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Dominic Monaghan (Rosencrantz) and Billy Boyd (Guildenstern) have spent the last month performing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead in Halifax.Stoo Metz -

As they filmed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy more than two decades ago, the actors Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd tended to spend more time with each other than most other actors. Their characters, the hobbits Merry and Pippin, were inseparable comic-relief rascals. By the end of the gruelling shoot, Monaghan and Boyd were inseparable, too.

While loitering on those film sets, sometimes atop a mechanical tree, they talked about how great it would be to someday work on stage together – to do a classic with dual leads. Maybe Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they thought, or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the 1966 absurdist tragi-comedy that revisits Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters.

Nearly two decades later, Boyd found himself in Nova Scotia, filming the Hulu adaptation of Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. Spending downtime at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, he got to know its artistic director, Jeremy Webb. They were discussing the idea of Boyd acting at the theatre one day when Webb dusted the cobwebs off a mechanical-tree memory: Would he and Monaghan ever consider doing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead?

Of course they would. Then, Boyd says, “It all just fell into place.”

The pair have just wrapped up a nearly month-long, sold-out run of Webb’s production in Halifax. It’s coming to Mirvish Productions’ CAA Theatre in Toronto beginning March 5; the initial run has already been extended to March 31. Monaghan (Rosencrantz) and Boyd (Guildenstern) spoke to The Globe and Mail by phone before one of their final Halifax performances.

What about Stoppard’s script appealed to you as actors?

Dominic Monaghan: It’s one of the classic two-handers. With Waiting for Godot, it benefits you to be a little bit older to be playing those characters. But the themes that they’re dealing with in both of those plays are things that all human beings are interested in, and certainly Billy and I are interested in. Life and death, and purpose and why we are here. What is time? What does it mean? What are we doing here? It’s a profound bunch of subjects and circumstances – explored by two people who aren’t necessarily the smartest people on the planet, with the backdrop of arguably the most famous play ever written.

What guided your interpretations of the characters? Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in Stoppard’s 1990 film remake are the obvious examples, but what were you looking toward?

Billy Boyd: It’s an incredibly funny play looking at very deep thoughts, so there were a few things coming into it that we felt really strongly about. Tom Stoppard said that ultimately it’s a comedy – and that it’s not funny, he feels like he’s failed. So it was very important to us to make it funny. And then the 25-year friendship that me and Dom have almost negates the need to build chemistry, because it’s there anyway. That was something we almost didn’t have to work on. I think it’s very important in this play that these two characters love and need each other.

Was there any part of your previous work, be it Lord of the Rings, your podcast, your Moriarty project or anything else, that informed you or helped you understand how to embody the play’s characters?

DM: There are a few vague correlations between the characters in Lord of the Rings and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – they’re two friends out on their own, two friends who don’t really understand the grand scale of what they’re involved in, but they’re trying their best. They’re literally little creatures just trying to figure stuff out and stay alive. The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a little different than Merry and Pippin, but of course, they’re in a much bigger story in which they are trying as hard as they can to affect some sort of influence.

There’s a comic bumblingness to both characters, but you can argue that Rosencrantz is more of a curious optimist, and Guildenstern is a bit more empirical and grounded. Still, both are struggling with the same things. How did you seek to play the characters to feel different, or to complement each other?

BB: Like approaching any play, the main thing is what’s written before you put anything else on top. Guildenstern, especially at the start of the play, tries to work things out, whereas Rosencrantz is much happier to let things be as they are. Which are two ways to look at life. And that does change through the play – but you’re right, as stereotypes, that’s why they are. They drift, and come and go as the play goes, as it should. Stoppard has written such a tight script that everything you need to know is written there. It can go incredibly deep at some points, and incredibly funny as well. Playing those moments as true as you can is where the character comes through.

DM: There’s lots of physicality in Rosencrantz. He’s sloppier than I normally move, and more hyperactive in his movements – and slightly foppish, because I’m wearing a ruffled neck and ruffled sleeves. Once I got into my costume, I thought, oh, there’s definitely some difference in the way that he moves than the way I would.

The plot tries to deny much agency to these characters as they try to find their way in Hamlet’s world. I’m curious how you wanted to embody that, and convey the emotions of those characters.

BB: It’s more absurd than some theatre. It’s not a kitchen-sink drama where the characters start one place, finish in another and you get a through-line with that. One scene could be completely different from the next. You have to remember these characters actually exist with words to say in another play. And when that other play comes, you have to think, they know exactly how to act here, as well as they should in Hamlet. Outside of that, you have to make decisions for every scene, and then somehow, in your head, know that it makes sense to the audience. But I think that’s much more interesting. Film can do linear stories so well; what is theatre for if not for being theatrical, and trying to ask questions in different ways?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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