Forty years ago, the English actor David Threlfall was a young actor making his Broadway debut when he was nominated for his first Tony Award for “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”
Threlfall, now a 68-year-old veteran stage and screen actor, received his second nomination on Monday, for his role as an executioner-turned-pub-owner in Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed dark comedy “Hangmen.”
“It sounds long, doesn’t it, when you put it that way?” Threlfall groaned, speaking in an interview after the nominations were announced on Monday.
In “Hangmen” — which received five nominations, including for best new play — Threlfall is onstage for much of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour show as a self-absorbed but secretly insecure bully. It is the final days of the death penalty in England in the 1960s, and Threlfall’s character, Harry Wade, is asked to recount his career as the country’s second most famous hangman, and to reckon with alleged injustices committed on his watch. The New York Times’s chief theater critic, Jesse Green, wrote that Threlfall’s “titanic” performance “offers the most terrifying incarnation yet of the author’s acid misanthropy.”
With slicked-down hair, a handlebar mustache and some assistance in giving him a portly figure, Threlfall looks like an entirely different person — certainly a far cry from Smike, the wretched and abused child that the actor played in “Nickleby” in 1981.
In a phone interview, Threlfall discussed his previous nomination; his transformation into Wade; and his desire to get back to Broadway after his most recent appearance in a 1996 revival of Jean Anouilh’s “The Rehearsal.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How does it feel to be back performing in New York?
It’s nice, I’m only two doors down from the old Plymouth where we did “Nickleby.” But you know what I really like about this town? The theater community is so welcoming. We did a memorial for Liz McCann [a longtime theater producer who died last year at 90], who was involved both with the old “Nickleby” in the ’80s and originally with “Hangmen.” Just meeting up with some of the actors I hadn’t seen for a while down at Sardi’s — they were so welcoming. I’ve been wanting to come back and do something for a long while.
How has your career evolved since “Nickleby”?
I’ve just got my head down and been working. Whenever somebody says, “Do you want to do this?” or “Come and audition for this,” you go and do it if you think it’s a good idea. There’s been no game plan, except a genuine desire to come back to New York and do theater.
What do you remember about your Broadway debut?
We were here about three months, I think — it was just a roller coaster. At the time there was such a hoo-ha about it being $100 for a ticket, but it was like, yeah, it was eight and a half hours long so you’re getting four shows for $25. The ticket prices seem to have gone up somewhat since then.
The stuff I like doing is inhabiting other people and pretending to be them. Tony nod or not, it’s just been a highly satisfying process for me. I got to do what I like doing best — just sort of disappearing inside somebody else’s soul. It’s just dressing up and pretending on a basic level.
Speaking of dressing up, you transform physically for the role. How long does it take to get ready before each show?
Not long because I worked it out, got the process right. As I say, just trying to pretend and embody somebody else, I just get a kick out of it. It’s something in the text that gave me the idea, and I thought, “What if he’s more barrel-chested?,” which I’m not. But I don’t want people coming to see it thinking, “Oh yeah, I read that thing and he’s wearing a fat suit.” I like to maintain a little bit of mystery. There’s so little mystery in the world these days.
So it was your idea to play Harry as more “barrel-chested,” as you say?
Yeah. When you give an actor a chance to physically do something that alters your own state, they love it. Actors love a challenge. I imposed that on myself but that was really because, as I say, it was just something short that Martin had written in the play, and that was the image that I got.
Has this play changed how you view capital punishment?
Hardly at all. I don’t think capital punishment is the way to go in any state, in any town, in any country in the world. I think about it from Harry’s point of view, but I couldn’t do it. It’s not a job for me.
And this was your first time performing in front of an audience since the pandemic started? How does it feel to be back onstage?
It’s very moving to see that people still want to come out. To me that’s the biggest thing every night. I think, “Wow, there are people who want to come,” even though, looking at the figures here, they’re quite high at the moment. I didn’t work for 18 months, as most of the profession didn’t, and it’s just really, really nice to get out and do a play that people seem to be enjoying.