Sarah Steele Takes Speech & Debate From the Black Box to the Silver Screen

Ten years and one Tony-winning play later, Steele goes back to high school with Stephen Karam.

Sarah Steele was an honest-to-goodness teenager the first time she danced around to the music of Once Upon a Mattress as Diwata — the internet-obsessed musical theater drama queen at the center of Stephen Karam's high school-centric play Speech & Debate. In 2007, it was the first play to take up residence at Roundabout Underground on 46th Street and subsequently launched Karam to the front of the pack of new American playwrights.

Almost 10 years later, the 28-year-old Steele is fresh off her Broadway run in Karam's Tony-winning play The Humans, which ran for nearly a year and earned a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. They've come a long way since their black-box days, but they had the rare opportunity to revisit their first collaboration with the new film adaptation of Speech & Debate, featuring an up-to-date screenplay by Karam.

Steele reprises the lead role of Diwata alongside Liam James and Austin P. McKenzie, who take the place of her original off-Broadway costars Jason Fuchs and Significant Other star Gideon Glick as her fellow misfits who join their conservative high school's speech and debate team. This film may mark Steele's "swan song" as a backpack-toting high schooler, but if she has it her way, she'll remain Karam's muse for every age bracket to come.

Sarah Steele as Diwata in the new film adaptation of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate.
(© Haley Rynn Ringo)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Was it strange to come back to the role of Diwata almost 10 years after doing it at Roundabout?
Yeah. I didn't expect that at all. Most of the time the people who were in the play don't even get to audition for the movie — they just try to get the most famous people they can find. But Stephen Karam really advocated for me and really wanted it to be me against the wishes of most of the other people involved.

What did you do to get back into the Diwata frame of mind?
We shot in Mississippi, so I was just in this hotel room and could act as crazy as I want with no self-consciousness. I danced around to Once Upon a Mattress and got back in touch with that super dorky musical-theater kid that's still in me somewhere. I would say there's definitely a Diwata inside Sarah — just amplified times 100.

Does it feel like you'll be playing teenagers forever?
That was my swan song I think. I haven't done it since then. I played my own age in The Humans, and now I play my own age on The Good Wife, so I think that was the end. It's time to hang up the old backpack and overalls.

Steele with Speech & Debate and The Humans playwright Stephen Karam.
(© David Gordon)

How did this play come into your life back in 2007?
I graduated from high school and had gotten into Columbia — and I took a year off to do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and then was all set to go to Columbia in the fall of 2007. Then I did a reading of Speech & Debate, and they decided that they were going to do it and they offered it to me. I really wanted to go to college and was torn about what to do. I decided that I loved the play too much so I did both at once — which was a little insane. I started Columbia while we were in rehearsal.

What was that balancing act like?
It was this amazing and hilarious off-Broadway process that I almost feel wouldn't happen today. It was the first show that ever happened in the black box at the Roundabout, and Gideon Glick was also a full-time student at NYU so it was kind of like an after-school activity. We rehearsed from two to seven, which is unheard of. And we put up this show and it became a huge hit. It was actually when I really fell in love with acting again. I wasn't sure I was going to do it — I went to school for something else — but I really fell in love with that play and Stephen's writing and that collaborative relationship with Stephen has been a huge highlight of my career.

Do you remember your first time meeting Stephen Karam?
I do! Well, Stephen — I don't think he'd mind my saying — he's very particular and he didn't even want to do a reading unless he had seen the person audition for Diwata. I was out of town doing a short film, so I made this whole tape, and he still, just for the reading, felt that he needed to see me do it in person. So I had this lovely woman who did props for the movie drive me to New York, and I met Stephen Karam, Robyn Goodman, and Jason Moore at — I'm not even exaggerating — 10:30pm when they were at a party at the Rainbow Room. I feel like I breezed in and they came from this party in their tuxes and we had this hilarious audition at like 10:30 at night.

Sarah Steele as Diwata in the 2007 Roundabout off-Broadway premiere of Speech & Debate.
Steele in the 2007 off-Broadway premiere of Speech & Debate at Roundabout Underground.
(© Joan Marcus)

What was it about the character of Diwata that appealed to you so much?
I really believe that Diwata exists. It was hard for me when I thought I wasn't going to get the movie because I think she can so easily be looked down on by the actress playing her where you sort of see the line between her and the actress who is cooler than her. I immediately felt very protective of her and I think that I always will. But it’s a hilarious part and it's so rare that the woman in the movie gets to be the outlandish character.

How does it feel to look back on the work you've done with Stephen since your first audition for him?
I just hope it goes on and on and on. I hope that I'm having a conversation in 20 years where they're like "…and back when you guys did The Humans together…" He really is my favorite writer and I feel so honored that he likes to use me in stuff and that we have this relationship. So I hope this is just the beginning.