Will Keen on Playing Vladimir Putin in ‘Patriots’ on Broadway: ‘The Sign of a Great Liar Is the Ability to Lie to Oneself’

How do  you play someone as notorious as Vladimir Putin?

It would be easy to telegraph his cruelty, to turn him into a mustache-twirling villain. Or to give over entirely to caricature, without capturing what’s beneath the surface. Will Keen, who embodies the president of Russia in Peter Morgan’s latest play, “Patriots,” avoids these pitfalls. Downplaying the complexity and ambiguity of his performance, he says, “Luckily, he doesn’t have a mustache, so that wasn’t a problem.”

More from Variety

The British actor has had some time to live in the president’s skin: He played him in the first readings in 2021, and then in the 2020 Off-West End production and the 2023 West End transfer. That performance yielded him an Olivier Award for best actor in a supporting role. Now Keen is making his Broadway debut in the play, currently in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

“Patriots” centers on Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who helped Putin rise to power, only
to find his creation not to be the puppet he expected. Keen takes Putin on a journey from seemingly naive protégé to master manipulator — leaving audiences to wonder how much he changed or if he had been hiding his true nature all along. The Broadway production comes with original director Rupert Goold and stars Michael Stulhbarg as Berezovsky — taking over the role from Tom Hollander.

Keen is perhaps best known to U.S. audiences as Father MacPhail in HBO’s “His Dark Materials” (his daughter, Dafne Keen, was the series lead). But he’s a veteran of the stage, having taken roles ranging from Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” to dual roles  in the world premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia.” Goold first spotted him in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe and championed him for a part in a 1996 production of “The Merchant of Venice” he was assistant directing. It was also Goold who suggested him to Morgan for “Patriots” – though it didn’t hurt that Keen had appeared in Morgan’s series “The Crown” as the Queen’s Private Secretary Michael Adeane.

Will Keen portrait
Will Keen portrait

“I thought that superficially in build and look he resembled a younger Putin. But he also has a kind of coiled intensity onstage as well as breathtaking wit,” the director notes. “He is able to act as though his performance is being sucked out of him like a tight straw, which felt useful for the hidden quality of the ex-KGB operative.”

Indeed, at a glance the likeness between the affable actor and the autocrat isn’t readily apparent — but onstage Keen utterly transforms in mind and body. He mirrors the tight body language and the clipped speech, along with the steely stare that hints at much more behind the mask.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about his physicality,” Keen says, “not just of his body but of his face. His smile, what his mouth is doing and what those eyes are doing.”

In fact, maybe most intriguing to the actor is the extent to which Putin himself is putting on a performance. “Without giving anything away, I will say that the sign of a great liar is the ability to lie to oneself,” Keen says. “So it doesn’t mean the experience of being that person isn’t real to them. So what the truth is becomes a slightly semantic point. The truth — as lived from within that body and mind — is what it is.”

As for the best insight into Putin’s flexible relationship with fact and fiction? That would be  “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President,” a 2000 book that was published when Putin was first elected. “Putin himself gave his blessing to it, so it might be considered the one that takes the most largesse with the truth,” Keen says dryly. “But it shows me how he sees himself. It was a different perspective from someone on the outside looking in.” 

Goold praises the actor’s commitment to both the physical and mental transformation. “Will has found a brilliant exterior, the cowboy walk, the gangster hands, the small man in big clothes,” he notes. “But he’s also not tried to judge Putin the man, but instead find the truth of Putin the paranoid patriot that Peter has written. Peter’s Putin is driven by a fierce sense of national loss and personal ambition and Will has really unlocked that. As a collaborator he is brilliant on text but also brilliantly playful. He’s a dream to work with!”

And, Goold adds, nothing like the character he plays, “Will is genuinely the nicest man in the world so it’s bizarre he’s this brilliant at playing psychopaths!”

For tickets and more information on “Patriots” visit https://patriotsbroadway.com.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.