From College to Broadway: Jennifer Ehle and J.T. Rogers Take On Oslo
Ehle stars in Rogers' new play at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
"I can't remember if you were a year or two behind me," says playwright J.T. Rogers to actress Jennifer Ehle.
"I think it was one," replies Ehle. "Was it two?"
"Does it really matter at this point?" asks Rogers with a laugh. "Remember when we used to care about that sort of thing?"
"Yeah, I do," says Ehle. "But no, it doesn't matter."
Still, this discussion of semantics, namely, when Ehle and Rogers first met, permeates a conversation about their collaboration on the Broadway production of Rogers' play Oslo, in which two-time Tony winner Ehle, his old classmate at the North Carolina School of the Arts, stars.
"What Ibsen did you do?" she asks Rogers. "I think I remember it."
"I think we did a Molière. I don't think we got to do an Ibsen."
"Were you in Amy Pinto's year?"
"Then you were a sophomore," concludes Ehle. "You were one year ahead."
Ehle and Rogers have an easy rapport, the kind that comes with having known each other on and off for nearly three decades. But Oslo, which premiered off-Broadway last year at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater and has now moved upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center's Broadway home, marks their first time working together. They are clearly relishing this opportunity, one that they both guarantee certainly won't be their last.
Jennifer, how did J.T. Rogers get on your radar in school? Jennifer Ehle: J.T. was writing, even then, and would occasionally give people speeches. It was quite a thing to have J.T. give you a speech. One day he came up and he gave me a piece of paper — I remember the paper, everything about it — with the speech on it. It was a wonderful speech about a girl talking about being heartbroken and eating an entire chocolate cake. I don't know why you gave it to me.
J.T. Rogers: I had seen you do something and thought, "Wow, she's really good." Then, as I was writing these monologues, I thought of you. The funny thing is, you told me this story when we started rehearsing Oslo. I completely had forgotten it. I was so touched when Jennifer told me that story, because my memory during that time was me hustling, trying to get people to my do my speeches. Someone did a speech the year before, and it was very well received, but the faculty got really mad because it wasn't a proper play I had written it. So mine were all pseudonymous.
Jennifer: Which made it even more special to do one, because it felt like it was underground. I remember what you said to me afterwards.
J.T.: What did I say?
Jennifer: You said, just like you would say it now: "It was good. It wasn't how I saw it, but it was good."
J.T.: But that isn't necessarily a criticism.
Jennifer: Exactly. It wasn't necessarily a criticism. But it wasn't necessarily praise, either. It's honest.
J.T.: It was almost like the backstory of what you were performing was different than I imagined. I hadn't learned yet to convey backstory into practice.
J.T., did you always want to be a writer?
J.T.: No. I had always wanted to be an actor. When I was 9, I was doing a community-theater production in central Missouri. I was the greatest huntsman in Snow White ever. I remember doing it and getting very emotional, that moment of acting where you become the character for a second. I was 9. I remember thinking, "Well, that's settled." It wasn't until right when Jennifer and I met that I started writing these short plays and monologues. It was very rigorous and competitive and stressful. The funny thing is, I went from struggling to becoming really successful in the acting program. The teachers kept saying, "What happened? You're getting all of these lead roles." And I couldn't tell them, "It's because I don't want to be an actor anymore."
Jennifer, did you always want to be an actor?
Jennifer: I wanted to be a shepherdess when I was very, very young. Acting kind of snuck up on me. I was never sure if I wanted to be a writer or an actor. My father's a writer, my mother's an actress, and I could never quite decide. I went to Interlochen Arts Academy when I was 15 and somehow ended up doing theater. I played Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and that was it. I fell.
Did you two remain friends out of school?
J.T.: We went many years without speaking and I followed her career from afar. For a number of years, I was writing, and fantasized who would be great for a part, and I would think of her, but then thought, I can't send that to Jennifer Ehle.
Jennifer: If only you had!
J.T.: When we started the rehearsal process, we were both kind of pissed off. Why the f*ck did it—
Jennifer: Take us so long?
J.T.: So we have at least nine things we have to do in the next few years, to make up for lost time.
Jennifer, how did you come into the project?
Jennifer: I got an email from J.T. with play attached. It was December 2015. We hadn't had any contact for quite a while. It said, "I'm doing a workshop at LCT in January with Bart, and would you be interested in playing Mona?" My husband and I read it right away, and that was it. It's an extraordinary piece of work.
J.T.: We were thinking who and what and how, pulling our hair out and someone says, "What about Jennifer Ehle?" And we all go "Ohhh, my god," followed by, "She never does anything." And I said, "Why don't I just write her?" So I sit down and spent forever trying to write four sentences. Nine hours later you wrote back, and I went into everyone and they were like, "She said yes?" For a brief moment, I felt powerful.
Is it a difficult part?
Jennifer: I don't know. Don't tell me if it is.
J.T.: I bet it isn't, for you. That's an impossible question for her, because you're so well-suited to the role.
Jennifer: I don't know how to tell if a part is difficult or not. I don't think it would be constructive. Somebody came up to me and said, "I loved your role because she was so, and I'm not sure if this is the right word, but introspective." And I thought, "That's pretty great."
Is your next collaboration all lined up? J.T.: I have a play that I've not allowed to come to New York for quite a while. A week into rehearsal, I'm like, "Oh, bingo."
Jennifer: And it's wonderful.
J.T.: We're not gonna curse it, but we're gonna figure that out.