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Three of a Kind

The West End debut of Kenneth Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth has attracted three of Hollywood's most wanted: Anna Paquin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hayden Christensen. We asked them about the perils of stage acting, and how to stop people peeing on your front lawn.

BEFORE he hit the cinematic big time with last year's You Can Count on Me, director, screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergan was probably best known for his 1996 play This Is Our Youth. A punchy, perceptive three-bander set in early-'80s New York, it spans 48 hours in the lives of teenagers Dennis, Warren and Jessica - feckless, drug-dazed beneficiaries of baby-boomer parents who long ago traded their radical aspirations for easy money.

For the play's West End debut, director Laurence Boswell has attracted a stellar Hollywood cast: Anna Paquin (The Piano, X- Men); Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones); and Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky). We spoke to them at the National Youth Theatre in north London during a break from rehearsals.

Did you know each other before this?

Hayden Christensen: I'd met Jake a few times in passing. And Anna I met about three weeks ago.

Jake Gyllenhaal: [Ironically] Obviously, I knew all their work and have been following them both since they were very little. I personally didn't actually know either of them, though I hung around outside their houses without either of them knowing, taking weird Polaroids of their naked body parts. Besides that, nothing really, like, weird. Nothing I haven't done before with other actors I've worked with. [All laugh]

Hayden, you're going to experience all that for real once Attack of the Clones comes out. Are you prepared for it?

HC: Urn, no. How should I prepare for that?


Anna Paquin: Unlist your phone number?

HC: I, er... I haven't, er, been preparing. [Ironically] I've been meditating, actually. I've been trying to get into this very transcendent headspace where I just accept everything, and can deal with people peeing on my front lawn.

Did you know Lonergan's work before?

JG: Yeah. You Can Count on Me I liked a lot.

AP: Same for me. But I'd never read this until a couple of months ago.

The dialogue is so finely nuanced and naturalistic. Does that make It harder or easier?

AP: It's great when you have material that's really beautifully crafted and well written. But it comes with a big responsibility to do it justice, because you know that there are very, very high expectations. [Laughs] We're trying!

JG: It's a curse and a blessing, because people can hear when it's not there, if it's not going where it's supposed to go. But at the same time, when it does get there it's incredibly. rewarding.

It's set In 1982, before some of you were even born...

JG: I was four in 1980, so I do have clear memories of the later '80s. I knew the resonance of the Reagan era in America in my family and in the house. We weren't necessarily very happy about that time. But then again, I grew up in a relatively well-off family, so it didn't affect us as much as some other families in America. Which I think is a lot of what this play is about - rich kids who are safety-netted by all this money. And even when they're in contradiction to the politics of the time, they have no, you know, where is your political standing when you've had no real struggle? How do you develop anything when..

AP:'ve always had an easy life, socio-economically.

JG: Well, that's the other thing. These kids aren't impoverished financially, but they are emotionally. I think a lot of times financial poverty breeds emotional poverty, but there are plenty of times where the opposite happens. And I think the play is eventually pretty com- passionate because these kids are going through horrible, horrible things and dealing with it by creating their own reality through drugs, pop culture, a way of speaking.

There's a tension between these kids' unregulated lives and their cleverness... or rather, their inability to make that cleverness work for them.

AP: Well, they can theorise about things. They can sit around and have a conversation about why, logically, they should or should not do certain things, but when it comes to putting it into practice it's obviously a lot harder.

Do you have favourite lines?

AP: (picking up copy of play script] Hmmmm, let's see. Page seven, when the dialogue starts. To page 67, when it ends. [Laughs]

JG: My favourite line last week was that speech I have: 'It's totally weird, like, taking all your clothes off and having sex with someone you barely know, and then being like, "What's up now?" You know? Like it's such an intense experience, but then nobody knows what to fuckin' say, even though nothing bad actually happened'

HC: [Faux-naively] I just enjoy the natural progression of the story. The thing as a whole is attractive. [Straight] I don't have a favourite line.

JG: 'You're a fucking loser' [Laughs]

HC: Yeah! 'What's the matter with you?'

Do you see yourselves In these kids?

AP: I think every character I would ever want to play has some aspect of myself in it. If I don't understand or believe in who I'm playing, why would I expect anyone watching to?

Have you all done lots of theatre before?

AP: [Laughs] Nope. Once before. I now know specifically how much I don't know.

JG: We now realise that we are utter fools.

AP: We have a lot to learn. You know, we probably won't learn everything we have to learn about theatre in the next. .. three weeks!

Hayden and Anna: You've both done a lot of blue-screen acting in SFX-heavy films. Is that the opposite extreme from stage acting?

HC: Not really. If anything it's probably the most similar because you don't have any real sets or real stimuli to be affected by, so it demands a lot of your imagination in the way that theatre does. I think they'll teach blue-screen acting in theatre schools soon.

Is theatre scarier than film?

AP: Oh yeah. A film set is a stable environment because everything you do gets processed by familiar people before anyone outside of the 'family', if you like, of your production team lets it out.

And your performance can be crafted in the editing suite.

AP: Yeah. On stage, you are the editing suite every night. You could have the most amazing team around you, but if you get up and fall over, that's your problem. You have to be able to deal with whatever comes up.

This Is Our Youth previews from March 2 at the Garrick Theatre, London.

Time Out London, March 6, 2002