With nine nominations, The Ferryman is the most nominated play at this year’s Tony Awards.
Following a thrice-extended run on the West End that resulted in three Olivier Awards (including Best New Play), The Ferryman arrived on Broadway this season to the same five-star critical acclaim it enjoyed in London. Directed by Academy and Tony Award winner Sam Mendes, the play takes place in Northern Island in 1981 at the farmhouse of the Carney family. As the Carney clan prepares for the annual harvest and its subsequent celebrations, they receive an unexpected visit that will forever change them all.
With the Tony Awards coming up on June 9 and The Ferryman wrapping up its run on July 7, I spoke with actor Jack DiFalco, who plays the troubled Shane Corcoran in the revered production. DiFalco shared why he believes this play has made such a cultural impact, his creative process mastering an Irish accent, teased his role in the upcoming film adaptation of The Goldfinch and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: What attracted you to The Ferryman?
JACK DIFALCO: It really is a masterpiece. I was lucky enough to be able to see the show before I decided whether or not I wanted to do it. There hasn’t been something this spectacular or gripping on Broadway in years. When I saw it – just like any other actor who I’ve met – all I wanted to do is be a part of it because watching it is like seeing theater history.
How is Shane a different and/or new type of character for you to play on stage?
Well, every character’s a different type of character. But this one is particular is very interesting. He has a lot of different culture to him. Where he grew up in Derry and especially in the time period he grew up in was very rough. Houses were getting raided and there were bombs going off. There was essentially a civil war happening at his front doorstep. Shane is somebody who can be very easily seen as a bad guy when looked at in the wrong light. But if you understand where he comes from, it all makes sense. It would be hard to not be the person he is growing up where and the way he did.
Shane has quite an interesting character arc. You even get to play him drunk in the third act. In your opinion, why is he so essential to the story and to the greater themes of the play?
You don’t get to see a lot of IRA members or people who are pro IRA throughout the show. But I think when you put a magnifying glass on a teenager fighting the war that’s going on in his country, it’s interesting to see what and why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s only 17-years-old but he’s already a drunk and talking about the things that he’s witnessed, has been sodomized in the street in front of his friends and has gone to the police station and gotten arrested. That’s all because of the culture that he’s around. When you put a youth in a situation like that, I think it’s easier to elucidate what that time period was like. It’s definitely a clearer and more vulnerable picture when you see a kid go through things like that.
While The Ferryman deals with Irish politics in the early 1980s, it’s very much a family story at heart. Why do you think its message is so accessible to contemporary American audiences, even if they’re unfamiliar with the history of the time period that the show is set in?
That’s the beauty of Jez Butterworth‘s writing! Not only does it touch on family, love, war, violence and gangs, but there’s also a character for everybody to identify with themselves. We constantly have audiences who come back and see it two or three times and every time they walk away with a different message. That’s really all due to Jez’ immaculate writing.
As a performer, what are some of the biggest rewards and challenges of bringing playwright Jez Butterworth’s words and character to life?
The biggest struggle that I’ve had to deal with is that it’s a very thick accent. It’s kind of like doing Shakespeare on stage, where sometimes audiences don’t really pick up on what we’re saying. Therefore, you need to explain or perform it in a way where people can understand.
Also, I had no idea about this history before I saw the play. I know a lot of Americans feel the same way – they had no idea what it’s about and what was going on in the time period. But if you were to put on this play in Northern Ireland, I would bet that I would see people relating to different characters than the ones Americans do here.
Speaking of your Irish accent, can you please tell me a little bit about the process of learning it? What kind of training did you have to do to master it?
I watched a lot of documentaries and I listened to a lot of Northern Irish politicians, specifically people from Derry and Belfast. We were lucky enough to work with a dialect coach for the first two to three months of doing this play. But it was definitely the hardest accent that I’ve had to ever conquer and I’ve done quite a few.
Each region in Northern Ireland is very different and even in the show we have two distinct Irish accents. But at the same time, they kind of sound alike – there are key things that you need to hit when you’re from Derry. So my process is that when I’m working on the show from Tuesdays through Sundays, I’m constantly in the accent. I never drop it on those days.
Even in your personal life?
Yes, even in my personal life! Monday is the only day that I’m out of it. Doing it this way is a necessity. It’s a very complicated and specific drawl. We’ve been lucky enough to work with people who have done this show before who already had the accent. We’ve talked to different people and I communicated with friends from Dublin or Belfast and they all were able to sit down with me and help me really master what it needs to be.
The Ferryman received nine Tony nominations, more than any other play this season. Why do you think it’s become such a hit?
It’s hard for a show like this not to become a hit. It’s just a show that needs to be seen. When people see it, they understand and realize that. It’s not a show about Northern Ireland and it’s not a show about politics. It’s a show about love and how families get along, even when there’s trouble. Setting it in Northern Ireland and showing how the Irish orchestrate leaves people blown away when they see it.
Not only do we have a great story but the effects in the show are mind-blowing. I’ve never in my entire career dealt with a play this intricate, specific and real. On stage we have real fire, real animals, real babies and real food. Everything that happens on that stage is completely real, which I think adds the element of not having to suspend your disbelief like you need to do in a lot of other theater. When there are fights taking place, it’s all very real. It’s not spoon-fed and it speaks for itself.
The reason it got nine Tony nominations is because of our incredible writer, exceptional set designer and incredible director. We also really do have a beautiful cast. But when the writing is that good, it’s very easy to tell a story. We were lucky enough to have that.
The Ferryman boasts a massive ensemble cast. How do you all prepare for the emotional journeys you embark on together before each performance? Is it a group activity or does everyone do their own thing?
We spend a lot of time with each other. I’ve worked on a couple of other productions and you’re not always lucky enough to blend as well with the people that you’re working with. All of us in this cast have become incredibly close. We go and see Yankees games together, we’ll hang out between shows, we play games and we allow ourselves to be vulnerable off stage with each other. That way, when we do it on the stage, it’s easier to access.
Since making your Broadway debut in 2017, you’ve starred in back-to-back plays. Now that you’re a more seasoned Broadway veteran, how was your approach to The Ferryman different than when you first started to work on Marvin’s Room or Torch Song?
The interesting thing about this is, especially with the character that I’m playing, you need to be an expert in the political realm and the culture of how they lived, what they say, how they say it and why they say it. So the amount of research, reading and documentaries that I watched and interviews that I had to hold with people was tenfold more than anything that I have ever had to do.
I come on in the second act and don’t really get a break for the rest of the show because we don’t really have an intermission between acts two and three (just a three-minute break). So I’ve done a lot of therapy to figure out technically how to do something eight times a week, especially when we have two show days and we’re spending seven hours on stage. This is expert level theater, it really is. I can’t see anything else being more challenging.
What was the definitive moment in your life that made you realize you had to be an actor?
It was my fifth grade musical. It was around the time my father had passed and I was looking for an outlet. My music teacher saw that and was like, “you need to audition for the school musical.” I vividly remember when I stepped out on stage for the first time and thinking, “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I was standing in front of 100 plus people and felt the most comfortable I ever had in my entire life.
So would you want to do a Broadway musical as well or are you more interested in straight plays?
If the right one came along, I would definitely read it. I’ve workshopped some things for Jerry Mitchell. But I’m very particular, especially when it comes to musicals. If it were the right character and the right team then yes, I probably would.
Later this year, you’ll also be appearing in the hotly anticipated film adaptation of The Goldfinch. What were some of the highlights of making this movie and what aspect of its release are you most excited about?
I was lucky enough to work with my favorite actress of all time, Nicole Kidman, who played my mother in the film. I learned so much from her and we became very close on set. Getting to work with (director) John Crowley and (cinematographer) Roger Deakins, who are two legends of the film industry, was an experience that money can’t buy. It was just absolutely incredible and I’m just looking forward to seeing it! I haven’t seen a damn thing from it but I know it’s in really, really good hands.
How much did you refer to the beloved novel by Donna Tartt to get an understanding of your character, Platt Barbour? And overall, how faithful do you think The Goldfinch is to its source material?
It’s very faithful. It’s pretty spot-on. In the cast, there were the younger versions of the big children and then there are the older versions. Going into the film, I knew the guy who’s playing the older version of me, Luke Kleintank. He was already a really close friend of mine before we even signed up to do the project or even had any inkling of it. So we got to sit down and talk about what we wanted to do with the differences and the changing of time.
It must have been really interesting to collaborate with another actor on playing the same character.
Oh, absolutely! You never really get to do that. It was definitely interesting and we both had really cool ideas that we implemented. I was very lucky to have the older version of my character be such a talented actor and such a good friend of mine. I think that’ll really show.
You’ve also appeared on several television shows, including Daredevil, The OA, Blue Bloods and Law & Order: SVU. As an actor, do you prefer to work on theater or television? What are your favorite unique parts of both mediums?
This is a tough question because I never really set out to do either one of the two. I mean, I never set out to try to be famous or to make millions of dollars or anything like that. I only ever wanted to be a working actor. There is a thrill about theater that you can’t get from any other medium. The immediate gratification of telling a story in front of a live audience and getting the feedback instantly as you’re on stage and getting to feel the story from start to finish is not something that you can get on a TV set or a movie set.
There are also aspects of TV and film that you don’t get with theater, which I do love as well. It’s really cool to be on a set! Say the scene takes place on a beach, you’re actually on a beach. But it’s very challenging because there’s usually a camera three centimeters away from your face.
I’ve been very lucky to have had a very balanced career in that I get to do all of it. I grew up in theater, so that’ll probably always be my number one go-to. But I also do very much appreciate TV and film because you can show your work and share a story to such a wider range of audiences across the world.
Thanks so much, Jack! Is there anything else that you want to add that we didn’t discuss?
The only thing I would love for people to know is that The Ferryman is not just your normal, commercial production. It’s here for a reason and it’s not here to make money. It’s here to tell a story that people need to hear and should hear. It not only means a lot to me, but it means a lot to everybody who comes and sees it. Once you see it, you’ll understand exactly why it’s there.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for The Ferryman, now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York through July 7.