Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope had never met each other when they were hired to play artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. There was no chemistry read. Mirroring the subjects of the play, they were put in a room and asked to create something together. The result, with playwright Anthony McCarten and director Kwame Kwei-Armah, is The Collaboration, a dramatization of the mid-’80s artistic collab between the two pop painters.
“It is about two men with seemingly no common ground finding common ground,” says Bettany. “Their art really clashes—their idea of what art is for really clashes, and what art should be really clashes.”
After premiering on the West End in February 2022, The Collaboration is now running on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, a co-production with original producer Young Vic Theatre—and filming for a screen adaptation has already been completed.
Film and television star Bettany (Emmy nominated for his turn as Vision in Marvel’s WandaVision) and stage vet Pope (a two-time Tony nominee in the same season for Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud) have brought the artists to life in all three iterations of the script. Bettany is Warhol, whose star has begun to dim by 1980; Pope is Basquiat, a young street artist on the rise in the New York City art scene. The Collaboration gives audiences a look at their sometimes sparring, yet ultimately loving relationship. The 1985 poster for the Shafrazi Gallery show depicted the artists wearing boxing gloves, after all.
The Collaboration is the second installment of what playwright Anthony McCarten is calling The Worship Trilogy, three debates on society’s obsessions with God, art, and money. The first part was the film The Two Popes, adapted from his play The Pope. The third part is the forthcoming non-fiction book and film adaptation Wednesday at Warren’s, Friday at Bill’s about Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.
In the years since their deaths, Basquiat and Warhol have become brands and icons, with the details of their real life getting obscured. The Collaboration wants to change that. “We were really trying to look outside of the art—and the commercialization of their art—to understand these two humans in their souls,” says Pope.
Indeed, when he was initially approached about playing Warhol, Bettany emphatically said no, because of his own preconceptions about the pop artist. “’I don’t want to play Andy Warhol and I’m not sure it can be done well,’” he recalls, feeling that Warhol’s carefully curated public persona limited a deep dive into the artist as a character. But then he read Warhol’s diaries, which opened up more possibilities for him: “He speaks in these long circuitous sentences and he sounds a lot more to my ear like Truman Capote than the Andy Warhol I publicly see when I look online.”
Bettany and Pope both showed up to the first day of rehearsal off-book, ready to excavate the relationship that McCarten created for the art icons in his imagined conversations between the two. “We’re not just here to give you what you can read on Wikipedia,” says Pope. “They had a connection. There was a love affair, if you will, for this period of time where they were just asked to create artwork together.”
Bettany shares a theory from McCarten (who also coincidentally dramatizes Neil Diamond’s life in the new bio musical A Beautiful Noise): “Documentary can get you to the front door of somebody’s house, but it takes invention to bring them in and have a cup of tea.”
The Collaboration takes place in 1984, within just five years of the unexpected deaths of each artist (Warhol in 1987, due to complications from gallbladder surgery, and Basquiat in 1988 from a heroin overdose). Both artists, though, have remained ever-present in contemporary culture. A Basquiat painting was the backdrop for a Tiffany’s ad campaign last year featuring Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and his Pez Dispenser (the dinosaur wearing a crown) adorns fashion pieces from Gap tees to Coach bags. Warhol was a celebrity in his lifetime with paparazzi snaps of his nights on the town as ubiquitous as his Marilyn Monroe screen-prints. They were, in the popular culture, art gods, to be worshipped.
Like most untimely celebrity deaths, their early passings certainly contribute to their mythologies, but each left behind a tangible legacy in their work, both separate and together. “We’re in debt so much to Warhol and to Basquiat for how much they gave when they were with us,” says Pope. “Whether we’re talking about the commercialization, the surface, and the celebrity [of Warhol]. Or Basquiat and hip-hop culture, graffiti, and spoken word—so much of what we see has evolved from the foundation these two artists contributed to their community.”
Adds Bettany: “It’s hard to overstate how much [Warhol] changed how the world looks." Bettany believes that Warhol’s pop art, which could be taken at a very surface level (particularly the repetitious prints of celebrities), were actually a “sly and clever comment on where we seem to be hurtling toward.”
“He predicted Instagram,” says Pope. “Andy used to paint and draw very beautiful things, but his work evolved into just this brand. That’s the thing we see now with social media: What’s your brand and what does it look like? And then you’re meant to do that thing over and over and over again.”
Also sourcing from Warhol’s diaries, McCarten has rooted out Warhol’s fear of his own waning celebrity. “He was a terrified young man for whom the world was very scary, and so powerful was he that he changed the world to think he was a star,” says Bettany. “And now there’s this young man [Basquiat] coming up doing figurative art, and he’s scared. Because for him it must look like a step backwards.”
McCarten has also found how the two opposites come together, sharing similar feelings of loneliness and close connections to their mothers. What began for Warhol and Basquiat as an arranged collaboration developed into a deep friendship, attending events together, working out together, getting pedicures. Basquiat even rented an apartment and studio space in a building owned by Warhol on Great Jones Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. And it was Basquiat who inspired Warhol to begin painting again after decades of screen-printing.
In bringing the relationship to life, Pope and Bettany have experienced a similar kinship in the past year. They would often call each other after rehearsal to continue talking about the play, leaving Kwei-Armah to question if they ever got any sleep when they would return to rehearsal the next day with new things to try. Pope points out with pride that Bettany is making his Broadway debut in the same theatre he did. And though they’ve yet to have a mani-pedi date, both men speak lovingly of their times together.
“I feel free on stage with this person, because I know that he’s creating and making so much space for all of the things I’m bringing to the character, and vice versa,” says Pope.
The feeling is mutual for Bettany: “Going on stage with Jeremy night after night is like flying in your dreams. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
The Collaboration opens December 20 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.