“It’s a bit of a beast,” says Christian Cooke of Knives in Hens, the play he’s currently performing at the Donmar Warehouse in London. It’s not an over-the-top statement; written by Scottish playwright David Harrower in the mid-‘90s, and set in an unspecified, claustrophobic, preindustrial community, Knives in Hens is a tense three-hander about the liberating power of language. The Donmar’s production, directed by Yaël Farber on an almost post-apocalyptic set by designer Soutra Gilmour, is a demanding one—bleak, powerful, and, even at 90-minutes, slow-burning. “After a week of sitting and talking about the play, you go, ‘Wow, this play is about everything in life,'” says Cooke with a laugh. “I don’t think it’s just because I’m attached to it,” he continues. “All the things that you try and speak about and think and feel as a human being, this play touches on in some capacity.”
Born and raised in Leeds, West Yorkshire, Cooke has been acting since childhood. He spent his early teens on Where the Heart Is, a locally-set soap opera, and in 2010, he made his feature debut in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Cemetery Junction. Things seemed to be taking off for him: he signed with Gervais’s American agency, got cast in Starz’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan series Magic City, and, if you believe swirling internet rumors, was considered for the part of Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey. But any acting career worth having is a marathon, not a sprint, and, a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday, Cooke is coming more and more into his own. “I’ve always felt and sensed and hoped that, as I get older, things would become more interesting,” he tells us. “Years ago, I was testing for a movie in L.A. I didn’t get it, and I was quite upset. It was a big opportunity at the time. I went into my agent’s office after, and I remember him saying, ‘I’m not worried about you, because one day you’re just going to wake up and be a man.’ It was a cutting comment, but I understood what he meant.”
Currently based in London, Cooke lives with his older, talent-agent brother. We spoke the day after Knives in Hens‘s official opening night.
EMMA BROWN: I know you did a new play earlier this year as well.
CHRISTIAN COOKE: Yeah, I did a play at the Hampstead Theatre called Experience by Dave Florez.
BROWN: Had you done much theater before that? I mainly know your film and television work.
COOKE: Not since I was a kid. I grew up doing plays—I went to a stage school after school—and it’s always something that I’ve wanted to do, but, in a weird way, if you do television and film and you didn’t go to drama school and don’t have a theatrical background, it’s hard to get your foot in the door. In the same way that it is for theater actors to get into television and film. There’s a weird prejudice that goes both ways. I’d had opportunities in the past, but they hadn’t been the right plays to take at that time. I was desperate to do theater, but I wanted it to be the right play. Then Experience came up at the Hampstead, and that was definitely the right choice. I read the play and was like, “This is great. It’s really powerful. It’s about something that I don’t know anything about; something that I don’t think many people know about.” It was something I just wanted to do.
BROWN: How did you get involved in Knives in Hens?
COOKE: My agents set up a meeting with Yaël at the Donmar. I’d heard a lot about her as a director and she’s such a tour de force, such an artist to her core. I loved the Donmar as a space. I’ve always been watching plays there. It’s West End theater, but it has this intimacy, which very few venues have. And then, of course, the play, which was the third thing on the list: first it was the director, then it was the venue, and then I was like, “This play.” It took me three or four times reading it to really know what I was reading. It’s like a Greek tragedy, but it was written 20, 25 years ago, which is fascinating. It’s such an epic play. On the surface, it’s about a very simple thing, but actually it’s about everything. It has this sort of mystic hold of you when you read it, and then you digest it.
BROWN: What’s Yaël like as a director? It seems like she must have very specific vision and really know what she wants—does that come across when working with her?
COOKE: She’s incredible. She is very clear-sighted in her visions; she’s a painter, almost. I think what’s amazing about her is she curates from the things that she sees from us. We didn’t start blocking the play until towards the end of the second week of rehearsals. The first week was all about getting us in our bodies and building up a trust between the three of us. Once we started blocking it, it was all about following our instincts. When she saw something which she thought worked, she made a mental note of it and built the play very organically. She would drop in these images that she wanted to express, but it all came from a very organic place. So many directors these days direct by design and shoehorn you into things—direction or blocking—that they had in mind previously. They’re short on time and they want to get that over with so they can get onto the finer details. That’s not theater to Yaël. She comes from independent theater in South Africa, and for her, it’s all about building up the story and the intentions with the actors.
BROWN: You play Pony William, the ploughman, but is that the role you first went in for when you met with Yaël? Did you ever read for the other male part—Gilbert Horn, the miller?
COOKE: I read for William and got cast. Then I read with quite a few Gilberts and quite a few Young Women—it seems odd to say “young women,” but the character’s called Young Woman. I read with quite a few other actors. At the time, I remember my agent saying, “Yaël definitely wants you in the play; she’s not 100 percent sure of which character, but she’s pretty sure it’s going to be William.” I think it mainly came down to the fact that originally, she envisaged men in their 40s and 50s. I think the play’s intended for slightly older people.
I really didn’t expect to get the role. I assumed they were going to cast an older person. I had all of these presuppositions about the part and the role and the play, which made me very relaxed going in there. I was just excited to go meet Yaël and read the play, which by that time had taken hold of me.
BROWN: Have your feelings about the play changed just from performing in front of an audience over the last few nights?
COOKE: It’s constantly growing and evolving, and you’re constantly hearing and finding new meaning in things. The language is written in a specific way. On the surface, it can seem quite simple: it’s a miller, a ploughman, and a young woman; it’s set in a pre-industrial time. But the more you look into it, and the deeper you look into the language, the more you see the genius behind it. It’s incredible what David Harrower has done. It’s this made-up language in a way; these made-up colloquialisms. David Harrower is Scottish, but it’s not written in Scottish dialect, but there are lots of abbreviations in the text. It’s a very difficult play to get your head around if you read it. We unpicked it in the rehearsal room for a week and a half. We’d do physical stuff in the mornings, and then in the afternoons we’d sit around chatting about the play.
BROWN: I saw that you also recently directed a short film, Edith.
COOKE: I’ve always wanted to make films, and Edith was my first proper short in that it took me two years to get the money together and to build the whole thing. Short films are, 90 percent of the time, non-profit-making. I wanted to do it in a certain way; I didn’t want to compromise. I wanted to give it a very filmic look and shoot with top production value, so it took me a while to get all that in place. Then, from Experience, the Hampstead Theatre play, I’ve actually been working with the playwright to turn that into a feature. I hope that will be the first feature I direct. He sent me the first draft about three days ago and I’ve been waiting for my days to free up—we’ve been in tech for the last four days—so I can read it and get back with notes. We’ve been working on the outline together for a few months, so I’m excited to get stuck into that. I have a producer on board.
BROWN: Will you star in it as well?
COOKE: I don’t know, to be honest. I loved playing the part so much and it was such a dream role, but I’ve put so much work into developing it as a film and I’m certain it’s a film that I want to make as a director. It’s whether, when it gets that far along, it’s too demanding of a thing to do both. If it is, I’ll cast somebody else. It’s a role that I’d be reluctant to give up, but I really want to make the film as a director, and that’s, at this stage, more important. It’s something that I have a very strong vision for.
BROWN: Does now feel like a particular turning point in your career? It seems like you are exploring these new avenues.
COOKE: I’ve always wanted to direct films and I’ve always wanted to do plays as an actor, so I’ve always thought that it would happen at some stage. You never know when these opportunities are going to come along. I turn 30 next month, and in my 20s, I’ve been in this limbo of being too old to play the young lead, and too young to play the 30, 35-year-old. When I was a kid, I grew up with and always hung out with people older than me. I was in television shows with older actors, and when I was 15, 16, 17, I sat up in hotel lobby bars with older actors until the early hours of the morning hearing them tell stories. I’ve always had an older head on my shoulders because I’ve hung out with older people. I’ve always been drawn to older characters and I’ve always struggled to get into those younger roles. In a way, it feels good to be finally getting to an age where I’m playing my age, if you like.
KNIVES IN HENS IS AT THE DONMAR WAREHOUSE IN LONDON UNTIL OCTOBER 7, 2017.