was so drawn to England and, in particular, RADA. The third of five siblings born and raised 20 minutes outside of Washington DC (“very middle class, huge front lawn, trees everywhere.”), he started an art history and Spanish course at William and Mary College in Virginia, but grew disillusioned with it. On his mother’s advice, he left and took a summer school at RADA before auditioning for the three-year acting course.
“When I got in, I dropped everything. There was a romanticism to it – an American in London, getting Shakespearean training, being closer to Paris, having good Guinness.”
“I really wanted to stick around afterwards, because the stuff being done here, particularly the new writing, exited me so much.”
That decision not only left him with huge international student fees to repay – “That’s probably why I got in,” he jokes – but also battling with his own identity as an actor.
“I didn’t really want to be seen as American. I thought it would be detrimental,” he says, in this smooth, not-quite-Southern drawl. “Then I went through a complete 180âˆž turn, thinking, ‘That’s my thing, I’ve got to use it’. Then I went back again. It’s tough, because you’re always competing against native actors that people want to give jobs to.”
His first job after graduation was simply to wait for a new visa to come through. He’s settled now though and, having recently completed his screen debut opposite Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s forthcoming Anna Karenina, he has no plans to leave any time soon.
“I definitely feel more European now. Well, I’m desperately trying to be more European,” he says, downing the last dregs of that Americano.
* Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs at the Apollo Theatre, London, until August 18. To read our review visit the website on Wednesday April 10