Geoffrey Rush has a soft spot for Susan Sarandon. It s understandable, seeing how they first met.
She handed me my Oscar, Rush says.
That was back in 1997, when Rush heard his name called as best actor for Shine. Waiting for him with his prize was Sarandon, the best-actress winner the year before for Dead Man Walking.
In a very numb state, I went up on the stage and thought, Walk toward the person holding the statue. Note to self, Put hand around statue. Don t drop. Turn around, say something to crowd, Rush recalls.
He got more than a golden statuette and a hug from Sarandon. There also was some timely advice on his way to the podium.
She was so human and so true. She looked me in the eye and she said, Just take your time, he says during an interview. That was so beautiful! This wave of calm came over me.
After that night, the two would occasionally bump into each other at premieres and even appeared together in the 2002 film The Banger Sisters, in which she rather rudely hit him with her car.
Flash forward to this year: Rush, 57, needed someone to play a queen for his Broadway run in the title role of Eugene Ionesco s absurdist comedy Exit the King.
Rush had won raves in his native Australia for portraying King Berenger, a dictatorial monarch facing both the decay of his kingdom and his own life.
It is a role that gives you a chance to play the full range of your instrument, he says. You re really up on the high notes and you re down on the slower, low notes. And you get to do all the flashier bits in between.
For New York, Rush needed a strong queen, one who has perhaps one of the best spoiler alerts in theatrical history. You are going to die in an hour and a half, she tells the king at the play s beginning. You are going to die at the end of this play.
Who better to deliver that than Sarandon?
Rush thought a personal touch was called for to coax Sarandon back on Broadway for the first time in 37 years. So he wrote her a letter and sent her Ionesco s play, warning her not to be alarmed by how abstract it is.
He said it was filled with amazing dialogue and moods that shifted from hilarious, burlesque pratfalls into the feeling that you might be sitting in a cathedral by yourself at midnight with a few candles.
Sarandon was intrigued. In a separate interview, she recalls getting the really funny, articulate and thoughtful letter – obviously, a very seductive letter.
It was a letter that basically sold the play as being something that was completely different and an experience that would really challenge me, she says.
She cracked open the script.
Then she signed on.
Her response to reading the play was she got it, Rush says, snapping his long, thin fingers. She got it like that.
Sarandon s addition meant the two Oscar winners would again share the same stage – appropriate, she says, considering the magical night they met: I always felt as if there was some kind of cosmic connection there.
The casting was completed with the addition of Lauren Ambrose, William Sadler, Brian Hutchison and Andrea Martin. Neil Armfield, who helped Rush adapt the play, directs.
The cheers that lifted the play in Australia continued in America. Rush, making his Broadway debut, has earned a Drama Desk Award and a best actor Tony nomination.
On June 7, he will be up against fellow Tony nominees Raul Esparza in Speed-the-Plow, Thomas Sadoski in Reasons to be Pretty, and Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini, both in God of Carnage.
For Sarandon, 62, working with Rush has been eye-opening. His stamina and generosity on stage have been really great, she says. He s really taught me how to be courageous and not worry about failure.
She says she likes to peer at the audience when she s offstage, watching as they react, transfixed, to Rush and his strange character s demise.
It s so transformative to see them in awe, to be in a place where there s magic happening – and that s Geoffrey, she says.
What might be next for this dynamic duo, now that they ve worked together on stage with such rewarding results?
A sequel, Rush says, laughing. Re-enter the King ! The king s back and he s madder than hell!