On Friday night, actor Anna Sundberg pulls on the thigh-high boots of Vanda, the erotic and canny actor at the center of “Venus in Fur.” Peter Christian Hansen, meanwhile, dons the smug arrogance of Thomas, the playwright/director who dances this sexy, comic two-step with Vanda in the area premiere of “Venus” at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.
“Venus in Fur,” by David Ives, made Nina Arianda into a Broadway phenom and a Tony winner. British actor Hugh Dancy played the foil in that production.
The story is fairly simple: Vanda appears to be a clueless actor who shows up at an audition for a new play based on a 19th-century novel. Thomas is initially dismissive, but Vanda turns the tables, and fireworks result. In addition to Arianda’s win at the Tonys, Ives’ script was nominated for best play.
Sundberg and Hansen have become important actors on stages big and small. She won the 2011 Ivey Award for Emerging Artist. He received acting recognition that same year for his performance in “Burn This” by Gremlin Theatre, where he’s artistic director. The two co-starred when Gremlin produced “After Miss Julie” 14 months ago. Sundberg was the haughty aristocrat, Hansen the cocky chauffeur. The two had, as they say in the biz, stage chemistry. “Venus in Fur” demands the same quality.
Can actors create chemistry, or is it something that is either there or not there?
“You can if people create a generous spirit and there is no ego dysfunction,” said “Venus” director Joel Sass. “I have seen immensely talented people who could not connect, or were not willing to risk falling on their faces to create something really dynamic, rather than just serviceable.”
Sundberg and Hansen chewed over the topic before a recent rehearsal.
Q: How does chemistry work?
Sundberg: I think Peter would have chemistry with a basketball on stage.
Hansen: How alive is an actor onstage with you? If they are really alive, you take that person in and everything is dangerous and that translates to drama. The actors are in it together.
Sundberg: It sets apart a really great actor and one that is only OK. You can’t take your eyes off them.
Q: How do you make that happen?
Sundberg: You listen and watch. Some actors don’t even give you eye contact. It sucks! Nothing is happening with them. When it’s actually dangerous onstage, the audience sees that.
Hansen: And when you feel vulnerable onstage.
Q: When does this happen?
Sundberg: Something clicks in about the third week of rehearsal.
Hansen: Something will pop, yeah.
Sundberg: That’s when the lines are solid and it clicks over to character impulses.
Hansen: You start doing things that they would do. It’s not the way you as an actor would do it. You do it like the character would do it.
Q: How does the director affect the process?
Sundberg: I got nervous the other day when we were on the bed and Joel told us to figure it out yourself. You need to know what’s happening. When you have no guidelines at all, you can get lost.
Q: Are you afraid that if it’s not directed, it’s too real?
Sundberg: The director’s job is really important. If the director wasn’t there, it would be like two actors making out in a room by ourselves.
Q: Does this stuff ever go home with you?
Hansen: Only if you have a really good rehearsal and something got your focus in a good way. It’s hard not to think about it.
Sundberg: I’m a little different. You need to be yourself at home. Otherwise, theater feels like a family.
Hansen: It can’t be real. After all, we’re going to do this performance 40 times.
Q: But actors have hooked up after being in love scenes?
Sundberg: Yeah, we call that a showmance. People are stupid. You get more attracted to the heightened drama of acting and love. I see it all the time. It can bite you in the ass and it’s not worth it. I read a review of a production of “Venus in Fur” from Connecticut and it said the actors had no chemistry — and they were dating!