The First Time Is the Charm
TheaterMania talks with first-time Tony Award nominees Hope Davis, Jennifer Damiano, and Zach Grenier.
"I was on the phone with someone who thought either Jeff Daniels or James Gandolfini had been left out, and then Jeff told me he had heard that either I or Marcia Gay Harden had been left out," she says. "It would have felt very bittersweet if one of us needed to be consoled that night, so it was a great thrill that we were all included."
While Davis spent much of the 1990s on stage -- in works as diverse as Richard Nelson's Some Americans Abroad, Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls, and Anton Chekhov's Ivanov (opposite Kevin Kline) -- she has spent the last decade working steadily in film and television, including the current season of HBO's In Treatment. So what lured her back to the stage?
"I've been missing it for a long time, and when my husband, Jon Patrick Walker, was in Young Frankenstein, I'd go watch him and just want to be up there so bad -- not that I can dance or sing," she says. "Then this beautiful play came along, and I thought it was really interesting, and I liked the fact that no one person has to carry the play and that it was an hour and a half and then I can go home to my kids. Everything about it was appealing."
Another deciding factor in accepting the role is that she's the first one to play it (at least in the U.S.). "I did think that if I'm finally going to come back to the theater, I didn't want to recreate a part that had been immortalized by another actress," she notes. What she hadn't realized, however, was this physical toll the part would take on her. "I have bruises all over my legs," she says. "And the first time our director, Matthew Warchus, told me that I would have to go all the way to the other side of the stage to throw all those tulips, I said to him 'Why?' It's definitely a workout. But ultimately, that's part of what makes the experience so exhilarating."
As those who've seen the show know -- and even some who haven't -- the showiest part of Davis' role is the moment when she projectile vomits all over the living room of Harden and Gandolfini's characters. While she won't disclose the actual way it happens, she has no issue talking about the scene. "We worked for days with me in a wet suit to figure out how to do it. It's tricky. I've got to spray all those books, and I have to spray Jeff," she notes. "Some audience members immediately start laughing and some people are clearly disgusted by it. Personally, I thought it was hilarious when Matthew first told me and I still think it's hilarious."
Ask Jennifer Damiano what it's like to be a first-time Tony Award nominee, as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her searing portrayal of the troubled teenager Natalie Goodman in the musical Next to Normal, and the usually articulate 18-year-old actress admits she has trouble describing her feelings. "It's too abstract to even talk about, like it's another dimension," she says. "But if I had to use one word, it would be incredible."
Damiano isn't surprised that many of the show's fans might wonder if art reflects life, but she stresses the two are very different. "I am not from such a dysfunctional family; mine is really solid. If I were to have a recital or something, my parents would be there, unlike Natalie's. And no, I'm not the invisible girl," she adds, referring to the title of one of her big songs (written by fellow Tony Award nominees Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt). "Also, unlike Natalie, I've never had a breakdown at an audition. I try to keep myself a little more controlled; I'm good at keeping my cool in those situations."
So how is she so convincing in the role? "I am just living and breathing the piece; she's invaded my life and I just let her," she says. "During the show, I just try to keep thinking about her life and not mine. For example, during the scene before the recital, I just think hard about what it's like to wait in a classroom with all the other kids who are going to perform, and all their parents are there with flowers and stuff, and Natalie is just alone. It's just heartbreaking. In the end, I am just totally investing the role because that's what you have to do when you're working on this kind of piece. And yes, half the time, I can't tell the two of us apart."
However, Damiano and her castmates -- who include fellow Tony Award nominees Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer (who play her parents Diana and Tom) -- make sure the offstage atmosphere is very different than the onstage one. "We're all really happy and we just hang out, goof around, and try to laugh about everything," she says. "It's such a dark piece that we have to be idiots when we're we're backstage. After all, what else can you do to keep your feet on the ground?"
Few actors get to do two Broadway plays in one season, and even fewer get to play real people in both of them, but that's just what happened to Zach Grenier this season, who followed up his work as Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons with his stunning portrayal of composer Ludwig von Beethoven in 33 Variations, for which he has received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. "I wasn't expecting the nomination," says Grenier. "I woke up that Tuesday morning to a distant cell phone and then I heard my agents leaving me this wonderful message. I am so honored to be part of this lineup of talented men."
Grenier was living in California, where he has spent most of the past decade, when he first got the call from writer-director Moises Kaufman to play Beethoven in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of 33 Variations. "I was thrilled, but it was also a daunting thought to play a genius, which I am not, and to play a great composer, which I am not, and so I started doing a lot of research to see if I could do this."
The answer was yes. "I discovered what we have in common is that we're both very passionate deep down," he says."Beethoven had very strong opinions about many things, and after he became deaf and wasn't able to express them verbally, he found a way to express them through his music. Beethoven was like many people who are hard of hearing or go deaf in that they have a tendency to withdraw from society, which is one reason I think he has the reputation of being so difficult."
For Broadway, the show acquired a new leading lady: two-time Oscar winner and 2009 Tony Award nominee Jane Fonda, who plays Katherine Brandt, a terminally ill musicologist who is trying to solve the mystery of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" before her death. "I've been such a huge fan of hers for years -- she is so committed to her causes, her humanitarian work, and she is an extraordinary actress," he says. "I could see immediately that she would sing in this part. We don't have a lot of scenes together, but we do meet near the end of the play, and every night, I really look forward to those moments."