Taking wing

Michael Mayer on Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy and The Seagull

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Mayer's bountiful adaptation (with screenwriter Stephen Karam) of The Seagull stars Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, and Brian Dennehy with Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Jon Tenney, Michael Zegen, Glenn Fleshler, and Mare Winningham
Michael Mayer's bountiful adaptation (with screenwriter Stephen Karam) of The Seagull stars Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, and Brian Dennehy with Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Jon Tenney, Michael Zegen, Glenn Fleshler, and Mare Winningham Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

On the morning of the theatrical première in New York, Michael Mayer joined me for a conversation on The Seagull. He explained producer Tom Hulce's role, their meeting with Annette Bening, that Saoirse Ronan was in-between starring in John Crowley's adaptation of Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn and being cast in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, and why producer Leslie Urdang suggested Elisabeth Moss for Nina.

He told me how costume designer Ann Roth, production designer Jane Musky and cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd were vital collaborators for the look of the film.

Michael Mayer on Ann Roth: "She stuck cookie crumbs into Brian Dennehy's jacket pocket."
Michael Mayer on Ann Roth: "She stuck cookie crumbs into Brian Dennehy's jacket pocket." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Mayer's The Seagull blurs the play's timeline just enough to keep us on our toes while revisiting Chekhov's elegantly constructed maypole dance of love entanglements. How can this play be of the 19th century and so much speak of the moment? The cast gives impeccable performances; especially the three women at the film's centre bring a new understanding to ancient suffering and delight.

Above all, Annette Bening is the most nuanced, strong, highly aware and casually silly Irina I have ever seen. Elisabeth Moss endows Masha with shiny bottled-up rage that comes from years of being overlooked and the feeling that time's up. Saoirse Ronan's Nina is equally convincing before and after her fall.

Clothed by the incomparable Ann Roth, Mayer lets them find their wings.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I enjoyed Meryl Streep [as Irina Arkadina] doing a cartwheel in Central Park [at the Delacorte Theater] very much, but I think I prefer Annette Bening.

Michael Mayer: Yeah, me too.

AKT: Her performance as Irina is spectacular. Did you want her? Was she first attached? How did it come about?

Michael Mayer on Annette Bening and Elisabeth Moss: "With this caliber of cast I'm hoping that people will come, people who don't know Chekhov ..."
Michael Mayer on Annette Bening and Elisabeth Moss: "With this caliber of cast I'm hoping that people will come, people who don't know Chekhov ..."

MM: She was attached before we even had a screenplay. The producer, Tom Hulce, was talking about his idea for a film that would sort of start at the end and flash back so that we would have information. And I said, "God, that's really interesting. And wouldn't Annette be fantastic as Irina Arkadina?"

And he said "Sure she would. Should we ask her?" So we went to LA and we were in her home and ordered in Chinese food and talked to her about The Seagull. And it turns out that she had worked on that role when she was in drama school.

AKT: Oh, really?

MM: Many years ago, when she was a kid. And it stuck with her and was one of her dreams to play that part. She had played Ranyevskaya in The Cherry Orchard on stage several years ago, which unfortunately I didn't see. Which is another terrific part for her. And Meryl would be really good as Ranyevskaya. That's maybe even more her part.

AKT: Yes, more than Irina, for sure.

MM: So Annette said yes and we had one of the best actors on the planet who said she wanted to do this. At that point then we went to a screenwriter and started attracting a lot of other cast.

Michael Mayer on Saoirse Ronan as Nina and Corey Stoll as Boris Trigorin: "She's a hot young thing that he can conquer."
Michael Mayer on Saoirse Ronan as Nina and Corey Stoll as Boris Trigorin: "She's a hot young thing that he can conquer."

AKT: She was the first?

MM: She was the first.

AKT: Brian Dennehy is her brother Sorin!

MM: Brian Dennehy is such a theatre god here. He's done so many plays! He was the one I was most intimidated by - in theory. But he was so great and charming and game and just lovely. He was always watching the other actors work and remarking on how terrific they were.

AKT: There was a moment in your film where he reminded me of Gay Talese.

MM: Oh wow. The hat?

AKT: Something. Gay is a friend and never in a million years would I ever connect him with Brian Dennehy.

MM: Never, ever, that's really funny.

AKT: I love Ann Roth's costumes. She's the best anyway but I loved what she did for The Seagull. With her it's never "just" costume, it's always storytelling. Especially that one dress with the flower that looks like a broken heart.

Elisabeth Moss as Masha: "She's incredible. It's actually the part we looked the longest to cast."
Elisabeth Moss as Masha: "She's incredible. It's actually the part we looked the longest to cast."

MM: It's amazing that dress. She brought it in and said "This will be Annette's final dress." And I have to say, I looked at it and it looked like such a schmatta. It looked like the cheapest piece of garbage. It looked awful. I remember saying to Tom[Hulce] and Leslie [Urdang] "Oh, my god, what are we going to do? This dress is awful."

AKT: Has Ann Roth lost it all of a sudden?

MM: Yeah, really like, what was she thinking? But she is so good, she knew exactly how it would photograph. It's a little bit like the house. If you look at the house in person, it's not much to look at. But the way that Jane [Musky, the production designer who found the house] fixed it up and the way that Matt [J Lloyd] shot it, it has a kind of grandeur to it.

AKT: Which doesn't look very Russian.

MM: It was built by Russians, though. And it's run by Russians. It's not a real dacha.

AKT: It didn't matter really at all to me. It was still fully Seagull. Maybe that's even what I liked, that it didn't try to be too Russian. And that's also with Ann Roth who doesn't go for costume-y ever.

Michael Mayer on Annette Bening as Irina Arkadina: "It turns out that she had worked on that role when she was in drama school."
Michael Mayer on Annette Bening as Irina Arkadina: "It turns out that she had worked on that role when she was in drama school."

MM: Not at all. She stuck cookie crumbs into Brian Dennehy's jacket pocket.

AKT: Oh! Wow!

MM: She's operating on that level. She told Annette at one point, she said: "This sweater here, this is at the bottom of your closet and you haven't worn it in years and you have forgotten it's even there." She never wore it in the movie. We never saw it. It's just there.

AKT: That's perfect and explains it all.

MM: She told me what boots Billy [Howle] was going to wear - we never did this, by the way - but she said: "When he puts his foot up, when he pulls his desk drawer out to rest his foot on it, you're going to see the boot and below it is the gun that he is going to shoot himself with."

AKT: We see a poster of Antigone on a wall - which made me think that I would like to see Annette Bening as Antigone.

MM: Totally. She'd be great. What couldn't she do? I'd love to see her in Tartuffe.

On Saoirse Ronan for Nina: "Saoirse flew in from Ireland to do a table read of the first draft of the screenplay."
On Saoirse Ronan for Nina: "Saoirse flew in from Ireland to do a table read of the first draft of the screenplay."

AKT: Do you have any future projects with her?

MM: I'd love to. We've been talking about trying to get a production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever on.

AKT: Masha in The Seagull has some terrific lines. "I'm in mourning for my life." And later on "A lot of women drink but not as openly as I do." Again the casting works really well, with Elisabeth Moss.

MM: She's incredible. It's actually the part we looked the longest to cast. Because it's such a delicious role. And I saw a lot of my friends for that part, a lot of people I knew. And no one was really nailing it for me.

AKT: The anger! There is so much repressed anger in that performance. And you understand why as the audience.

MM: And you watch her self-medicate and you get it. Elisabeth - Leslie Urdang suggested her. She said "You should watch the last few episodes of Mad Men." I'd watched all the seasons but I had fallen off.

AKT: Shame on you!

Michael Mayer on Brian Dennehy playing Sorin: "He was so great and charming and game and just lovely."
Michael Mayer on Brian Dennehy playing Sorin: "He was so great and charming and game and just lovely."

MM: It was wrong of me! But it was perfect timing, it had just ended and was available and I watched and I thought, oh, that's really smart. So I offered it to her and she accepted the next day.

AKT: And Saoirse as Nina?

MM: Saoirse flew in from Ireland to do a table read of the first draft of the screenplay. That was probably four years ago now.

AKT: So that was in between Brooklyn and when Greta Gerwig cast her in Lady Bird?

MM: She had shot Brooklyn but it hadn't been released yet. And no, she hadn't touched [Lady Bird] yet. We were right in between and then On Chesil Beach was after that, I think.

AKT: Nina is a character who still speaks so much to us today.

MM: More so in certain ways I feel like. Like right now to hear this young girl - and Saoirse I think was 21 then - to see this young girl [Nina] who could be of high school age say that she wants fame. More than anything else. It's not about the craft of acting, it's not about the art of acting, it's not about love of literature or drama or theatre. It's fame. That's all she wants.

Ann Roth told Michael Mayer what boots Billy Howle was going to wear as Konstantin
Ann Roth told Michael Mayer what boots Billy Howle was going to wear as Konstantin

I'll tell you, in America right now when you ask young kids what they want to be when they grow up, "famous" is the number one answer. Just famous for being famous. So that resonates to see this young girl. And how available it makes her for exploitation.

AKT: By the older man, the writer [Boris Trigorin played by Corey Stoll], who thinks this is the one for him.

MM: And I believe he really thinks that in the moment but the truth is, she's a hot young thing that he can conquer.

AKT: And then toss.

MM: That he can ruin. He says it ahead of time. We know that's in his head. Even as a story, but he's got enough, I think, self-awareness to realise.

AKT: Well, he's trying to convince himself.

MM: Absolutely he is.

AKT: That's beautifully shown. It made me think what a bottomless pit Chekhov is and especially this play. Every time I see a production I wonder have I seen it before. I knew obviously that I've seen it before but it felt new, it felt fresh.

Michael Mayer on Anton Chekhov's The Seagull: "It's the interconnectedness of that net that holds the whole thing together."
Michael Mayer on Anton Chekhov's The Seagull: "It's the interconnectedness of that net that holds the whole thing together."

MM: I'm thrilled to hear you say that. That was our goal and certainly with this calibre of cast I'm hoping that people will come, people who don't know Chekhov, maybe will understand that he has something continual to say to humanity.

AKT: Everybody in the play is in love with somebody who is not in love with them. It's the desire and the attempt to conquer something or someone. I kept wondering how much they are aware of how much they are hurting each other. In all different kinds of situations. You have that beautifully floating through the entire film, that we don't know because they maybe don't know.

MM: They don't say always.

AKT: Gossamer.

MM: It is. That's beautifully put. You're very articulate. You must be a writer. The notion that the audience also has an opportunity to sort of track all of that stuff. It's the interconnectedness of that net that holds the whole thing together. Because famously with Chekhov, there isn't really a lot of plot. There's not a big story with a motor that everything can hang onto.

The Seagull is in cinemas in the US.

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