Of Mice & Men Broadway Cast Celebrates John Steinbeck's birthday + Hanging out in Chi-Town

Screen stars James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester are all making their Broadway debuts in Of Mice and Men this spring, and judging by their Instagram and Twitter feeds, the trio is already hard at work preparing for their new roles. In honor of John Steinbeck’s 116th birthday on February 27, Franco, O’Dowd and Meester hit the books and took selfies while reading some of the legendary author’s celebrated works. (And uh, in the case of Franco, dressed as a gangster and renamed the book Of Mice and Menz.)

James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester, and Jim Norton recently talked to Broadway Direct about their first encounter with this American classic.

The new Broadway revival of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men brings together a remarkable group of actors for whom the work of the Nobel Prize–winning author has been a great influence in their lives. “One of the great things about getting this project together is realizing the impact Steinbeck has had just internationally,” remarks Anna D. Shapiro, director of the new production. “It is amazing—this really diverse group of people find their intersection in this writer.”

James Franco plays George, a nomadic ranch hand who travels with his friend Lennie from job to job in Depression-era California. Mr. Franco is an actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher, and author who began his career on TV’s Freaks and Geeks, won a Golden Globe Award for playing the title character in the TV biographical film James Dean, and received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in the feature film 127 Hours.

Steinbeck is my man, he strangely feels like a father, because I read him religiously when I was younger. And still do. Before I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a marine zoologist because Steinbeck had made me fall in love with the character Doc from Cannery Row. Long before I obsessed over Dean in the part of Cal Trask in the movie version of East of Eden, I obsessed over the book version, Steinbeck’s epic about the Salinas Valley. There is no doubt that I saw my friends and I, drinking about carousing, as counterparts to hapless versions of King Arthur and his Round Table, cast as the lovable vagabonds in Tortilla Flat. But Of Mice and Men is one of the greatest because it gives us everything about life in a compact little parable: work, friendship, love, jealousy, violence, death, loneliness, everything is there. It’s the ultimate dramatic bromance and something that has lived in my heart from the first time I read it for Mrs. Paugh’s ninth grade English class.

Chris O'Dowd plays Lennie, the gentle giant with a knack for getting into trouble. Mr. O’Dowd is making his Broadway debut following extensive theater work in Ireland and on London’s West End. He is best known for his roles in Bridesmaids and the HBO series Girls.

When I was young, from time to time, Irish traveller families would come through town. Very often the children would even join our little school for a few weeks or months. On one of these occasions, we happened to be reading Of Mice and Men for the first time. Because of their erratic education, Traveller kids often weren’t the best readers, and I can remember an embarrassed boy called Declan struggling his way through Steinbeck in front of the class. His reading age may have been much younger than ours, but in the same way that a broken clock is accurate twice a day, whenever Declan read Lennie, it sounded just right.

Leighton Meester plays the coquettish wife of Curley, the Ranch Boss’ son. Ms. Meester began her career performing in regional theater before receiving critical acclaim for her portrayal of Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl and has appeared on 24, Entourage, and House. Ms. Meester is also a singer/songwriter, and her film work includes Country Strong.

Since my first time reading Of Mice and Men, I've revisited it to find its meaning has changed for me over time. The book endeared itself to me as an adventure, a melancholy story of two men who find each other in the solitude of work. As an adult, I now understand it to be fraught with symbolism and an impeccable representation of the social and racial climate of its time. Steinbeck has such an ability to capture loneliness, the subversive nature of prejudice, and the profound beauty of the human heart. I am so incredibly humbled and inspired to help bring his world to life.

Jim Norton plays Candy, the Ranch’s swamper, and for more than 55 years Mr. Norton has had a wide and varied international career on stage, television, and in film. He won the Olivier Award and Tony Award for his performance in The Seafarer, and his film work spans from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to American History X.

I was 19 when I got my Equity card. I remember it so well because that was the year I started to read Steinbeck. I read The Red Pony, and then moved on to Of Mice and Men, and of course all his other great stories. I loved Steinbeck’s ability to write so movingly about the human condition. The vulnerability of his characters, hidden beneath their rugged exteriors, struck a deep chord within me. Coming from an Irish society where it was unusual for men to reveal their more tender feelings, I was very taken with these works. The economy of his writing proves that less is often more. My grandson Joshua has been studying the book at school. When I told him I was doing Of Mice and Men, he gave me his school copy of the novella and this has been my study copy preparing for what I hope will be a great theatrical event!

The cast out and about Chi-Town
James Franco, Jim Norton, Ron Celphas Jon and Chris O'Dowd at Luna Gale

Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester at The Second City Theatre

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Book post? :D