Minneapolis, Minn. — In 1660s London, men always played the female roles in the theater. Ned Kyniston was one of the best. Then one day, his world turned upside down.
Charles II, recently returned from exile, was a great fan of theater. But he decided it was time for change. First he struck down the law banning female actors. Then he made it illegal for men to appear as women. Ned Kyniston was ruined. Or at least Jeffrey Hatcher thinks he probably was. Other than effusive entries written by the famed diarist, Samuel Pepys, little survives of Ned Kyniston's real story.
"If there had been too much historical data, we might have found out that the way women came to the stage was a less interesting way," Hatcher says. "So I like the idea that there is just enough data that we can fictionalize the data around it, and come up with something that is a little bit more filled with drama and humor and irony."
This snippet was all Jeffrey Hatcher needed to create a tangled web of life, love and the struggle for happiness.
First he wrote a play based on Kyniston's life, and then the film, "Stage Beauty." It opens with the highly successful Kyniston, troubled by his inability to capture the Desdemona's death scene in Othello. Kyniston is played by Billy Crudup, who looks very good as a woman.
Ned is obsessed with capturing the essence of female beauty. He's completely unaware that his dresser, Maria, played by Clare Danes, also yearns to act. It never occurs to him that she may have some insight on playing a woman. He's also unaware she's in love with him.
To make things even more complicated, Ned has a lover, the Duke of Buckingham. But Buckingham seems more attracted to Ned Kyniston the woman, than Kyniston the man.
When the king changes the law, Maria suddenly becomes the best known actress in London. Ultimately both Maria and Ned have to struggle with who they really are, and where they fit in society.
"I'd be loathe to say it's about one thing versus another, because I do like to vote firmly for ambiguity," says Hatcher. "But I think more than anything else, it's about gender, and masks, and how it intersects with sex."
Jeffrey Hatcher says he wanted to write the story because it deals with issues swirling around today.
"We are living in a time where 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' is one of the most popular shows on TV. People argue which of the presidential candidates is the metrosexual, versus the heterosexual," Hatcher says. "And there are all sorts of interesting things people are talking about now in terms of femininity and masculinity, and how that's not exactly the same as sexual preference."
Hatcher is plainly delighted about "Stage Beauty." After a long career writing for the theater, he says it was liberating to be freed of the technical restrictions imposed by having to move actors on and off stage.
Richard Eyre, former director for the National Theater, directed "Stage Beauty." Hatcher says Eyre called in a lot of favors to get the film made, and the film is filled with cameo appearances by a number of major British stars.
Hatcher admits to a few nerves as the film's theatrical opening approaches. When a play opens, he says, there's only one set of reviews to worry about.
"But if you are up on screen in, let's say, even 500 theaters across the country -- which these days isn't such a big deal -- the idea that you could have 500 hits or 500 failures, 500 pans or 500 raves, that's just very, very scary. It's a very public success or failure. So that stuff is very anxious making, obviously but I am also thrilled to death," says Hatcher.