May 15, 2008
When Ben Daniels was preparing for his role as the ostentatiously rakish Valmont in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” he did all the research about the demimonde of an 18th-century aristocratic hedonist that you’d expect of a studious, experienced actor. He toured Versailles. He gleaned clues on body language from historical dance and paintings at the Louvre.
But the breakthrough, he said, came about three weeks into rehearsals, when he went to a movie theater for a close look at that great strutting peacock of the Louis XVI era, Mick Jagger.
“I went to see ‘Shine a Light,’ ” Mr. Daniels said, referring to the Rolling Stones concert film, “and it was the most perfect thing I could have done to watch that man do what he does in front of an audience. It’s primarily Mick Jagger, but they’re all so confident and relaxed and in love with what they do, and aware of the power of what they do. It’s just deeply, deeply attractive.”
As frisky and boyish in person as his character is focused and predatory, Mr. Daniels has arrived on Broadway this spring as a largely unknown but deeply attractive British import. Though he has the award-dotted résumé of a top player at home, with frequent appearances at the National Theater and the Donmar Warehouse, he is making his American stage debut opposite Laura Linney in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which opened two weeks ago at the American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street.
His seduction of New York critics has been as swift as one of Valmont’s conquests. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called him “sensational”; “splendiferous,” the Post critic said; “explosively, virtuosically persuasive,” Newsday’s reviewer swooned. On Tuesday he was nominated for a Tony Award for best leading actor in a play, and the production is up for best revival.
Mr. Daniels is 43 but looks much younger with his lean, athletic physique and shaggy surfer-boy hair, an unfortunate consequence, he said, of a fading dye job after his last role and the wig-anchoring scalp requirements for “Liaisons.” Sitting in a backstage lounge a few hours before showtime on a recent rainy afternoon, he was alternately dead serious in discussing his craft and almost giggly with excitement over his good fortune.
To prepare each night for the physical rigors of playing Valmont, a well-dressed satyr who speaks in long, baroque curls of wit and strikes coquettish poses whenever he is not romping in bed, Mr. Daniels has a lengthy warm-up routine that includes 40 minutes of yoga.
That muscular control is essential to the demands of playing Valmont, who is offstage for only about 10 minutes of the show’s 2 hours 21 minutes, said Rufus Norris, the director. “If you try to read some of the sentences he has to say in one breath, and you’re not an actor who’s trained in the art of doing that, you’re going to struggle,” he said. “And Ben never stops. He’s in very, very good condition.”
But for Mr. Daniels the biggest challenge was not physical but psychological: finding a new interpretation for a character whose excesses have been played so memorably by other actors, including Alan Rickman in the original production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which came to New York in 1987, and John Malkovich in the 1988 film.
His way in was through Mr. Jagger, the rock-star libertine.
Mr. Daniels had seen the stage and screen versions of “Liaisons” and read the novel that inspired them, and recalled thinking, “I still have my own take on it.” He added, “I’d got that Rickman performance firmly in my head, that laconic, heavy-lidded performance, and also Malkovich, who was like some creepy, psycho version of Valmont. But I don’t get that from the text at all. I get someone who is having the time of his life, and his skill — his danger — is that he makes people lose control.”
The role was cast in London in November. Eight actors read with Ms. Linney, but Mr. Daniels clinched it instantly. “He completely blew us away,” Todd Haimes, Roundabout’s artistic director, said.
Mr. Daniels auditioned with no expectations; his agent, he said, had warned him that Roundabout wanted “someone with an American profile.”
And while Mr. Daniels’s emergence on Broadway echoes that of Mr. Rickman, who was not well known in the United States before the original production but quickly went on to big Hollywood roles, there is no guarantee of a similar career trajectory. Mr. Daniels arrives at a time when the success of a Broadway show depends increasingly on the presence of bankable Hollywood names on the marquee, even for a nonprofit company like the Roundabout.
“The reality is that stars sell single tickets,” Mr. Haimes said. “A third of our budget” — about $14 million a year — “comes from single ticket sales, and probably the most important aspect to single ticket sales is the name of the show and who’s in it. There is pressure, no doubt about it.”
So far the old-fashioned pattern of good reviews and professional inquiries seems to be working for Mr. Daniels. His free time has been consumed by meetings with Hollywood casting agents and readings for television pilots, he said, but he quickly — and not very persuasively — tried to play down the interest. “It’s completely understandable” given the positive reviews, he said, holding back a big smile.
As excited as Mr. Daniels is about his newfound success on Broadway, he is no novice. Over a two-decade professional career he has been nominated for two Laurence Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of the Tonys, and won it in 2001 for best supporting actor in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” at the National Theater. In addition to his theater work he has a significant profile on British television, appearing in “Cutting It” and “Real Men,” among other series, and starring in a docudrama about Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.
Growing up in Nuneaton, a working-class town near Coventry in central England, he fell in love with theater via a high-school drama program (“I’m a great example of why arts funding shouldn’t be cut in England,” he said) and received classical training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Michael Grandage, the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, who directed Mr. Daniels in Ibsen’s “Wild Duck” two years ago, called him an intensely physical player who has a particular talent for developing the sexual dimensions of his characters.
“Ben seems to do something very raw and uncensored,” Mr. Grandage said, “and in doing so what comes out is something that seems to appeal to both sexes and all peoples.”
In portraying Valmont, Mr. Daniels said, he sought to make the character’s magnetic sexuality his central characteristic. And when it came to the audience, he had a clear goal.
“It’s totally self-serving, but he makes people feel fantastic,” he said. “And he gets away with so much because of that. I wanted to go down that route. Rather than make the audience go, ‘Eww’ ” — he drew out the international syllable of distaste — “I wanted them to go: ‘Ooh! He’s quite juicy! We quite like him!’ ”
The New York Times