British actor Ben Daniels turns on the charmand smarmas Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
An Interview by Diane Snyder
Ben Daniels certainly knows how to make an eye-catching entrance. The ebullient Englishman, making his Broadway debut this spring opposite Laura Linney in director Rufus Norris' revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, dashes into an interview wearing an 18th-century ensemble over Timberland boots.
Daniels' outfit is a reminder of the contemporary relevance of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, especially in Christopher Hampton's esteemed adaptation. The perennial battle of the sexes, this time set among the over-privileged and under-moraled French aristocracy a few years before the Revolution, reaches a bitter standoff in the seduction games of Linney's Marquise de Merteuil and Daniels' Vicomte de Valmont. Thinking themselves immune to love, these former paramours amuse themselves by playing with the hearts and bodies of those around them. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce her cousin's 15-year-old daughter, Cecile, who's now engaged to Merteuil's former lover. Valmont, meanwhile, has one antennae tuned to the prim and married Madame de Tourvel and the other to Merteuil.
The London Academy of Music and Art grad has a wealth of experience with charismatic unsavory sorts in dramas such as Therese Raquin, Never the Sinner, and Iphigenia at Aulis. On film, he's played the dashing (James Bonds' creator in Ian Fleming: Bondmaker) and the dastardly (Nazi Dr. Joseph Buhler in Conspiracy). Daniels won his Olivier Award, however, for playing a disillusioned war veteran in Arthur Miller's All My Sons.
Daniels didn't have much trouble proving he was an alien of extraordinary ability, as visa requirements demanded for him to work in the u.s. After day four of rehearsals, he was positively bubbly as he sipped a coffee and talked to Front & Center.
FRONT & CENTER: How did you wind up in Les Liaisons Dangereuses?
BEN DANIELS: I was on holiday in Greece when my agent called about the audition. I think I had three weeks to prepare. I was told it was going to be two hours with Laura, but it was only an hour, and it was two long scenes. So that's how it happened. And I could not be more thrilled. New York is my favorite place on the planet; I just love it here.
What drew you to the role of Valmont?
I saw the original production with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan at the RSC, again when it transferred to the West End, and of course I saw the movie. They're just delicious, delicious characters, Valmont and Merteuil, and I find that relationship compelling and repellent and seductive. It's very enigmatic; you're not quite sure what you're supposed to feel and who you're supposed to feel it for by the end of the piece. It takes you on a strange emotional journey.
You don't seem to play a lot of nice guys.
I play a lot of duplicitous people. I don't know why. Actors quite often have a hard time going up for those roles because they become too villainous, or they choose something that sticks them in one place, whereas I think duplicitous people are more mercurial. You can't pin them down. Certainly Loeb in Never the Sinner was one of those people. Sloane in Entertaining Mr. Sloane was another. Valmont is the same. These characters are slippery. I did a TV series in England, Cutting It, where I played the slipperiest rat. I don't know whether people offer me those parts or whether they're just the parts I find very interesting, but it's quite a delicious thing to play.
Have you and Laura Linney talked about your characters' past relationship?
We are doing it now, as to how long it went on and when and exactly why it stopped and what was the conversation that ended their relationship. No firm decisions have been made as yet. I guess she's in love with him and she knows the way to keep him is to end whatever their relationship is before he gets bored. That way he will always be in her life, or will be in her life a lot longer than if they continued to have a relationship and he just left.
How do you prepare for a role like this? Do you do research to get into the period?
I do. I went to Versailles to have a look around. It's amazing. I think it helps to get a sense of that period and that etiquette. I've been reading as much as I can, and because there is a real-life human being that Valmont is based on, I've been trying to find out as much about him as I can. It's great to fill yourself with that stuff, especially with Valmont. He has all that etiquette, but he plays totally against it. He's one of those creatures that can just break through it and be completely free. That's some of the appeal as well, isn't it, especially for Merteuil. She can't let herself go; it's too dangerous for a woman.
Has your response to the play changed since you first saw it?
I don't know if it has anything to do with age, but I find it incredibly shocking now, much more so than when I originally saw it. I was in my early 20s and was leaving drama school. I was concerned about me and no one else at that time. It was in the '80s, and there seemed to be a lot of Valmonts and Merteuils around then, treading on heads to get where they wanted to be. Now there's much more an appreciation that we should look after people, so when you see these two people destroying lives it's really shocking. I hope I'm more about other people than I was at that time.
I wonder if we're not returning to a period like the '80s because in a recession there's a sense that you have to take what you can get because there's not enough to go around.
There's a huge amount of hypocrisy in the world at the moment, as there was during the time of the play. And to have these characters undermining that hypocrisy, and for it to be on as a piece of theatre in an arena of hypocrisy-which is evident not just in this country but in my country too -is great because that's what theatre's about: shining that mirror.
At the same time I find them incredibly attractive. There's that weird feeling that you get when you watch this piece. They are loathsome and yet I love watching their story unfold. I find them irresistible. There's just something about their eloquence and their style and passion for what they do. That passion for their mission is thrilling in a very dark way.
Especially as you watch Valmont seduce Tourvel and Cecile. He has so many delicious lines and double entendres.
For an actor the lines are perfectly written. The characters are so witty, and their turn of phrase is like nectar. Chris' writing is just beautiful and frustratingly difficult to learn because it's perfect. If something doesn't sound right, you look down in your script and the construction is so much better than what come out of your mouth if you haven't learned it properly.
What's most challenging about playing Valmont?
It's being able to turn on a sixpence-or turn on a dime, as you say here. To go Delighted, spin around, and then be completely the opposite to get what you want from the scene. The ability to be a living form of quicksilver is really tricky. We are using the image of swordplay. It's really precise and it's how you hit your mark, how you pierce that heart.
In any play there's a difference between what the characters say and the subtext, but here it's pretty extreme.
Absolutely. Because they all hold their cards so close to their chest, or they don't show their hands, you're never quite sure who is feeling what until they drop a card. If you're Merteuil or Valmont, you spot that instantly and you've got a way in. It's like a chess game.
Do you feel that Valmont is redeemed in the end?
I feel sorry for Valmont. He's too vain to allow himself to be in love, so he destroys his love because he doesn't want to be rejected by someone else that he may or may not be in love with. It's human, and yes, they're ghastly people, but there is a kind of act of redemption. He does something which he thinks is positive in his final moments in the play, but whether that redeems him, I don't know.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an epistolary novel. Laclos' tale is entirely told through 175 letters the characters write to each other, primarily penned by the wealthy and amoral Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Although the duo have a frightening capacity for destroying lives, their story has been translated, adapted, and reconfigured so often over the years they've become compelling and enduring archetypes.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the only novel Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) ever wrote. (Its current cultural currency owes a heap of credit to British playwright Christopher Hampton, whose acclaimed 1985 stage adaptation-and subsequent Academy Award-winning screenplay-introduced Laclos' characters to new audiences around the world.) The book is a piercing look at the cruelty and decadence of the pre-French Revolution aristocracy, and it scandalized France when it was released in 1782. Even though it's been praised as a political as well as a social commentary on the years just before the Revolution, it found admirers at the top of the aristocratic stratosphere, including Marie-Antoinette.
Laclos, although he dabbled in writing throughout his life, publishing poems and even penning a comic opera, was a career soldier. He worked on Les Liaisons Dangereuses during a stint on a lonely island off the French coast. It was from here, bored and disappointed, that he wrote, famously, to a friend, announcing his intention to write something 'out of the ordinary, eyecatching, something that would resound around the world even after I had left it,' notes Hampton in the published edition of his play. Few artists can have fulfilled their predictions so satisfactorily.
Three years after the play's success for the RSC and on Broadway, Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears' 1988 film version of Hampton's play, starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, won three Academy Awards. A year later, director Milos Forman (Amadeus) presented his version of the story in Valmont. Colin Firth played the titular seducer with a cast that included Annette Bening as Merteuil and, coincidentally, S&#