All I can say is, thank goodness Carrie Coon received a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut performance in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I attended the show a few months ago and expected to be depressed for three hours by George and Martha’s dysfunctional marriage. In actuality, the production, while still quite heavy, offered many humorous moments– a lot of them because of Carrie’s fresh and funny approach to playing Honey. Then, when I met her backstage after the show, she welcomed me with open arms and could not have been nicer… in fact, you could even say that she was as sweet as honey!
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
CC: I saw a production at the Akron Civic Theatre when I was ten that had children my age acting professionally. Because of our means and my obligations to a family of seven people, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to pursue it until my senior year of high school when I was cast as Emily in Our Town.
Did anyone/anything inspire you to become an actress?
During that terrible high school production of Our Town, I was aware of the power of Thornton Wilder’s words, and specifically Emily’s final monologue. We perhaps weren’t doing it justice, but I think the potential impact was not lost on me. I suppose that first taste of possibility was the most concrete inspiration I had experienced.
When you made the decision to go into acting was your family supportive?
Extremely. My grandparents used to pick me up from away-games during soccer season, feed me in the car, and whisk me back to the University of Mount Union for play practice. They and my parents never missed a production, and when I was offered a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get my MFA, they all told me to go. I imagined that they would encourage me to pursue a more practical degree, but all they wanted was for me to have the opportunity to live a life that I loved, doing something I was passionate about. Twelve family members rented a loft in Chinatown to be with me the weekend of my opening on Broadway. It doesn’t get more supportive than that.
You got your MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. What training did the school provide you with to help set you up for a successful career?
At that time, the program only accepted ten MFA actors every four years, so we were able to log a lot of time on the stage. It also boasted a great, old-school voice teacher who taught me a lot about vocal production, IPA, and my breath. I found that the vocal work was the single most important aspect of my training, as it helped me open up into my body and use it with more purpose.
What was your first job out of college and how did it come about?
My first job was actually a few months before I graduated from UW Madison. My professors made accommodations for me during the semester so I could join a few of them in a production of Our Town at the Madison Repertory Theatre with Andre De Shields featured as the Stage Manager. Emily, my very first role, became my first professional role, thanks to Richard Corley who was the Artistic Director at the time and who would bring me back a few more times to work during his tenure at the Rep (which, sadly, no longer exists).
What was the audition process like for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company?
I had auditioned for Steppenwolf several times before the role of Honey came up. Erica Daniels, the casting director, and her team are very respectful of actors. They make sure you have auditions materials far in advance and, therefore, expect you to be well prepared. I ended up going in for Honey three times: the first was a screening audition that was taped for the director, Pam MacKinnon; the second was a callback with Pam, Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in the room. An hour after that audition was over, my agent called to say they wanted to see me ONE MORE TIME the next day. The following day, they called to offer me the part.
You performed Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? at both the Steppenwolf and Arena Stage. How has Honey changed through the course of moving the production?
I would say our production was very consistent, aside from some tweaking of the dynamics during our rehearsal process for the remount on Broadway. For me personally, I had relaxed into Honey physically. She was much twitchier in Chicago and DC– more hyper, more anxious. If anything, she calmed down a bit as I settled into the New York run. The only way to sustain a long run, I believe, is to stay curious about your process and keep trying to learn new things about your path through the play. I discovered a lot of extraneous movement that was not advancing the story, so I kept trying to simplify my choices.
You provided quite a bit of comic relief during the show. How did you find the comedy in the play?
Well, comedy is hard. If you ask for a laugh, you don’t get it. Comedy comes from playing the reality of the situation, so I guess I was trying to do that. It’s a fine line! Pam gave me a lot of freedom and then took out her scalpel to shape the play from moment to moment, and I trusted that she would tell me if I was being distracting. Or not funny.
You have mastered playing drunk…how?
Oh my goodness! I don’t know about THAT. Ever heard of that thing about how all artists steal? Well, I have a cousin, a very smart, funny cousin, who every Christmas, without fail, would be visited by some personal tragedy (usually of the romantic variety). We certainly didn’t want to see her sad, but we all secretly enjoyed watching her get drunk. She was really, really funny. A lot of Honey’s mannerisms come directly from observing my cousin during the holidays.
The other useful advice came from Uta Hagen’s Masterclass on YouTube. Drunk people don’t wish to appear drunk, they’re trying to do everything normally…and trying very carefully.
How did you revive Honey into your own interpretation?
I think that any actor taking on a role is destined to make his or her own interpretation because it is impossible for it to be anyone else’s. That’s one of the reasons good plays are revived over and over again; they can never, ever be interpreted in exactly the same way. In other words, I was doing my work as an actor (asking what do I want, what am I doing to get it, am I successful) in the presence of three wonderful actors doing the same thing, with a really great editor keeping our choices true to the material.
The cast is so talented! What have you learned from working with such skillful people?
Wow. I haven’t even processed everything I’ve learned from them. By example, they demanded a level of focus and intensity that I had never before had to sustain for three-plus hours. They made me aware of the cost of emotional truthfulness and the safety net of solid craft. They reminded me that being present with another actor will change the moment, and therefore the next moment, and on and on– more like a football game than a play. There’s more, I’m sure! Ask me again in six months…
Do you have a pre-show routine?
My routine changes for every show, as the demands for every show are very different. For VW on Broadway, I would try to get my rollers in before fight call, and then put on the bottom half of my costume, followed by make-up, which would leave me with about 20 minutes to sit, or read, or balance my checkbook. Then at a certain point in Amy and Tracy’s opening dialogue I would put on my jacket and overcoat and lipstick and head downstairs to sit backstage with Madison for a few minutes before our entrance. I wasn’t slavish about it, though.
What’s your favorite play?
I don’t know. I keep challenging myself to read more plays and I keep failing to follow-through. I think Our Town is remarkable in its truth and lack of sentimentality. I think Tracy’s August:Osage County is one of the great epic modern dramas (and I didn’t even see the Steppenwolf production). I loved Will Eno’s Realistic Joneses. There are some young, up and coming playwrights I love: Laura Jacqmin, Amelia Roper.
What’s next for you in the theater world?
No idea! Doing a lot of readings and I’ll be guest-starring on an upcoming episode of Law & Order: SVU.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
Save your money. You don’t ever want your artistic choices to be beholden to your budget. You want to be able to do a play you love at a little tiny theater in lieu of some big, ugly corporate project that pays the rent.
Have $50 transferred from your checking account to a savings account automatically every month. Start a Roth IRA as soon as you can, and transfer money from your checking account into it every month, as much as you can afford. In lean times, I transfer $125 and then, if I can afford to, max it out at the end of the year (the maximum yearly contribution to a Roth IRA is $5,500).
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have other interests besides acting, because it will not always fill you up. Curious people are interesting people and interesting people are interesting actors. ♦