Citizen Sam

British Director Sam Mendes won an Oscar his first time out with American Beauty. What's next, asks Jo Durden-Smith.

When American Beauty nearly swept the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards last year, no one seemed to know what on earth to say about the movie's "Best Director," Sam Mendes. He seemed so determinedly—so impossibly—un-starry. He was, by his own confession, just "a bloke from the London theater" who'd been given a chance by Steven Spielberg and had received from him the best advice a first-time director could possibly have: "Wear comfortable shoes." He brought his mother and two of his best friends to the Oscars, for heaven's sake. He wore a dinner jacket that was, well . . . just a dinner jacket; and during his acceptance speech—in a shirt that seemed to have been borrowed from an elder brother and a bow tie that flopped—he cheerfully asked the friends who'd taken over his London apartment for the occasion "to have an extra one on me." He dedicated his award to veteran director Billy Wilder; he posed modestly for photographs; and with that, more or less, he simply disappeared, dematerializing from the Hollywood scene like some real-life Harry Potter and leaving behind the impression of a man who'd looked perfectly at home there, even though he'd clearly walked in off the street from another—much less glitzy—planet.

The press on both sides of the Atlantic did its best with this sorry state of affairs: It dressed up the 34-year-old Mendes in a retrospective cloak of glamour. "A friend of mine," he says, sitting in a modest office opposite the Donmar Warehouse theater in London, "said the other day that it's as if there's a man impersonating me in the media. He's better-looking, with a completely fictional parallel life." This man, he might have added, spent millennium night on a yacht in Sydney harbor with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, dated Calista Flockhart, and has been dubbed a "golden boy," a "wunderkind who can do whatever he wants." "The trouble with the media," he says, "is that they peddle back to you the assumption that you can turn your hand to anything—film, theater, anything at all. But I don't want to be that kind of public figure. I don't want to be a cultural commentator or write a novel or have my own TV program; and I certainly don't want—as somebody asked me yesterday—to give my opinion on 'What has happened to Tony Blair?' The truth is, I have a fairly rigid job to do, which is to make sure this theater works and to make good plays and films. So there'll be no more public statements from me—this is my last interview for two years. The play I'm doing now won't need help from me once it's up and running. And after that I want to make another film. So it might be 2002, after the film is finished, that I'll talk to the media again at all."

The play he's doing now is Nick Whitby's To the Green Fields Beyond, the result of a nine-month search, Mendes says, for "something new, of real quality" for the Donmar Warehouse, the London theater he's been running for the past eight years. "I spent a lot of my time," he says, "chasing writers like Marber and Stoppard, Bennett, Sondheim, and Friel—hoping that we would land one or two out of the five. But absolutely new writing of this kind is very rare; and I'm always terrified that the readers we have for all the plays that get sent to me might miss something, because they've had a bad day, or have been reading too much. So it's a process I have to stay in touch with." (The Donmar has just closed a sold-out revival of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along.)

The manuscript of To the Green Fields Beyond, he says, came from his agent in the end rather than over the transom. But its production at the 251-seat Donmar is a measure of the versatility and surefootedness that Mendes has brought to this tiny theater since he took it over in 1992 (refusing, in the process, to be considered for the position of artistic director of the Royal National Theatre). The play is set in World War I, "on the night before a battle in a French forest," he says, and it involves "an eight-man tank crew made up—as British tank crews were—of people from every class and corner of the empire. It's about the craft of war," he adds, "as well as about a utopian socialist idea"; and almost immediately after reading it, he canceled the production he was planning (of Twelfth Night) and set about the business of finding actors who would not only exactly fit their parts but would also be willing to forgo all other work in return for the standard Donmar salary of £300 ($450) a week. One early piece of casting was Ray Winstone (Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth and Tim Roth's The War Zone), who was said to have turned down a number of lucrative films for the privilege; a second was Dougray Scott, seen as a hot Hollywood prospect after roles in Mission: Impossible 2 (as the villain) and Enigma (with Kate Winslet and Saffron Burrows).

Why, though, did they agree? Why on earth are these actors willing to accept only $7,200 for four month's work at the Donmar? "They're willing precisely because of what Sam's achieved," says Richard Durden, who is at this time appearing, opposite Helen Mirren, in the Donmar's production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending (directed by Nicholas Hytner). "The Donmar, under Sam, is an extremely serious place. Everyone here is completely focused on the quality of what they produce. It's also incredibly happy. Through all the rehearsals and now on stage, I've simply never heard anyone say anything bad about anyone else. It's a real family."

Being part of a happy family—"an enviable snowball of creativity," as the director describes it—is obviously very important to Mendes. He's admitted elsewhere that his childhood was "well . . . not exactly functional." His parents were divorced when he was five years old, and he was raised—an only child—by his mother, a children's-book writer. At 16 he had to make a conscious decision to pull himself together in order to get into upper school and then go on to Cambridge University. He's even confessed that the bedrooms of the disturbed teenage protagonists in American Beauty looked eerily like his own, when he was a schoolboy and then a student—thus giving some credence, at any rate, to those who insist that a) American Beauty is a personal statement, and that b) the Don- mar is the family he never had.

The former idea Mendes is quick to laugh off—"American Beauty's a story," he says, "not a personal statement." As for the latter, when he was working on the film, he's said to have called his staff at the Donmar every day, sometimes for hours; and he certainly speaks with all the pride of a paterfamilias about what the theater has achieved under his administration: "We've had nine or ten transfers," to London's West End, he says, "and five plays on Broadway in only three years. No other company in the world—not the Royal Shakespeare or the National—has ever surpassed that!" He also constantly mentions members of the theater's staff, whom he cheerfully admits "I stole from elsewhere when I took up the job, the best people I could find." When he takes me across the street to meet them, one thing is clear: They adore him.

The collocation of unhappy childhood, American Beauty, and substitute family does not really wash, though, I think. It's too neat; the truth is probably much simpler. In 1994, taking leave from the Donmar, Mendes directed a revival of the musical Oliver! at the London Palladium, which turned out to be the longest-running show in the Palladium's history; his percentage of the profits went a long way toward eliminating his financial worries. By the age of 32, in other words, he was free to indulge not only his passion for theater-as-art but also his passionate commitment to the survival of his own theater. "I love the physical running of this place," he says, "the casting problems, the drafty church halls we rehearse in, the pastoral care that's necessary." When he's asked about a "typical" Donmar production, he points not to his own transatlantic stage successes like Cabaret (with Natasha Richardson) or The Blue Room (with Nicole Kidman), but to Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, "which won three Tonys with no stars, just regular London stage actors—part of the Donmar aesthetic—and wasn't directed by me." Even the two-room office we're in, Donmar Films, is intimately geared to the Donmar Warehouse's survival. "After American Beauty, DreamWorks asked if they could have first look at anything I might like to do in film," he says. "Well, I said I didn't need a wage, because I didn't want to feel responsible to them. But they now have a first look in return for £100,000 [$150,000] a year for the theater, the overhead of this office, and the wages of two members of staff."

There's something else at work, too, I believe, in Mendes' determined attachment to the Donmar when, he says, "everyone else seemed to expect me to stay in L.A." It relates to the second great passion in his life: cricket. The faintly chubby, soft-spoken Mendes, I am told by Richard Durden, is "one of the best all-around amateur cricket players I've ever seen." (In fact, the only press clip he's said ever to have kept is one headlined "Mendes Takes the Lead for Shipton," from the time four years ago when he represented his Oxfordshire village in the final of a national competition at Lord's, the cricketing equivalent of Yankee Stadium.) He is also that rarest of things, a born captain—someone who not only has to have a team (of ten others, in the case of cricket) but also has to shoulder the duty of directing its various abilities toward a common goal. It's precisely these qualities, it seems to me, that marked Mendes out from the very beginning of his career—from the moment when, a few years out of Cambridge, he was famously transformed (by the departure of the hired director) from a stage-mopping assistant on £55 (then equivalent to about $85) a week in a provincial theater to the director of a runaway success that transferred to the West End. Almost immediately ("I've had some jammy luck," he says), he found himself directing Dame Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard, again in the West End. The word soon spread about this supremely self-confident, thoughtful, quiet, and amazingly popular young director. He led Ralph Fiennes through Troilus and Cressida at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then Jane Horrocks (his girlfriend at the time) in another smash hit, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, at the National. Then, after just four years in the profession—at the age of 26—he took over the Donmar Warehouse.

The reason why Sam is so popular and successful," says the actor Maureen Beattie, "is that he gives everyone he works with an enormous amount of respect." Beattie played Emilia in the director's 1998 Othello, which toured the world (with a stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). "He really feels that you can do the job he wants; that is, after all, what he chose you for. And this respect goes through everything he does—respect for the stage managers, for the smallest of parts, and especially for the text. He creates a team that involves every single person in the rehearsal room—which makes it a very exciting place to be. People take chances for Sam, without ever being remotely unaware of who is in charge."

I ask Mendes about life in the rehearsal room. "I love it," he says. "The first time I ever walked into a rehearsal room [at university] it felt like coming home. Part of it is control, I suppose, the creation of an alternative universe—the real world is sometimes out of control. But I love the process of being able to make use of ten or eleven other people's imaginations for weeks at a time. It's a collusion—"

"The sort of collusion," I interrupt, "that you achieved with Kevin Spacey and the others on American Beauty."

"Yes, Kevin and I did collude," he says, "which I think surprised us both." (Mendes spent two weeks rehearsing with Spacey and the rest of the cast before shooting began.) "We all, in fact, colluded together; it was a very happy set. But there's a difference between doing theater and making a movie," he goes on. "Doing theater is a more organic process, slower. In a way it's like taking a bath—you can immerse yourself, wallow; by the time you get out again, the world may have changed. Film is more like a shower: You have no time to waste, since you are spending half a million dollars every day and a half. So everyone's always shouting: 'Get in, put the soap on, get out and dry yourself off!' " He laughs, and then adds: "The other thing about film, I found out on American Beauty, was that the really creative part of filmmaking comes at the end of the process and not at the beginning. I learned a huge amount in the cutting room"—where he's said to have discovered a stronger and odder performance from Spacey than he had anticipated, and an altogether deeper and darker film than the one he thought he'd made.

I ask him whether he was tempted by the film's success to stay in Los Angeles. "Well," he says slowly, "in the past I've had many opportunities to leave—and in this there's a paradox. Everybody assumes, for example, that I must want to move to L.A., and when I don't they're suspicious. You are resented, in other words, if you go, and resented if you stay. But I love it here. I love London, I love Covent Garden, I love living and working in the center. It's a funky, multiracial, feisty, argumentative melting pot, with a huge richness of talent." About Los Angeles he says: "It is a craft town—I can't really breathe there, and I've an ambivalence about the film industry; there seems to be no center to it. But it has incredible people—like Conrad Hall [the cinematographer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty]. Many heroes of mine live there, and we Europeans have an awful lot to learn from Hollywood about movies. We may have a healthier theater—a kind of informal, romantic art form, precarious, unashamedly temporary. That's its glory. But America has a lot to teach us about writing, about solidity, about film, both as art and as craft. There has to be a two-way street between us—and that's been our policy here right from the beginning. We send what we do to New York, yes, but we've also had Bill Macy in American Buffalo, we have had Three Days of Rain—productions of American plays that if they went straight to the West End would be under too much pressure. Coming up soon—and you're the first to know this—we will be mounting the new play by David Mamet." (In fact, Mamet's play Boston Marriage is scheduled to open in March, with Zoë Wanamaker leading the cast.)

And the theater itself? How precarious, exactly, is its future? "Well," he says, leaning back, " we now get £250,000 [$375,000] a year from the London Arts Board. But the situation remains the same as it's always been: If two shows in a row flop, we can be cleaned out within three months. Meanwhile, the people who work here are now being sought after by much bigger places, and I have to find the money to be able to hold on to them. I'd love, too, to pay our actors more than £300 a week. And then, well, I would like to have a café, with a place to put your coats and meet, somewhere that's used all day—and maybe another space, nonproscenium-arch, for occasional shows…" Then he stops himself, laughs and throws his arms wide, shrugging his shoulders. "But…"

The strengths of Mendes' Donmar—as American audiences have seen in productions like Electra (with Zoë Wanamaker), Cabaret, The Real Thing, and The Blue Room—are his own strengths, filtered through to his "family" of staff, actors, and fellow directors: dedication, a strong visual sense—he studied art history at school and spent part of his year before university at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, in Venice—and an ability to dig out of a text something new, true, and surprising. (His Cabaret, for example, set in a nightclub, was much seedier and more frightening than the original production; an his version of Stephen Sondheim's Company brought out the complexities buried in the central character of bachelor Bobby.) In fact, of all London theaters, the Donmar is perhaps the one where you are most likely to find what he once described as "those fleeting moments of grace, emotion, truth, and comedy…that only happen live on stage [and] burn their way into the memory." "I'm sure I am not alone in thinking," he continued on that occasion (an address to the Covent Garden community association), "that the majority of evenings spent in the theater are disappointing. But when it works it stays with you for a lifetime." To make sure that the effort to make it work survives, he says modestly, "I do what I can. But more and more we rely on the support of our sponsors and friends—particularly our American friends, I have to say."

Before I leave, I ask Mendes whether, after American Beauty (and The Blue Room), he's been inundated by offers from stars to appear at the Donmar. (I've heard that he's been approached by Brad Pitt, among others.) "Well, yes, there have been offers," he says. "But the most important relationship we have here is with directors and with the plays and the passion they bring. So it's not hard to resist stars wanting to play here. Besides," he goes on, "I'm old-fashioned about this. If a show is star-driven—and if it hits the headlines because of it—then the show that follows it suffers. I think on the whole that if you want to have stars, you should make a movie." His next movie, in production now, is The Road to Perdition, an adaptation of a gangster comic strip, with Tom Hanks for DreamWorks.

"And is this really your last interview for two years?" I ask. "Yes. Or thereabouts. I have work to do," he says. "And you don't want to be nibbled to death by the press," I say, and I stumble through some half-remembered verse of Jonathan Swift's about large fleas having to carry armies of smaller fleas on their backs.

"There's that," he says, laughing. "But I also worry about the effect all the attention, all the interviews, will have on me." And he in turn quotes—though word-perfectly—the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon. (As a British director once said of Mendes: "Very young, very bright, very talented—very sickening!") " 'The fly sat upon the axle-tree of the chariot wheel,' " Mendes says in a farewell to celebrity as he stands up, ready to go back to work, " 'and said, What a dust do I raise!' "

To become a member of American Friends of the Donmar, Inc., contact Stacy Grossman at 425 Park Avenue, 26th Floor, New York, NY 10022 (212-980-6922), or Rachel Weinstein, development director at Donmar Warehouse Projects, Ltd., 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LD (44-207-240-4882; fax 44-207-240-4878). Contributions are tax-deductible, and privileges include priority booking for all Donmar productions, both in London and New York; discounts; and invitations to Gala evenings and opening nights. www.donmar-warehouse.com

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about Burberry in Departures' last issue.