Will Frears provides a very fruitful case study in the practice of self-deprecation. Seated at a table in the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the site of his latest directorial effort “Still Life,” which opens today, the scruffy-faced Frears bobs, weaves and dances around any suggestion he may be talented or intelligent. His impressive résumé, which includes the highly talked-about play “The Water’s Edge,” is “what passes for my career.” Despite having an MFA from Yale, he’s “not sure how smart I am.” And any self-reflective insight is prefaced with “I don’t think it makes me very interesting, but…”
Fortunately, Frears, the son of film director Stephen Frears, can let his work do the talking. Since his 2003 breakout, helming the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Omnium Gatherum,” he has collaborated steadily with daring modern playwrights like Theresa Rebeck and Stephen Adly Guirgis and even replaced veteran James Lapine to direct “Terrorism.”
In Alexander Dinelaris’ “Still Life,” Frears tackles the fraught relationships of a group of fast-talking, thirtysomething New Yorkers. The play centers on Carrie Ann (Sarah Paulson) a famous photographer who has been creatively stifled by the recent death of her father, also a respected snapper. She finds an amorous salve for her grief in trend analyst Jeffrey (Frederick Weller), though one not without complications.
“They’re both keeping the world at arms’ length, and they’re not damaged by that — they’re still funny and clever and attractive and they use all of those things as weapons,” explains Frears between sips of a Starbucks Americano. “I like it because it’s so unashamed of being romantic. We were going to do a love story and make people cry, and there’s something nice about its complete lack of irony.”
Such unabashed emotional territory is not within Frears’ comfort zone (“I’m English,” he offers). But according to Dinelaris, it was his pragmatism that accounted for their successful collaboration.
“My writing can be romantic and on the sentimental side and Will is very practical — he sort of tamps that down for me,” he says, adding, “I’m Latin and he’s British so you can figure it out from there.”
Though born and raised in London, Frears actually owes much to moving to America. As a teenager he failed out of high school. “It was sort of beyond me,” he says. “I just sat in my room and smoked a lot of cigarettes and listened to the Smiths.” But he still took the SATs and ended up at Sarah Lawrence College. It was there, while taking an acting class, he had his first brush with theater directing, putting on Lee Blessing’s “Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music.”
After graduating, he interned at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, earned an MFA in directing from The Yale School of Drama and moved to New York. In 2003, Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten handpicked him to direct their post-9/11 dinner-party satire, “Omnium Gatherum.”
“He seemingly had grown up, almost literally, at that dinner party,” explains Rebeck. “He came from a world where high-profile personalities were constantly showing up at his home and getting into long and complicated drunken arguments.”
Indeed, Frears’ upbringing and lineage have been a mantle he has borne for better or worse. Mention his father and he instantly abdicates.
“He’s far more successful and talented than I am,” says Frears, 36. “We’re very respectful of each other’s space and acknowledge quite upfront the need for room and that the places to come together need to be careful.”
Those spaces will overlap more in the future. The young Frears has just finished his feature film debut, “Coach,” starring Hugh Dancy, and will soon start work on another script, a coming of age story about two English boys in the early Sixties.
Between these projects and his marriage earlier this year to writer Amy Larocca, it would seem Frears is enjoying a particularly sunny stretch of life.
“Everything, which always feels like seconds from disaster, doesn’t feel awful today,” deadpans Frears. “Which only means it will be horrible.”