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James Corden is attempting to break my fingers. “Trust me, this never fails. Put your fingers like this,” he instructs. Pushing my two index fingers toward each other so they make a bridge, Corden wraps his thumb and index around my finger bridge and yanks, trying to spread them apart. “Resist!” he says. “Push your fingers so I can’t break it!” We’re both British expats in America, and perhaps this makes me (foolishly) trust him. He asks me to conjure great things while trying to keep my digits together. “Think of the best gigs you’ve ever been to, times you’ve fallen in love, great kisses, time you’ve spent with your family, Christmases.… Look at how white my knuckles are!” My fingers don’t give way. “Right, now I want you to think of shit times, those worrying phone calls.…” And just like that, my index fingers separate. He smiles. I check my hands. They’re fine. “This is what I’ve learned: You’re infinitely stronger when you’re trying to find the positive,” he says and then takes a swig of his morning coffee. “I swear this isn’t some therapist bullshit.” And he’s right: It works.
If you’ve ever watched Corden’s Late Late Show—you probably have: In the first year of the show, it had more than 1 billion views online—you’ll know he’s an emotional guy. And it all stems from his first love: the stage. This year’s host of the 70th Annual Tony Awards, held on June 12 at the Beacon Theatre, cut his teeth on the esteemed wings of London’s West End before coming to Broadway, first as a teenager in The History Boys, then as a tireless comedic tour de force in One Man, Two Guvnors. Then, in January 2015, the charmer made the move from London to L.A., becoming—against many people’s odds, most of all his own—the late-night TV host with the most. Because of this meteoric rise in his profile, the Carpool Karaoke creator has done his best to remain humble. “The important thing to do is just Google Earth yourself every couple of days and realize how irrelevant you are,” he laughs, walking me around his CBS studios. We come up to his office door, which is marked by a plaque etched with JAMES CORDEN, the sort of corporate touch you’d expect from, say, Don Draper. Inside, however, it’s a different story, a sort of shrine to the poppiest of pop music. (There’s even a signed picture of ’90s boy band O-Town on the wall.) Let’s start with the music.
That’s a great statue of a gramophone.
Oh, no, that’s real. It’s Bluetooth. Look. [Switches it on]
Even the turning-on sound is epic.
It’s cool, innit? Do you love this song? This is Hozier’s best-ever song. It’s fucking brilliant. [He mouths along to “Cherry Wine,” scrunching his face.]
I only know “Take Me to Church.”
I’m not that mad on “Take Me to Church.” Heard it too much. Have you seen his videos? They’re like films. This is “Someone New.” Brill-i-ant. You know when you’ve got that much red wine left in your glass, you’ve decided to have a cigarette, and you’re lying down on the floor?
I better ask you some questions about hosting the Tonys.
But why? This is so much more fun.
Which wins: Broadway or the West End?
That’s very hard. There is no favorite. There’s a uniqueness to Broadway that doesn’t exist in any theatrical community anywhere in the world. So many theaters locked into such a small amount of space. What does it span? Ten roads? And they all back onto each other.
Whereas London’s West End is all over the shop.
Yeah. Say you and me were both working in the West End, and you’re in a play at the Haymarket, and I’m in a play at Drury Lane; our paths are never gonna cross. We’re never gonna have a drink after the show, I’m never gonna see you buying your sandwich in Pret a Manger. Whereas Broadway…
It’s the Olympic Village of thespians.
Yeah! I have had the two happiest moments of my professional life working on Broadway. It shaped my career. It shaped me!
I first saw you at the National Theatre in London in The History Boys.
Did you?!? To be in the first cast of a brand-new play by Alan Bennett is never lost on you. That play will be performed for the rest of our lives somewhere. That brought me to Broadway. It was incredible. I lived in New York with seven mates, and we’d wake up at four o’clock every afternoon. The second time I lived in New York, I went with my now wife for One Man, Two Guvnors, and I would not be sitting here now talking to you if it wasn’t for that play. It changed my whole life.
Was that a nerve-racking show?
Nah, it was just exhausting. When I first started doing [The Late Late Show], people talked to me about the grind. But once you’ve done 483 performances of One Man, Two Guvnors, and you’re flipping backward over a chair, having a fight with yourself every night, hitting yourself in the face with a bin lid.… My knees, legs, everything would ache. It was just painful.
Does one performance stand out?
The Tuesday night after the Tonys was the best time I’ve ever had on a stage. If I could stay in that moment for the rest of my life, I would. I walked on, and the audience wouldn’t stop clapping. I had to turn away ’cause I couldn’t not smile. I didn’t grow up in a family where you went to America. We used to go to Bournemouth [England]. Or we’d drive to the south of France, then stay in a caravan. To be in New York was amazing.
Are you crying, James?
It’s too much for me! I feel the same about hosting the Tonys. There are more talented people in that room than any other awards show in the world.
Are you worried about the future of theater?
The only worry is how to engage young people. If you’re young and in New York, it’s already a fucking nightmare because it’s a really expensive place to be, let alone if you want to buy tickets to a show. But a great theatrical experience beats a great film, it beats a great TV show, it beats a great song. On its day, when it’s truly brilliant, when you can hear a pin drop, and it’s happening right there, right then for the 700 people in that room, nothing comes close to it.
What would be your ideal role?
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was gonna happen. I was very upset that I couldn’t do it. Closer by Patrick Marber, True West by Sam Shepard, Angels in America, Jerusalem, Blood Brothers, Little Shop of Horrors, Hamlet! I hope that after this strange and wonderful hiatus I’ve taken from acting, I can return to do a play.
We are one year into The Late Late Show. Has it gone fast?
Yes, but by the same token, I can’t remember doing anything else. It’s all-consuming. In this one week, we’ll have done three original songs, a big dance number, a Carpool Karaoke with J. Lo and a big stunt with [soccer player] Thierry Henry. And it’s only Friday!
“A great theatrical experience beats a great film, it beats a great TV show, it beats a great song.”
Photograph: Ramona Rosales
Let’s talk about Carpool Karaoke. It’s become a sensation.
Crazy, right? As of today, we have the top two highest viewed online clips in the history of late-night television. Ever. Ridiculous considering a year ago…
…it didn’t exist.
Well, I didn’t exist! I still don’t in the eyes of most people. Not since [the BBC sitcom] Gavin & Stacey have I been so aware that I’m doing something that’s absolutely in the zeitgeist. Carpool Karaoke is a thing. Even Kim Kardashian posted a video the other day saying she was in a car with [rapper] Lil’ Kim about to Carpool Karaoke.
Which Carpool guest has surprised you most?
I’m surprised by all of them. [An unknown number rings his phone.] Do we answer it and see who it is? [He picks up.] “Hello? Who’s this? Hi, Joyce! I’m in an interview, can I call you back? Cheers, buh-bye.” Bloody real estate agents. When they get the bit between their teeth, d’you know what I mean?
It sounded like George Michael.
I swear it was not George Michael.
Who’s on your Carpool wish list?
Beyoncé! Bruno Mars!
Now you can get them! You’ve made it in America.
The idea of “breaking America” is not what it used to be. The internet changed that. No way 15 years ago would record companies have said, “Yes! Adele! Ed Sheeran! Sam Smith! This is it!” It used to be that if you wanted to have a hit record here, you had to leave your fan base at home, come here for 15 months, schlep around in a van, deliver your CD to a radio station in the hope that they would play it.… That’s gone now. I remember One Direction’s manager telling me about when they landed in L.A. before “What Makes You Beautiful” had come out, and there were 3,000 fans waiting for them at LAX. The guy at the airport said, “Who’s your security detail?” And their manager went, “Uh, me?”
If only Robbie Williams were born 15 years later…
Oh, my God! Robbie Williams when he looked that beautiful, with that song [“Angels”]? Forget about it. It would have been, like, Justin Timberlake levels of huge. No question.
You were awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire). Did you receive it from the Queen herself?
I received it from Princess Anne. You take these things with a bag of salt. It was wonderful, taking the parents to Buckingham Palace. You’re painfully aware of how undeserving you are and blissfully aware of how lovely it is to receive such a thing.
Do you have one of those medals?
I do. It’s in a drawer, next to my bed, beside my headphones.
What would you advise to other culture-shocked Brits looking to move to America?
Wherever you’re from in the U.K.—London, Manchester, Derby, Cornwall—you’ve grown up with the notion of a town center. L.A. is a collection of disparate towns for which they don’t really have a center. So you have to find your little bit. Once you find that, it’s fantastic.
What about New York?
Well, with Manhattan, every square inch of it is residential. People live everywhere, even just yards from Times Square. No one really lives in the center of London. In London, when you get to the center of town, up the Strand, through Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus and round up Regent Street to Hyde Park… there’s no ownership of it.
Carpool Karaoke with Sia
Do you miss anything? Quavers crisps? Marmite?
I don’t miss anything like that.
West Ham United F.C.…
I do miss that, but I watch all the games. The thing I never thought I’d miss is architecture. If you’re in London, you’ll always be rewarded if you just look up. “Oh, my God, how is this church in among these skyscrapers?” That doesn’t exist here. They rip ’em down, then build a new one.
You must miss your parents, too. Are they funny?
My dad’s funny. He was in the Royal Air Force and used to play jazz in the Big Band with the Squadronaires. He was also the host. My sisters are incredibly funny. Much funnier than I am—real showmen. We all take the piss out of each other.
Since you’re here for the long haul, are you following the U.S. election?
Of course. It’s completely different from Britain, isn’t it? There are fundamental things wrong with it. It shouldn’t be done for ratings or entertainment. However, 18 months ago, you, me, anyone else would have called it Bush vs. Clinton. And yet here we are. Bernie Sanders announced his campaign in a park with 11 people there. Donald Trump announced his, and people thought it was a joke. Regardless of where you fall, here are two people seemingly never in the race, saying the same thing at absolute opposite ends of the spectrum: “I’ve had enough!”
You’re a diplomat, James.
Well, people who feel incredibly disenfranchised—that’s what I find interesting.
Onto something lighter. Who were your last three texts from?
[Grabs phone] My wife. Best mate Ben, and then the last text is from my friend Louis who says, “I’m pregnant! It’s yours!”
Sounds like a fun guy. What’s the craziest L.A. party you’ve been to?
I haven’t been to a crazy party because people don’t drink here. If you have two glasses of wine, people are staging an intervention. If you have two glasses of wine at home, people say, “Why aren’t you drinking?”
What other adjustments have you gone through out here?
Before the show launched, if me and the wife wanted to go to a nice restaurant, we’d have to eat at 5 or 10:30pm. Luckily, that’s not the case any more.
The 2016 Tony Awards airs on CBS Sunday, June 12 at 8pm.