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Marin Ireland Cuts to the Heart of Broadway's The Big Knife

The Tony Award nominee-turned TV terrorist talks Hollywood, addiction, and the price of success. logo

Marin Ireland, successful stage, film, and television actress, has traded one Homeland for another. After inducing several water-cooler moments as the suicidal terrorist Aileen Morgan on the hit Showtime series (not to mention her other recent television appearances on shows such as Boss, The Killing, and The Following), Ireland has been welcomed back into the warm embrace of her home on Broadway in the revival of Clifford Odets' The Big Knife.

Ireland made her Broadway debut in 2009 as Steph in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty — a performance that earned her a Tony Award nomination — closely followed by a starring role as Christine in After Miss Julie. She has remained a staple of the New York theater scene since 2001 with appearances in over a dozen off-Broadway plays including Far Away, Sabina, and A Lie of the Mind, all the while balancing jobs in both television and film.

She is now back on Broadway as Marion Castle, the embittered wife of Hollywood star Charlie Castle, (played by two-time Tony Award nominee Bobby Cannavale). Marion begs Charlie to get out from under the thumb of his corrupt film studio and to pursue a simpler career as a stage actor (because, as we all know, stage actors have very calm and stable lifestyles). Ireland took some time out of her busy rehearsal and performance schedule to discuss her own bicoastal career, the challenges of staying true to one's art, and her feelings about portraying Hollywood as a murderous den of iniquity.
Marin Ireland Bobby Cannavale in a scene from The Big Knife at the American Airlines Theatre
© Joan Marcus
How did the role of Marion come to you?
About a year ago I did a reading of the play with Roundabout. I was brought into [it] by Bobby (Cannavale) — [we] have known each other as friends and professionally for years — and I was lucky enough that he wanted to see what it would be like to do it together.

Had you read the original play or seen the 1955 film version before the reading?
I didn't know the play at all before the reading…[And] I have not seen the movie. I was informed that [it] was not a shining example of cinematic history [Laughs]. And sometimes weird things can lodge in your brain, so I held off.

You've been balancing your theater career with a lot of television and movies recently. How has it been handling a bicoastal lifestyle?
I've been really lucky because when I go out to L.A. it's for a job, not to look for a job. That's the way I like L.A. most — when I already have a job [Laughs].

Working regularly in Hollywood now, how do you respond to the play's demonization of the Hollywood scene?
The tricky thing is people know a lot about Odets and how he went out to Hollywood, [so] it's easy to think of it as a play about Hollywood. He really meant it to be a fable about the price of success…He hoped it would feel Elizabethan. The ultimate idea of rags-to-riches success in America is the Hollywood movie star. You can kind of rise overnight from being a poor kid to a big star, like Charlie does. The easy path is very, very tempting sometimes. [My character] is kind of portraying the hard way.

But the play seems to portray Hollywood as the corrupt "easy" way and theater as the noble "hard" way.
I was reading Odets' The Time Is Ripe, his journal from the year 1940 — it's a great read — when you read it you find it's equal disillusionment. He's not just saying that theater is good and Hollywood is bad. It's really a story about idealism and staying who you are and maintaining your personal identity.

I'm sure that's something your cast of seasoned actors can appreciate.
All of us relate to that idea. As actors you like to think about the luxury of having choices in your career, but for the most part you kind of take whatever comes your way and hope that you carved out something that you're proud of in the end.

I think we can agree that Charlie isn't the greatest husband to Marion throughout the play. Do you still hope that audiences root for your relationship?
I hope that they do. I feel the relationship is really modern. It's a contemporary look at a relationship that you don't usually get. You [typically] want to see people play out the best version of a relationship. I really appreciate that [theirs] is complicated. You have Marion and Charlie up there…and she's addicted to him because he's so charming and he always says the right things. It's a very truthful look at an addictive codependent relationship. Not to say too much about my own personal life but I can definitely relate to this feeling that a person's not good for you and you can't get away.

So his charm is what keeps her coming back to him?
It's head-over-heels love. He was the first guy she ever loved. I like to think of it that way.

What's the one thing with which you hope audiences walk out of the theater after seeing The Big Knife? The most honest thing I can say is I would love for people to keep thinking about it. My favorite thing to hear from people is "I left the theater and couldn't stop thinking about it." You want your work to have an impact after they leave the theater. It's the equivalent of leaving a musical humming a show tune.