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If There Is I Haven't Found it Yet's Annie Funke is Your New Rising Star to Watch

Jake Gyllenhaal put her in the spotlight. And she deserves to be there, so pay attention.

Annie Funke
(© David Gordon)
Thank you, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Annie Funke is one of the stage's brightest emerging stars. A veteran of pop musicals like Broadway's Hairspray, Funke recently made her breakout straight play debut with the drama If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet (playing through December 23). But while Funke is delivering one of the most fearlessly vulnerable performances of the fall season as an overweight and isolated teenager left floundering by two inept parents, you'll be hard pressed to find press on her. The New York Times' review of the play reduced the young actress' 90-minute performance to two words ("sweet and pungent") before speeding on to three paragraphs about another cast member -- Academy Award-nominee and off-Broadway newcomer Gyllenhaal, whose scenes critics unanimously agreed work best when he's paired with his character's troubled niece. Fortunately, that would be Funke. Gyllenhaal's Hollywood star glow has understandably been 'If There Is…'s draw. It has also thankfully cast light on a versatile actress who deserves the spotlight. TheaterMania sat down with Funke to put her on your radar, where she belongs.

You're deep into the play's run now. What questions are you tired of being asked about the show?

"Is the water in the bathtub cold," [Funke takes public bathing to new heights in the production], and "How old are you, really?" And, "What is it like to hug Jake Gyllenhaal?"

Would you like to answer on the record, so people stop asking you?

On a good day the water's warm, I'm 27, and hugging Jake Gyllenhaal is exactly what you would imagine.

You've been up close to "celebrity," and celebrities, by working on this play. Are you immune to being star-struck now?

God, I wish. The one celebrity I totally swoon over is Cherry Jones. Always. She came backstage one night and I made the biggest fool of myself. I love her, and think she's so amazing. She was incredibly nice, and tolerated how ridiculous I was.

Your career has mostly been musicals like Hairspray and Wicked, but you left them to train in straight plays at Chicago's Steppenwolf. Why?

The majority of work I had gotten in musicals was as a replacement—I always took over for somebody. I was rehearsing alone. I had no idea what I was like as a creative. I wanted to branch out and find out what my "thing" would be. That's not to minimize those wonderful jobs. They allowed me to be a working actor. But I needed to know what I'm about, what my process is. If that isn't too "actor-y" an answer.'

N0, let's be actory-y: You've spoken about this play having a very "physical" rehearsal process. I have no idea what that means.

[Laughs.] Okay, for example there's this one scene [in the play] when I don't say a lot, and Jake's character is trying to get into me. You know, into me—open me up. So our director, Michael Longhorst, said every time [Jake] said something to me, he should poke or touch me. [Jake] and I didn't know each other that well at that point, so it was a really good icebreaker. But if someone had told me my freshman year of college that I'd [eventually] be having a poking war with Jake Gyllenhaal, I'd be like, "Really?"

Or stripping down on stage and taking a very serious bath, as in this play.

The cast offered to strip down with me so I could be more comfortable. But when we did our first "stumble through" of the show and got to that scene, there was a moment where I was like, "Am I going to do this?" And then was like, "I am. This is my body, and 400 people are going to be seeing this every night." It's not about me, Annie Funke, who has always had body image issues. It's about Anna and her story. Some people might say, "You go girl!" Some people might say, "Put your clothes back on!" But it's just not a big deal to me anymore, which is freeing. I had more issues with a part at the end of the show where we go up on a ledge. I'm afraid of heights—we had much more trauma over the ladder climb than the nakedness.

I hate asking the "weight question," but do you feel you're pigeon-holed in casting because of your weight?

Because I am a bigger girl, I will be cast in bigger girl roles. There are a lot of [casting] breakdowns that say "full-figured girl," or whatever. It's there. But I remember when I saw Other Desert Cities thinking, "Brooke is an amazing role. I would so love to play that role." It doesn't, anywhere in the script, say that she is a big girl—but it doesn't say she's a small girl. She's just a person. So I hope someday to be able to play those kinds of roles that don't necessarily have to be the fat girl or the funny girl. I just want to play people. I want to tell stories.

Anna is 15-years-old. What did you do to get in touch with your teenaged self?

I was bullied in middle school, so it's been interesting to revisit that as an adult, with perspective. When you are that age, you don't see what good can come out of it.

What good is that?

I think it makes you resilient. That was my experience. It can be terrible, too. I was lucky. Bullying pushed me to find out what I love to do, which was be in the theater. Once I found it I was surrounded by people who shared common interests and love for each other, and it made the bullying less of a big deal—I had people on my side. I wasn't alone. I guess I feel now that [bullying] made me stronger. But if you had asked me how I felt back then I wouldn't have said any of this! I probably would have said it f***ing sucked. [Bullying] is such an epidemic. I was actually scared to go [on stage] and to be that vulnerable again. It was very difficult to go backwards.

Annie Funke and Jake Gyllenhaal in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet
(© Joan Marcus)

The reviews were all about Jake—do you feel Jake Gyllenhaal is stealing your thunder, just a little bit? I'm mostly kidding.

Ha! No, not at all! It's been a gift, honestly. He's the one who found the play and brought it to Roundabout [Theatre Company] to produce. And working with him every night as an acting partner has elevated my performance. He's very generous about wanting to bring out the best in his scene partner. I wouldn't change it for anything.

You play 15, but you've also played 60, as Madame Morrible in Wicked. You're only 27. That's pretty amazing.

I feel fortunate that I can be believable in all those different ages. You can walk down the street and someone can say, "I'm 15." And you'll be like, "I would never believe you were 15." But they still are. So you're never playing a number. You really play where they are in their life, what they have experienced, what they know, what they don't know. I guess that's my answer? Is that a good answer?

It's a good answer. Are you going to keep the straight play thing going, or return to musicals?

I've had the opportunity with this show to dive in and tell a good story. I want to do more of that. I want to do more plays, of course. This play has made me hungry for [them]. But I'm open to anything—I'm relatively new to all this, so why limit myself?

Dream roles?

Ooh! Okay, so my dream role growing up was always Nancy in Oliver!, which is just so—ah, well, it's not supporting the "I want to do more plays" thing, is it? It may be very naive of me, but I would ultimately like to believe that there are roles out there that haven't been written yet, that someone will allow me to do. And Baker's Wife! Into the Woods! Please!

Final question: You've seen what celebrity looks like by working with Jake. Would you ever want to be that famous?

I…[long pause]. I think…gosh, I really don't know. If that would come my way, then I guess I would go with it. But I pause because if you had asked me before I knew Jake Gyllenhaal, I would have said "absolutely." Now I don't—I don't know. I see firsthand how much people demand his time, how much people ask of him. I see how much people think they really know you when [you're a celebrity], how much they think you should be giving them your time. I never would have imagined…I don't know. If that is what is in the cards for me, I'll take it. But I don't know that I'd ask for it.