Marin Ireland lives on the edge through her artistry. She’s a thrillseeker of her craft. She chooses roles that scare her, ones that exercise her creativity in an unfamiliar way. With every project she takes a leap and dives heart first into her characters. You can see it when she plays Julia in Sneaky Pete on Amazon, which was recently picked up for a second season, and you can see it Off-Broadway in On the Exhale, Ireland’s solo show at Roundabout Theatre Company. On Sneaky Pete, Ireland has other actors tapping into vulnerability right along with her, but in On the Exhale her only scene partner is herself. On the Exhale follows a liberal college professor, played by Ireland, after a senseless act of gun violence shatters her world. It’s heavy and intense–a necessary piece of theater. I cannot think of another actor who could better take on the responsibility of this piece. Her talent, commitment, and focus have always resulted in nuanced performances that pack a punch. When someone is so accomplished, it’s always nice to hear that they still get nervous, that they still have career anxieties, that they still fear failure. Ireland is very candid about having these feelings but can let her nerves dissipate and jump right into character when it’s time to work. In this interview, learn about how Marin Ireland fell in love with acting and how the most exciting creative journeys can come from doing what scares you.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
MI: When I was in elementary school I was super shy. I grew up in Southern California and went to a small, progressive school. They had us do two plays a year as the whole school, so everyone was involved—even the little, little kids. In 5th grade or something, I could play one of the bigger parts. I think there were two shows I did that year. I remember one was a Wizard of Oz sequel called Christmas in Oz. The same year I played Helena in a 45-minute version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was a real one, two punch for me of a transformative experience. I felt completely free. I was this shy little kid and suddenly I had this outlet of expression. That was really when it started.
I had friends in school with me that I carpooled with everyday who were doing a lot of community youth theater stuff with this amazing group not far from us. I ended up with them after school and they were like, “On the way home we’re going to audition for this play.” The first time they did it I was too scared. The second time they did it I was like, “I’ll audition, too!” I got a tiny part in that. Then I started to do as many plays as I could with this youth group and I never stopped. I was like, “I guess this is what I’m going to do forever!” [Marin laughs] That kind of was it really. I don’t remember ever making a decision. It was just like, this is what I’m doing obviously forever [Marin laughs]…
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?
When I was a kid—like I said, I grew up in Southern California—there is a theater company in Topanga called Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. It’s where Will Geer and Woody Guthrie made this theater when they got blacklisted in the hills of Topanga Canyon—it’s this very magical outdoor amphitheater. Some of the earliest Shakespeare I ever saw was there. It was genuinely a really magical experience around age 11 or 12. I was going to see these plays in this outdoor amphitheater with this very magical past. I remember hearing about its past and the blacklist, who Will Geer was and how he created this space, then seeing his family members in the plays. I feel like weirdly the first play I saw there was Cymbeline of all things. I saw a lot of plays there when I was that age. That was a moment when I remember seeing these adults and realizing, “Oh this is their job.” So those definitely inspired me. It had a lot of magic to it especially as a kid being in that atmosphere: idyllic beauty and rustic. It was like being in a storybook or something.
You studied at The Hartt School. How did that training help set you up for success?
One of the craziest things about going to that program was that I was in the first class of the theater division. They had musical theater, but I was in the first class of the theater division. I had chosen to go to boarding school at Idyllwild Arts Academy in California for the last few years of high school. My mom had sent me there for a summer drama camp and they were like, “Come for the school year. We’ll give you a scholarship.” I couldn’t have afforded it at all otherwise. My mom was not prepared for me saying “Hey! Surprise! I’m going to go to boarding school now!” [Marin laughs] She was like, “What?!” I was like 14 years old. I was really excited, I was super nervous, I was a tiny kid. I was focused on my training at 14…It was the most blissful time of my entire life honestly. It was everything I wanted. It was in the mountains—gorgeous. Every kid there majored in something, so you had your academic classes all morning and your arts classes all afternoon. If you’re in a performance thing, you rehearse in the evening and have class Saturday. While I was there I played St. Joan of Arc and I played Mother Courage. That was where I thought I learned what kind of training I wanted to pursue. I was very serious.
Part of the senior class every year at Idyllwild auditions for a million [theater] programs. It’s not like the school is disappointed in you if you don’t decide to become an actor. It’s all about learning self-discipline, following your passion, all that stuff. Part of your final project as a senior is to audition for a bunch of schools. So I auditioned for probably 20 schools. I was really interviewing all of the schools I auditioned for. I was asked, “What method do you teach?” I wanted exposure to as many different methodologies as possible. I wanted to train in England for a while. I wanted exposure to everything. At the time I felt like I was so excited by this idea of participating in the first class of something—building it. They expressed, “Here’s the thing, you’ll have weekly meetings with the dean, we really want your input.” They also did say, “We’ll be doing all of these different methodologies.” Part of it was that the time I was there because of our proximity to New York and New Haven, we were sharing some teachers with Juilliard, Yale, and NYU because we were close enough for people to come in a couple days a week to teach. That to me seemed perfect. I spent a semester in England, we had a semester on new plays. It was a wild experience.
First of all, I think it attracted a particular kind of person to want to be in the first class of something. But also we had to take a lot of responsibility for our own education . One of my favorite things about that experience really was that I had teachers that some of my friends at Juilliard also shared, I had a combat teacher that I shared with friends at Yale. To me that was genuinely exciting. Plus, just that idea of having to take responsibility for your own education and continually asking yourself, “What do I wish I had more of? What’s working the best not only for me but also the other people in my class?” I do think that was important because when you get out of school the hardest transition is to have to check in with yourself as an artist all the time: “What kind of artist do I want to be? What kind of work do I want to make?” You have to think about how you want to challenge yourself and how you want to develop no matter what opportunities are in front of you.
It took me a couple years to get an agent, that was one of the challenges of coming from a new program. But even by the time I got an agent I felt like, “Okay great, another person to help me get access to things.” I still thought of it as my responsibility to inform myself, research things, go to see as much as I could, learn about what was happening. I was never the type of person who just sat back waiting for the phone to ring. Also, it helped being close to New York because I got to go to the city a lot and see a bunch of shows: rush tickets, standing room, all of that stuff. That was huge and definitely also helped.
Your Sneaky Pete cast is made up of some of the best actors around. What are some things that make them good scene partners and that you enjoy about working with them?
Oh that’s interesting. I feel so unbelievably grateful to be around these people. I knew Peter Gerety for a long time doing workshops, plays, and readings with him years ago. But you know [getting to work with] people like Margo [Martindale], Giovanni [Ribisi], and Bryan [Cranston], it’s pretty staggering really. Honestly, I try to sit back and watch how they work, how they walk into a room to start working on a scene, how they allow the scene to change and grow. You don’t have very much time when it comes to TV, so watching how they make the most of the time for blocking, how they look to the director to build on that, when they choose to push back, and how they use the blocking to help build the scene. I also frankly—this is something I didn’t even realize you could do as an actor, I used to think that it wasn’t allowed or something—I try to watch, when I can, scenes that I’m not in. There was this amazing scene with Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety near the end of the season. I was like, “Thank God I’m on set today, I’m just going to sit back and watch it from the monitors in video village because I wanted to watch how they started crafting the scene and how it grew.
I try my hardest to be as present as I can and as open as I can because I know the more I listen and am open, the more I will be transformed by the surprises they give me. It’s really inspiring in that way that I feel like I can be as open as I can. I’m trying more and more in my old age here to be a supple as I can and to be as present, in the moment—in all moments on set—when I’m working. There’s a great a great thing also, Margo and Peter frequently between takes will be singing show tunes or sea shanties [Marin laughs]. It’s so great. It’s such a great reminder to stay loose. I do try to feel like the best thing that I can do to allow myself to be enriched by them is to stay open and loose. I feel like that’s how I can be the most sponge-like. Also, I even on a personal level will turn to Margo a lot for when I’m feeling insecure or unsteady. I feel like I try to take advantage of asking, “Is this working? Is this working for you? Is this working for the scene? Do you think it’d make more sense if I tried it like this?” I just try to take advantage of the time I have with these titans because I do feel unbelievably grateful.
You come from a theater background. When you’re doing a play you typically get all of this time in character before you have to do something very emotional. But in TV and film you don’t have that build up and just have to be ready the second they call action. How do you stay relaxed while on set before a really charged scene so you can dive right in and get the shot?
For me, the biggest difference is that when you’re doing a play, obviously everybody’s quiet backstage. When somebody makes noise backstage, “Oh my God shut up!” There’s a primacy on keeping the atmosphere conducive to concentration—even in the rehearsal room. People would be furious if people were just walking in and out of a rehearsal, slamming the door. But on a TV or movie set, everybody just out of the frame is eating a sandwich, doing their crazy jobs, chitchatting right before the second you roll [Marin laughs]. There are some exceptions. There are some emotional scenes or nude scenes where they’ll try to have the number of people walking around to a minimum or trying to keep the voices quieter or whatever it is. That’s not always even the case. I feel like what really happens on a TV or movie set is that you have to take responsibility for your own concentrated state, your own little space—whatever you need…On a TV set especially things go so fast, so everybody’s frantically doing their jobs and then once we go, we’ve got to go. It’s like a tornado and then suddenly it’s silence. For like 30 seconds people are standing right off frame sweating and holding their breath until they cut and have to reset. I feel like it’s this stupid, silly little thing, but I have my noise-canceling headphones—my little ear buds. That’s the only thing I absolutely have to have with me on set so I can put them in whether I’m listening to music or just have them on the noise-canceling mode. Then I don’t feel like I’m being rude.
The days we need to shoot an emotional scene, I don’t do the thing anymore where you try to get into this hysterical state and then hold onto it for the rest of the day. I think it’s about staying in a somewhat relaxed state so that I can allow whatever I need to flow through me…It also happens a lot that you think you’re going to do one scene and then are surprised you’re going to do a different scene. I try to do whatever I can to not be tense or rigid or stressed out about stuff. It’s part of that thing of watching Margo and Peter singing their songs. Whatever it is to stay loose and meditative and easy so you can allow things to happen and allow yourself to be surprised. That’s also one of the most exciting things that can happen on a set or onstage. I try to allow for that.
There was a scene in Sneaky Pete that was written with a very emotional quality. I remember arriving on set that day and the director was like, “I know that it’s written that you do this and that here and here, but I want you to take every emotion as far as it can go. So don’t worry about having this emotion here. I just want you to take it to 11. Go nuts.” I was like, “Really?” And the director said, “You can’t go too big. I don’t care what comes out. I want it to feel like a rollercoaster. Every emotion you go through, just take it to 11. Just go for it. You can’t go to big.” I was like, “Oh, okay!” That was very different from how it was written on the page. “Sounds fun let’s give it a go.” When I walked in that day, everything was lit and ready to go. I thought I’d have a half hour of preparation or something. But they were like, “We’re ready. We’re going to start on you.” I was just like, “Okie dokie!” You can’t say, “Give me 20 minutes to get ready.” It just has to be like, “Okay! We’ll just see what happens and maybe the first take won’t be good, but hopefully the second take will be better. All I can do is throw myself at it and try to run with it and stay loose.” There are moments when you have a different emotional journey than the one you thought you were going to.
You’re currently in previews for On the Exhale, a solo show. What’s it like showing up everyday and just having yourself and the director, Leigh Silverman, to work with?
It’s a nightmare! It’s so awful. I fall so hard everyday. It’s so lonely. Thank God Leigh is so patient with me because every day I’ll stall and she’ll be like, “Should we rehearse now?” And I’ll be like, “Okay. I’m so scared!” And she’s like, “I know. It’s going to be fine.” We basically have to say that every single day. I’m like, “You know this is 90% of your job?” And she’s like, “I know.” [Marin laughs] It’s very difficult. The bad thing is that my favorite part of acting is making the other person more important than I am and that whenever I start to feel self-conscious about my work or how I’m doing I can reinvest in the other person. That’s my favorite thing. When I don’t have that option it’s horrific. The demons all come out to play when it’s all you. I do feel like that’s why I wanted to take on this challenge. I’ve never done [a one woman show] before. The idea of having to battle those demons like that I was hoping would be a really worthy fire to walk through and I would come out the other side feeling like I’d climbed a big mountain.
The great discovery has been that once I start talking there isn’t time for me to wonder how I’m doing. The second I wonder about how I’m doing, I can’t keep saying my lines because it takes me out. The same way it takes you out of a scene to wonder how you’re doing, when it’s just me then the play kind of stops if I take the time to think about that [Marin laughs]. That’s the good news. That was a positive discovery: once I start, then I have to keep doing the play or everything falls apart. But it’s very scary. I’m usually pretty vocal about how scared I feel as an actor and how vulnerable I feel out there and all of that stuff. I do try to lean into scary tasks. If I’m lucky enough to have a choice to do a play, or this project, or that project, my choice meter is really turned on by something really scary. [I like to choose roles where] I don’t know how I’ll do them. If it’s something I can’t imagine myself doing, it’s the thing I have to do next. I’m like, “That’s pretty clearly a nightmare situation so I better say, ‘Yes!’” [Marin laughs]…
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Gosh, it’s so hard [Marin laughs]. I feel like I’m really thinking about this a lot these days, the idea of making friends with rejection. You have to make friends with rejection and failure. The worst thing that can happen to you is not to fail because that means you took a risk and that’s a very, very good thing. I feel like you have to acknowledge and appreciating that it’s a part of this life. It doesn’t go away. There’s no plateau that you arrive at one day where you’re famous enough or rich enough where you suddenly stop dealing with failure and rejection. I remember doing a play with Fran [Frances] McDormand, which was one of my first real jobs in the city. She was like, “This is probably my last job. I’m probably never going to be hired again.” I was like, “Oh my God, this is my first big play in the city and I feel that way. You still feel that way?” She said, “Come on, that doesn’t go away.” It was a great relief in a way, but it’s also terrifying. It’s something that’s important to realize…
There’s this great book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. There’s this thing about failure in games and how playing games is great for actors because failure is built into games. You start to realize that it’s just part of it. When you’re playing baseball and you miss the ball, it doesn’t mean that you’re playing baseball wrong, it just means you’re playing baseball. If everybody hit the ball all the time, it wouldn’t be a game. I keep trying to remind myself of that. I think it’s important. Even saying it and imagining young actors reading it I feel like it sounds so ominous. But this is a part of it. It’s a part of the life. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It’s a very difficult part of it. I still struggle with that all the time. Even during Sneaky Pete I remember calling Margo some days and expressing, “Ugh, I feel like I didn’t know what I was doing today.” And she’s like, “Oh I know honey.” It’s part of the life and it’s how we can all find strength in each other knowing everybody goes through it no matter who they are and what level they’re at. We all have the fear and trauma of rejection and failure. You’ve got to find a way to make friends with it all. ♦