Eve Best on Nurse Jackie, Loving NYC & Getting Strangled Onstage in London’s Duchess of Malfi

Q&A by Matt Wolf • May 16, 2012

Since winning back-to-back Tony nominations in 2007 and 2008 for A Moon for the Misbegotten and The Homecoming, Eve Best has hit the big-time on American TV alongside Edie Falco in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Now the 40-year-old English star is now back on home turf, taking the title role in the electrifying Old Vic revival of The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster’s Jacobean bloodbath. The sparkling star spoke to Broadway.com one recent afternoon about surviving awards season, deciding where is home, and putting up with being strangled on stage eight times a week.

You’re starring on the London stage as theater awards season in the New York is gathering pace. Do you have memories of that uniquely “Broadway” annual ritual?
I remember it as being a blur and increasingly overwhelming. I kept thinking, “I don’t have enough clothes,” because for each [different ceremony] you had to have a new frock! [Laughs.] It was an amazing time.

And now here you are, back in London, for your second play in as many seasons: Much Ado About Nothing last summer at Shakespeare’s Globe and now the title role in Webster’s Duchess.
I’m completely schizophrenic at the moment. I feel very much as if my heart has been in New York for the past five years, and as if that is home, but I always come back to England, because of family. Now that I’m here, I love being in London very much and I’m having a great time being back at the Old Vic. So I feel very torn, although now that I have a green card I know I’m always going to be working in both countries—if I’m lucky enough to be asked.

The last time you appeared at the Old Vic was opposite Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten, which transferred in triumph to Broadway. Had you been angling to return to this theater?
I was keen to come back because I’d had such a happy experience before, and I’d been talking to the producers about what might be a next step. But before this happened, I had actually been thinking that it was time for me to go out to L.A. and focus on films. I had even said to my agents, “I don’t need to do another play for a while.” Then, literally, the next day, as if by fate, I got the phone call saying that they were putting forward this play, and I did this Homer Simpson kind of, “Oh help!” [Laughs.] I had conveniently forgotten that this unbelievably amazing role was out there, and the minute they mentioned it to me, it was un-turn-downable. As a friend of mine put it, if Shakespeare is the Beatles, then Webster is the Stones.

It’s an amazing role, not least because the Duchess cuts such a vibrant and articulate figure amid the grisly doings around her.
It feels wonderful to be playing somebody who’s good, whose M.O. is love and who, in spite of the appalling tyranny and oppression she faces, manages to emerge with integrity and to be a force for goodness and light. I’ve realized while working on her that many of the heroines I’ve played—Beatrice, Josie, Hedda—have their neuroses and hang-ups and problems. In that way, the Duchess is a very clear, pure spirit: She’s somebody who chooses to act, and acts for the best. The downside, I have to say, is being strangled eight times a week! [Laughs.]

Especially in your production, where that scene is mighty graphic.
It is pretty intense—and quite scary, too! They said early on that maybe we should have a code word, like “tomatoes” in S&M, in case something goes wrong. The fight director looked at me and said, “The code word is ‘stop!’”

Have you had to use it?
Not so far!

I gather at an early performance that you and Tom Bateman [who plays the Duchess’ beloved steward-turned-husband, Antonio] broke the bed on stage?

That was so embarrassing! Yes, at one point my husband throws me on the bed and as Tom did so, the bed promptly collapsed beneath us, much to the hilarity of the audience and, I must confess, me. It was completely unprofessional! We then had to do the whole scene as if we were sinking on the Titanic, with the actors half in the air. It was completely farcical; I was desperately trying to keep a straight face.

Well, I’m glad to hear that Webster allows for some levity.
If something like that happens at the Globe, it’s par for the course. You’ve got an audience that is almost willing things to go wrong, but not in the very proper Old Vic with everybody sitting in the dark [laughs]. Touch wood, the bed’s been OK since then; it was patched up with about 25 different bits of wood. But this has been a very accident-prone production: People have been knocked off their bikes, and one night I knocked into the set and had a bump on my head!

What’s your take on your Moon co-star Kevin Spacey as the Old Vic’s artistic director?
I think it’s absolutely wonderful what he’s done for the Vic and for London; we’re terribly lucky that he chose to come here. He’s the most brilliant fundraiser and passionate leader of the theater, and he’s been inspiring, especially the projects he’s been doing with young people.

It seems a given that you should play Mary Tyrone [in Long Day’s Journey Into Night] someday, maybe with Spacey as your James.
I’m longing to do that part, definitely! I’m a bit young for it at the moment, but one day, it would be heaven. The Duchess has been a sort of pinnacle for now, but I can’t wait until the day when I get to play Mary Tyrone, Cleopatra, Arkadina, Ranevskaya, all those guys—but that’s not for a few years.

You’re such a stage animal. Do you ever find yourself yearning for the theater when you are on the set of Nurse Jackie?
The thing there is that I’ve got a brilliant colleague in Edie Falco who is from the theater and loves it very much. A lot of people in the cast have strong theater backgrounds, like Anna Deavere Smith, so to be working with these great, strong, brilliant women is really wonderful. I can’t say I pine for the routine of eight shows a week [laughs]. As far as that goes, the best system is the one on Broadway, which we don’t have over here, of the Sunday matinee and then Sunday and Monday nights off so that you get a proper weekend.

You’ve made such a mark in the classical repertoire. Do you ever yearn to do a new play where you could show up in jeans and a T-shirt?
Absolutely. I would love to do that; bring it on!

What’s next for you after Malfi closes in June?
I am going on a big, fat holiday on a boat in the Caribbean and do absolutely nothing for two weeks! And after that? To be confirmed.