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How I Got Vladimir Putin Ready for Broadway

Focus on Will Keen’s right hand for the duration of Peter Morgan’s Broadway play, Patriots (Barrymore Theatre, booking to June 23) in which he plays Vladimir Putin, and you will notice it stays immobile—or as still as Keen can possibly make it. His Putin is so menacing the audience tangibly stills with his every icy appearance; at London’s Almeida Theatre—where Keen first performed the role that he won an Olivier Award for—he was so convincing he was booed at some curtain calls.

“I have studied lots of videos of Putin, and it is actually something he does that people speculate is part of his KGB training,” Keen said of the immobile hand, while sitting in his incredibly tidy dressing room one recent afternoon. “Various other ex-KGB people do the same, and it’s speculated that it’s for keeping their hands next to a gun or whatever weapon they may have—and need fast—in their right pocket.”

Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, follows the relationship Putin has with Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg, recently in the news after being attacked while out jogging), the Russian oligarch who first courted Putin when the latter was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. In their first encounters, Berezovsky thinks Putin will be as pliable as he and his other rich compadres need him to be, backing his political rise, fatally assuming it is they who will remain in control.

Morgan, creator and writer of The Crown, charts Putin’s consolidation of power as contrasted to Berezovsky’s loss of it, Berezovsky becoming one of Putin’s most vocal critics, and then his eventual exile and mysterious death—in 2013, aged 67—in the U.K.

Keen, 54, said that when first playing Putin in London the tension of keeping the hand still made all the pent-up tension to spasmodically flow out of that hand. After one performance, Keen said, some staffers from the British Embassy in Moscow approached him to say, “How did you know his hand shakes like that?” Keen smiled. “And I didn’t. It wasn’t something I’d seen at all. It was just something my body informed me to do. In some interviews where Putin is sitting down you see he drains some tension out of his right foot too. It makes you wonder how he keeps that mask he seems to have all the time, especially in anxious-making situations.”

On a table are the two watches that Keen-as-Putin wears, a smaller one worn as a younger man, a larger one for when he assumes the Russian presidency. He also wears a Putin-imitation wedding ring, and baptismal cross under his shirt (“I know it’s there! His mother gave it to him”). Shaving brushes and razors are lined up to ensure Putin has none of Keen’s downy stubble. There are books used for research, including Patrick Radden Keefe’s Rogues, set in an orderly row on a shelf.

I am not trying to copy Putin, but I am trying to feel my way into the way he is physically, like the way he holds his mouth, the tiny snigger he has.

Will Keen

Keen says he has done a lot of studying and watching of Putin, but “in theater there comes a point where a thing starts to develop its own dimensions. My fingers curl. There have been some reports that Putin has Parkinson’s disease. There are theories all over the place. I like approaching something from a purely physical position. I let the physical do its own unfiltered, unthinking work. I am not trying to copy Putin, but I am trying to feel my way into the way he is physically, like the way he holds his mouth, the tiny snigger he has. I find it creates in your head an ironic distance without you deciding to take an ironic distance.”

Keen, who is bald, has one wig he wears as Putin—mussed-up at the beginning when he is deputy mayor, and then sleek and sharp at the end when all power—and his ruthless, possibly murderous command of all he surveys—is his.

His suits similarly go from boxy and ill-fitting to sleek and implacable. Yet even when Putin is a relatively lowly city official he retains a pugnacious, legs-apart stance as if daring an unseen attacker to try their best. “There’s something always hard and still at his center,” Keen said. “There’s a certainty of purpose and vision.”

Will Keen and Michael Stuhlbarg in 'Patriots' on Broadway

Will Keen, left, and Michael Stuhlbarg in ‘Patriots.’

Emilio Madrid

The actor watched Adam Curtis’ acclaimed documentary Russia: 1985-1999, which “went through film in the BBC archives from between those years. It cuts from footage of tanks rolling to a sister going to visit her sister. It’s an incredible juxtaposition of real life and political life. You get a feeling of the vastness of the country, and at its outer edges its citizens who through habit, distance or whatever, feel politics doesn’t affect them at all.”

Reading about Putin’s life, Keen learned he was in Dresden when the Berlin Wall came down, crowds surrounding the building which the KGB and Stasi shared.

“He spent two days burning all the records,” Keen said of Putin. “That’s an unbelievably powerful image. What do you do when there is no turning back, when you must be thinking, ‘What is open to me now?’ There is something in destroying the past and creating exile from your past which may make you still and hard at the same time. It’s like, ‘Every man for himself, and I’m going to make very sure this man is OK.’”

The play—through Berezovsky, Putin, and the character of Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon)—explores the competing forces within a country at a time of change—rampant capitalism, hard politics, transactional relationships, power games, and corruption. For Keen, Putin has a literal strong attachment to the earth and his loyalty to the figure of Mother Russia—“which can be expressed in all sorts of ways and become more or less intense or indeed destructive.”

Will Keen as Vladimir Putin in 'Patriots' on Broadway

Will Keen as Vladimir Putin in ‘Patriots.’

Matthew Murphy

Keen said he didn’t have any significant concerns for his own safety taking on the role. “I think firstly, Putin has a lot of bigger fish to fry; secondly I suspect any publicity is welcome. Looking at the way he behaves, what he is, and what he wants in the world—what is in his interest is to be feared. It’s a crucial part of him and his foreign policy.”

A Tony Award nomination may be imminent to accompany the Olivier Award. “That’s not something I turn my mind to,” said Keen. “It was absolutely lovely to win the Olivier. It’s lovely to feel recognized by my peers, and to see my performance had struck a chord with people. I felt so honored and privileged. But making a performance like this—apart from Peter’s writing and Rupert’s brilliant direction—is about the people I’m playing on stage with, and the massive team behind the scenes making it happen. We are all committed to this thing that’s bigger than any one of us, and making it together.”

Playing Putin, given the awards buzz, rave reviews and presence in West End and Broadway, has had a profound impact on Keen’s career. “You pour your heart and soul into every role you do. It always feels ‘This is it.’ Everything feels new and pivotal. But yes, this role has really struck a chord with audiences. That’s a rare thing—when it chimes like that—and I am really grateful for it.”

“Quite often we were paid in hummus”

Born in Oxford, Keen had a privileged, “incredibly happy and very idyllic” childhood; his father Charles was a banker, his mother Mary Keen is a famed gardener and gardening writer and daughter of Edward Curzon, 6th Earl Howe. He and his three “really magnificent, imaginative, and brilliant” older sisters (including poet Alice Oswald and author Laura Beatty) grew up in a “very creative atmosphere,” going to the theater and enacting verse poems his father had written. His father took early retirement, writing essays, short stories, “very good sermons”, and becoming a lay preacher. Both parents made up games, costumes, and encouraged all the kids’ creative endeavors.

Keen’s first role, age 11, was in a production of The Railway Children. “I think my mother drove me to the audition just to stave off my boredom that day. From then on yes, it was acting. I had moments in my 20s when I was struggling away, but I could never have not done it.” At around 3 or 4, Keen recalls going to Nottingham Playhouse—at the time being run by director Sir Richard Eyre, with actors like Jonathan Pryce and Tom Wilkinson treading the boards—and “going backstage, being in this cavernous dark place, and thinking, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’”

For boys, being away from home, at an all-boys boarding school at an age where they are developing, feels like an encouragement to misogyny.

Will Keen

Attending Eton, Keen did more theater (starring opposite Dominic West in a number of productions, playing “a lot of women to his men”—including Cinderella to West’s Baron Hardup). Of Eton itself, Keen said, “I am incredibly grateful for my privilege. But there were things about the experience of being at the place and my experience of boarding which I found very unhappy. For boys, being away from home, at an all-boys boarding school at an age where they are developing, feels like an encouragement to misogyny.

“I don’t want to say anything wholly critical, but, quite apart from the massive reservations I have about private education—despite being really grateful for my own privilege—when boys are gathered together at that age there is a need to prevail, to win, to be successful, to need to be the best, which is troubling. But it had an amazing theater, and I had an amazing time doing plays there.” He didn’t talk to his parents about leaving Eton. “I had sort of decided to go there, it wasn’t them sending me away. My sisters were away at university by then, so would have been at home on my own. I had fallen in love with theater, so I said to myself, ‘Stick it out.’”

After Eton, Keen talked to his parents and sisters about going to drama school, but his father encouraged him to go to Oxford, saying, “It’s something you’ll have for the rest of your life.”

“He was right,” Keen said, adding his parents came to watch all his performances, and were “completely supportive and completely generous.”

Will Keen in the press room after winning the Best Actor in a Supporting Role award for Patriots at the Olivier Awards held at the Royal Albert Hall, London, April 2, 2023.

Will Keen in the press room after winning the Best Actor in a Supporting Role award for Patriots at the Olivier Awards held at the Royal Albert Hall, London, April 2, 2023.

Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images

Next, Keen studied English Literature at Oxford University, and did “lots of plays and theater,” studying under Sir Ian McKellen, then a professor of contemporary theater there (“He was a very inspiring influence, and it was really thrilling working with him”). Even now, Keen “feels guilty” for not having the “official training” drama school would have provided. At the time he “couldn’t face three more years of education,” and—quickly finding roles in London’s fringe theater scene, beginning at the renowned Finborough Arms—was “up and running” in his career. In lean or quiet times, from then until today, Keen has done painting and decorating to stay busy.

“I was very passionate about fringe theater, much to the despair of my agent, Keen said. “I would say yes to all these shows, and wouldn’t get paid much at all.” He laughed. “Quite often we were paid in hummus.”

“Fame is not an object for me,” Keen insisted. “Of course one wants to have opportunities, good parts, and good writing. What I love about acting in general is the thing of making something together—and, in theater, that being in real time, shared with people, actors, the whole company, and audiences, in a room. Fame doesn’t float my boat.”

Will Keen in 'His Dark Materials'

Will Keen in ‘His Dark Materials.’

Max

For Keen, whatever technological advances bring, theater remains “magical—it’s two bodies on a stage, in a space, distance between them, how they communicate with each other, what happens, what is real. That is a quasi-religious experience really. I find it very moving.”

Keen has appeared on TV and in film—in The Crown, His Dark Materials, Operation Mincemeat, Wolf Hall, and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power—with filming demanding “a fascinating, very different kind of discipline” than working on stage. “The crucial space is the one between camera and actor, whereas what I find exciting on stage—besides the engagement with an audience—is the space between bodies on stage and how they drift apart and drift together. That’s very compelling for me.”

It was a violent death. It was shocking, very shocking

Will Keen

Keen said he and wife—the Spanish actor, theater director and writer María Fernández Ache—who he married in 2002, were now separated (declining to elaborate further). He has moved from their home in Madrid to make his base back in the U.K., though still loves the city and Spain.

Their daughter Dafne is also an actor, who Keen has performed alongside. He said he had some “anxiety” about her entering the profession, “but Daf is a profoundly sensitive, intelligent, and wise soul. She has spent all her life being in rehearsal rooms and around the process. I think she knows in her bones that it’s not about her, it’s about making the thing and making something as a group. She loves the companionship and camaraderie, and is incredibly creative and brilliant herself. She’s always making something.”

Keen’s father died, aged 85, in August 2021. “It was a violent death,” Keen said. “He was a great lover of the countryside, and was out for a walk with this dog, and was trampled to death by cows. It was shocking, very shocking, the way he died, but he was a very truly magical man—a wonderful, wonderful man and generous soul. He was quiet, contemplative, remarkable—the loveliest father you could hope to have. And although his was a violent death, the fact he didn’t have to be in hospital or anything like that—that he died in the countryside, he had just celebrated his 85th birthday—were blessings.

“It was devastating, shocking, but there were all sorts of things that felt like blessings that he gave to all of us. My mum’s doing really well. She is coming out here next week. She’s still working very hard, designing gardens, writing, and being brilliant.”

“It’s a rage, like a storm inside”

Keen first read Patriots in 2021, pre-Ukraine War, the progression of which has made Putin even more of a global bogeyman and brute. “It’s difficult to know how much the war has affected my performance,” he said. “The war obviously falls outside the frame of the play, but it is a constantly changing filter through which the play is seen now. I am trying to play the same journey, but every day with every new audience what’s lovely about this, and any play, is that it’s a vivid conversation. You feel every day audiences are coming to it from very slightly different angles.”

Keen noted Putin’s “sheepish smile, and incredible mixture of timidity and certainty. He feels a kind of moral certainty about what’s right for Russia, and that he is the guardian of that in some way. As he transitions into an autocrat, it feels his body grows to the size of Russia, not the size of his body. If you perform the ‘Scottish Play,’ for example, any Shakespeare, or an equivalent, the character arc goes ‘grow to power, drop from power, die.’ With Putin, there is just ascent: up and up and up.”

Will Keen as Michael Adeane in 'The Crown.'

Will Keen as Michael Adeane in ‘The Crown.’

Robert Viglasky/Netflix

A scene, newly added to the play at its end, is especially chilling in this respect for Keen. “All I can do as Putin is keep going, because as soon as I look down there is nothingness. It is vertiginous. You can only stay fixed on this one direction, to keep doubling down forever and ever.”

The play feels darker on Broadway “in a way” than it did in London, Keen said. “I don’t know whether that has to do our vision of Putin, which has changed again over the last two or three years. When Russia first invaded Ukraine it was so astonishing and jaw-dropping. It felt terrifying. But now there’s something sclerotic about it. It’s become harder, more dogged. Also, the American collective psyche around Russia is different to Britain’s. America has always seen itself as a superpower in counter-position to Russia, so—in terms of national identity and cultural identity—the play maybe lands differently here.”

Putin’s concept of loyalty and betrayal I found incredibly useful and powerful—it means he can feel like a victim of a situation rather than perpetrator.

Vladimir Putin

Keen can feel, and hear, the audience’s collective mood shift as Putin’s ruthlessness comes into sharper focus in the play; the motor of Patriots is the betrayal Putin feels Berezovsky has perpetrated on him.

“This betrayal comes from someone Putin thought of as a friend,” Keen said. “For Putin, the responsibility for his actions lies with the person who has betrayed him. Putin’s concept of loyalty and betrayal I found incredibly useful and powerful. It means he can feel like a victim of a situation rather than perpetrator. In a sense, he feels very passionately about a sense of family and nationhood: the Russian family, his people, the people around him—whether a small circle, or Russia itself. There’s the idea of him being the country, and the country being him—and any slight to him being a slight to the country, and any slight to the country being a slight to him.”

Keen is fascinated, watching Putin conduct press conferences, that he appears able to “say two things at the same time. There is something so performative about it, and creates ambiguity all the time. He has a direct way of speaking, but there is something in his directness which makes him a bit like an honest (Othello villain) Iago—the smokescreen of sincerity, the truth which always begging questions. You’re always thinking, ‘Does he mean that?’ It’s like an alien language. Putin is not using different words, it’s more he has found a different use for language.”

Inside, for all that impenetrability, is the feeling of this raging child who just wants to break everything.

Will Keen

This being a work by Morgan, as in The Crown, there is comedy of a dark kind amid all the drama—principally because the audience knows how powerful Putin now is, and how wrong Berezovsky, played with a blazing energy by Stuhlbarg, is to think he has any control of their relationship.

The imperative for Putin to stay authoritative, said Keen, “creates a greater and greater inner turmoil. The mask of impenetrability creates this incredible inner tension. It’s a rage, like a storm inside against the world—inside, for all that impenetrability, is the feeling of this raging child who just wants to break everything.”

Keen finds it easy to shrug Putin off at the end of the performance. “As soon as I leave the stage, the inner rage dissipates. I am surrounded by a lovely cast and team. Taking that cross off is quite a good way of getting rid of him at the end of the night.”

Keen laughed that it was “simply unimaginable” that Putin would ever see his performance. Who Putin is in private “is endlessly fascinating” to Keen. “Just someone brushing their teeth, getting into bed. In a way that is what Peter (Morgan) invites us to imagine—the idea of examining the relationship to the domestic to the geopolitical, and seeing how they impinge upon each other.”

I found therapy incredibly useful both professionally and personally… I am always trying to learn more what being alive is, and what it means.

Will Keen

When Patriots ends its Broadway run, Keen will not be leaving villains behind, heading back to the U.K. to play that master of whispering poison, Iago, in a Royal Shakespeare production of Othello (alongside John Douglas Thompson in the title role).

“Those scenes of persuasion are as brilliantly written as anything I can think of, Iago’s relationship with the audience is extraordinary,” Keen said. “It’s so puzzling to me why Iago chooses to behave in the way he behaves, what could possibly be driving him to that kind of destructiveness—the inner sense of despair he must feel creating that kind of wasteland around him.”

Keen himself has had “a lot of therapy. Of course, as actors, what we’re doing is, as fast as possible, trying to understand how people work and we ourselves work. I found therapy incredibly useful both professionally and personally. As a student of life and a student of the mind I am always trying to learn more what being alive is, and what it means.”

As we say farewell, Keen mulls, in a play called Patriots, what the key to Putin’s definition of patriotism is. “I think his relationship with Russia is passionate—and so passionately loving that it can lead you to do good things and bad things,” Keen said. “I am not an analyst of geopolitics, but in terms of my approach to this part, my understanding of patriotism is that it’s about a tremendous emotional affinity with a geographical space. With Putin, it’s this Tsar-like idea of his body becoming the country.”