“I couldn’t pass up this opportunity and I feel like it’s the story’s passion that really resonated with me,” Russell said of the story, set in New York City in 1987, about an unlikely and tempestuous relationship between a dancer (Russell) and her former partner’s brother (Adam Driver). “These people are at a time in their life before they have to deal with house payments, kids, and responsibility. They are so passionate about their art and passionate about wanting everything in their life to be the best it can be. They want things to matter. They want their life to feel big and important and creative. I related to this.”
Speaking after her opening-night performance, which received a standing ovation, Russell continued, “In the midst of all the dark things that’s going on in the world and how depressing and hard it is right now politically, a story about passion, lust, desire, love, and all the good stuff you feel when you are young seemed like a nice change and a great escape.”
Russell and Driver will share the screen—or, at least, some part of the galaxy—in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker later this year, but it was Russell’s longtime partner (and Americans co-star), Matthew Rhys, who made the initial connection between them: he and Driver starred together in the off-Broadway play Look Back in Anger in 2012. “Matthew has been enormously helpful throughout this adventure,” said Russell. “He’s supportive and he’s my best critic. He’s seen the show and given me notes.”
In the seven years since his last appearance on Broadway, Driver has been busy working with seemingly every major film director and earning an Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman, but Burn This brings him back to his roots in a major way. He first played the role of Pale opposite his girlfriend—now his wife, actress Joanne Tucker—when they were both students at Juilliard.
“I only did the play four times at Juilliard, so it was lingering in my mind,” Driver told reporters. “I wanted to do it again. The idea of not being able to articulate grief was something that I understood about the play, but the more I listen to the play, I understand the material more and why it is still going on. I realized it’s really all about Lanford writing about work. Everyone has this artistic way of working.”
Russell last appeared onstage in the 2004 off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig following her big break as an idealistic college student on Felicity. Returning to the theater world over a decade later has been, as Russell described, “a nerve-wracking” experience.
“It’s been really hard,” she said. “It’s a different ride every night and a huge learning curve for me. Luckily, I’m with such good actors like Adam, David [Furr], and Brandon [Uranowitz]. I feel like they catch me a lot. It’s starting to feel a little liberating—just a little. I’m just now not going to throw up!”
Russell is far too spoiler-savvy to reveal anything about whether she and Driver will actually cross paths in The Rise of Skywalker, but she credits the skills that allow him to play both a grieving brother in Burn This and the menacing Kylo Ren.
“What I love about Adam is his innate sensitivity underneath his huge physicality, which is why he’s so funny in the show,” said Russell. “It’s also his sensitivity that makes him such a great bad guy on-screen. I’m a big fan of his work.”