INTERVIEW: Matthew Wynn and Richard Keightley Talk OF MICE AND MEN

Richard Keightley and Matthew Wynn in OF MICE AND MEN

Richard Keightley and Matthew Wynn in OF MICE AND MEN. Photo: Scott Rylander

Frankly My Dear UK talks to Matthew Wynn and Richard Keightley about their lead roles as Lennie and George in OF MICE OF MEN

John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN may be over 80 years old but the American classic is still capable of capturing the hearts and minds of a modern audience as Selladoor Productions latest touring adaption demonstrates.

Set in the trying times of the Great Depression, OF MICE AND MEN follows the unlikely friendship of George and Lennie, two migrant ranch workers who dream of owning their own ranch. With nothing but the clothes on their back and a dream, the wily and bright George aspires to be ‘somebody’, have independence and be his own boss. Gentle giant Lennie desires to be with George and join him in his Eden, but as the saying goes – the best laid schemes of mice and men, often go awry.

Taking on the leads role of Lennie and George in Selladoor’s touring revival is Matthew Wynn and Richard Keightley. To mark their week-long run at Manchester’s Opera House, Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK caught up with Wynn and Keightley to talk about their roles in the challenging and controversial play, as well as their love for the classic American text.

Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): For those who aren’t familiar with OF MICE AND MEN, can you start by telling us a little bit about the story and the character that you play?

Matthew Wynn (MW): I play Lennie who, certainly in the time the play was set, would be described as a simpleton. He’s a big guy, he’s a hard-worker and him and George travel around together. They’ve known each other since childhood and they work on ranches. The story is set over three days when they arrive at a ranch to do their usual work and then all sorts of things start to go wrong.

FMD: Where you familiar with Steinbeck’s story before you auditioned for the piece?

MW: Yeah. I’ve never seen it performed but I’d seen the black and white film version and I’ve read it. I don’t even know why I read it, to be honest but I read it about twenty years ago and just distinctly remember the moment when you realise what’s going happen. It just broke my heart and I thought, yeah, that’s a part I would like to play at some point in the future.

FMD: In the book, Steinbeck doesn’t really explicitly say what Lennie’s disability is. What hooks or clues have helped you to interpret the character?

MW: I didn’t do research in terms of trying to come up with how he might be diagnosed today because I didn’t think it would be helpful. I have to view all of it from Lennie’s perspective and he wouldn’t be aware of that. You could probably tell him a hundred times what his diagnosis is and he wouldn’t remember it. He’s based, for me, on observation of people. I have a friend who I think would be very similar to Lennie. He’s a great guy, he works hard and he would do anything for you and when you meet him, as with Lennie, you wouldn’t instantly know there was anything wrong with him. Then fairly quickly, you realise there is a limit to his understanding, to the depth of which he is aware of things. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time with people with Downs Syndrome and that has influenced Lennie quite a lot in terms in of the stuff I do. There is also something very dog-like about him, absolute devotion and faithfulness to George, so there is a little bit of my Battersea rescue dog in him as well.

FMD: You are playing a very iconic character who means a great deal to many audience members. Has your performance been influenced by any previous interpretations of the character, either on stage or film?

MW: I tried to just approach it with a clean page really. I haven’t seen the John Malevich film version which a few people have asked about and in a way I’m glad I haven’t. The black and white film I’d already seen because Lon Chaney Jr. plays Lennie in it and I think it’s great. I haven’t consciously taken anything that he’s done into my performance but it’s a really good film.

The cast of OF MICE AND MEN

Richard Keightley and Matthew Wynn in OF MICE AND MEN. Photo: Scott Rylander

FMD: The relationship between George and Lennie is key to this piece, how have you worked together to get the chemistry right?

Richard Keightley (RK): We didn’t audition together. We met just before Christmas when we did a few days of preliminary rehearsals before they started properly in the New Year. It fell into place quite quickly in the first few days of rehearsals and we worked with a choreographer, Sinead O’Keefe, who did lots of trust exercises and things like that with us, in terms of George guiding Lennie round and experimenting with levels of willingness. That was interesting, from my perspective, realising what a responsibility George had. As I said, the basics of the relationship fell into place very quickly which was great and I think that was largely to do with the physical stuff we did but also to do with casting. It was a bit of a gamble for the guys who cast us because until you put us in the room together, they didn’t know whether or not it was going to work.

FMD: Unlike Lennie, throughout the play, George grows as an individual. Are there any discoveries you made about the character through rehearsals that perhaps weren’t explicit in the script?

RK: Yeah, there was an idea of this weight that he has, he feels he’s carrying around with him that I kind of realised in the first few weeks of performing it. The idea that this weight is lifted slightly in the beginning of the second half of the play when it seems as if it’s all going to work out and they’re all going to get the place together. When he comes into Crook’s room, there is a sort of relief which washes over him. I saw it as this weight that he’d been dragging around, this exhausting idea that it was never going to work out but suddenly, there is a little bit of hope. He hadn’t sort of realised how much of that was weighing him down until the weight is released when it suddenly became possible. Then, of course, it all comes crashing down at the end.

FMD: OF MICE AND MEN is quite an emotional piece which I can imagine is quite draining for you as an actor? How do you keep energy high night after night? Do you do anything to escape the character after you’ve come off stage?

RK: Yeah, it can be. In terms of the preparation for it, I think it’s just about being as present as you can be really with the other characters on stage. I don’t find myself having to prepare getting into character two hours before the show or anything like that but in terms of coming off stage at the end, it’s sort of bit of an emotional ski jump really for him because he reaches an emotional climax as the curtain is dropping. Some nights I can walk out of the theatre 20 minutes later and feel as though I’ve left the show behind. Occasionally, it doesn’t happen very often, I crack something open and about an hour later I’m still feeling a bit weird and shaky. I usually find it pretty easy to, when the lights are off and I’m back in my own clothes walking down the street, feel pretty separate from George.

FMD: This particular production is quite faithful to Steinbeck’s original text. Why do you think OF MICE AND MEN remains relevant to a contemporary audience?

RK: I think it’s written quite universally in that it’s very specific in terms of the individual characters but Steinbeck wrote it in such a way that it’s accessible. The themes are hugely universal and ones which are still incredibly relevant today. Themes of racism, misogyny, social isolation and also the migration aspect of it as well. With it being set during the depression, we’re kind of aware of finically turbulent times now, so there is a lot for modern audiences to identify with.

OF MICE AND MEN runs at the Opera House, Manchester until 14 April 2018.