“Billions” star Stephen Kunken talks about the climate change play “Kyoto”

The Royal Shakespeare Company and Good Chance's climate change play “Kyoto” represents “the existential crisis of our time,” according to its lead actor, “Billions” star Stephen Kunken.

Written by Good Chance co-founders Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson (The Jungle) and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, who previously collaborated on Stranger Things: The First Shadow, the play recounts the hours of tense negotiations that led to the signing of the landmark UN climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, in December 1997. The historic agreement was signed unanimously by 176 nations and paved the way for much of today's environmental legislation. A trailer for the play has also been released (see below).

“Kyoto” is about oil lobbyist Don Pearlman, who has made it his mission to delay and postpone consensus at all costs by sowing doubt at every turn and questioning the scientific legitimacy of the evidence for climate change.

Pearlman is played by Tony-nominated US actor Kunken, who was most recently seen as James Jesus Angelton in the BAFTA-nominated series “A Spy Among Friends”, as Chief Compliance Officer Ari Spyros in seven seasons of the Showtime series “Billions” and as Commander Warren Putnam in five seasons of Hulu's “The Handmaid's Tale”.

“There is something special about the moment we are living in and it is fascinating that there is now a snap election that has just been called [in the U.K.] – we are approaching this in the States, where we are preparing for one of the most partisan, completely divided periods in American history, and it feels like there is no common ground,” says Kunken diversity“Even on something as fundamental and as important as climate change, I don't quite understand how we can't move forward, how we can't reach agreement. This is the existential crisis of our time.”

He adds: “One of the incredible things about this play and about being an actor is your responsibility to be empathetic and to try to figure out the musculature and the connections between you and the character.”

“No matter how awful that person may or may not be – Ari Spyros or Commander Putnam are not necessarily the most delightful people on the planet – you have to find a way to get to them and understand them to make them real people,” says Kunken. “And when the idea came up to play Don Pearlman, a man who is completely on the opposite side of climate policy and climate change from me, I thought this would be an incredible opportunity to find out and understand the other side of that argument.”

Kunken says that Pearlman, much like his character in “The Spy Who Came Out,” is someone who operates in the shadows and there isn't much public footage of him. The actor benefited from long conversations with Pearlman's son, Brad, to bring the character to life. Kunken also says that no one on the creative team wanted to “attack” Pearlman.

“We were all really keen to find out what the truth was about this guy and give it as much credibility as possible,” says Kunken. “You don't get anywhere by making him a paper tiger. He has to have a reason for being that is deeply felt and deeply rooted in a truth for him.”

Kunken says the play weaves together satire, drama and raw realism, and that the Pearlman character is playing three-dimensional chess the entire time to keep America on top.

“But America at the top of the world rankings means nothing if the planet is going down the drain,” Kunken says. “And that goes for all countries – for China, for Britain, for Russia, wherever – it's like going to the bathroom in your own bedroom. We need to work together. And hopefully the theater is a great place to explore how we do that.”

The actor says that while there is no silver bullet solution to climate change, the main takeaway he wants audiences to take away is that it is possible. “That's the interesting thing about the direction of this play – it doesn't require an intellect to move us forward, it just requires a soulful commitment to step into the unknown,” says Kunken.

“Kyoto” will be performed from June 18 to July 13 at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Watch the trailer below.