Tony nominees talk about getting the acting
For this year’s Tony-nominated thesps, acting epiphanies — when everything suddenly clicks — generally involve a long, hard haul to get there. As when Henry Higgins shouts about Eliza Doolittle, “I think she’s got it!”Mark Rylance had reality as a checkpoint to portray his cocky, drug- and alcohol-fueled Rooster in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.” “With this part more than others, I had to make more of an effort to keep myself to myself,” he says. “I’m actually quite a careful person and he is a wild and reckless person, a very demanding character. I think the moment I felt all right about it was spending time with the person that inspired Jez. Once I met him I knew who the person was.” To complete his character, Rylance also checked out “a friend from childhood whom I went to meet again; he has aspects, this thing of moving his eyes all the time, like a caged animal.” Lily Rabe, performing in “The Merchant of Venice,” essayed her first Portia. “I don’t know if you ever quite feel that you’ve ‘got it.’ Because you’re doing Shakespeare and you’re playing one of the greatest parts ever written, you might think for a moment you’ve got it but you’re discovering every single night,” she says. “But I will say that that first night in Central Park was a night I’ll remember for the rest of my life, every single thing about it. We all knew we were part of something special and it did feel like magic.” Tony Sheldon has now brought his Bernadette, the veteran drag star of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” to four continents. “She’s the wise-cracking Eve Arden lady coming in these colorful outfits but she’s the heart of this show. It was early when it all came together,” he recalls of that first workshop in Australia. “While I had a full beard as I was performing, the way people were beaming, even though it wasn’t there visually, I knew she was there. And it hasn’t changed since.” Vanessa Redgrave had an advantage playing the female lead in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” that she didn’t have when she won her first Tony, for her perf in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”: the author. “The day I thought ‘My goodness, maybe I have got it’ was the day Alfred said to me, ‘Miss Daisy seems to be inhabiting you. It’s quite extraordinary. Carry on as you are.’ I can’t remember how far into rehearsals it was but fairly early on, and Alfred Uhry, the writer, saying that to me — suddenly it was like he’d given me some air for inspiration,” Redgrave recalls. “I decided, ‘All right, I’ll carry on as I am. If I go way off beam, Alfred or our director will tell me.’ “I never felt myself ‘I’ve got it!’ ” the actress adds, “because we actors can’t really ever tell ourselves that. The audience teaches you along the way. Your fellow actors are not giving you remarks or anything like that, but their performance is giving you thoughts. It’s a process in which perhaps one performance out of all, some 200 so far, you think, ‘Well, I think that’s kind of it.’ Not it, kind of it.” John Larroquette makes his Broadway debut playing J.B. Biggley in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”; he echoes Redgrave’s sentiment. “I try to avoid that ‘Eureka!’ moment. Doing eight performances a week, I want to keep going and trying.” Larroquette’s co-star Tammy Blanchard found her moment as curvaceous Hedy La Rue on “Opening night. As soon as I step out — there’s laughter. All I’m doing is walking and smiling, but the whole audience is just going crazy. It made me realize ‘I do have something here.’ ” What she did was give a spin to a ditzy caricature. “You don’t want to be too dumb, especially in this time. With humankind, everyone’s struggling and everyone’s proud to be a survivor in life. That’s what I brought to Hedy, that kind of rough edge. She’ll play dumb when she needs to play dumb and she’ll be sexy when she needs to, but she’s a survivor.” Tony winner Brian Bedford has scored his seventh nomination, playing Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He recalls how that assignment came about: “In 2008, Des MacAnuff, who took over at Stratford, said, ‘You should direct and play Lady Bracknell.’ A deafening pause from me; I thought it a terrible idea and said politically, ‘Let me think about it.’ ” Hardly a fan of the play and a critic of the beloved 1950s film version (“The leading guys are too old, and when they’re too old it isn’t very interesting, and I thought Dame Edith had probably done it too many times”), Bedford then re-read “Earnest.” “I realized it’s a marvelous part and even more it could be marvelous if you get inside and make it more serious. As soon as I started reading, I made a strong connection with this woman, I am old enough to have actually known women who were similarly — I don’t know the word — I wouldn’t say ballsy, there’s a better word, there’s ‘didactic,’ ‘opinionated.’ Very, very grand very rarefied people. “The most important thing was to find the voice. I did a lot of experimenting. At one time I would sound like Her Majesty the Queen. That was too confining. I needed a voice that had a greater range but the voice I use evolved with a tiny bit left of Her Majesty, and eventually this voice gave me a lot of freedom. … This allowed me to swoop all over the place.” Edie Falco plays the ditzy, tragic Bananas Shaughnessy in “The House of Blue Leaves.” “You know what? I go in never knowing and feeling secure. I always feel I’m never going to be able to do this,” she says. “When we’re rehearsing, part of my brain is up in the control tower and at a certain time that gets less and less. It’s usually when we start to have full run-throughs when we leave the rehearsal space. So when I feel that I know it’s going to be fine — and it’s always over a period of time — it’s when I’m thinking less and feeling more. That’s when I know I’m headed in the right direction. The intellectual part of my brain shuts down.” Ellen Barkin makes her Broadway debut, as Dr. Emma Brookner in “The Normal Heart.” “We did this in 12 days of rehearsals, a very fast accelerated pace and it worked for us. We didn’t have time to get nervous,” she says. Confined to a wheelchair with her legs bound helped Barkin summon Brookner’s rage. “That I can’t stand and it’s hard to lift my upper body, the rage gets bigger and bigger because it can’t come out any other way. She can’t make herself more powerful so I try to sit up and push myself forward.” One night that literally happened. “I hit the go switch and the chair took off and I almost fell off the stage,” she recalls. “I didn’t even blink, I did not stop raging or talking and I thought in the back of my mind, ‘If I go offstage I’ll be screaming from somebody’s lap.’ The guys later said, ‘We were ready to run and catch you.’” Bobby Cannavale plays the tormented ex-con Jackie in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Motherfucker With the Hat.” “When I read the play, I connected to it personally. I knew it was going to be a challenge and I’m always grateful for the rehearsal process because I get to earn my way to speaking without thinking,” says the actor. “For this I had to really train physically, which I’ve never done in my life. It’s the first time I made a commitment to getting into shape and my clothes are soaked through at the end but I knew I connected on an emotional level.” Physically, rehearsing a fight with co-star Chris Rock, “I busted open my head on my hairline and it bleeds a lot. I’m giving a lot of blood for this play and got six stitches. Not to mention what it’s done to my voice. I didn’t go to school or anything, so one of my insecurities is I don’t have the voice training or those things you have at drama school so when I’m out there it’s happening real to me.” Two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy plays Raisel in “The People in the Picture,” a woman who switches from her early 40s in Warsaw under the Nazi Occupation to age 79 in New York City. “I open the play as the older character and the entire story is told in her memory. I’m flowing back and forth as her memory does.
The thing people comment on most is this act of transitioning that happens before their eyes rather than someone putting a wig on me onstage. They’ll say, ‘How do you do that?’ It evolved,” Murphy says. Workshops and research helped. “The way I like to work is take in a lot of information and let it simmer. What I discovered is to have the character distinction come from within.” Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells are co-stars in “The Book of Mormon.” Gad’s been in workshops with the tuner “for three years in these little chunks,” he says. But not until “the second week of previews did I really start to understand what worked.” Rannells seconds that notion. “It was when we got onstage in front of an audience. Josh and I have a little breakup at the end of the first act, and I thought, ‘Oh God, now we’re in a real show, and I’m feeling real feelings.’ ” Tony winner Sutton Foster returns to Broadway in “Anything Goes,” playing Reno Sweeney, a role created by Ethel Merman and a triumph for Patti LuPone. “I struggled finding Reno,” Foster begins. “I was intimidated. That was the biggest hurdle: my confidence, convincing myself that I could do that part. It was hard to wrap my head around the idea of being in the same sentence with those other women.” Not until previews did Sutton’s Reno click. “It was scary because through the four weeks of rehearsal I felt I’m really close but I’m not there. I needed to figure out how Reno walks into a room. I would walk into a room and go to the nearest corner. Reno doesn’t do that. The answer was in the first scene of the play. I found her in previews, but she was not in my skin until a week before we opened. It’s scary, you have to trust. In the nick of time.” Judith Light’s Marie Lombardi in “Lombardi” isn’t just a character in Eric Simonson’s play. “When you play someone who is a real person, even though deceased as Marie Lombardi is, there’s a real respect that’s needed,” says the actress. Light avoided listening to tapes of Marie, choosing instead to work with dialect coach Steven Gavin “on lowering my own voice, because she drank a lot and smoked a lot. Then one day in rehearsal I started walking differently. I wasn’t sure where that was coming from. I asked the director ‘Is it bizarre?’ and he said, ‘No, keep going.’ On opening night Susan Lombardi came and said, ‘You are my mother.’ I’m pleased the family felt I’ve given life to the person they knew.” Beth Leavel also portrays a real person, record mogul Florence Greenberg in “Baby It’s You!” “I had no idea who Florence was. The first photo shoot we had, I put on vintage costumes from the 1960s and a wig, looked in the mirror, and the costume designer, myself and a fellow cast member went, ‘That’s who you are. That’s who this woman is.’ That was an epiphany for me. “Then there was a scene in Act II that has since been cut, but I went through that scene and realized. ‘That’s who she is — now get out of my way!’ Now I feel like I know Florence better than anybody. I feel confident speaking for her now.” Addie Morfoot contributed to this report.
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