Hand to God's Geneva Carr Chose the Road Not Taken and Wound Up at the Tony Awards
How a banker becomes a Broadway front-runner.
This is yet to be tested in a controlled environment, but if you stare directly at the list of this year's Actress in a Play Tony nominees, there's a chance you'll go blind from the award hardware they've collected.
You've got your three Brits: Golden Globe and two-time Olivier Award winner Ruth Wilson (Constellations), Oscar-nominated film star Carey Mulligan (Skylight), and of course the great Dame Helen Mirren (The Audience), who could fill a shopping mall with all of her trophies. Our resident American television star Elisabeth Moss also joins the royal crowd with a Golden Globe Award (for Top of the Lake) and a handful of Mad Men Emmy nominations in tow.
And then there's Geneva Carr, best known for her recurring role as "Mom" on AT&T Mobility's mobile phone commercials.
"You know everybody's thinking, Who's that?" says the Broadway newbie, making her debut at age 44 in Rob Askins' offbeat comedy Hand to God. She leads the cast as Margery — an unhinged single mother and leader of a Christian puppet ministry whose son's soul is annexed by a demonic hand puppet.
Carr is first to admit that when it comes to the list of nominees, one of these things is not like the others — and she did so while tearing off her shoes and socks to pose on top of the Bryant Park fountain and professing her love for the great Dame Helen ("I thought she'd be six feet tall," referencing her first encounter with the five-foot-four Mirren. "In my mind she's that tall.")
So how did Carr come to join such elite company?
"Well, all of those people who say to their kids, 'Don't become actors, get a real degree,'" she says, "I'm one of those people who threw two away."
Carr got her undergraduate degree in French and English from Mount Holyoke College before moving to France to attend business school on a budget (thanks to state funding). "I went to a very expensive private university," she laughs. "It was three thousand dollars a year." After graduation, she stayed in France and forged a successful career in banking.
"I thought I would live in France forever," she says, looking back on her life in the early '90s. "It never crossed my mind that I would do this. I never knew anyone artistic in my family," though she says Margery's explosive anger is largely based on her mother, Phyllis Duba Carr ("That rage…boy, that was Phyl.")
The thought of planting herself was also an appealing alternative to her childhood of constant uprooting. "I lived in eleven states growing up" (a tour of the South and Midwest with her mother, father, and two older brothers). "No, I was not an army brat," she says, anticipating the natural follow-up. "My dad just couldn't hold a job."
A traveling salesman, her father sold office furniture for companies like Herman Miller, Knoll, and Westinghouse. "We lived in Birmingham for three years, but because of the moves we were in six different school districts over those three years. I guess that can either make a kid shy or not shy — and I'm obviously not shy."
It did, however, guide her down a conservative career path. "I picked a safe route. I thought I was doing the right thing."
A trip to New York City then abruptly changed her route.
"I was trying to get my papers to go back to France to stay, and I ended up seeing a play at EST [Ensemble Studio Theatre]." It was a production of Appointment With a High-Wire Lady, starring Victor Slezak, Suzanne Shepherd, and Frances Conroy. "I'd seen so little theater in my life. [There were] maybe ten people in the audience [and] three people onstage. It was so astounding and moving and I thought, 'That's what I want to do.' It was almost like an epiphany when I saw that play live. I can't explain it."
EST then connected Carr with an acting class led by the late Jane Hoffman, an established actress with credits dating back to 1940. "She was just a lovable bitch," says Carr, who would show up to class after a day of banking in her perfectly coiffed power suits, prepared with a monologue from Marsha Norman's Getting Out.
One day, Hoffman asked everyone in the class for a head shot to prepare for meetings with agents, to which Carr — then in her late twenties — responded, "Oh no, I'm just doing this for fun. I'm a banker." Hoffman then bluntly retorted, "You're old. You're getting older every day. Do it now or stop wasting your time. And don't waste mine."
"So I went and took head shots," she says. "It was eight rolls of the same picture — deer in the headlights."
So went the banking salary, and in came the acting lifestyle, which began on a relatively promising note. "My first play ever was Equity, which is kind of unheard of." In 1997, Carr also landed her first TV gig on an episode of Spin City with Michael J. Fox.
"Then I struggled." Or in layman's terms, she waited tables.
"I was actually waiting tables at Novotel and my derivatives team from the bank in Paris were all in town and I was the person who took their drink order. They're like, 'We thought you became an actress.' So I'm like, 'Well it's a funny story…I did!'" (Coincidentally, she also waited on the cast of Spin City the day after shooting her episode.)
She was living almost exclusively on savings during her first run of Hand to God at EST in 2011 — the biggest success the theater had ever seen, but still a nearly unpaid endeavor for the actors. "My W-2 for those nine months was $3,200," she says. "My dermatologist kindly offered me a job. I had absolutely no skill but I was in her office crying over acne and my career. I was going to quit acting. I just — I couldn't take it anymore."
And then, like the hand of God, the nonprofit MCC Theater picked up Hand to God for its first off-Broadway run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2014, and took the unknown Carr along for the ride. "After that, I said to my husband, 'I'm never going to Broadway. It's not gonna happen.'" Another year later, here she is, not only at Broadway's Booth Theatre but on the Tony shortlist alongside celebrities with whom she is now sharing (not serving) drinks. "I am going to enjoy every single second," says Carr, lapping up the Bryant Park sunlight.
"I already picked out my dress for the night," she says with giddy disbelief, like Cinderella preparing for the stroke of twelve. "It was the first dress I saw — the first dress I tried on. You can't beat it when you know." It's the same gut instinct that got her to the Tonys in the first place, so she might as well follow it to the end.
"I think some people don't realize that they can be happy," she says, hinting at the lives she saw her dissatisfied parents lead. "I think I broke the mold and I'm happy."
Her mother, the inspiration for her Tony-nominated performance, never even knew about her daughter's career change. "I hadn't been able to tell her," recalls Carr. "But at her funeral, I told people that I was going to become an actor and they all said, 'Well, you knew about your mother? We used to call your mother the drama queen. Phyl wanted to be an actress.'"
"I feel like my mother passed me this torch that I never knew about," she says through tears. "It was her private dream and she didn't have the guts."
Carr's fortitude, on the other hand, has ushered her into incredibly starry ranks. She even has an answer for the folks asking, Who's that?, as the sound of Helen Mirren's name casually leads to her own…