To television audiences, Susan Pourfar is best known as dauntless CIA operative Becky Flynn on TV's Scandal. To theater lovers, she is known for her award-winning portrayal of Sylvia in Nina Raine's Tribes. Now, Pourfar is starring as Laura in the world premiere of screen legend Ethan Coen's first full-length play, Women or Nothing, at Atlantic Theater Company. TheaterMania spoke with the versatile actress about creating a character that could come only from the imagination of a Coen brother and about the feeling of kinship with an imperfect character.
Is it a comedy or a drama? It's kind of both. It's very unique writing, and it's really kind of astounding because for a guy who's been mostly writing screenplays, he's a deeply talented playwright, I think. The premise is that two women, I'm one of them, want to go to that step in the relationship of making a family. My thought is that we should go through a clinic and a sperm donor. My partner is determined to do it in a sort of nontraditional way, and wants to go with known sperm – sperm from someone [whom] she knows and trusts and [who] she thinks would be phenomenal DNA material, not father material per se. But in order to save the relationship, my character, Laura, takes that leap. It's sort of like one of those moments in life where you are frozen at a precipice and you are either going to leap or not leap, and because it's a play, you leap.
How does this play compare with Ethan Coen's movies?
I always think that each one of his films is so different, but they each walk a line with a very serious underbelly while there are characters and situations and language that are ever so slightly heightened. You look at something like Fargo; it is deeply sad in moments and deeply funny in other moments. But I think that both the Coen brothers, and Ethan on his own in this play, have a very specific worldview that they bring. These characters, they could not have come out of anyone else's imagination.
Was [director] David Cromer already attached when you decided to work on this play? Was that part of your decision?
Yeah, he was attached. I got the material from my agent, they said this is a new play, and David's directing. And I read it and I was simultaneously completely leaning forward as I read it and intimidated by it at the same time. I wouldn't want to do it with any person other than David.
What does he bring to it?
He's rigorous without being overly controlling. It's a very tricky balance to be a director who has strong ideas but yet gives a lot of room for actors to explore. I would never want to do a play about a rigorous disciplined artist and be in a rehearsal room with a director who was not rigorous and disciplined and didn't understand that aspect of someone. He has the qualities that Laura has, so I would assume that he could help me bring that character to life. What has it been like working with the Atlantic?
I am just thrilled to be working there. Wait until you see the set. The set is by this woman Michele Spadaro, [whom] I've never worked with before, and every single corner of the set has such specific details. Everything that's in the play, almost to a line, you can find resonance of it or a hint about it buried inside the set. I think that has to do with the Atlantic. I think they said, "Whatever you want to do, we'll do it. You want to put a piano onstage even though no one ever plays it? Sure." It's the sensual aspect and the touching, feeling, sitting, visual aspect. You walk on to it and you feel like, oh, we're home.
From badass Becky Flynn on Scandal to this character, is it difficult to play many vastly different characters?
It's fantastic. I think the reason a lot of people go into acting is because you want to explore various sides of the human persona and the human psyche. And what better, safer way to do it than in the container of a great play or a great role? You get to explore areas of yourself in a very contained, safe environment, especially if you're in such good hands as David Cromer and Ethan Coen — both of whom I trust just implicitly as artists.
Do you relate to Laura on a personal level?
Yes. A little frighteningly so, because she's a little bit, well, she has a huge degree of self-awareness, but the self-awareness is sometimes about how often — as David has put it, I'm not coming up with this — her head is often lodged up her ass. And she has an awareness of her own nature and her prickliness and her perfectionism and her limitations, you know. And I guess I relate. At this particular moment in time, Laura is coming to grips with who she is and whether that's changeable. "Is biology destiny?" is a big question in the play.