BWW Interviews: GENEVA CARR
Geneva Carr is not your typical actress. She has formidable credentials in theatre, film and television, but her route was unlike that of most performers, and BroadwayWorld was intrigued. Carr didn't discover acting until after she studied French at Mount Holyoke College and earned her M.B.A. at ESCP in Paris where she later got a job selling derivatives. After she was transferred to New York City, her life was, well, dramatically transformed. What made her change from being a Wall Street shark to an artist?
"I saw a play in a black box theatre," she recalls, "and it changed my life." It was the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) with about 10 people in the audience and three on stage. "I was so astounded," she says, and all three actors - Frances Conroy, Victor Slezak and Suzanne Shepherd - went on to become famous performers. She kept her day job as she studied acting with Jane Hoffman, a founding member of the Actors Studio. When she would study with Hoffman after work, she would still be wearing her corporate uniform, which sometimes irritated the acting teacher. "Stop being so perfect!" Hoffman would chide. Hoffman "became like a mother to me," says Carr. She was also a tough taskmistress, and Carr learned a lot from her. Hoffman would advise, "Just don't ask for any assistance. Just do it yourself. You just have to do it." One day, she told Carr to bring in a headshot. "I don't have that," Carr explained. Her intention was to treat acting as a business and, for her, that meant studying first, then going out on auditions. Hoffman didn't mince words. "You're old and there are going to be fewer shots. No one is ever going to make it easier for you. It's now or never."
Carr took that advice seriously and plunged in. "More than anything, I've learned by working," she says. "I've learned by doing." Even with an agent, she actively manages her own career. "It's a business to me. That's why I've worked so much in commercials," she says. She has a long list of credits in television and movies in addition to theatre. "People think an agent does all the work, [but] most of the stuff you make happen yourself."
"I've been lucky because of the people I've worked with," she says. EST, she notes, has about 500 actors and actively promotes new works through their Youngblood program. She appreciated the opportunity to work on "something new, touching it before anyone else." She helped develop Robert Askins' Hand To God over a period of four years. The play, about a boy at a Christian Puppet Ministry who lets the devil into his puppet, was directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. The character she played is so rich and challenging. "All of her actions are not me, but all her emotions are," she says. "I'm never separate from the character. "Often I would have made another choice. I justify it because we're all cruel and selfish and unkind at times."
Next, Carr will be playing Barbara in the upcoming production of Alan Ayckbourn's Things We Do For Love at the Westport Country Playhouse. It will be her fifth time working with director John ("Joey") Tillinger. "Joey literally changed my career," she says. "He not only gave me incredible theatre credits," he helped give her self-confidence. "He doesn't tell you what to do. With most [directors], you talk about the script. You talk about each line. Then a week later you stand up. Joey gets you up on your feet. The play is blocked in two to three days. It's part of you. There's a scary point where you know where you're going, but you don't know what your lines are. You're moving. It's very unusual in the business. He's just a sensational director. He just lets you fly." While working with her or any other performer he will say, "I'm going to say this and nudge you in the right direction," she explains. "He wanted me to figure it out by myself. You might feel like you're floundering, but he trusts you from the get-go. Joey is a master at casting." Still, the lessons she learned from Hoffman have held true for her. Completely bi-lingual in English and French, she can do accents very well and she can cry on cue. But there were times when Hoffman would tell her, "You're not getting it." She learned to "prepare like crazy and you let it breathe and live in the moment." She uses the analogy of the Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller moment when feeling the water finally connected with the letters. "I learned what she meant."
She has also done three other Ayckbourn plays: How The Other Half Loves, Relatively Speaking and Time of My Life. What appeals to her about Ayckbourn's plays? "Barbara is not necessarily a good person," she says, but "I hope the audience ends up rooting for her." She notes that Ayckbourn's characters represent a certain type of English people. There is no discussion of politics or race or sexual equality, "but they're real people." Ayckbourn goes "into the depth of human nature. It's achingly funny." In addition, "he writes characters for grown women....Ayckbourn doesn't just write about women over 40 or even hot ones, he just does it better than anyone else, in my opinion. They are fully expressed, vibrant women and that's what attracts me....I've gotten to play the most exciting, visceral, sexy roles" in his shows.
Carr toured in The Vagina Monologues for almost a year. She did all the monologues during the tour and worked with actresses at her stage in her career as well as stars such as Stefanie Powers, Carol Kane, Loretta Swit, Lisa Kron and Margot Kidder. Every week there was a new actress in the show. "I learned so much about acting from these women," she recalls. She was in Canada on 9/11. "None of us wanted to perform" that evening, but a thousand people came. "It was cathartic," she says. "America shut down, but the rest of the world kept going."
And, Carr, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps on going. What other roles appeal to her? "I love to play a bitch," she says. "I love to think it's because I'm a really nice person. You always have to worry about what people think of you [in real life]. Other roles that she would love to play are Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. "I'm really her age," she insists, although she doesn't look it. "As a woman aging, I'd like to sink my teeth in that role." She says, "As I've gotten older, I've released any obligations to be young and beautiful. In my late 30s, things just took off for me. Even in television, I've been playing really interesting roles - the best roles I've ever had. I tell young actresses, 'It ain't over at 40.' I haven't crested the best part of my career."
Just as Carr was a little late in finding the career that is right for her, it took her a while to find her soul mate. Recently she married architect Yuji Yamazaki after a two and a half week engagement. They plan to honeymoon in the Maldives in December 2014 when the project he designed there is complete. "It is the first totally solar-powered 5-star island resort hotel in the world," she says enthusiastically. (Pictures of the stunning resort are on his website, www.yyany.com.) "He completely understands what I'm doing" because he, too, must "audition" in order to get work and then work at it "because you're crazy about it."
See Geneva in Things We Do For Love at the Westport Country Playhouse from August 19 through September 7. 25 Powers Court, Westport. (203) 227-4177. Visit www.westportplayhouse.org and www.genevacarr.com.