Michael Stuhlbarg and Will Keen on Playing Berezovsky and Putin in Patriots | Playbill

Special Features Michael Stuhlbarg and Will Keen on Playing Berezovsky and Putin in Patriots

In the new Broadway play by The Crown's Peter Morgan, their job is not to judge, but to empathize.

Will Keen and Michael Stuhlbarg Emilio Madrid

“Anyone can understand what it means to love your country,” says Patriots actor Michael Stuhlbarg. But the patriots in question here aren’t waving Old Glory.

The new play from The Crown creator Peter Morgan is a study of post-Soviet Russia and the birth of its oligarchy, focusing on the real-life Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Putin, who Berezovsky helped bring to power. After an acclaimed run in the West End, Patriots is running on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. Stuhlbarg stars as Berezovsky. Will Keen reprises his Olivier-winning turn as Vladimir Putin.

Neither actor started the project with a scholar’s knowledge on their subjects. But as both have dived into mounds of books and documentaries, they realized their biggest challenge as actors was to find a pathway into people that the audience may already have formed opinions about.

“It’s not really a question of liking or not liking. It’s more to do with an imaginative engagement, an empathetic engagement. Not a sympathetic engagement, but an empathetic engagement,” says Keen. “There is an odd kind of bond that develops. It definitely doesn’t mean that you change your opinion as a citizen. But it does make for a different kind, a particular kind of intimacy.”

Stuhlbarg agrees: “Our job is not to judge, but to empathize and to bring a point of view about their perspectives and heart, as much as we can, to bring them alive. I’ll leave it to other people to judge who they are.” His efforts have been noteworthy—Stuhlbarg now has a 2024 Tony nomination for his performance.

The relevancy of Patriots, though, exists not only in the names that appear in the daily news cycle. While there may be ever-present concerns on how much power Putin wields on a global stage, audiences may be able to spot some themes in Patriots that hit very close to home.

To these actors, the Boris and Putin of the play are trying to do what they think is best for their country. Each intensely believes that they are right. “It’s a universal story,” says Stuhlbarg. “And in the best of all worlds, we understand that there can be differences, but that we have a common hope to thrive as a country together. I think there are many parallels to what we are experiencing in our own country here.”

While Patriots is about events that had global implications, it’s also intimate piece—the core is a partnership that eventually ends in betrayal (in real-life, Berezovsky died in exile). In other words, the stuff of great drama. “It has things to say about the general negotiation of power and the desire to prevail,” says Keen. “Beyond that, there are issues of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship, and ambition. But at the heart of it, it’s kind of two men facing off against each other, trying to see who’s gonna win.”

Photos: Opening Night of Patriots on Broadway

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