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Why Alessandro Nivola Loves "The Elephant Man"

Date: Nov 20, 2014
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When director Scott Ellis called Alessandro Nivola back in 2012 about playing the part of moralistic Victorian doctor Frederick Treves in a mounting of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the actor knew he couldn't say no. After all, his old friend Ellis was responsible for his entire career in the theatre and beyond. "It's true!" Nivola insists. "In 1995, Scott cast me in a revival of A Month in the Country opposite Helen Mirren. I was just one year out of college and that play was not only my Broadway debut but my first show in NYC. It was entirely because of that exposure that all the other opportunities came."

In fact, so many Hollywood offers flooded in that Nivola's stage career was immediately sidetracked. Although he and Ellis attempted to work together many times over the years, their schedules never aligned… not even for The Elephant Man. "I was filming a movie [Devil's Knot] in Atlanta at the same time as rehearsals," Nivola recalls. "I had to fly to and from Williamstown three times if that gives you any indication of my level of commitment. There was no way I wasn't going to do this thing."

The life of Joseph Merrick, a real 19th-century Englishman afflicted with mysterious deformities who was treated and befriended by Dr. Treves, seems to have a compelling effect on actors. Nivola's costar, Bradley Cooper, who plays the title character, recently revealed that David Lynch's movie The Elephant Man is what inspired him to become an actor. And when he discovered Bernard Pomerance's Tony-winning play of the same name, he did it for his grad school thesis.

Nivola, similarly, was introduced to Merrick's story through the film, but he was pleasantly surprised when he realized the movie and the play were completely different. "I remember loving The Elephant Man but it was so filmic, especially Dr. Treves, who was played by Anthony Hopkins," he says. "The character was fascinating but so understated. I couldn't imagine how it would translate into a great theatre role. And then I read the play and was struck by Treves' main arc. He goes from having supreme confidence and conviction in his own beliefs and the cultural values of the time and place to just total loss of faith and self-loathing. There are hints of that in the film but nothing like what plays out onstage. I saw it as a huge opportunity."

Thanks in part to Cooper's movie star cred, The Elephant Man was an insanely hot ticket at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, so a Broadway transfer seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the lead actors and director all wanted to do it. It was just a question of juggling everyone's commitments, which wasn't easy.  As Nivola explains, "We were supposed to do it last fall so I had blocked out that time but when it fell through, that's how I ended up doing The Winslow Boy," which was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Ellis is associate artistic director (yup, him again).

In the interim, Nivola and Cooper costarred in the Oscar-nominated movie American Hustle, and all they could talk about was The Elephant Man. "Bradley and I had a lot of time together, not just on set but for all those awards shows, and we were constantly discussing the play," Nivola says. "We both did a huge amount of research. I read a biography of Treves and Bradley went and saw Merrick's bones in the Royal London Hospital. With Williamstown, we only had two and a half weeks of rehearsal; coming into New York, we had been living with the play for a couple of years."

Now that The Elephant Man has finally made it to Broadway's Booth Theatre, Nivola admits that while there was an upside to knowing the show, his costars, and his director so well, he had one major concern about reprising his role. "I'd never done a reprisal of a production I was already in, and I worried I wouldn't be able to get away from the feeling that I was trying to regurgitate the things that worked in Williamstown," he says. "I didn't want it to be that way. Rehearsing is about new ideas and making things feel alive. So we came into Broadway rehearsals as if we hadn't done it before. We sat around the table for a week asking all the questions and having all the discussions you have with a play you're totally unfamiliar with. We didn't feel that we had any responsibility to hold anything from Williamstown sacred. In that production we had a nervous excitement and made impulsive choices. Now we're digging a little bit deeper, and hopefully that will show."

Though Nivola is onstage for almost the entire two-hour show, he says his character's emotional journey takes place in three specific interactions with Merrick. "The first one is sort of like a Pygmalion scene, where I'm Henry Higgins and Bradley's Eliza Doolittle, for lack of a better comparison," he says. "I'm teaching him language and treating him like a child I love. In the second, he begins to challenge my belief system, really pushing me to the edge of having to abandon everything that I've held fast and true as far as the way to live. The final scene is when I have a real emotional breakdown. It's a hugely challenging sequence but really rewarding, too."

But lest anyone think The Elephant Man is some depressing disease-of-the-last-century saga, there's levity and along with human insight. "It's such a gut-wrenching story in a way but it's full of humor," Nivola says. "There are even jokes about Merrick's penis, which by all accounts was perfectly normal. So in my mind, it avoids becoming maudlin because of that."


Raven Snook is TDF's associate editor of online content

Photo by Joan Marcus