Interview: Julia Stiles and James Wirt talk ‘Phoenix’

Phoenix The Play 2014 Julia Stiles James Wirt
Julia Stiles and James Wirt are complicated lovers in “Phoenix.”
Credit: Harry Fellows

If one person is determined to stay single and the other wants a relationship, can obvious sexual chemistry still find a way to endure? 

We spoke with Julia Stiles and James Wirt, the two-person cast of “Phoenix,” a comedy noir about a relationship that never quite makes any sense. Stiles plays Sue, a nurse who travels around the country and refuses to settle down. Wirt plays Bruce, a charming bachelor who thinks their relationship might work if they give it a shot. When Sue gets pregnant by Wirt, they both take off on a road trip to visit an abortion clinic in Phoenix, Arizona.

The show is playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Aug. 23 (

Stiles, on her character, Sue

“Some of the things that Sue says are so [bleak]. She’s such a Debby Downer sometimes. I tend to play against some of the lines, on the surface. So when Sue keeps bringing up her nihilistic view of life, I can laugh or I have to find a way to lighten it a little bit. … Sue is a woman who’s not as self-aware as she would like to think she is, and she’s probably very scared of real intimacy. But she’s also probably craving it, like any person.”

Wirt, on his character, Bruce

“Bruce is definitely an optimist. He’s pretty comfortable with himself. He has some charm and wit. And he’s an honest guy. I think those are nice qualities in anybody, especially this character.”

Stiles, on choosing this role

“I have a really short attention span with it comes to reading scripts, and this one drew me in right away because of the quickness of the dialogue. I really like the idea of a two-hander; the story’s very simplified when it’s just two people. You get down to the basic interaction between a man and a woman. It was instinctual; I had a gut feeling that I would enjoy the experience of working on this play. I guess what resonated with me was the idea of fight or flight in any relationship, a romantic relationship. Bruce’s character wants to fight for this relationship, and my character, Sue, wants to fly in the other direction. I thought it was very funny, even though the subject matter is serious — but it’s also not cynical, and I find that really refreshing.”

Wirt, on choosing this role

“We were looking at several scripts, and this was the most charming one. It’s a good little story and the characters were interesting. I like my character, Bruce, and I like the relationship that he has with Sue. I thought it was a cool script.”

Stiles, on creating backstories

“I’m not a big believer in backstory. I feel like backstory is pointless unless it’s actually expressed in the play — not just the words that you’re saying, but behavioral things. A character could have [gone to school in China,] but unless they start speaking Chinese in the play, it doesn’t matter. And then also as a human being and actor, you bring your own [story] to a performance that’s unconscious. But, yeah, if a character doesn’t speak Chinese in the play, then it doesn’t matter if they grew up in China.”

Read our review of “Phoenix.”

For more theater news and reviews, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.


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