[Warning: The following interview contains "Picnic" spoilers.]
Broadway newcomer Maggie Grace is trying to keep the conversation from being about her looks—which is difficult when you're a blonde stunner starring in a play about a girl so pretty it's a problem. "I don't want to judge her for being so pretty," she says of Madge, the teenaged beauty queen at the center of playwright William Inge's vintage love triangle drama Picnic, now in revival at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre. "People see her and project an idea of what they want her to be, to them, on her. That's a true obstacle, never being seen for you." Is it one that Grace, star of the hit Taken films with Liam Neeson, Maxim magazine deity, tanned Lost cast veteran, and Twilight saga alum can relate to at this point in her much-photographed career?
"Ha, well. All I know is that for Madge, she feels…". Well played, Grace.
It's unsurprising she's bored with talking looks. A "prolific overanalyzer," the actress is a thoughtful speaker and bookworm whose last ten years of print interviews have largely been reduced to pull quotes about who she's dating and what it means to be an object of desire to men everywhere. So we let the subject go and got back to basics with those time-honored, hackneyed "celebrity interview" talking points: neurochemistry, hidden blow-up dolls, and girl crushing on Elizabeth Marvel.
What's been most surprising about your new full-time life on Broadway?
I'm on 42nd Street, in this beautiful theater, but 43rd Street? I was not prepared for that. We've had jackhammers on 43rd going during the show. We've had people try to get into the theater through those side doors [the theater has exits on 42nd and 43rd streets]—there are some real crazies out there. But I've been most surprised by caring so deeply about this cast so quickly. You meet people you connect with on the job all the time, but [this cast has] recognized we have a community going. I haven't had that sense of tribe in a long time.
You have brilliant, renowned female costars. What's one invaluable thing they've taught you?
Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Ellen Burstyn! I'm pinching myself. Ellen just turned 80 and she's a force. I want to be her, or like her. That's part of the alchemy of this group. These are women's women, strong ladies, grande dames of theater. I've learned a lot from watching how they're able to come in to work and disconnect from their day in order to grow the play.
I don't know if it will translate to print—for example, I've found shifts I didn't originally see in the mother/daughter relationship with Mare and I. She's all love, Mare, and our relationship has changed onstage in a way that makes the show different than it was in the beginning of the run. And I get to warm up with Beth Marvel before the show. I have a girl crush on her voice. That woman is formidable, but her voice! It was the first thing I noticed, this full, round, bellowing voice. We do tongue twisters together and compete at it. We squeeze our hands above our heads as hard as we can and just breathe. It sounds insane. At first I felt like, "This is a hazing ritual! None of these are real warm-ups, [they] just want you to look like a dork!" It turns out they're a great way to energize before a show.
The men are completely outnumbered in this cast. How are they hanging in?
We're an integrated cast, fairly. We're girls with robust senses of humor. It's certainly not a prim backstage feeling at all. There's one scene where Hal [onstage love interest Sebastian Stan] has to hide under a house for a long time. I've been thinking lately that he must be lonely, alone under there all that time. I'm thinking I need to start leaving him things. He's pretty into his workout routine—so a box of Twinkies could be nice for him. Or a bottle of Jack Daniels. Maybe a blowup doll? Yes. When is this [interview] running? I need to get moving before he reads this.
Why do girls love the grimy drifter, like Hal, over a nice guy in a clean shirt and boating shoes?
Lust. More than that, but that's the big one. Most girls like Madge, who fall for that guy, don't have the experience to know the difference between loving and being loved, and thinking you can fall in love in a few hours. In our show, when a boyfriend and mother talk to Madge about her feelings for this drifter, they say things like, ‘It's not your fault, I know what he's like,' or ‘Why did this happen to you?'Like he's a happening, or not human. But we do make our own decisions. And I'm not into the boating shoes—that's a solid buzz kill. But I think I've outgrown being attracted to that narcissistic, bad boy energy.
The young people in this play need schooling in love. What's the best piece of romantic advice you're personally been given?
Oh, it's not that cerebral a mystery, is it? You can look for lessons and meanings, but if you do you'll miss the experience. It's best to surrender to [love]. Aren't you glad to have had it happen, even when things don't work out, even through the terrible hurt? Don't we all know it's not going to work out? Even if you find the love of your life, we all know that life eventually ends. Things end. It's best to have experienced it all fully, without trying to find answers.
What piece of romantic advice can people take away from a moral love story like Picnic?
I don't want to answer for everybody. I understand, for me, that Madge is confused by [how] if you are single, you come to represent something to other people. People fall in love with an idea of her. She's a vessel for other people's dreams. That's not intimacy. Intimacy is something very different, you don't just—lust, intimacy, love, it's all difficult. I believe love at first sight is possible. Centuries of literature and art and beauty has been dedicated to that idea, so who am I to argue, even if I've never experienced it? But, lust at first sight. I have experienced that. That's the best drug.
But it's fake. Your brain drugs you with chemicals from the inside, and when they start to wear off—
--the oxytocin and vasopressin, I know, it's crazy! But I'm down with the oxytocin. Really. That's my favorite drug.
I'm more into the vasopressin myself…
You're a vasopressin girl? That's interesting. I really think if you live with enough of those neurochemicals in your system you live longer.
Married people do live longer.
Wives, especially. Wives longer than husbands. It's really weird that gender plays a role in our lives that significantly, but it probably does make sense. When you tend to someone for so many years, your purpose and strength, that energy, it is powerful. People come undone without it.
[Ed's Note: If you have no idea what's going on in this interview anymore, consider reading this book.]
Moving away from neurochemistry: Madge is billed as beautiful, but without talent. What is your hidden talent?
I'm a prolific overanalyzer. And I can always use 15 words in place of three 3, no matter what.
When you're not doing Pulitzer Prize winning plays, your screen career puts you in action flicks like the Taken films. Do you have the training to take on 43rd Street "crazies"?
I've been the damsel in distress, mostly, but when someone teaches you something empowering like [self defense] it changes how you go through the world. You internalize the training. I did some work training on a firing range during a really bad time in my life, and it did anchor me.
True or False: After training for the Taken films, mild-mannered Liam Neeson [Grace's onscreen assassin father] can kick my ass, for real.
True. But I really hope he doesn't.
Can we take a second to ask why, in Taken, an assassin father didn't teach his own daughter some Krav Maga basics to defend herself from kidnappers?
Um, how about basics like, "Don't get into taxis with strange boys?" You know, "Stranger-danger! Make good decisions!" There are a lot of questions to be posed there.
It's my fault we're not talking about theater anymore. Going back: What shows are you looking forward to seeing most this season?
I made it out to see The Great God Pan, which was INCREDIBLE. I recently saw Sleep No More, which is such an amazing, crazy night. I love that it's been running night after night so long. I'm going to see Clive soon. I'm such a theater enthusiast, so it's such a joy to finally be in [a show], but now I can't go out [at night] to see anything.
Picnic leaves the audience with so many questions. Do you personally think Madge gets her man?
No. Some nights I think she has a shot, but mostly no. We should be concerned for the kids [in Picnic]. They didn't have an atmosphere to really know themselves, or one another. There's a lot that can happen in the back seat of a Ford, but hers is a pretty big gamble. I worry for her.