Like most actors with a wide array of television guest appearances to their name, Erin Cummings is instantly recognizable. She has been seen on shows ranging from Nip/Tuck to Star Trek: Enterprise, played one of Don Draper's prostitutes on Mad Men, and gained the moniker "sex symbol" for her work as Sura, Spartacus' wife on the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
A year after moving to New York to pursue theater, Cummings has landed a role in Chad Beguelin's Harbor, the 2013-2014 season opener for off-Broadway's Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. In the new dark comedy, she plays Donna, a foul-mouthed single mom who drops in on her gay brother and his new husband and turns their lives upside down. Cummings is excited to play such a messy character in a play that, like her, is making its New York stage debut.
Having read Harbor, I think it's safe to say that your character, Donna, is pretty audacious.
So much of the humor comes out of the audacity of these people, the things that come out of their mouths. Donna has so many of those cutting, biting lines. They also come out in the other characters, as they wear on each other's nerves. It helps in the evolution of the characters in the play. I was very excited about being able to play a mess.
Do you like that?
I really do. A lot of the characters I end up playing have a certain degree of glamour or sexiness, but I like it when you can have some other element that makes it much more interesting. You get to play the sexy love interest to Don Draper [on Mad Men], but I'd rather play the prostitute who slaps him in the face. I like to find characters who allow me to embrace my girly, feminine side.
You've done so much television. What is your stage background?
My background is actually theater, although this is my first New York show, and I studied Shakespeare in London. [In] my first Shakespeare [at California's Thousand Oaks Civic Center], I played Lady Macbeth. At the end of the day, I think all of my characters have a little bit of her in them.
Donna…It's so difficult with a show that nobody knows. The only way to really express what the crux is…You have to say she's this hot mess, white trash, who lives in a truck, is potentially homophobic (but not homophobic as much as she doesn't have a filter). There are a few hints, she speaks to Lottie [her daughter] about growing up in total hell. They came from an extremely abusive household. This living in a van potentially came from the abuse that she suffered, because her mother put these men in front of the safety of her daughter...In creating Donna, that is the only way I can validate the way she's living. She knows that she has issues, but in her mind, she really is doing the best that she can to give her daughter the most exciting life, and to see the things she never got to see. I really think that Donna is someone who, at the end of the day, isn't a bad person, but has been dealt a really bad hand.
How helpful has director Mark Lamos been in helping form this person?
Mark Lamos is such an incredible director. I felt that I had an understanding of the character, but under his direction, the experience has blossomed for me. Chad wrote a tour-de-force role that any actress would give her left arm to play, and now it's up to me to find the colors and moments that makes her a complicated and rich character.
Is the prospect of making your New York theater debut in a brand-new play intimidating? It's not necessarily. That's the saving grace of it, the fact that it's a brand-new play. It's terribly intimidating to be making my New York stage debut. This has been my goal, and to be invited to do this within a year of living here is a tremendous honor. I'm so naïve about this world. I called my agent and said "The New York Times is gonna see this!?" I didn't know they came to see off-Broadway. He said "Do me a favor: Don't ask anyone any questions. Don't ask about awards…" There are awards for this!?
[Laughs] At least you're originating the role and don't have to worry about following in someone's footsteps.
This is my opportunity to make my mark on the character, without worrying "What did so-and-so do?" I'm trying the best I can to not be concerned with any of that. I'm making my New York stage debut, Harbor is making its New York stage debut, and hopefully it will resonate with a lot of people.