Anything Goes is running at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. until December 23. In Cole Porter’s iconic musical comedy, lovelorn Billy Crocker (Corbin Bleu) tries to woo heiress Hope Harcourt (Lisa Helmi Johanson) and prevent her marriage to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jimmy Ray Bennett). To learn more about the show, I interviewed Jonathan Holmes, who plays the Captain of the ship where all of the action takes place. In addition to his extensive theatre portfolio, the U.K actor has multiple film and television credits including The BFG, Rogue, Descendants, Almost Human, Stargate: Atlantis, and recent voice work on Netflix’s Dragon Prince.
I understand this is your first time working with the Arena Stage.
I’m actually living in Washington, D.C., now because my wife got a job at the Shakespeare Theatre Company a couple of years ago. As a family we moved down and I’ve been working back and forth from Canada because that’s where we were based before that. This is the first time I actually get to work in D.C., which is very exciting.
How have you been enjoying D.C. so far?
I didn’t really know what to expect. It wasn’t somewhere I’d ever visited before we moved here. You can’t help but be impressed by the Smithsonian, the museums, and the galleries. It’s a beautiful city. I’m from the U.K. and in some ways it feels more like a European city than it does an American city, which is ironic given that it’s the nation’s capital. I feel very at home here.
Moving onto Anything Goes, do you have any captains or sailors in your family?
No, I don’t have any captains or sailors in my family. (laughs) I come from a very sort of rural farming background in a little county called Shropshire, which is right on the Welsh border. All my family are from the farming community. This is quite a break from tradition, I guess, [in] my career path.
Tell me about more about your character in the show.
I play the ship’s captain, one of the secondary characters. In those days, people used to partly travel on the cruises to people watch and see which celebrities or people of note were on board. Our captain is particularly upset that he doesn’t have the celebrities that he’s used to having on his ship. He’s trying to round up more celebrities and people of note to keep his passengers happy. That seems to be preoccupying him most of the time. There’s not an awful lot on the page to the captain. It’s quite fun to create this character. How would you describe him? He’s driven by things that aren’t necessary useful to the crew.
How did the rehearsal and creative process go as far as building the Captain?
It was great. Molly Smith, our director, is a dream for an actor. She loves actors and I think actors love her as well. That’s not always the case. She gives everybody in the room, regardless of the size of the role or your job in the rehearsal process, an opportunity where she honors your creative process in creating a character you feel is appropriate. It gives you the space to feel supported. That was really rewarding. We have long improvising sessions around our characters. We spent the first week around the table discussing each character in quite some depth. Hopefully that translates into a production where each character, regardless of its size feels fully realized. I think that’s one of her great strengths as a director.
How did the prep work translate over into the energy you bring into your character onstage, in musical numbers for example?
I don’t have a big solo song like some of the other characters. I can move and I can commit to certain things but I’m not necessarily a dancer. (laughs) Parker Esse, who is our choreographer, was brilliant in making me feel part of the ensemble and that I was contributing in that aspect. Paul Sportelli, the musical director, was fantastic as well. They gave us all the time in the world to explore the piece physically and musically. Hopefully, what has ended up on stage is something that people have enjoyed.
Why do you think ‘Anything Goes’ still appeals to audiences today?
Musically, it has some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century musical theatre canon. You can’t argue with that. Those are songs that will outlast you and I without a doubt. What I kept going back to is that this ship represented America in 1935 and what we tried to do is create through diversity of casting and slight changes with the book to actually represent America today. Hopefully we have succeeded in that. It’s this collection of diverse, crazy driven people for whom anything goes. I think that’s a story that can resonate today as it did back in the 1930s. As I said, the songs will last forever because they are iconic and fabulous.
Before we wrap up, I want to ask you about Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. With more new technology coming into the industry, how did you embrace those challenges in the process of making that film?
That was fantastic. You’re right that the film was driven by the speed at which technology was changing. The BFG is about this one friendly giant, Mark Rylance’s [character], who was surrounded by these nine other deeply unpleasant giants. I played one of [those] giants. What we did was we spent a month working with an amazing acting and movement choreographer called Terry Notary, who is one of the pioneers of motion capture acting. The cast was incredible on that movie. The 10 of us basically, including Mark Rylance, spent the month just trying to create the physicality of these giants. Then we spent a couple of month shooting it. It was all shot in motion capture. The technology is moving so fast but you an actor are trying to keep up with technology and figure out where you fit into this new landscape. That was absolutely fascinating.
Again, Spielberg is another director who loves actors. He loved being in the room with us, figuring out who these characters were and allowing us the space to create what we wanted to create. It was challenging in so far as most of us had never created a role in that particular way before. But we were all in it together and it was an amazing experience. It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s a very sweet film. I think Spielberg did a good job. It’s such an iconic book that I think everyone was terrified that he wasn’t going to honor the book, but he absolutely did. And Mark is the sweetest man and just a genius, he really is. He’s quite something.
As a D.C. local, I’m so happy to hear you’ve enjoyed living here in the area. All the best to you with Anything Goes at the Arena Stage.