From the dawn of entertainment, there's always been a version of social distancing just for thespians: the solo monologue. Just the text and an actor alone with their interpretation expressed directly to the audience. Actors love them because it's an unfiltered conduit for expression, but most monologues live in the theater space. However, a global pandemic seems like the perfect event to inspire a monologue renaissance of sorts, as it's a lot safer to have fewer actors connecting to the audience these days.
Celebrating the monologue resurgence is the new Amazon Original anthology series Solos, which was shot last year during the pandemic and features a host of A-list actors, including Helen Mirren, Uzo Aduba, Constance Wu, and others, in shorts wherein their characters opine at most to one other character about a host of topics from technology to death. The characters are loosely connected and it all culminates in the finale, "Stuart," in which two disparate men — played by Morgan Freeman and Dan Stevens — meet each other for a heavy conversation on a beach.
SYFY WIRE recently digitally interfaced with Stevens in London where he talked to us about the uniqueness of this very actor-centric project, his own love/hate relationship with technology, and the magic of working with Morgan Freeman.
Because of the intimate nature of this whole project, did Solos creator David Weil let you look at all of the character options and then request the piece that appealed most to you?
No, I didn't really have a choice. It was very much something that just came my way and it was obviously something I was going to want to do. Initially, I did the voice of the computer in Helen Mirren's episode, "Peg." That was a way to ease myself into the Solos mindset. And also just to get to watch David's writing at work, as it were. And to see someone like Helen Mirren really go to town with this stuff, and just go on such a lovely journey with it. It's very theatrical in a way.
The closest thing I can think of [like it] that I saw was maybe Alan Bennett's Talking Heads in the U.K. back in the day, where it's just a very simple setup, but really wonderful storytelling, championed by great actors. I always remember watching those and just thinking, "God, how brilliant!"
With productions slowly figuring out how to go back to work safely, this must have been very attractive as a way to get back into work?
I really enjoyed the inventiveness of a project like this coming out at this time. Something that could be shot practically was very appreciated by the cast and crew. But on top of that, it's something that so clearly got to grips with some of the big themes and questions that have been flying around this year. And not to have something that's specifically about a pandemic or a virus; there's not a mask in sight. But it was more about the human questions and some big realizations, and self-reflection, almost to the point of narcissism in some of the episodes. There's some big, big things going on. And I always enjoy anything that can take on the big questions in such a playful way.
With "Stuart," did you know Morgan Freeman would be your scene partner from the top?
Oh, from the get-go. Yeah, that was very much on the bill and that was extremely exciting. And not a little daunting. But he puts you at your ease, and is very, very easy to follow. He's just got such warmth, and a natural rhythm to the way he works. And he engaged with the material just so instinctively. It was such a joy to watch him work.
All of the episodes have a very theater-centric feel to them. Because of that, did prep follow more of a theater model with rehearsals prior to shooting to work out the depth and breadth of the text together?
Yeah, sadly, we weren't really afforded rehearsal time, I guess for practical reasons. But we were able, because of the nature of it just [being] the two of us, we got a lot of takes and a lot of runs at it. Some of those takes were 30 minutes long, which is incredible. Very unusual. But that enabled us to find the rhythms and then we would sort of jump in and break it down a bit more. But yeah, it had at times a very, very theatrical feel to it and felt like being on a very surreal stage, you know?
How long did you get to shoot "Stuart"?
I think my personal involvement with that episode was just two days. It was a very, very strange two days. And I think for Morgan it was maybe an extra day. But was very, very quick and really amazing to watch everything happen so efficiently given everything that was going on.
Did you shoot it in a real environment or was it all virtual or something in between?
The set itself was incredibly impressive. It really was a huge beach they built. There were these dunes behind us, covered in sand and real dune grass. There was a little building in the background so a lot of it was quite photo-real. And they even put a little TV screen out front of the sea horizon to give us an eyeline which was very thoughtful of them. It was as good as it could be really. And it really does feel like we're on a beach at times. They really went to town on the scene and on the aesthetic so I think it lends itself to some kind of naturalism.
Your character, Otto, goes through a really distinct emotional arc with Freeman's Stuart. Was that defined from the start or did it become more apparent to you in the playing of it? And did it make you look at technology, and what it might allow us to do to one another, in a new way?
That was a real evolution for the character, specifically his feelings toward this guy and what he's done. Initially, there was almost this tone of like a heist. He's going to go in and get this thing back. There's a revenge trajectory that he's going to get his revenge on this guy who ruined his life, to an extent. And that definitely, very quickly, evolves as things become apparent and he gets to know this guy pretty quickly. And also realizing what he contains and the value of that. It's a very unusual journey.
In terms of my own attitude to technology, I don't know if it changed that much. I'm certainly a real nerd for early adopting gadgets and services and subscriptions. I love it. But at the same time, I'm always thinking about how that's changing us as people. A lot of the themes throughout this show, really, but our episode as well, they really resonated with me because they're questions I'm always asking anyway.
Getting to just be in a piece with Morgan Freeman must have been very special. Was there anything he did, or asked of you in your performance, that stands out to you?
I don't know if I can pinpoint anything, specifically. It was really beautiful to watch him play the emerging humanity. Going from this catatonic state to something more fully formed and human. And then ebbing and flowing with that. The playfulness with which these little moments come forward and the flashes of things. There's a moment where it changes from one mode to another, and it's like personal memory recollection, and there's just a shot of him on the couch and you see something cross his mind. I don't know exactly what it is, but it's masterful. I love watching that on a screen, but getting to see it up close and personal was magical.
Your story ends the whole series. Did Weil impart anything about that fact that impacted how you played Otto, or provide any insight about the series themes?
I wasn't even that aware that ours was the grand finale. [Laughs.] There wasn't that sense at all. I don't know if he even decided that. I don't know. I was just there doing my thing on the day. And I hadn't read the other ones. I didn't really know what connective tissue there was, if any. I could sense a little bit from the "Peg" episode with Helen Mirren. I think that's probably something that's quite fun to explore, as you're watching them all together to see what little Easter eggs there are.
Solos debuts on Amazon Prime on May 21.