The Humans is a one-act play that has been around for a while. Its first-ever performance in front of an audience was at the American Theater Company in Chicago, Illinois in 2014. It slowly made its way wowing theatregoers around the country before finally making its Broadway debut in 2016, soon after that becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and winning the Tony Award for Best Play. As my interview guest noted, “Barack Obama was still President when we first opened off-Broadway.” It makes sense that The Humans would eventually make its way in front of the cameras for a feature film adaptation, and though much has reportedly changed in that translation, one constant of the two versions was veteran stage actress Jayne Houdyshell in her first feature film leading role. I had the good fortune of speaking with her and learning about her prodigious career on the stage.
“I did regional theatre for 27 years and national theatre for fifty years, and in small, medium and large spaces all over the country for virtually my entire life” she says, but of all the parts she’s played, this was by far her favorite, “I love doing the play so much, so being part of the film was exciting and a great privilege to reprise the role.”
She was the only member of the original cast to return to the film as the mother Deirdre Blake, giving her a unique distinction among the film’s ensemble which includes Beanie Feldstein, Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, and June Squibb. “There was a space of about a year, the last place we did it was in London. Between then and when we actually shopped the film, I’m glad I had that time away from it for a while,” she explains further, “I had also done King Lear and another film during that gap, so I had some distance to gain a new perspective on it when I returned.” The opportunity wasn’t an intimidating one for her, “I never thought of it as ‘oh my god, I got a major role in a movie!’ so much as just a continuation of an already-rewarding journey that I was on.”
There is no “main character,” really, in The Humans, but Deirdre is very much the nucleus at the center of all the simmering frustrations, disappointments, and anxieties of the Blake family. This essence of Deirdre’s part in the drama of the play carried over into the production: “There were no major changes to my approach to Deirdre in terms of her character. In terms of who she was as a person, she was the same. But there were many, many different things in the film from the theatrical production, so her responses to the characters and setting had to be very different. The space we were interacting with was different, as well as acting with cameras and a film director as opposed to a stage director.”
So with one actor who knew this play inside and out, combined with film actors coming into the family for the first time, did Houdyshell feel any additional sense of obligation or responsibility to the play or her fellow performers? “I was just a fellow actor. They were very much interested in Stephen Karam’s take on things. But Stephen had a lovely, generous way of working with actors, in that he felt the actors hired to do these roles were hired because he felt, deep down, that they were right for these roles. He was more interested in what they brought to these characters rather than taking the opportunity to simply tell them how to play the characters. He gave us helpful input but ultimately, he trusted us and our capability as actors.”
And she very much relished the collaborative process: “We had a lot of conversations about the dynamics of the day and the family. By the time we started shooting, everyone was clear on what Stephen’s vision was. What we also got from him was that he trusted us, not only individually but collectively to build the Blake family for this film which was separate from his play. It gave us a space of trust because he believed in us.”
This made principal photography an unambiguous success: “The synergy that happened quite naturally between all of us in the rehearsal room was quite easy. We liked each other. We communicated well with one another. Every one of us was thrilled and excited about what we were about to embark on. Only eight days from our first rehearsal, we were ready to go. We had already bonded as if we were a real family. It was quite magical.”
How does Houdyshell feel about the play now, seven years after its premiere on stage? “The Humans has not only held up, but it is prescient in a specific way to what is going on in the world. There is an adaptability to the story, because its underlying tone of existential angst is timeless.”