Copping a Plea: Eagle interview with “Lobby Hero’s” Bel Powley
She's a Londoner who adores commuting to Broadway from Williamsburg
Cop stories are everywhere — in the movies and on TV. So frequently, in fact, that we take these fictional portrayals for granted. But when you see an actor on stage playing an NYPD cop, you notice details you don’t have the time to notice in film or TV. For example, the way he or she stands when they’re listening or just killing time. A certain way of rolling on the balls of their feet, so that even though they’re immobile: swaying, taking the pressure off their knees and ankles, almost as if they’re on an invisible trampoline.
Last season, when I saw Mark Ruffalo play NYPD Sgt. Victor Franz in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” he captured that stance perfectly. You believed he was a cop. The same is true of Bel Powley in Second Stage’s revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” now playing to sold-out audiences at The Hayes Theatre on Broadway.
Powley plays a rookie cop, Dawn, who’s already in hot water after only three months on the force. And after only five minutes on stage, just by posture, presence and the way she shifts her weight from foot to foot, she has us believing her NYPD cop. Sure there is a backstory (there always is, whether it’s Miller or Lonergan) but even before we get that backstory, we accept and believe she is a cop.
Without saying a word of dialogue, she’s already done the heavy lifting. Even on “Lobby Hero’s” Playbill cover, Powley looks like a cop: arms folded, head up, hat cockily pushed back on her head and an “are you kidding me?” look of skeptical disbelief on her face.
“Lobby Hero” is a morality tale about doing the right thing, even when it seems like the wrong thing. As he did in the films “Manchester by the Sea,” “You Can Count on Me” and his earlier play “This is Our Youth,” Lonergan depicts the difficulty of making moral decisions in a morally compromised world. This paradox is especially painful for Powley’s character. It is a measure of her confident, assured performance that we are with her all the way.
Bel is short for Isobel. She was born in London and first gained attention — when she was 13 — playing a teenage secret agent on the popular English series “M.I. High.” She made her Broadway debut at 19 in the 2011 production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” in which she played the mathematics prodigy Thomasina (a performance Stoppard himself has praised).
She made her film debut in 2015’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” then played a young Princess Margaret that same year in “A Royal Night Out.” Later this year, she’ll be seen opposite Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh in director Yann Demange crime drama “White Boy Rick.”
But for now she’s more than holding her own alongside Michael Cera, Chris Evans and Brian Tyree Henry in “Lobby Hero.” Her compelling and riveting performance is one of the principal pleasures of the play. She never strikes a wrong chord or misses a beat. You can tell she’s done her homework.
And, as I also learn in our interview, she’s become a confirmed Brooklynite.
I begin by asking how she prepared to play an NYPD cop.
Bel Powley: Chris [Evans] and I hung out with two cops, one male and one female. They were from a precinct near the theatre. Since I wanted to bring as much accuracy and realism to my portrayal as possible, I peppered [the policewoman] with questions about everything. For example, do relationships between cops occur? She told me that they absolutely do. And that often, as we show in the play, shit does happen! The relationships end and it’s a mess professionally and personally.
Brooklyn Eagle: How long did it take you to feel comfortable in your uniform? To feel like you really were a cop?
BP: Our uniforms are real. They’re from the same store that actual cops go to buy their uniforms. But (laughing) I’m 5’2” and even the smallest uniform was too big for me, so [Paloma Young, the show’s costume designer] had to make mine to measure. But once I had it on and felt comfortable in it, the persona came easily. Now I feel so good in it, I think I could actually make an arrest!
Eagle: How did you and Kenny [Lonergan] and Trip [Cullman, the director] work out Dawn’s story arc?
BP: Well, we discussed — with the entire cast — everybody’s arc. What was great was that Kenny was there throughout the rehearsal period, so if we were uncertain about how to play a scene we could go right to the source. My feeling about Dawn is that, from the very beginning of the play, she’s under enormous pressure. And that pressure keeps building and when it finally explodes, she almost loses everything. The stakes could not be higher for Dawn.
Eagle: In addition, to your physical mastery of the role, I was impressed with how well you nailed a New York accent, especially considering you’re a Brit. What was your secret?
BP: We had an amazing dialect coach, Kate Wilson. When I first got the role I panicked and thought: how am I going to sound like a real New York cop in front of a real New York audience. The accent has to be so strong and so specific. But Kate had a very helpful mantra: “It’s tools, not rules.” In other words, just say the words over and over and let the accent arrive organically.
Eagle: In anticipation of this interview I recently watched your performance as Princess Margaret in “Royal Night Out,” where you have this posh, refined English accent. Quite the contrast with Dawn.
BP: (Laughing) Well you know with all those gorgeous frocks and shooting on location I really did start to feel like a princess. We actually shot in Trafalgar Square for the big VE Day celebration. But that’s the fun of acting: I can inhabit many diverse characters.
Eagle: Now that the play is up on its feet, are you able to have any semblance of a normal life — go to the gym, meet friends for dinner, etc. — even with eight performances a week?
BP: Yes, I am now able to have a bit of a normal life. At the beginning, during all day and evening rehearsals, it was just about the work. But now it seems like every other week I have friends or family visiting form the U.K. And of course I’ve got to be the gracious host and show them the sights. But, really, I enjoy it and I’m able to integrate work and leisure.
Eagle: Finally, what made you decide to live in Brooklyn during your “Lobby Hero” run?
BP: When I’m away from London, what I miss most is all the green space. We have the most beautiful parks there. I think living in Brooklyn helps to satisfy my craving for open spaces. Brooklyn’s so much less suffocating than Manhattan. I live right next to McCarren Park — there’s a running track I use a lot. Plus Williamsburg has some amazing restaurants and cafes, too. I’m a huge coffee drinker and I found my favorite coffee place in the world in Williamsburg. It’s called Devocion. They ethically source their beans from Colombia and the coffee is out of this world!
Lobby Hero is now playing through May 13 at The Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th St. For more information go to www.2st.com.
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