Kristine Nielsen is one of the most humble and intelligent powerhouse actresses currently on Broadway. Her unparalleled stage presence and uninhibited acting create the illusion that she is as bold and brassy as the characters she plays on stage. This, however, is not the case. In reality, Ms. Nielsen admits to being shy; the stage is her place to “go nuts.” In her interview, the star of You Can’t Take it With You shares her tips and tricks for letting loose and leaving it all out there on stage!
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
KN: I caught it quite young. Believe it or not, I was a shy, shy girl…I got involved in Girl Scouts. They had a drama badge and I had to do a piece. Our troop leader chose for me to play a villain—a Snidely Whiplash character and I just went for it. I had a lot of fun. People laughed and my mother was like, Oh my god, you’re funny! Who knew?! It started then and I just got to do drama all the time. When I was in high school, I was very lucky because I went to National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, and I had a great, great drama teacher there who really got me into it seriously. He helped me as an adviser and getting into Northwestern where I specialized in theater and then on to Yale Drama School after that.
Is acting still a way for you to step out of your shell?
I definitely do. That’s why I’m not good at all the things you young people are, at Facebook and all of that, I tend to try to stay a little private because when I like to share or be nutty about is on stage. Offstage, I’m a little quieter in life and enjoy family. But my clear outlet is going wild on stage. I love so much to make people laugh.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in the theater?
As I said, I had a great drama teacher, Ted Walch. He’s now a drama teacher, soon to retire, out in Los Angeles at Harvard-Westlake. The young man who plays Tony [Fran Kranz] in our show, You Can’t Take It With You, was a student of his many years later…It’s a very interesting link in our show.
We used to summer on Cape Cod and my mom always took us to the theater and the Straw Hat Circuit. It’s disappearing a little bit, but a lot of great actors used to do it and you used to see these wonderful shows. I was lucky to see Zero Mostel [act] and Carol Channing in Lorelei. When I saw them they were great. They were so inspirational. I wanted to do what they did.
You went to the cream of the crop schools for theater (Northwestern BA and Yale MFA). What did you learn at both schools that helped set you up for a successful career?
I had especially great time at Northwestern. I think it was a combination of choosing a school that was not just an isolated theater. I was in the School of Speech and I took mostly those classes, but you’re on a campus of all disciplines and different areas so you had to take some other elective courses. I think that an actor should be curious. It’s a very important part. You don’t want to be limited. I think if we just limit ourselves to theater, it’s less interesting. I think you have to find all sorts of things to stimulate you. I think it’s a constant source of re-education that way. And at Northwestern, I had that and I also had a great program. I had four years there. The first year was character exploration. The second year was taking one character and examining it for the whole year: researching it, doing everything actors do, we don’t talk about it much, but the period the character and playwright came from. We did Anna Christie. You learn all about that world for the whole year doing scenes from [the play] with your fellow classmates. The third year, we did Greek Drama, Shakespeare, and then ended with Chekov. Then the fourth year, I had a great drama teacher, Bud Beyer. He spent the whole fourth year only on comedy. We were listening to great recordings of the great Vaudeville routines that were on the radio at the time. You would listen to musicality of text. You would be hearing and receiving banter back and forth. It was extremely helpful in Beckett. He included all of that in comedy. The Tramps and Waiting for Godot so that they’re routines that you have. You had to create routines. You had to listen to routines. I think it’s what made me really love comedy so much. It’s so American.
Chicago has such a vibrant comedy scene, too.
And theater. Steppenwolf was starting when I was there. It’s a good place if you’re interested in theater and less under the microscope than it is in New York and a little more collaborative. They’re a little more supportive of each other. It’s just a good place. It’s cold, but it’s a good place.
Did you have any odd jobs when you were first starting out?
I had a couple odd jobs. I was a directory assistance operator, which was hilarious. I was terrible at it. It was on Cape Cod. They would have outages all the time on the Cape and they would reroute Boston calls down to the Cape. Again, I think it’s something that is going away. Now we do it on the computer or you look it up online, but back then it was an operator who would help you find a number if you could spell the name. That was hilarious because all these Italians would call and I would have no idea how to spell their name. [Sometimes] we’d drop the call accidentally or I’d say, “I can’t hear you anymore!” I didn’t last long at that job!
Then I did the ubiquitous waiting tables. When I was here [NYC] I had a roommate who was working at a costume house, they build costumes. A very great lady, Barbara Mattera. I was the receptionist there and I was lucky because I recognized people. When they would come in, I would be very on top of it. It was mostly opera singers who would come in and I would recognize them. It was a fun job. Again, I was answering the phones [Kristine laughs]!
At least you were immersed in the world you wanted to be in!
I felt lucky. Even when I wasn’t working, I was on the fringe of it. They were so nice in letting me off for auditions.
You’ve done many Chris Durang plays. What is it like to work with a playwright so many times and be so familiar with them? Is it more liberating and do you feel like you have more creative freedom than when you’re working with a playwright you’ve never worked with before?
I think so. It allows him to say, “I know what you’re going to do. Please don’t do that.” [Kristine laughs]. Also, the great gift was the last play I did, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He did write that for me. I’m reluctant to say that a playwright writes anything for anyone. They may be inspired by someone but even Chris, who is a dear friend, I think the material is still his. But in this instance, Sigourney [Weaver], Chris, and I were the basis for the three characters and probably the essence of each of us was in that play. It’s a privilege to have someone write something for you. I know he’s sometimes inspired by me. I know he thinks, Kristine could do this and he puts it in a play. But the way the world is, you’re never a hundred percent sure you’re free to do that. It’s still his play. This was the one time that he wrote something and we all were able to do it. I’m so lucky…It does make rehearsals a lot easier. It makes them less stressful. You know he’s got some faith in you and he’ll be patient…
The monologue when you’re on the phone with Joe in Vanya was such a striking moment. There was such a sense of discovery in that moment, while having to have a dialogue with someone who was not actually speaking to you on the other end of the phone.
I just always heard a voice in my ear and I [always knew] what he was saying. I think the specificity of things are so important in the theater, too: be very specific and don’t ever be general. That’s what I bring to the table: whatever I think Joe is saying. The writing was so good. I finally saw [the show] when Chris did it out in Bucks County. The young woman playing Sonya was very good and I thought, Oh, it’s the writing! Oh great, maybe I wasn’t so great! It’s so well written. [Kristine laughs] It makes you laugh and it makes you realize that that’s what plays are about: everybody gets a shot at them. You see a lot of people doing it and doing it well. More a tribute to Chris, again, I feel.
You’re in You Can’t Take it With You now and it is so good! How did the part come about?
I went after it. I heard they were doing it and I’ve always wanted to be in this play. I did do it in summer theater but it was a quick summer theater production and it made me fall even more in love with the play. I think it’s a great American comedy classic and I always wanted to do Penny. I thought my temperament suited it. I had not worked with Scott Ellis, our wonderful director, before, and I just said to my agent, “Can you find out if they’re considering anyone for Penny and if they already cast it.” I was lucky. The marvelous director [Nicholas Martin] I had on Sonia, he passed away this year, and he and Scott were very close friends. They had talked about it and [Nicholas] had recommended, “I think you should think about Kristine.” Luckily, Scott did, and when he heard I was interested, he was like, “Well, I think this will be good. I think we’re both going through a loss with our dear friend, Nicholas Martin, and I think this would be a good joyous tribute in a certain sense…” I was lucky and I knew some of the people cast, I knew, as I said, some of them well, and I was very excited.
This may be a selfish question because I’m in a Moss Hart play right now, but what are key things about Moss’ writing, or his style that you try to emphasize every night. For example, with Shakespeare your actions are informed by the verse. What insight does Moss give in his work for characterization?
I think it all comes from the play. I think [Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s] theatrical world was less complex than what we have in modern plays so they’re really true to what their lines are. They’re really true to how the play describes them and I think it’s never over embellishing what they do. Try to always play exactly what they want. If you say, “What does my character want? What’s the goal? What is she trying to do? What story is she telling?” If you do that, the characters come to life.
[Hart and Kaufman] didn’t like pauses. I think they tell you exactly when they want to pause and when they don’t; it’s that rat-a-tat-tat rhythm that will help tell you to catch up to them. They thought very fast. They were very smart people and very witty. You want to keep that energy. That energy helps inform you with their character.
There’s innocence to their character. They’re not cynical people. There’s a straightforwardness and that’s what I say about Chris Durang, too. He’s not cynical. There’s a purity of action that allows the characters to unfold and what they say is what they mean. There’s not a spin on it. There’s nothing hidden…
What’s your pre-show routine?
Simple, I warm up. I try to warm my voice up and try to warm my body up. I think everyone has their own rituals, but one I find very important is I sit there and say the names of all the people I’m going to meet that day in the play because it makes me present in the moment. I’ll say all of their names like Grandpa or Alice or Essie or Ed and it helps me to never confuse them because I’m thinking of them, each of them, that I’m going to see at that performance. It just makes me ready to hear them. I’ve cleared my mind of my day and try to think only about the show. That’s what I do. You have to do whatever centers you and allows you to relax—relax being the most important thing—so when the show starts you’re calm and ready and open.
Do you typically do that with all the plays that you’re in?
Yes, I do it in all the plays I’ve done recently. That’s what I’ve come to: to try to be open, to try to relax. It’s so hard because it is nerve-wracking. You want to be good, but you have to calm down the rising terrors. You don’t want the voices in your head. You just want to be present.
From the audience it looks like you all have such great chemistry.
James Earl Jones said it’s a wonderful alchemy that sometimes works with companies. I know so many of the actors. The man playing my husband Mark Linn-Baker [replaced by Richard Thomas on January 6] and I went to drama school together at Yale. I haven’t worked with him in some thirty years but we are in this. It’s fun to have that history. There is a history when we step out on stage, so we don’t have to manufacture anything…
If you could be miscast in any play or musical, whom would you want to play?
I guess for me, I’m too old for some of them now. I always want to be in musicals. You know, I can’t sing a note. So I’m not in them. If I am, I’m in a non-singing part. I’ve always loved, My Fair Lady, so I’d love to be Eliza Doolittle. I’d love to be one of those open ingénue roles where you get to sing with this incredible voice. I grew up listening to all those recordings.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway actors?
I just think it’s pursuing a dream and you just have to never lose focus on it. I think there’s a lot of theater to do in this country. Broadway is aspirational, I understand that, but there are theaters all around this country that are great. I loved the Guthrie. My husband worked at the Actors Theater of Louisville. The regional theater is not the boom that it was in the seventies and eighties. But you can hone a craft away from New York a little bit more because it’s away from the criticism.
But I also say, you just have to keep at it. It’s very hard because it’s not for the feint of heart. If you begin to doubt yourself, it won’t make you happy. You have to know it’s what you want to do and you have to know that there will be sacrifices for it—meaning money sometimes, you know there’s not a lot of money in the theater. Television and film actors make a lot of money, but very, very few theater actors do. You have to be willing to say, “Well, I won’t be going on vacation this year.”
Also when you work, you miss a lot of things because you’re working. You’re not able to participate when other people are off at a party or friends get together because you’re working. You have to know that’s what you’ll be happy doing.
What’s something that you learned early in your career that you still live by today?
I think it’s being honest. Be honest with yourself and be honest with the business people. Don’t play games. All we have is our integrity…I think the best you can do is be truthful.♦
Photo Credits: Playbill Vault, Joan Marcus, Jeffrey Richards Associates, Broadway.com, Robert Wright for The New York Times