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Laura Donnelly on Sam Mendes, Jez Butterworth Play Hills of California

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Northern Irish actor Laura Donnelly has reunited with writer Jez Butterworth and director Sam Mendes on London West End play “The Hills of California.”

Butterworth’s film writing credits include “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and Mendes’ James Bond film “Spectre.” The play “The Ferryman” (2017), the story of the family of a former Irish Republican Army terrorist, was written by Butterworth and directed by Mendes. Donnelly starred in it, won the Olivier for best actress and was Tony-nominated for the role when it transferred to Broadway.

“The Hills of California” is set in Blackpool, U.K. in 1976, during the driest summer in 200 years. The beaches are packed and the hotels are heaving. In the sweltering backstreets, the Webb Sisters are returning to their mother’s run-down guest house, as she lies dying upstairs.

“There are no big secrets in the play that need to be kept hidden, it’s just a case of, the less that you know about this play, the better in terms of how the story unfolds in front of you,” Donnelly told Variety. “I am a member of the Webb family, I am the mother and so for my character, the themes are motherhood, mother-daughter relationships and the compassion and forgiveness needed in those kinds of relationships.”

Mendes’ last film “Empire of Light” (2022) was also set in an English coastal town, in the 1980s, but the similarities end there, Donnelly said. “The play is entirely its own piece, and the play knows nothing of Sam’s previous work,” Donnelly said. “There are many places that this play could be set, because it’s a story fundamentally about human connection and families and who we are the roles we play within those families and who we are outside of them and, and how we can do the most damage to the people that we love the most. And I think that those are stories that are universal.”

Donnelly provides the example of a friend whose parents from West Africa attended the play’s first preview and said they were “just stunned” at how similar the family dynamic in 1970s Blackpool was to those their own country. “There are some plot points that make that Blackpool the relevant place, but it could be anywhere,” Donnelly said.

The actor, whose TV credits include HBO’s “The Nevers” and Starz show “Outlander,” is Butterworth’s partner and therefore had the advantage of seeing the play taking shape in front of her at home. She says that he usually begins discussing ideas years in advance of actually sitting down to write them. Over the years, the ideas formulate in the form of on and off chats, often when they are on holiday. When he does sit down to write it, he bounces ideas off Donnelly and keeps her in touch with the whole process as he’s going through it.

“Anything that he’s describing is incredibly unique when it comes out of his mind, as opposed to whatever my version of it would be. So I often find it quite difficult to picture exactly what is the piece that he’s intending, but it really certainly helps me for my character development. Because by the time the play’s written, and we’re sitting down to read it at the first table read, I already know how that character came about, and what he’s intending, what the story is that he wants to tell with that character and what certain moments mean,” Donnelly said. “A lot of the digging that actors need to do in the first few weeks of rehearsal or prior to rehearsal is done for me because I know what the process was to write the character, so for me, it’s very helpful.”

Prior to the rehearsals, Donnelly did some historical research on what Blackpool was like in the 1970s, but says that most of the work is already done for the actors because of the level of detail in the script. The one thing she did have to learn from scratch was playing the piano, in order not to be “absolutely terrified” by the time she sat down to play in front of an audience.

Once rehearsals began on “The Hills of California,” Donnelly’s and Butterworth’s processes diverged because started seeing the play from the point of view of her character. Butterworth attended the first read-through and then wasn’t present for a few weeks. “Sam seems to like to be able to present Jez with something quite complete, so that he can see the work for the first time when it’s quite far on,” Donnelly said, adding that this process helps the actors as there is no pressure on them and they aren’t being judged.

“It’s incredibly important in a rehearsal room just to have complete trust, to be able to experiment and to be able to fail, be able to get things wrong. Sam holds that space sacred in that way,” Donnelly said. “It’s always been, in my experience, a really relaxed and and just genuinely creative space to be in and it never feels highly pressured. Which is surprising, because, when it’s a Jez Butterworth play, being directed by Sam Mendes, you would think there’d be pressure there, but it never feels like there is.”

“The Hills of California” is from Sonia Friedman Productions and Neal Street Productions. It is on at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre through June 15.

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