When the stage play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which originally opened in San Francisco in late 2019, was forced to close down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, two out-of-town actors decided to remain here rather than head home.
Their tenacity has been rewarded.
Pre-COVID, Lily Mojekwu and Steve O’Connell were stage and screen actors in Chicago who got cast for the West Coast engagement in San Francisco — the only place in the United States outside of New York City where the show can be seen. Hired as members of the ensemble as well as understudies for Hermione and Ron, they planned to continue with those roles when the show reopened, which they assumed would be in a few weeks.
O’Connell, who’d signed a 15-month contract, was determined to stay and wait it out with his wife and kids, as did Mojekwu and her significant other, a beagle mix named Hudson.
Six hundred and sixty-two days later, the show finally has reopened and Mojekwu and O’Connell, to their delight, have found themselves in the principal roles. They star as the married couple Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley who, with the eponymous Harry Potter, saved the wizarding world in J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular series and are now married and in their late 30s with kids of their own — kids who themselves are entering Hogwarts.
Mojekwu, who has worked with just about every prominent theater in Chicago — from Steppenwolf to the Goodman — and has appeared in several TV series, gave up her Chicago apartment to come to San Francisco.
“I wanted to immerse myself in the experience,” she says. “I love it here. My dog loves it here.”
The two explored every possible park and beach during the long hiatus. She took photos, 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’d spoken that day, and to whom.
“Now I’m sliding back into speaking words to people onstage 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’s 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 feature film debut.
Although the Bay Area does not offer nearly as much theater work as Chicago, both actors say the decision to stay was the right one in part because of the challenges of their current production.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne (who wrote the script) and John Tiffany, who is the director — was originally a two-part epic. For this production, it’s been reconfigured as a one-part play and is the first of the Harry Potter franchise to be staged live. (The original two-parter has played not only on Broadway, where it is still running, but also in Europe, and has won assorted honors.)
For the actors, it is particularly challenging.
“I’ve never done magic before!” exclaims Mojekwu. “We learned the basics starting in 2019. It takes awhile and I keep getting better and better at it.”
She adds she came to the show with a clean slate, never having read the Potter books.
O’Connell, on the other hand, is a longtime fan, one of those people, he says, who lined up at Borders the day each new book came out. (“Well, maybe not the midnight line,” he says.) How did he separate his approach as an actor from preconceived ideas acquired while reading the books and watching the movies?
“The process always starts with the script,” he says, “which is wonderful, and gives clues as to how these people are as adults. … I thought beforehand there might be some residual (impressions) from the movies I might be trying to imitate, but that didn’t happen at all. Once I was in the room with my fellow actors and working on the script, it became about playing with the people in the room with you.”
Mojekwu ended up reading the books but did not watch the movies. “I have an idea of how Hermione operates in the world,” she explains. With any role, she asks herself how she’s like the character, finding ways to humanize her as much as possible — especially with characters who are larger than life, like the smart, fearless and independent-minded Hermione.
Both actors feel they’ve hit the jackpot performing such beloved roles in this beloved play in this beloved city. Mojekwu describes the experience as “robust, athletic, thrilling.”
“There are jewels in a career, and this is one of them,” she says.
IF YOU GO:
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”
Where: Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., S.F.
When: Through Sept. 4.