10 Minutes with Jonathan Watton of Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic film thriller North by Northwest is filled with thrills, glamour, espionage and a mysterious beauty.  It’s been considered one of the greatest films of all time. Recently adapted as a stage production, it is now here in Toronto for the North American premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until October 29 with Mirvish Productions.

The story follows the intriguing circumstances of  Roger O.Thornhill  — a smooth advertising exec who found himself in a situation of mistaken identity that changed his life faster than he could imagine. Chased by spies, thugs and government officials this comedy of suspense has all the elements that entertains with a few surprises.

North By Northwest. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Productions

Jonathan Watton plays Thornhill in the stage production. The Canadian star was born in Corner Book, Newfoundland. Watton is an actor, writer and director who’s 20 year career includes theatre, television and film. His recent screen credits include David Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars, Murdoch Mysteries, Good God for HBO Canada, and CBC’s Don Cherry: Grapes of Wrath.

We had a chance to interview Watton and find out more!

There are some serious Hitchcock fans out there, we’re sure they are excited to see how this translates onto the stage. What can you tell us about that cross over from screen to stage?

JW: Well, one of the things that  makes NBNW  such an enduring cinematic masterpiece is that Hitchcock perfected such a great alchemy of genres within it. Thriller, comedy, with a great romance in there.  So, in adapting this for the stage Simon Phillips and Carolyn  Burns have worked hard to maintain that balance and spirit of the film.

However, it was also important for us to explore creative ways to bring this story to life in the theatre with techniques that are stage specific.  There are many techniques used, models, puppetry, choreography, and some highly creative use of tables and chairs;)  It’s also very much an ensemble piece with our cast of 13 actors playing dozens if not hundreds of roles…

Now, I can’t get in to exactly how the iconic Mt. Rushmore and Crop Duster scenes are executed but I can say that there is no shortage of audacious ingenuity at play!

That, I think ultimately is what has made this production such a success, is that people get to witness and participate in the challenge of pulling off this story on stage.  Everything we do is live and visible for the audience to see there on stage… Our fantastic ensemble onstage and great crew backstage all manage to pull off not only a thrilling story but also an evening in the theatre that people will truly delight in.

In researching your role of Roger Thornhill was it important to stick close to how Cary Grant portrayed the character?

JW:From my first discussion with the Simon, the director, it was important to me to approach the role of Roger Thornhill as I would any other. From the ground up. Honestly, Grant’s is such a seminal performance in such an iconic film that I don’t want in any way to do an ‘impersonation’ of that. My goal was to dig into Ernest Lehman’s original screenplay and begin there. I spent more time with that script than i did with the film. However, as rehearsals progressed and I felt more comfortable with the character, then I watched Grant’s work more closely in the film. And there is so much there to be inspired by. As an example, the scenes between him and Eva and just fantastic… And Hitchcock is truly at the top of his game with this film.

There’s a whole new generation of theatregoers that may not be so familiar with the movie  —  what kind of feedback have you had? Do we (the audience) need to see the movie first?

JW:One of the most rewarding aspects for me has been the fact that this production has really found success both with fans of the film and with people who have never seen it… Those new to it, love the story, the dialogue, and get swept up in the thrill and romance of it.  I have found that audience’s both familiar and not, really can follow the story well, get invested quickly and are there for the whole ride. That is a testament to Lehman’s great screenplay and Carolyn’s careful adaptation. Of course, when you do meet someone who tells you that it is their favourite film, there is a certain breath you take as you await their next remark. Happily, I can say they have responded overwhelmingly favourably. And I can’t tell you how much of a relief that is to me!

We know you from Murdoch Mysteries and you’ve also been on many other TV, film and theatre productions. What inspired you to take on this role and return to the stage? 

JW:I had been away from the stage for several years, focused on my work as a filmmaker having spent a year at the Canadian Film Centre’s Directors conservatory recently and on TV and film work as an actor. So, it was the opportunity to do a play last fall at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre where I have worked many times in the past, that sort of spawned this in ways. I worked on a great new play, 23.5 Hours from American playwright Carey Crim. It was such a great experience and a great reminder to me of how great the work can be. It helped as a primer for the great challenge that this play and this role has presents. When the opportunity to work with Simon in the way he wanted to approach the material and with the great creative team he has assembled it was an easy yes for me. It has been one of the most rewarding and challenging projects I have ever worked on in my career.

You’re back now in Toronto and sort of ‘host’ to your cast-mates. What’s on their bucket-list to see and do while in the city?

JW:Yes! I have promised to host them while they were here and I’m so glad that my early summer promises to them of potentially warm September weather came through. ( That certainly didn’t look that way three weeks ago!!) They want to hit some of the main tourist attractions of course, but I plan to take them to explore many of the neighbourhoods that make this such a great city. I’ve already taken them through my hood of Kensington Market, and we spent the day on the beach yesterday and even took a swim in the Lake! Which was a first for me in a long while. It’s funny how you can re-discover your own city through the eyes of others. Makes me appreciate just how fortunate we are to live here

For more information about North by Northwest in Toronto, visit mirvish.com


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