Harry Potter Brought Him to Broadway. Now His Work is Everywhere.

Saturday, 14 September, 2019 - 05:45 -

Harry Potter Brought Him to Broadway. Now His Work is Everywhere.

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Jamie Parker as the title character in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
London - Michael Paulson
Jack Thorne has no shortage of ways to characterize his own eccentricity. “I’m a slightly deranged adult.” “I’m not very good with other people.” “I’m mental.”

He points out a Ralph Steadman poster on the wall of his book-lined home office, an image grotesque enough to prompt objections from his 3-year-old son. “I like it,” he smiles. “It expresses my self-hatred.”

Mr. Thorne, a 40-year-old English writer, describes much of his life as a succession of dark chapters, including a disabling skin condition that affected him for years.

But now he finds himself in a spot he could never have imagined: a happily married father with thriving stage and screen careers that have made him one of the most prodigious — and sought-after — storytellers of the moment.

He won a Tony Award last year for his first Broadway outing — writing the script for the global juggernaut “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” His movie credits include “The Aeronauts” (with Eddie Redmayne) and, next year, “The Secret Garden” (with Colin Firth).

And this summer he made his first appearance at Comic-Con, promoting “His Dark Materials,” the upcoming BBC/HBO series he adapted from Philip Pullman’s fantasy novels.

Mr. Thorne has been writing for television since he was 25, winning five BAFTA awards (the British equivalent of the Emmy). His mini-series “National Treasure,” about a comedian accused of rape, was widely praised; the first episodes of Damien Chazelle’s “The Eddy,” a musical series written by Mr. Thorne, are to be released next year by Netflix; and he was just commissioned to write a new family drama for the BBC.

In June, The Economist described him as the “bard of Britain,” writing, “He is becoming to modern British TV what Charles Dickens was to the Victorian novel — a chronicler of the country’s untold stories and social ills, and the domestic dramas that encapsulate them.”

This summer, “the end of history …,” a stage drama based on Mr. Thorne’s own upbringing, opened at London’s Royal Court Theater. And this fall, he will have two plays on the New York stage: “Sunday,” about New York 20-somethings navigating the shoals of early adulthood, is having its world premiere Off Broadway this month at the Atlantic Theater Company, and “A Christmas Carol,” his much-lauded stage adaptation of the Dickens classic, will open on Broadway in November.

“I’m working harder than I’ve ever done,” he said during an interview in the townhouse that he shares with his wife, Rachel Mason, and their son, Elliott, in the London borough of Islington. “I’m aware that I will be unfashionable very shortly, and so I want to tell as many stories as I can while I still am interesting to people.”

That kind of self-deprecation helps fuel his work, said Sonia Friedman, a lead producer of “Cursed Child.”

“He has no idea how gifted and how talented he is,” she said. “The amount of success he’s having, and will continue to have — I don’t think he will ever fully believe it, and I don’t think he’ll ever fully understand why it’s happening to him.”

Mr. Thorne’s office is the one room in the house where his career artifacts are displayed, and, although the awards are mostly in the basement, it is packed with other meaningful treasures.

There is the night light from his childhood bedroom and a Tony Blair placard with the now-ironic slogan, “Britain Deserves Better.” (“He was my hero,” Mr. Thorne said. “I still feel the betrayal to this day.”)

There is the drawing of customized wands created for the “Cursed Child” team by the play’s designers, and a framed onesie that reminds him of the birth of his son.

“I quite like being haunted by past things,” he said. “I find it quite useful.”

A jumble of compulsions
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Mr. Thorne is a gangly bundle of nervous energy. He fidgets with his toes. He’s too distractible to ride a bike, and he dislikes the subway, so he walks long distances. “Sitting on a tube is just like the most upsetting thing you can do,” he said.

He also has a pronounced verbal tic — he calls it a speech impediment — that leads him, quite frequently, to punctuate his speech with the phrase “do you know what I mean like you know?” But it’s smushed together into one word, “doyouknowwhatimeanlikeyouknow.” He finds it exasperating. “It doesn’t even make sense,” he said. “I wish I spoke coherently.”

He notes that, in “His Dark Materials,” people have dæmons, which are animal-shaped manifestations of their inner selves. “I think mine would be a woodpecker,” he said, “because it’s always there, hammering away — ‘don’t say that, do say this.’”

Writing has become a sort of compulsion — a craft that brings him not only joy, but calm. “I find as soon as I start writing other people, I become better,” he said. “It’s that and the sea — those are the two things that sort me out.”

What do writing and ocean swimming have in common? “I think it’s being completely on your own,” he said. “When I’m swimming in the sea, I go way out. And I think writing is quite similar.”

He estimates that he has written about 40 plays, and is often creating three things simultaneously, switching from one to another whenever he gets stuck. “I can’t cope with doing only one thing at once,” he said. “As soon as I hit that block where you go, ‘This is awful! Why would you consider yourself a writer?,’ it’s really nice to be able to swap onto another project and go, ‘Well, this is all right.’”

Of course, not everything succeeds. He was dropped as the writer of the forthcoming film “Star Wars: Episode IX” when the director was replaced. And he wrote the book for the big-budget stage adaptation of “King Kong,” which was poorly reviewed and closed as a flop on Broadway, although the producers are hoping to revivify the musical in Shanghai.

“It was really, really hard,” he said. “I felt like there was a sort of presumption that we were commercial sellouts — you were aware that you were walking into a town that didn’t like you very much.”

But he is also self-critical. “There were things about the show that didn’t work,” he said. “I think that I panicked, because the first previews didn’t work at all, and I didn’t stay true to what I was trying to do. Probably I should have done something more radical and clever.”

‘I was quite seriously ill’

The New York Times

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