When the ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ play, which opened in San Francisco in late 2019, was forced to close in March 2020 due to the pandemic, two out-of-town actors decided to stay here rather than direct home.
Their tenacity was rewarded.
Before COVID, Lily Mojekwu and Steve O’Connell were stage and film actors in Chicago who were cast for the West Coast engagement in San Francisco — the only place in the United States outside of New York where the show can be seen. Hired as ensemble members as well as stunt doubles for Hermione and Ron, they planned to continue in those roles when the show reopened, which they assumed would be in a few weeks.
O’Connell, who had signed a 15-month contract, was determined to stay and wait with his wife and children, as was Mojekwu and his significant other, a beagle mix named Hudson.
Six hundred and sixty-two days later, the show finally reopened and Mojekwu and O’Connell, to their delight, found themselves in the lead roles. They play married couple Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley who, along with the eponymous Harry Potter, saved the wizarding world in JK Rowling’s hugely popular series and are now married and in their late thirties with children of their own – children who enter Hogwarts themselves.
Mojekwu, who has worked with just about every top theater in Chicago — from Steppenwolf to the Goodman — and appeared in multiple TV series, ditched her Chicago apartment to come to San Francisco.
“I wanted to immerse myself in the experience,” she says. “I really like it here. My dog loves it here.”
The two explored every possible park and beach during the long break. She took pictures, kept a diary. She spoke so little to anyone other than Hudson that one day she was able to count the exact number of words she had spoken that day, and to whom.
“Now I’m back to speaking to people on stage and for other people in the audience,” she says.
For O’Connell, the weather alone made living in the Bay Area a no-brainer. Like Mojekwu, he has worked with many Chicago theater companies, including Victory Gardens and Chicago Shakespeare. He also appeared in a recurring role on “Empire”, worked on other TV series and recently made his film debut.
Although the Bay Area doesn’t offer as much theatrical work as Chicago, both actors say the decision to stay was the right one, in part because of challenges with their current production.
‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ – based on an original new story by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne (who wrote the screenplay) and John Tiffany, who is the director – was originally a two-part epic. For this production, she was reconfigured into a one-part play and is the first in the Harry Potter franchise to be staged live. (The two-part original played not only on Broadway, where it’s still running, but also in Europe, and won various accolades.)
For the actors, it is particularly difficult.
“I’ve never done magic before!” exclaims Mojekwu. “We learned the basics from 2019. It takes time and I’m getting better and better.”
She adds that she came to the show with a clean slate, having never read the Potter books.
O’Connell, on the other hand, is a lifelong fan, one of those people, he says, who lines up at Borders on the day each new book comes out. (“Well, maybe not the midnight line,” he says.) How did he separate his approach to acting from the preconceived notions gained from reading the books and watching the movies?
“The process always starts with the script,” he says, “which is wonderful and gives clues to how these people are as adults. … I thought in advance that there might be residue (impressions) of the movies that I might try to emulate, but that didn’t happen at all. Once I was in the room with my fellow actors and working on the script, it it was about playing with the people in the room with you.
Mojekwu ended up reading the books but didn’t watch the movies. “I have a sense of how Hermione operates in the world,” she explains. Whatever the role, she questions how she resembles the character, finding ways to humanize her as much as possible, especially with larger-than-life characters, like Hermione, who is intelligent, fearless, and independent-minded.
Both actors feel like they’ve hit the jackpot performing such beloved roles in this beloved play in this beloved city. Mojekwu describes the experience as “rugged, athletic, thrilling”.
“There are gems in a career, and this is one,” she says.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO:
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”
Or: Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., SF
When: Until September 4.