Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America has attracted many stars and spawned all kinds of creative interpretations in its 30-year history. But no production has been as busy with big names, or potentially as totally weird, as The Great Work Begins, the all-remote-filmed collection of scenes from Angels that’s streaming Thursday night. A benefit for the AIDS research foundation amfAR and its COVID-19 fund, the show features a cast of 17 rather than the usual eight, including Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Laura Linney, Brian Tyree Henry, Paul Dano, Andrew Rannells, and Larry Owens—with special appearances by Alan Cumming and Jake Gyllenhaal. This Angels will likely go down in history not only for the wildness of its production—cast members filmed themselves in their own homes and then were composited together by a team of editors—but for its big casting choices: mixed-race Vella Lovell and 89-year-old Lois Smith both playing young, white, Mormon Harper Pitt, actress S. Epatha Merkerson playing Belize, four actresses playing the Angel simultaneously, and, most intriguing of all, seven-time Oscar nominee Close playing the dying Roy Cohn.
We wrote the book on Angels in America, so we couldn’t resist interviewing the director, the cast, and of course Tony Kushner himself about how this whirlwind benefit came together—and about how this three-decade-old show still speaks urgently to the crises of 2020.
Tony Kushner: Analogies are always a little bit risky. The HIV retrovirus is not the same thing as the novel coronavirus. It’s shut down so much of civilization.
Ellie Heyman (director): I was directing a gigantic show on a cruise ship, and on March 15th, we all had to be, like, emergency evacuated. It was like, “Everybody has to get off the ship or we’re going to be stuck here for months.” And I think people were stuck on that ship for months.
Lois Smith (Harper): I was in The Inheritance last season, and it closed on March 11th when all the plays shut down—and all New York shortly after.
Kevan Loney (composite editor): I don’t know how to describe it. It was a weird time.
Ellie Heyman: So it was late March, when things were really scary in New York. And I was looking for some way to process what was happening. And the words of Angels in America would run through my mind.
Kevin Frost (CEO of amfAR): Ellie’s wife is a staff person at amfAR, a grant writer.
Ellie Heyman: AmfAR could no longer have in-person galas. They had started a COVID fund. And I was like, “Well, there’s this incredible piece of art that is about AIDS, that speaks to this moment in a pretty terrifying way.”
Kevin Frost: There are a number of people on staff at amfAR who are big fans of Angels. I got involved as an AIDS activist in New York because I had seen The Normal Heart. And there was a group of us in ACT UP who went to see the Broadway production of Angels in 1993. I remember my experience in the theater in the course of seeing that play—it was very emotional. We were living it, and what was playing out onstage was what we were going through every day.
Tony Kushner: I was touched that they wanted to do it. But Angels was just on Broadway, and 95,000 people saw it. So it’s hardly underexposed. I said, “Are you sure that this is the right way to raise money?” They were very determined about it.
Kevin Frost: The circumstances are different, but it many ways this epidemic feels the same. Certainly at its peak in New York. Hospitals full, ambulances in the streets, and the failure of our government to respond to the crisis in any way. It felt like déjà vu.
Tony Kushner: It’s a different kind of pandemic. But we have yet again a combination of a biological disaster and right-wing Republican chicanery colliding catastrophically. And their antisocial, anti-democratic psychotic individualism again manifesting at exactly the moment when it’s imperative that people remember how interconnected we all are. So there are a lot of parallels.
Ellie Heyman: Tony was incredibly involved with the casting, and we brainstormed together around what scenes were involved.
Kevin Frost: Tony had some different ideas of how he wanted to approach it this time. There are some unusual casting choices.
Tony Kushner: The great fun of doing this sort of shutdown Zoom theater thing is that there all these actors who are sitting around at home. So we began to feel like, well, we could call up pretty much anybody we could get a phone number for and ask them, and we would probably wind up with a pretty astonishing cast. We began to talk about people who’ve never done Angels before, and people who most likely, in conventional productions, wouldn’t be cast in it in certain roles.
Lois Smith: It’s certainly one of the strangest assignments I’ve ever had. Obviously it was not appropriate casting for Harper, age-wise. Tony, over email, gave me so many compliments that I wrote back and said, “Come on.” But I said I’d be happy to do it, even though I don’t know exactly what it is.
Vella Lovell (Harper): If you go to theater school, you just know those scenes, you can recite them. I never got to do it. I’m mixed race, and I just assumed there was not a part for me in the show.
Glenn Close (Roy Cohn): They told me Tony Kushner suggested me for Roy Cohn! [Laughs.] I was honored by that. You know: Why not?
Kevin Frost: Not a lot of people know this, but Glenn Close’s father was a physician, and an important one at that.
Glenn Close: My dad worked in the former Belgian Congo. He went to Africa in 1960 to observe independence, and he offered his services as a surgeon at the hospital in Kinshasa and stayed for 16 years.
Kevin Frost: He had worked on the Ebola epidemic. He had also treated people with AIDS and stored blood samples from people with AIDS in Africa. And much later those samples were incredibly important in helping our understanding of how long the virus had existed there. When he died, I sent Glenn a note and said, “I’m sure you know, but I want you to know we know how important his work was.”
Jeremy O. Harris (Belize): I immediately said yes, which was probably foolhardy. But I just was so excited to get involved with this play in some iteration. I didn’t know it was going to be this hypertechnical sort of exploration of digital theater-making.
Ellie Heyman: I started to get my head around how to create a piece of art within a pandemic, where everyone has to be operating remotely and we have almost zero dollars. Because I didn’t want to do another Zoom reading.
Lois Smith: I have not been very keen on Zoom performances, what little I’ve seen of them.
Ellie Heyman: We did about three months of different kinds of R&D and testing.
Kevin Frost: This is how naïve we were: We thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to do this at the end of June for Pride week?
Paul dePoo (creative director): I was brought on in early July to, quote, “help collage some footage together?” and it escalated from there.
Kevan Loney: They had volunteer actors read lines from the script in their own homes, and that gave Ellie the chance to practice directing through the software on the filming side.
Ellie Heyman: There’s this software called OpenReel that is incredibly buggy and the best thing on the market. OpenReel allows us to have remote control of the actor’s camera. So we can control their focus. We can control their exposure. We can control when it’s recording, when it’s not recording.
Paul dePoo: Ellie had an idea to take someone in a bed, and then someone somewhere else, and compile it. The defining aesthetic was that they were all in their own homes. It was incredibly challenging. At times we wished we had a green screen.
Kevan Loney: In this production, green screen was not a tool for us to use. Basically the fear was, you need the green screen to be just right for it to work on the compositing side. We would have no control over, is the green screen perfectly lit, is it ironed out.
Jeremy O. Harris: So, at first I thought it was going to be a livestream thing. “No, no, no, no, no. We’re going to send you all this equipment.” And I was like, “Equipment? What?”
Paul dePoo: The actors were all sent a kit in the mail. We would overnight them an iPhone 11, a microphone, a ring light.
Lois Smith: All these packages arrived—five, six, seven packages, with cameras, lights, mics.
Ellie Heyman: We are collaging in real people’s homes because we’re shooting on location, so the location has to be somewhere that person can get to.
Jeremy O. Harris: When I shot it, I was in London.
Vella Lovell: I actually ended up recording everything at my mom’s house in New Mexico.
Lois Smith: My daughter lives in Philadelphia. She picked me up in March and moved me here, and I’ve been here ever since.
Glenn Close: It was pretty by the seat of the pants, I can tell you that (laughs). I have a little guest room upstairs, I borrowed things from friends, we tried to make it as much of a hospital room as possible. It was crazy.
Jeremy O. Harris: I was on Zoom with them. Then we did a lighting check, and we had to situate the camera so it matched the window placement of all the other windows, because they were shooting it with a window background. Then the other really wild thing was that we had to do 17 different camera angles. I had to be both a first grip and a second AD.
Paul DePoo: It’s asking an actor to also be their technicians. It’s asking them to make sure the camera levels are the same so when we put them side-by-side they are talking to each other. There’s so much fine-tuned detail, it really asked a lot of our performers.
Vella Lovell: At one point I ended up borrowing a ladder from a neighbor and performing on my mom’s roof? Like me in a gown and tennis shoes, on the roof, and my mom is videotaping me, and I’m like, What is happening.
Lois Smith: I did the “night flight to San Francisco” speech. Thankfully my daughter was there, arranging the camera. I was in the second-floor bedroom by the window. We set up some kitchen chairs that looked like the row of seats in front of me, with pillowcases over the chairs to disguise them.
Vella Lovell: I did the “threshold of revelation” scene with Andrew Rannells as Prior.
Ellie Heyman: I thought we could mock it up very fantastically in a bathroom.
Vella Lovell: She said that to Tony Kushner and he was like, “But the scene doesn’t take place in the bathroom, it takes place in the very threshold of revelation.”
Ellie Heyman: He said, “I’m sure whatever you’ll come up with is great, but don’t do it in a bathroom.”
Vella Lovell: I was like, “Where is your threshold of revelation, Mom? Is the threshold of revelation next to the bathroom?”
Ellie Heyman: Glenn Close plays Roy Cohn and S. Epatha Merkerson plays Belize. Glenn is in her bed. There’s a door directly behind Glenn’s bed, based on where we put the camera. We had Epatha stand in front of a door in her house. We figured out this crazy game of collage through lines of architecture and color.
Glenn Close: My niece Seonaid Campbell, who is also a filmmaker, really helped me, because I would not be able to set the camera, jump into bed, reset the camera, jump into bed, and do those tiny adjustments. So I asked her if she could be my assistant through this.
Ellie Heyman: Apparently the internet is terrible in the state of Montana.
Glenn Close: Oh yes, my internet was not strong enough. So we actually then postponed for close to a week while we figured out how to deal with that.
Ellie Heyman: Apparently Glenn went and got a new router. I just pictured this woman, Glenn Close, walking into her local Best Buy and being like, “What is the strongest router?”
Jeremy O. Harris: It actually was really fulfilling, because it did feel like we had exhausted every pathway we could to getting the best performance out of me and the best performance shot that we could.
Tony Kushner: The Angel is four beings in one aggregate entity. And I’d always had this fantasy that it might be interesting to see what would happen if four actresses played her, rather than just one.
Kevan Loney: Mid-July we started talking about the Angel scene. Merging four women together into one being. What does that even mean on a movie screen?
Tony Kushner: We made up a list of Angel Women. I had just done A Bright Room Called Day with Nikki James, and I’ve always wanted to work with Daphne Rubin-Vega, and I’ve always wanted to work with Patti LuPone. And I knew I wanted to ask Linda Emond, because I work with Linda every chance I can get.
Linda Emond (Angel): I suppose I’m the obvious person at this point (laughs). Over this time, Tony has become one of my best friends in the world. Right now, during this pandemic, we’re a little bubble.
Kevan Loney: We started tossing around a ton of concepts for the Angel. I went through 20 to 25 revisions, proposing, what about this? What if it’s a pop art collage. What if she’s a four-eyed being with different mouths?
We landed on this one version we made. I was in a Zoom meeting with Ellie. I just laid every face on top of each other to see what would happen. The result was this androgynous, milky, spermlike creature made of light. We froze on one frame. Look how it lines up on one side of the face but doesn’t quite line up on the other—that’s really interesting. So that was the style, and then we tried to figure out how to extend that to the entire scene.
Linda Emond: So they would have a lot to choose from, we would do different sections with the eye line over to the right, looking at the camera, in profile. I was the first Angel to record. We experimented with things, but it was hard to get a real run on anything. So before I finished, they had me get out a tape measure, tape how far I was from the camera, things like that, to guide the positioning of the other actors. We had to experiment on lighting and placement, there was a lot of technical stuff. An unusual process, but very interesting.
Kevan Loney: Right when I started this project in July, my dad had been starting to have symptoms, and was going to the hospital on and off. Sort of having ups and downs. Right when we were starting to shoot, he passed away from COVID-19.
Working on the Angel became not only a therapeutic journey to me, but I started honing in on this creature talking about “be still” and “cease to progress” and “do not mingle”—all these things we’re being told right now. I was making this angel that’s coming from a very heavenly reality, talking about things that are happening right now. Watching each of these women act, I started to kind of process myself and get through the grief.
Lois Smith: I still haven’t seen it, by the way. How did it turn out?
Tony Kushner: I haven’t seen the entire thing. I’m sort of waiting.
Vella Lovell: I haven’t seen it. Maybe something will be unlocked with me and Lois Smith as Harper and you’ll think, Oh, this is incredibly universal. Or it could just be me on my roof, saying these lines. We’ll see!
Linda Emond: I can’t wait to see Lois doing Harper! I can’t wait to see Epatha be Belize. Glenn Close doing Roy Cohn. That’s really cool.
Tony Kushner: It’s exciting to me. I’ve learned a few things that you can do that I didn’t know you could do. For example, having rewritten the Angel’s Epistle as a monologue, I’m wondering if there are lessons there.
Interviewer: It’s fascinating that once again, of course, you’re rewriting the Epistle.
Tony Kushner: Yeah. Well, for the rest of my life, right? Any chance I get. I mean, basically, it’s the same impossible text over and over again.
The Great Work Begins streams at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time Thursday and is a benefit for amfAR’s COVID-19 fund. Watch (and donate) here.