The Brit Who Stormed Broadway
The Daily Beast
December 7, 2014
If Alex Sharp is in the middle of a “dream come true,” as he puts it, he is also suffering for it. When the 25-year-old British star of Broadway hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes his seat in the midtown Manhattan restaurant what is immediately apparent is the mauve-colored bandage covering Sharp’s left palm and wrist.
His Broadway debut has been universally acclaimed, and audiences electrified, by his performance as Christopher, a 15-year-old English teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, who discovers a neighbor’s dead dog, and becomes determined to discover how it died.
The words “Asperger’s” and “autism” are never mentioned in Simon Stephens’ brilliant adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, in which the audience is plunged, like Christopher, into a world of clashing sounds, images, and movement.
Bunny Christie’s stage design—a stunning matrix of lights, tracks, maps, and grids—means Curious Incident is, as the New York Times’ rave review put it, “one of the most fully immersive works ever to wallop Broadway.”
The injuries are the inevitable result of Sharp’s deeply committed performance: in Marianne Elliott’s enveloping production, he clambers, jumps, leaps, crouches, literally throws himself around a stage that convincingly transforms from an English suburban street, to high-speed train, a terrifying London Underground station, and the teeming, jostling streets of the British capital.
All the time Sharp, wittily and movingly, takes us inside Christopher’s mind, as it struggles to impose order—and keep its owner safe—as the world around him clatters and moves. He cogitates maths problems, and sees things absolutely literally, in a world that is far from orderly and layered with meanings we are all too aware of.
“I have a ton of injuries,” says Sharp, digging into a plate of duck risotto in between Wednesday matinee and evening performances. “I’ve pulled a muscle in my neck. Hurt my wrists, hurt my thumb socket. There are little cuts on my elbows, knees, and ankles. There is a lot of running round, I’m never on a flat surface. The bandage is because Christopher uses a lot of gestures, which means I’ve overworked the muscles and weakened my wrist.”
All of this is worth enduring, Sharp says. “It’s rare to get a part where you can really put everything into it.”
The lean and boyish Sharp, who speaks earnestly with a hint of playfulness, looks like a teenager, with his mussed head of dark hair. He’s had to change his lifestyle for the show, he says: he never drank to excess, but can’t have a beer the night before a show.
“When you drive your body to such an extreme, what you put into it, and how much sleep you have, you become hyper-sensitive,” he says. “I feel like I’m training to be an athlete.”
Sharp read Haddon’s book when he was 15.
He identified with Christopher in some ways. “It’s a coming-of-age story in some ways, overcoming things, going against the odds, perseverance and what it can get you. We all feel at some point of our lives that we’re different, that we don’t fit in. This is a story that celebrates difference, as opposed to the story of a dysfunctional kid. It’s the story about a kid who does these incredible things, who is also socially dysfunctional, and a maths genius.”
The part is intense, Sharp says, and he spent two months before rehearsals, reading books (like The Reason I Jump and Look Me In The Eye, and meeting teenagers with autism.
Sharp describes one teenage boy who would tap the side of his nose, and rub his eyes with his hand in front of his face, and a girl who would braid and unbraid her hair really fast.
“If she wanted to look at me, it was through her hair. It was the only way she could make eye contact. One guy would rub his knuckles on his neck, and when you looked at his knuckles they were raw.”
Long before rehearsals began, Sharp started to embody Christopher. “I tried to be him going about my daily activities. Obviously, I don’t go too far: if a person brushes against me I don’t start screaming. You can’t do that in Harlem.”
Sharp has spent so long being Christopher he can just “drop into him and stay in him consistently” before a performance. The danger of doing something that’s very extreme and outside of my own self is maintaining it in a realistic way throughout a two-and-a-half-hour play. I sent myself a bit crazy, honestly.”
Today, Sunday, the cast will perform a softened, “autism-friendly” version of the production for those on the spectrum.
One of Christopher’s traits is “stimming,” self-stimulation. “Everything for someone like Christopher is over-stimulation,” Sharp says. “Christopher would find to hard to talk to you and focus on you, so would focus on the juxtaposition between the white button on your blue shirt and the clear button your red shirt. He would be hearing every sort of noise. If somebody dropped a fork across the other side of the restaurant it would be like you clapped in his face.” In the show, Sharp has Christopher rock back and forth, groaning, his hands over his ears.
Sharp was born in London, and spent the first seven years of his life traveling with his family around the US. His father flipped houses. Later the family traveled throughout Europe in a caravan. Sharp’s mother home-schooled him. “She would teach me the history of a castle, then we’d go and climb on it, and then come home and write creatively about the castle.”
The problem was, when he was 7 and went to school for the first time in Devon, southwest England, Sharp couldn’t adapt to “being forced to sit down and forced to do subjects I didn’t particularly want to do.”
He hated maths and liked literature and art. He fooled around a lot, and was asked to leave his secondary school.
Sharp always wanted to be an actor: his first role, aged 7, was as Piglet in Winnie-The-Pooh. “I was really interested in observing people. From a young age, I wouldn’t listen to what an adult was saying—I was obsessed with other people’s body language. I took in their gestures, facial expressions, I’d listen to the rhythm, intonations, and melody of their voice. I try to turn it off now, it’s not much fun.” He smiles.
Al Pacino was an early inspiration, particularly his early films. “I saw Dog Day Afternoon when I was 13 and it just blew my fucking mind. There was a calmness in his habitation of that character. He was just seamlessly being this person—the ferocity and intensity was incredible. Everything he does has intensity. He is not just someone screaming, it’s real.”
Sharp did lots of school plays, which led to a role in amateur operetta, then professional pantomime. He did “tons of regional theater” at the Northcott Theater in Exeter, whose former youth theater head, Rachel Vowles, encouraged him “to be free on stage, to never play it safe. You can do a good job when you play it safe, but you can’t do a spectacular job. You have to risk it, and be in danger of looking like an absolute fool. But that is when a transcendent performance happens.”
Sharp left England at 18. He felt claustrophobic in the schooling system there, and needed to prove himself. “I’m proud to be British, and it’s a big part of my identity,” he says, “but there is a mentality of saying ‘yes’ to ideas here, more positive energy.”
Traveling in South America he was “smacked about a bit” by a group of paramilitaries who hijacked a bus he was on. “You have to turn fear off in those situations. I just feel it’s a shame to let fear get in your way and stop you achieving things. I make a conscious effort not to allow it to control me.” He smiles his mischievous smile. “It’s not easy.”
Sharp wanted to get back into acting, and applications to Juilliard were ten dollars cheaper than Yale, so he chose the former, got in, and studied there for four years.
“It’s the reason I got this job,” he says. “Without the training, and the grounding and the knowledge it gives you and experience of your own ‘instrument,’ I’m not sure I’d be able to do this show.”
But it was also very full-on. Sharp’s problem with institutions didn’t dissipate. “But I knew I had to put myself through that to be a great actor,” which, in itself, will take 40 years, he smiles. “I wanted to leave several times. I came close to being ‘Fuck this.’”
He didn’t play the class clown this time, but doing what he wanted to do—acting—made Sharp’s time at Juilliard easier, but also harder, he says.
“When you take something you absolutely adore and think it’s the best, most awesome thing in the world and basically do it and nothing else all the fucking time, 14 hours a day, 6 days a week for four years with the same people, you go a little insane.”
Sharp got “major cabin fever” at Juilliard, he and his classmates’ lives so interwoven that if one did a brilliant scene and it connected with something he was feeling he would cry with joy. “It was hard, emotionally. I still think I am recovering to be honest.”
A staff member at Juilliard recommended him and three classmates for the part of Christopher. As soon as he read for the part he was “hungry” for it. “I never wanted to play as badly as much as I wanted to play this. It wasn’t like, ‘I am going to portray an autistic character.’ I was focused solely on bringing this unique human being with a soul to life.”
Sharp focuses less on mannerisms, and more on honing Christopher’s inner dialog. “I feel a sense of responsibility because of the character and how important he is as a representative and as a hero to certain communities, and families.”
Sharp is on stage all the time; he powers the show, draws diagrams, builds things, and inhabits so Christopher magnetically and persuasively, that through rehearsals and now into his third month of performances, his focus is on how to keep the part fresh and make it better. All the injuries are worth it, “because it’s rare to get a part where you can really put everything into it.”
Is Christopher easy to shuck off? “No, he’s not, it’s hard,” Sharp says emphatically. “He stays with me. He never really leaves. I dream as Christopher. I dream in character. I dream about that grid set. I have to stop myself from being overtaken by him, but it doesn’t feel dangerous because I am aware it could be dangerous, so I don’t allow it to go there.”
It takes Sharp four hours to get into character: “I take joy in the mathematical, symmetrical precision and perfectness of Bach.” Philip Glass’ music is very repetitive and useful, as is Oasis’ “Wonderwall” “stretched out for thirty minutes.”
When the lights go down, ushering the opening of a performance, it’s a relief Sharp says, because of the intense effort to throw Christopher off, to be allowed to assume his character once again.
He doesn’t socialize much. “I work on the character,” Sharp says of his spare-time. “Every night I go out on stage things are different. Every night a thousand new people have bought a ticket. I haves to sweat and bleed. I can’t leave the stage without bleeding on it and having given everything. It is quite traumatic, and emotionally hard. Intellectually I know it’s a play, but every night my body is going through the shock of it.”
To unwind, Sharp takes long showers, and stops himself from separating his food on his plate as Christopher would. It helps that he is the opposite of Christopher, he says: “socially good and mathematically disabled.”
It’s funny playing a teenager, when in one’s mid-20s, he adds. “I was quite glad not to be a teenager any more. It’s quite hard to get back to in a lot of ways. You face some old demons doing this part.”
A Tony nomination would be “overwhelming,” Sharp says. After such a barnstorming stage debut, and while “my heart is in theater,” screen acting intrigues him. He would like to play Hamlet, “but what man doesn’t? I’d love to be a Bond villain, or a few villains: they are sexy, cool, and have a different kind of intensity to investigate.”
Having started out in such a high-profile, star-making role won’t be a drawback, Sharp says. “I will always work on parts that are artistically fulfilling, to have a genuine connection to them because they’re jobs you’ll do well. I’d rather do a play off-Broadway and really affect people than a part in a movie for hundreds of thousands of dollars and become semi-famous from it. It’s important to do what you love.”
And he says that with something he does share with Christopher—a tone of absolute, self-assured certainty.