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Photo: Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge Discuss the Cultural Impact of Broadway’s “1984”

“We want people to come with an open mind and to leave asking questions.”

George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 may have been written almost 70 years ago, but the book’s eerie plot feels all-too real today, making it the perfect timing for the new theatrical adaptation to make its way to Broadway.

Led by Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde, and Reed Birney, the New York City production of 1984 brings Orwell’s dystopian narrative to life in a way that leaves audiences questioning their own humanity while simultaneously thinking a little harder about the society in which we live. Where other Broadway shows might serve as an "escape" from the real world, 1984 forces viewers to take a closer look at that world instead, allowing each audience member to have an individual response to the story that unfolds onstage.

For the uninitiated (or for anyone who hasn’t read 1984 as part of their summer reading yet), Orwell’s novel takes place in a war-laden society where the government aims to control everything — even the individual thoughts of its citizens. Because of this, the very notion of truth is constantly under attack in this world, and people are constantly being fed biased information that supports the government’s agenda.

In the Broadway production, Tom plays Winston Smith, a man who works for the Ministry of Truth, which is a propaganda machine for the totalitarian state. It is his job to rewrite old newspaper articles so that they reflect the official message of the party; essentially, he rewrites history in order to appease the government. But deep down, Winston longs to rebel and resist — something that is explored even further when he meets Julia, who also works for the Ministry of Truth. Played by Olivia, Julia carries a strong distaste for the Party, and she finds personal ways of demonstrating resistance. The two eventually begin an ill-fated relationship — at a time when love can be seen as an act of rebellion itself.

It’s no secret that people are drawing connections between 1984 and the current presidential administration, something that was made evident when the novel sold out on Amazon shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. In fact, the striking similarities are also what drew Olivia to the production — so much that she pulled out of a movie in order to audition. “I was looking for a way to do something creative to respond to my daily outrage about what was happening to our country,” the actress tells Teen Vogue, adding that she “felt unsatisfied by everything I was doing.” In turn, the production became a personal outlet, as well as a vehicle to promote and spread conversation through its audience.

In contrast to the controversial production of Julius Caesar that featured a Trumpian lookalike as the doomed Roman emperor, 1984 doesn’t allude to Trump directly. But the production invokes certain feelings that blur the line between fantasy and reality, and might give viewers a distinct sense of déjà vu. For example, the original novel describes something called the “Two Minutes Hate,” a daily ritual for Party members where they watch a film depicting their enemies while getting permission to shout, scream, and yell for approximately two minutes at a time. It’s possible that your mind might immediately jump to a Trump rally, where there have been reports of violent, racist, and sexist chants from the crowds of supporters. And while Olivia and Tom note that the production didn’t set out to make that connection, they certainly understand why an audience will make it for them.

Teen Vogue caught up with the actors to talk about their experiences working on the production, those reports of audience members vomiting during the play, and what they hope people take away as they leave after the final bow.

Teen Vogue: The public has certainly taken an interest in the story of 1984 since Trump’s inauguration. Did the current political climate inform your interpretation of the play in any way?

Tom Sturridge: What excited me about [the play] was the fact that it hadn't in any way been adapted or manipulated to respond to what is going on in the world at the moment. The script originated five years ago in England. And the vast majority of the text is taken from a novel written in 1949. The relevance isn't presented by the production itself, but it’s examined, received, and brought in by the audience. This allows for very different types of people, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different political affiliations to respond very personally to it, because we're not telling them what to think. They can extract [meaning] and decide for themselves.

TV: In terms of your characters, it seems as though Julia and Winston have very different ideas of resistance, and their relationship in and of itself is almost an act of resistance. What was it like creating that dynamic?

Olivia Wilde: We focused a lot on what they brought out in each other, even in terms of what they experienced on a physical level together. They live in a society where people are not allowed to express any sort of intimacy.… So the idea of having physical contact with another human being — let alone intimate love — is something that makes their interactions revolutionary on a personal level as well as a political one. And we just played a lot with the physicality of it: What would it feel like to touch somebody? What would it be like for these two to touch each other?

Julia is also the catalyst for Winston’s radicalization. But he also is the same for her, because he pushes her much further than she was ever willing to go. In some ways Julia is — like many of us, like myself — completely an armchair activist, who's quite willing to find these simple, tiny moments of secret resistance…and Winston is unwilling to settle for that. He wants something much, much bigger and thinks much more of the future. He opens Julia's mind up to what they can sacrifice in order to create a better future.

TS: From a performance point of view, the most exciting thing is this notion of how you articulate affection in an affectionless world. And when your grammar of love is brutality, and all you know how to express is violence and hate, how do you channel that into something that you can describe as a positive feeling for another person? This is why their first meetings are very violent, even though it builds to some kind of connection.

OW: Even saying the words ‘I love you’ is something that we take for granted in today's culture. Just saying those words could be an enormous revolutionary act. That is exciting to think about, like really adding the significance and weight back to language.

TV: There have been reports of audience members fainting or vomiting at this production, due to the graphic nature of some of the scenes. What is that like while you're up on stage?

OW: We never know about it until after the show. The audiences have been very good at doing those things subtly.

TS: It happens at a point in the play at which the audience is very much a part of what is going on, and therefore it's an appropriate reaction from them; we're not pretending they don't exist. They're witnessing the [torture] of a human being on stage, and we know that they're witnessing it, so if they react in that way then it feels reasonable.

TV: And what is it like for you, Tom, to be in those graphic scenes every night? Does it take a toll on you in any way?

TS: I just pretend it hasn't happened, if you see what I mean. If I acknowledged that I was going to do it again the next day, I probably would find it difficult, but somehow I manage to…think about the beginning of the play and the rest of it just takes care of itself.

OW: Like a convenient amnesia.

TV: Ultimately, what do you hope people will take away from this production?

OW: The really exciting thing about this production is how many young people we've had come see it. We've had several people tell us after the show that this is their first theatrical experience, or that this is their first Broadway show, and that they didn't think the theater was a place for them.

So we hope people come with an open mind and leave asking questions. We don't answer any of them; the play doesn't tie it all up nicely. If you leave confused, you're not alone — it's intentional, as it was in the book. And it's provocative in a way that can be useful for today's society. I hope people leave owning their individuality, and feeling inspired by that notion.

TS: All I want is to generate a conversation so people can leave and begin to think about the ideas that are being presented. What excites me most about the audience…is the fact that they're coming from such disparate communities and such disparate places of thought, and they're having very democratic reactions to [the production]. There's an idea that theater is a consensual art form, meaning that everybody is supposed to feel the same thing at the same time — which is why people clap at the same time, or why people laugh at the same time. That’s something that we inherently mistrust, because how can you possibly make a thousand people feel the same thing unless you're appealing to their lowest, least complex ideas and thoughts? And so it’s exciting to see people react very differently and then talking to each other about it. That debate is generating some kind of progress.