Meeting James McArdle in person is startling after having witnessed him as Louis Ironson in Broadway’s revival of Angels in America. Gone is Louis’ urgent self-interruptive chatter, his desperate eyes, his tensed shoulders, his self-flagellating anxiety—replaced instead by a thick Scottish brogue, a warm resonance, and a chilled out vibe as McArdle kicks his feet up on the couch in his fifth floor dressing room at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre before an eight-hour marathon Wednesday of both parts in the Tony Kushner epic: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. But McArdle doesn’t think about the great work as a whole. “I literally take it hour-by-hour,” he says. “When I step onstage I like to be thinking it for real—in real time.”
McArdle has been stepping into Louis’ skin for over a year, having debuted with the production at London’s National Theatre prior to its Broadway transfer. From the beginning, Louis’ voice came instinctively to McArdle. “Tony’s so musical that it’s written in a way that I could just hear Louis,” he says of the piece. “As soon as I started reading, ‘Why has democracy succeeded in America?’ I could just hear it so clearly and I didn’t have to think about, ‘What will I do with my voice?’ It honestly just felt really natural to me.
“I think I can hear plays. I think that is something that I have,” he says. “I can hear the evening as it should be.” He’s not a musician, but McArdle relies on his ear and a sense of musicality to dig into the layers of Louis. “Louis literally trips over himself,” says McArdle. “There are so many beats where he literally stops, changes gear, and goes into something else. I just love finding those moments that I think are so how people speak, you know? I hear the way they talk, interrupt themselves, start again.” Which is exactly what McArdle does as he wrestles a monstrous 23-minute monologue—a diatribe with its own title—with daring propulsion.
McArdle feels a direct connection between Louis’ voice and his Jewish roots. “A lot of Jewish people I’ve spoken to talked about this sense of cultural unease,” he pauses, “of never feeling where they settle is going to be there for long. Even though they’ve been here in New York for so long there is a sense that—since the beginning—they have been a moving people, a persecuted people, chased. There is a sense of never putting the roots into the ground, that at any second we could up and take flight,” he explains. “It really helped me understand the fire of conversation. The result is a loud, very vocal, fast justification.”
That unease flows from his speech and manifests in his physicality as Louis, too. “When they talk they kind of interrupt, and they live up here,” McArdle says, lifting his whole body out of the chair like he’s just hung the back of his shirt up on a hook. “When I come off from playing Louis, I feel my shoulders are tight because I play Louis up.”
Built from watching a combination of documentaries on Judaism and Woody Allen films, molded from conversations with a rabbi in Glasgow and a rabbi in London, McArdle felt a responsibility to dig even deeper when bringing Angels to Broadway. “To get honest for a second, it is the privilege of my lifetime to be able to do this part on Broadway, and I absolutely don’t take it lightly,” saying that he knows Kushner and director Marianne Elliott could have chosen someone with more real-life commonalities to Louis. “I knew I just had to go another layer or the sharks would have been out like, ‘I smell Scotland.’”
McArdle connected with a local Jewish family and over the course of one dinner understood Louis’ neuroses more profoundly than ever before. “The thing that gave me the link was how Glaswegian it is,” he says of Jewish culture. “Not Scottish. [Specifically] Glaswegian. The talking over each other, the mum and how—for me and my mum, I’m her only boy and I am not good enough for her and too good for every other person out there,” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘You’re a Glaswegian mum.’”
These connections fuel McArdle and his inherent curiosity. The actor possesses a fascination with speech habits, with people, with cultures and their histories. What makes Louis feel so real is that McArdle has excavated every facet of the character and his world, from his Jewishness to his American identity to his sexuality, and dug into the details. (He even emailed Kushner about the delivery of a three-word sentence.)
“Tony helped with an American quality that I think British people don’t have,” says McArdle. “I would be shocked when he would tell me the way a scene should be or how much Louis was actually saying what he meant.”
On top of all of this development of Louis, in order to understand why Louis leaves Prior after Prior’s diagnosis with HIV, McArdle pored over books like And the Band Played On, devoured documentaries and immersed himself in research on the AIDS crisis—prior to any rehearsal—to ground himself in the historical, social, and political context of the time. “That’s more like studying and I really enjoy that stage,” he says. “I have to sort of intellectually luxuriate in it and bathe in it.”
He and his castmates met with survivors of the AIDS epidemic to further grasp a piece of history he’d never known. “I was just—and still am—so shocked that it’s not more part of our education and our history,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why has it taken me to actively pursue this information?”
But now that he has, McArdle lets it all wash over him. He surrounds himself with reminders of each piece of Louis; a plaid kippah given as an opening night gift sits on a high shelf, a note of well wishes from Joe Mantello (the original Louis from 25 years ago) leans against his mirror, a framed print of Reagan with the stamp AIDSGATE across it lays on his table.
From Louis’ Jewishness, to his New York liberalism, to his gay identity, McArdle created a person so real and whole, he hesitates when he thinks about finishing this run. “Louis feels like a separate entity from me that I’m really going to say ‘Goodbye,’” he says. “I feel sad about that.
“People don’t like him because he’s not a hero,” says McArdle. “I love him for that fact.”