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Emun Elliott on his steamy Broadway debut in Roundabout's revival of The Rose Tattoo
Scottish actor Emun Elliott came this close to acting on Broadway four years ago. "I did a play called A View from the Bridge," he says, referring to the Young Vic mounting of the Arthur Miller classic, directed by Ivo van Hove. That London production transferred to New York in 2015, where it garnered rave reviews and two Tonys. But for scheduling reasons, Elliott didn't come along.
However, A View from the Bridge is still responsible for his Broadway debut in Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo -- at least indirectly. Roundabout's casting director Jim Carnahan recalled seeing Elliott in the Miller show in London, and recommended him to Trip Cullman, who's helming The Rose Tattoo. "I had a week to learn about 25 pages of dialogue in an Italian accent," Elliott recalls. Luckily, he had done that accent onstage before -- in A View from the Bridge. Now he's doing it eight performances a week in The Rose Tattoo opposite Oscar winner Marisa Tomei.
Although Elliott is best recognized by U.S. audiences for his film and TV work -- notably a bard who gets on Joffrey's bad side in the first season of Game of Thrones, and a major in the Resistance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- he trained for the stage at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. While he's new to Broadway, this isn't his first theatre job in New York: He appeared in Black Watch, a drama about Scottish soldiers fighting in Iraq, at St. Ann's Warehouse in 2007 and 2008. "It started off as a Fringe show in Edinburgh and we ended up touring with it for three years," Elliott says. "New York felt like the pinnacle of that experience. It was an absolute dream come true."
Elliott says it's especially meaningful that he's doing a Tennessee Williams play for his first Broadway outing. "His A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the reasons I'm an actor," he explains. "I remember reading that play in English class when I was about 15. I think my teacher had a bit of a crush on Marlon Brando -- he had pictures of him as Stanley Kowalski up on the classroom wall. I remember asking who that guy was… That was the first time I read a play thinking that maybe this was something that I'd like to pursue."
The Rose Tattoo may not be as well-known as Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie, but it's not exactly obscure. It won four Tony Awards in 1951, including Best Play, and it was turned into a movie four years later starring Burt Lancaster and Italian film diva Anna Magnani, who snagged an Oscar. It's been revived on Broadway twice before, although the last time was almost a quarter century ago. While it features many of the elements one expects from Williams' work -- a heartbroken woman, a frustrated man, a sultry Southern setting -- The Rose Tattoo marks a departure from his tragic mode since he wrote it following a blissful, year-long sojourn in Sicily with his boyfriend. Elliott describes the show, which has 18 characters and incorporates Sicilian folk songs and dancing, as a "dramedy," adding, "We're trying to embrace the fact that this play is strange. We have to appreciate that Williams was experimenting with structure and trying to do something that he'd never done before. It's difficult and problematic, but at the end of the day, I think that is the joy of the play."
Elliott plays Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a handsome truck driver who catches the eye of Tomei's Serafina Delle Rose. A Sicilian immigrant and grieving widow who's locked herself and her teenage daughter away from the world, Serafina is taken aback by her attraction to this younger man, who superficially resembles her late husband but has, as she puts it, "the head of a clown." Yet The Rose Tattoo doesn't start out as a romance. The first half is the sad story of a self-destructive woman who won't let herself move on. Elliott's Alvaro doesn't arrive until Act II, so he spends a lot of time backstage, just listening.
"I like to focus in on Marisa -- Is she feeling energetic that night? Is she feeling feisty? -- so that I can prepare myself for when I walk out there," Elliott says. "It's a strange experience; I've never just sat there for an hour and a half in the dressing room and then walked on and been met with this energy and boiling rage. The last thing I want to do is let that ball drop."
He admits he was nervous about working with Tomei, who previously played Serafina at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016 with a different Alvaro. "It was daunting, the prospect of having to go head-to-head with her," says Elliott, but his concerns soon dissipated. "She's been so openhearted and supportive and collaborative," he says. "And she's brilliant. I could change the way I do things every night and trust that she's going to respond to it, and I hope she feels the same about me."
Elliott will be turning Tomei's life upside down (or is that right-side up?) onstage until early December, but if it were up to him, he'd do it indefinitely. "My passion for acting began in the theatre, and this is where I learned this craft that has infinite possibilities," he says. "You get to explore and make mistakes and develop amongst a group of fellow creators -- and no one can edit your performance. It's great to do Star Wars and Game of Thrones in terms of letting people know that I'm here, but my heart lies in the theatre."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Marisa Tomei and Emun Elliott in The Rose Tattoo. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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