Nine floors above Times Square, Adam Driver hurtled through a door — or what would become a door once the set was fully built — thundering about the traffic, the parking, the trash. “This street’s dying of crotch rot,” he bellowed.
“Do I know you?” Keri Russell asked coolly.
It was the second week of rehearsals for Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” a combustible 1987 play about the unlikely romance between Anna (Ms. Russell), a serious-minded choreographer, and Pale (Mr. Driver), a hothead restaurant manager. Anna has a gentlemanly boyfriend, Burton. Pale has a wife, two kids and a line of cocaine where his superego should be. If you tried to match them on Tinder, your phone might explode. Still, anguish and pheromones jolt them into love or lust or something more relentless.
“It’s a weird love story,” Ms. Russell said once rehearsal had paused. “It’s a unique one. It’s a good one.” And it’s one that collides two masterly, if hugely dissimilar actors — Mr. Driver, 35, who brings a Method hyperintensity to every project, even the brash traumedy “Girls,” and Ms. Russell, 42, a former teen star who perfected steely interiority on the espionage drama “The Americans.”
“Burn This,” which begins previews at the Hudson Theater on March 15, was originally announced with Jake Gyllenhaal attached. (Other famous Pales: John Malkovich, Edward Norton.) After some scheduling zigzags, Mr. Driver replaced him. Ms. Russell joined the production last summer, just after she signed on for “Star Wars: Episode IX,” the ultrasecret final installment of the current saga in which Mr. Driver plays the angsty villain Kylo Ren. Whom does Ms. Russell play in “Star Wars”? She starred as a superspy for six seasons. Good luck getting her to talk.
Mr. Driver, a recent Oscar nominee for “BlacKkKlansman,” enrolled at Juilliard after a stint in the Marines and spent his post-grad years in the theater. But “Burn This” is his first play since he began shooting “Girls” in 2013. Ms. Russell was a Mouseketeer and then a fickle college student in “Felicity.” She has appeared in only one other play, Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” in 2004. Until her partner and “The Americans” co-star, Matthew Rhys, talked her into a reading of “Burn This,” she hadn’t wanted to do another one.
Ms. Russell and Mr. Driver know each other through Mr. Rhys, who appeared with Mr. Driver in the moody 2012 revival of “Look Back in Anger.” The two couples (Mr. Driver is married to the actress Joanne Tucker) live just down the street from each other in Brooklyn Heights and are friendly. Which probably explains why, during a brief photo shoot that morning, Mr. Driver messed with Ms. Russell’s boot when he was meant to lie reverently at her feet and why she suffocated him with her shirt just when he was looking especially sultry. It can be hard to smolder at 10 a.m.
Once they’d collected themselves, they sat down on the “Burn This” set to discuss big feelings, fierce chemistry and whether or not they cross lightsabers. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you want to work on “Burn This”?
ADAM DRIVER If I’m going to do a play, I like the idea of it being something contemporary, something American, kind of at a fever pitch. I knew this play from before, from Juilliard. I had played Pale, which is embarrassing, a kid in a costume at 23, being like, “I know what I’m talking about!” I had no idea.
KERI RUSSELL I hadn’t been actively searching to do a play. But I thought, I guess I’ll do the reading. And then it just felt like such an escape. We’re so inundated with all of this political stuff and obviously it’s very important. But it felt so nice to read something just about feelings. And it touched me. Everyone talks about the fireworks of Pale and how crazy he is. But there’s something about the relationship that really moved me. I cried.
DRIVER These people need to live gigantic lives in order to feel something. These people want to feel something big. We’re not often given that space to feel. Or probably we are, but we don’t take it. We’re too distracted by everything else.
RUSSELL Tanya Berezin, she holds the rights to “Burn This.” Before we started, she came in and said Lanford’s characters need everything about their lives to feel humongous. They wanted to do the best possible art, they wanted to fall in love in the best possible way. Everything had to mean something and it had to be huge.
And you sort of go, ‘Well, I did want to do that, but I guess I needed to make money, too.” Or, “I did really like that guy, but he was a lot of work.” Life moves in.
These characters are in so much pain. What’s the experience of rehearsing that kind of pain?
DRIVER The rehearsals are six hours long. You get in that mind-set for six hours and you go home, you’re still pumping, and it’s hard to not make everything urgent. My dog will do something pretty mundane and my first impulse will be like, “WHAT THE — ” [The rest of Mr. Driver’s sentence was too colorful for publication.] I’m not good at letting things go. Other people are and I envy that. I’m always working. It’s always in the back of my mind. There’s a benefit to constantly asking yourself questions about it. The disadvantage is you drive yourself insane.
In the play, Anna says that she and Pale are apples and oranges. I’m not sure they’re both even fruit. What attracts them to each other?
RUSSELL Pale’s feelings are so loud and he’s not embarrassed by them, he’s not ashamed of them. I know a few people like that and they’re so fun to be around. Pale, he’s so alive. Burton is a great guy. He’s rich and he’s polite and he’s nice. But he doesn’t have the stuff, the excitement. That’s what Anna wants desperately.
DRIVER I think there’s hopefully a physical attraction, though ——
RUSSELL I’m not going to do that.
This play only works if we feel that connection, pheromones that hit the back row. How do you find that?
DRIVER I don’t know if that’s something we really work on. I feel like either it’s there ——
RUSSELL Or it’s not.
DRIVER We don’t sit around and consciously work on chemistry. We have such affection for each other, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s what the play is.
RUSSELL But when someone is truly vulnerable in front of you, there’s this immediate connection, an instant intimacy. This crazy first moment where they meet, it’s so intimate, so raw. There’s definitely an animal thing in this connection. But I don’t know that you can work on it.
Do you think most people want what these people want, to feel overwhelmed by emotion, attraction?
RUSSELL Of course! Yes! That’s what everyone wants. Although these days all I want is a hotel room. Alone. Someone to connect with, who cares about that? I want room service. [Laughs.]
DRIVER Your laugh is becoming more and more maniacal.
So the sex in this play occurs offstage ——
DRIVER Except this time.
RUSSELL [deadpan] We are doing it onstage. Twice.
DRIVER No. [Laughing.] It’s offstage.
Still, there’s some kissing, and some hands under Anna’s robe. Are you working with an intimacy choreographer?
RUSSELL No, there’s nothing too crazytown. It’s pretty tame. I think we’ve both done a lot worse. There was one Tuesday morning on “The Americans,” 7 a.m., Staten Island, I show up and they were like, “This is the threesome on the bed.” I said to the sweet little assistant director, “I need a beer in my hand in the next 15 minutes or this is not going to happen.”
You have very different backgrounds. Keri, you’ve been working since you were 15. Adam, you had formal training at one of the best conservatories in the country. Do you feel like you approach acting differently?
RUSSELL I’m sure. My stage career is so limited and this is a new crazy leap of faith. I was not going to do it and Matthew was like, “Do it, do it. It’ll be fine.” I was like, will it? Knowing Adam a little bit, his sensitivity, I thought, Oh, I could do this with him. Because it’s not my world, it’s a different style altogether, which is very daunting.
DRIVER But it is your world.
RUSSELL It’s not my experience. Right now, I’m losing about 15 pounds of weight every day. Sweat and nerves.
Why do theater at all? Theater is very exposing. It doesn’t really pay. You don’t get to grow with characters as you did on your television series.
RUSSELL I don’t have an answer right now.
DRIVER Good, I’ll vamp. In theater, it’s different every night. The audiences are different. I mean, I came from a theater background where there’s always a new question to ask yourself. I got used to that. It was hard to adjust to suddenly doing a TV show or a huge franchise. That’s why I can’t watch anything I do. I know the potential of not having a right answer, of not settling. In the theater you get to explore it again tomorrow. Whereas in film, that’s it. Your mistakes, that’s it.
You’ve recently ended prestige series, “The Americans” and “Girls.” Are you consciously trying to choose different projects and different characters?
RUSSELL I like what I like. Probably if something came across that was like a 1980s spy I probably wouldn’t want to do it.
DRIVER You try to work with the good filmmakers if you can, then just because they’re different people, the things you work on are different. And you want to work with the best playwrights. But I don’t sort of consciously think, O.K., now I have to do a thing.
Adam, you’re just back from the Oscars. Spike Lee finally has a win. How did you ——
DRIVER It was a great moment. To be there to share that with him was pretty special. Being there for that, watching him talking about it all afterward was a pretty thrilling night.
This isn’t your only collaboration this year. You also both appear in “Star Wars: Episode IX.” What can you tell me? Did you have scenes together?
DRIVER Don’t know. Don’t know if we did.
RUSSELL Nothing nothing nothing.
DRIVER I can’t say if we had any scenes together.
No climactic lightsaber battle then?
DRIVER Someone had a lightsaber.
RUSSELL It was pretty cool, that’s all I have to say.
Correction: March 7, 2019
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Matthew Rhys’s relationship to Keri Russell. He is her partner, not her husband.