Will Keen On Playing Vladimir Putin On Broadway in ‘Patriots’

Keen says that the invasion of Ukraine turned 'Patriots' — a play about the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the rise of Putin — into a show that's in "constant conversation" with the news.

Will Keen (l) as Vladimir Putin and Michael Stuhlbarg as Boris Berezovsky in Patriots. Matthew Murphy

Will Keen is currently playing the most despised man on Broadway, if not the world. That would be Vladimir Putin in Peter Morgan’s Patriots at the Barrymore. The show originated in England, where Keen won an Olivier Award as Best Supporting Actor—the lead role is actually billionaire Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, for which Michael Stuhlbarg recently received a Tony nomination—and Keen laughs at the notion his supporting position could cause the Russian dictator to chafe a bit.

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“One of the interesting things about this journey I take is the extent to which Putin plays to Boris in the first act,” Keen tells Observer. “It’s what Boris is comfortable with.” It’s also a trap. In Patriots, Boris Berezovsky is one of the oligarchs who supports Putin’s political ascent from deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to president of Russia, believing wrongly (as well as fatally) that they’ll stay in power and profit accordingly. Their rude awakening follows the intermission. “To turn all that around and give him the surprise in Act II—it is a fascinating interplay,” says Keen.

Keen had a leg up when it came to the nearly impossible task of casting Putin—namely the six years he put in as Michael Adeane, the queen’s private secretary on The Crown, Peter Morgan’s chronicle of scrabbled royals on Netflix. And he’s known the producer of Patriots (Sonia Friedman) and the director (Rupert Goold) for years. He was the first actor they called. “I did a reading of the play in the summer of ’21 and another in January ’22,” Keen recalled. “The idea was for Peter Morgan to finish the last season of The Crown, then take another look at Patriots, but when Ukraine was invaded, Sonia and Rupert felt it essential to do it now. I was in the fortunate position of having read Putin for two years.”

The company of Patriots. Matthew Murphy

The invasion of Ukraine turned Patriots into another play. Instead of Putin’s origin story, it became a chronicle of his cruelty, and audiences sit through Act II in riveting hatred. One by one the bodies of oligarchs fall like dominos as Putin feels betrayed by them. Berezovsky stayed a harsh critic of Putin—from the comfortable confines of London, where he nevertheless died mysteriously in 2013.

The show continues to evolve, Keen says, in what he describes as “a constant conversation” with the news of the day: “The play the audience is given seems to change infinitesimally every night. It’s a privilege to play in something which feels so vivid, to be in direct dialogue with people’s imagination.”

Playing a complex, complicated character whose face betrays no information but has smoke coming out of his ears was no easy undertaking for Keen. He achieved this by doing a lot of research, reading a lot of books and watching a lot of films—documentaries, in particular.

“I like to work from a kind of physical place,” he admits. “That’s where I started—his physicality, the physicality of his face and his body. For an imaginative springboard, I used this idea of how performative he is, the mask that he wears, the stillness and the tightness of that and what a maelstrom that creates physically inside, when you keep holding yourself back like that.”

Will Keen as Vladimir Putin in Patriots. Matthew Murphy

Just as it’s easy to feel a chill from Putin’s calm demeanor, it’s possible to read KGB training in his stoic stance. “It’s his right hand that stays very still by his side. That is apparently observable in quite a few ex-KGB people. It might have to do with a gun. Whether or not the gun is there, that’s where you’re trained to kept your hand in case you have to defend yourself suddenly.”

For Putin: The Early Years, Keen relied on Adam Curtis’ acclaimed documentary Russia: 1985-1999. “This guy was given access to Putin and shot about 72 hours of footage of him, then cut together into this very compelling documentary. There’s one image of Putin when he walks into the campaign room that really stuck with me. There are maybe 50 people sitting around a table, discussing the campaign and how well it’s going. It’s actually, I think, at the point of victory. Putin was pretty emphatic about how he thought the business of an election was humiliating and demeaning. He’s wearing a quite normal turtleneck sweater, and he’s got this very curious mixture of timidity and certainty. That was a very useful way into where he is in the beginning.”

One might find it a tad frightening to take on a negative force like Putin. Not Keen (exactly). “I don’t think I was scared about the fact that I’m representing Putin,” he confesses. “I suppose what made me feel nervous at the beginning was that—because people have such a clear idea of him in their heads—how I could satisfy that. But, actually, that anxiety vanished quite quickly because it’s a wonderful thing to be meeting people halfway. The conversation had already started, so that wasn’t really troubling to me. You can absolutely pour information into your head, but, at the end of the day, you’ve just got to do the play, which is written on the page.”

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Will Keen On Playing Vladimir Putin On Broadway in ‘Patriots’