'House of Cards' creator Beau Willimon talks 'Breathing Time,' his intense new play
By Hillary Busis
Breathing Time, a new play by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, opens with an extremely hungover guy named Jack entering his nondescript office, plopping himself down at his desk, and swearing. A lot. So much that during a recent performance, a shocked woman in the front row halted the action onstage in order to demand a refund.
If she had stuck around, she’d have gotten to know both Jack (Craig Wesley Divino) and his officemate Mike (Lee Dolson) as the pair bantered about everything from Machiavelli to Medieval Times. Their sprawling conversation takes up much of Breathing Time‘s first act…until something happens that turns this ordinary day into anything but.
So, what happens? You’ll have to head to Manhattan’s Teatro IATI to find out — or, alternatively, check out our interview with master multitasker Willimon below. (The scribe has been juggling Breathing Time with work on House of Cards‘ third season, which is expected to begin production this summer. How does Willimon do it all? Simple: “I’ve never been a fan of sleep to begin with,” he says, adding, “If you’re committed to the theater, which I am, and you need the theater, which I do, you find the time.”)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m in a tough spot, because I want to ask you about the play — but if I do that, I run the risk of spoiling it for people who haven’t seen it yet.
BEAU WILLIMON: [laughs] Well, it is one of the tough aspects of this play: There’s an event in it that you don’t want to give away necessarily. My hope is that the audience can experience it the way that the characters do — that an everyday morning at the office feels everyday, until it’s not. I can’t prevent people from writing about or talking about what happens at the end of the first act, but I do try to be as vague as possible.[laughs]
Well, working for Netflix must give you a bit of experience in being vague.
It’s much easier in terms of House of Cards, because I simply don’t say anything about an upcoming season, period.
Maybe we should start with the title. Where did that come from?
There is a passage of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which Jack quotes in the first act. And within that passage is the phrase “breathing time.” To paraphrase, Machiavelli is talking about how one should use the breathing time between conflicts as a time to prepare. And that felt appropriate for the play.
What inspired Breathing Time more generally? You could give me a spoiler answer and a non-spoiler answer.
Okay, I’ll give the spoiler answer first. [Spoiler alert: He does.] I made a vow to myself that I would never write a play that had anything to do with 9/11. That in part came from an experience I had just a few days after the September 11th attacks. I was in London at the time, doing a playwrights’ conference at the Battersea Arts Centre. And we were doing the first 24 hour plays [written, rehearsed, and performed in a single day] that had ever been done in England. There were six writers. The other five chose not to write about September 11th, and I did. [I wrote] a 10 minute play called Never Never Land, and it was incredibly divisive. It was the last play done in the evening, and there were a lot of very offended audience members who felt it was way too soon to in any way dramatize that event. The other half, I think, felt a certain degree of catharsis. Not the sort of catharsis that could in any way balance out what had happened several days before, but the catharsis that comes from acknowledging it in the theater.
What happened in your play?
It was about two lovers, one in London and one in New York. The one in New York had narrowly escaped, and the one in London felt so helpless because 3,000 miles and an ocean was separating him from his lover. I tried to explore my own feeling of helplessness being in London at a time when I wanted nothing more than to get back to New York. It was that feeling one has of hearing your house is burning, and wanting to go home even though you can’t save the house — something deep inside you wants to be there.
Anyway, the reactions from that short play were visceral. I did a lot of soul searching afterwards and wondered myself if it was too soon to write about it, whether I’d been responsible as a storyteller, and made a vow to myself that that would be the only play I ever wrote that had anything to do with 9/11.
When I started writing Breathing Time, I had no intention of having September 11th be a part of it. Really, I just heard the voices of these two men in this office, and began recording them. There was a banker that I knew, who I would run into at this speakeasy on 2nd Street that I often went to. This was an honest-to-God speakeasy run by a former Mob guy, and it was filled with people from all walks of life. There was a banker that I would run into there who would talk your ear off for hours. He was this vital force of nature who could go on these epic monologues about anything and everything. And from that, I began to hear the voice of Jack in my head.
I watched him walk into the office hungover one day in my head, and there was someone else sitting there. I began to write what they had to say to one another. And not until I was about 30 or 40 pages in did I realize where they were, and when this was. At which point I realized that I had to break this vow to myself and write this play. But in a way, I don’t feel like I broke the vow, because the subject of the play is not 9/11. The subject of the play is loss, and the ways that we try to find meaning in our losses, and sometimes fail to. And our desperate need to connect in the face of loss, either with loved ones or with perfect strangers. So I wrote the first draft of it right after I wroteFarragut North, in late 2004.
Oh, wow. So it’s been kicking around for awhile.
Well, not kicking around. I kept it very close to me, and Farragut North took over my life for a bit. [That play became the Oscar-nominated film The Ides of March in 2011.] And I returned to Breathing Time time and time again over the past 10 years. I think a part of me was scared to put it out into the world, because of precisely the event we’re talking about.
I also felt that there was more work to be done on the play. On the surface it’s a very simple play; there’s only four main characters, six total. There’s no bells and whistles. But in terms of getting these people just right and making sure I really knew who they were, precisely — if I was going to put them through that — making sure that I did it responsibly and honestly, that was a long process of marination and reworking. So I did workshops over the years, and would pull it out from time to time. And I think it benefited from that long process of maturation. I also think that when Fault Line approached me and said “we want to do this play,” the distance of time benefits the play because it doesn’t feel like a whiplash reaction to something that happened yesterday. It feels, I hope, more measured.
Given what you said earlier, that the play is more about loss than 9/11 specifically, do you think that knowing what happens in the play would ruin someone’s experience of it? Or would they just have a different experience of it?
It’d just be a very different experience. I don’t know if it would ruin it; there are plenty of people who go to see Julius Caesar knowing that Caesar is going to get stabbed, right? [laughs] But I do think there’s something to be said for arriving at it as the characters do. And some audience members suspect something earlier on at different points. Some people might look right at those windows straightaway and think to themselves, “I think I know where we’re at.” But I’m far more interested in preserving that process for each person.
If you walk into the play thinking “this is a 9/11 play,” you also might feel you don’t have permission to enjoy these two guys. You might not have permission to laugh. Everything is clouded by that veil. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the play is less powerful, it just means you aren’t afforded that other experience.
And you don’t see act 1 as being some sort of puzzle to be solved by the audience.
No — the purpose of the first act is not to figure out what’s going to happen at the end of it. The purpose is to get to know these two guys.
Do you feel like this story would work in another medium?
I haven’t thought abut it in terms of another medium at all. I think one of the great advantages to the theater in a story like this, and particularly in that intimate setting, is the proximity that you have to these two guys. You’re right on top of them. You’re in that room with them. That gives you a certain access that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
You’re currently working on the third season of House of Cards. As the show continues, are you looking to the British version as a guide?
I don’t talk about anything that’s upcoming. In general, and I’ve said this many times before to folks, we’re not doing an adaptation of the British version. We reinventedHouse of Cards, because that was necessary. From 1990 to now, a lot has changed in the world, a lot has changed in television. We were telling an American story as opposed to a British one. Our first season alone had more hours of content than all three seasons of the British version combined. You’ll find no bigger fan of the BBC version than me, but the two are vastly different in terms of tone, in terms of story, where we place our emphasis, how much we dig into characters, and the scope of our world. We will steal things from time to time, but our goal is not to recreate it.
So people trying to predict what’s going to happen based on the original – that’s not a valuable exercise?
That’s a sneaky way to ask what’s going to happen. But I don’t comment on anything that’s gonna happen that hasn’t been aired yet.
You couldn’t possibly comment?
Breathing Time plays through April 13 in New York City.