An Interview with Brooklyn Boy's Ari Graynor

Making her Broadway debut in the critically acclaimed Brooklyn Boy, and a vet of one of this year's hit films, Mystic River, is fresh face Ari Graynor. We sat down at the theatre world's favorite restaurant, Angus McIndoe, to chat about her life and career.

Ari is a native of Wesley, Massachusetts, and until recently was a student at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. As she describes it, she attended a wonderful high school in Cambridge, where students were groomed from day one to figure out what Ivy League school they're going to go to. She, however, always knew that she was on a different path.

"This year, I officially left school" she explains. "I took a full year off freshman year, and every other semester I was taking a semester off, but I was killing myself commuting to New York and auditioning . It was a crazy way to be living, and then Brooklyn Boy happened, and I made the decision to leave." There's little doubt in this writer's mind however, based on her career thus far, and view of education, that she won't someday return to complete her studies, to receive an honorary degree as so many other actresses have these days.

Based in New York at the moment for Brooklyn Boy, the theatre world nearly lost her to LA. "At the beginning of the summer I was thinking about moving to LA. I had made that decision, and then Brooklyn Boy happened."

"Theatre is where I feel the most at home…I'm able to come alive on stage"

"There's just nothing being like part of this community here, and having the energy, and the situation of originating a role now, in a Donald Margulies play, it - just doesn't get much better than that. It's such an amazing process, that I sort of forget how much I miss theater when I haven't done it in a while."

While she's done both TV and film work, theatre remains her first love. "I think theatre is where I feel the most at home. I feel that I'm able to come alive on stage, and it's not that you can't on film or in other mediums, I just haven't had that experience yet. The roles that I've had in theater have been more fulfilling than the roles I've had in film." Like so many performers, Ari also has strong memories of some theatrical experiences from childhood, and she relayed a cute, early memory. "My Mom used to do community theatre with the Wellesley Players, and the first show I ever saw was Hello Dolly! when I was 4. My mother was in the chorus, and she loves to tell the story that I went backstage to see her, and the woman who played Dolly was still in her costume, that I ran back, with my arms up, and shouted 'Dolly!' and ran into her arms. Of course she was Dolly to me, not an actress - there was no doubt in my mind! I was a believer since the beginning, and I think I still am."

Ari has many memories of theatre as she was growing up, and when asked, can't recall a moment when she didn't want to be a performer. "When I was a kid, in first grade, I remember our class was doing a play, and I was assigned a role. I came home that day in tears because I was just thrilled to be doing it."

Another crucial ingredient to where she is today, is that of her parental support. "I started acting professionally when I was 7, and my parents were always so supportive. I was always a happy a kid, but somehow the picture always felt more complete when I was on stage, so I was always wondering what other theaters there were in Boston, and that kind of kept escalating, and it was always my getting on them about it I remember."

Not only did they stick by her, but both parents sacrificed to chauffer and chaperone their daughter's burgeoning career. "I'm an only child, which probably explains a lot and they made some enormous sacrifices, sweeping me in and out of New York for auditions. I started commuting here probably when I was about 12. My mom was a therapist so she was kind of able to create her own schedule, and my dad would drive me back and forth. They really sacrificed so much to make it happen."

Before the move to the great white way, Ari made a name for herself performing in many of Boston's theaters, and also worked at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Institute, where she also performed in King Lear at age 13.

In addition to straight plays, she has made a few brief sojourns into the world of musical theatre. I did a tour of Annie in Korea, and it was really short. We rehearsed for about 10 days, and we were in Korea for about two weeks. Another chance to sing came in a Trinity Rep production of Into the Wood. "Oscar Eustis directed that, and it was an incredible experience. I'm so glad that he's now getting the recognition he deserves and I was so proud to have him in the audience for the opening night of Brooklyn Boy. I did that show when I was in 8th grade, in the midst of my awkward phase, and getting to do the show with him was really special."

A second great experience at Trinity Rep was performing in Fall, a play written by Bridget Carpenter. "That was the world premiere of this amazing, amazing, amazing play that I did at 17 and that's what really got things going for my career. I ended up hooking up with my managers through that play, and it's all very 'web-like' how things happened, but I always felt like Trinity Rep is what started things off for me."

"There's so much I'd like to do in that medium, but I don't ever want to not do theater."

 

Ari got her on camera break in the HBO hit show, The Sopranos, playing a troubled college roommate to one of the show's stars. "That was a pretty great gig, and especially for it to be my first. That was 3 years ago, and then as the industry works, I didn't work for about a year. Since then film work has picked up a bit, and it's sort of an addiction where the more you do it, the more you want to do more of it. That's simply because the roles and your understanding of the work grows the more you do it. There's so much I'd like to do in that medium, but I don't ever want to not do theater."

After The Sopranos, Ari did not work for a year and a half, but it was all worth it as it was followed by Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood. "It was such a thrill for that to be my first experience on film. With him as a director, plus all the people in it, it was just incredible. My actual work was minimal, I was in just a few scenes, but the whole experience of it was amazing. As everyone has heard especially lately, he is an amazing, warm, calm, supportive director. Clint's got a famous thing of not calling action or cut, so as an actor, you just start when you're ready. He's very unassuming, and aside from my scenes I learned a lot about moviemaking in general. I had one scene with Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, and another one with Tim Robbins. We didn't interact much, but just watching people that have these amazingly huge talents work made it a learning experience. It was wonderful to see how they were about the work, because none of them approached it in a pretentious sort of way. It showed how they did what needed to be done, because they were so kind, and warm and wonderful to everyone around them, and did what they needed to do in terms of their character, but didn't make a big fuss about it. It's an internal process, and I really enjoyed seeing it."

Next up was Brooklyn Boy, a show that she almost wasn't in. "I hadn't really done theater in a couple of years, and really was more focused on other things, so I decided to move to LA, and I went out there for a trial week. I had a great time, and felt really good about being there. I had just made the decision that I was going to move there, and had arranged with a friend's parents to housesit for them while they were away, and then I got a call from my manager, on Tuesday that said there were two appointments for me, one for Brooklyn Boy and one for a film. They sent the scripts to LA and I loved them both instantly. Looking at Brooklyn Boy was scary initially because it was such a long commitment for Brooklyn Boy because we were doing it for the South Coast Rep first, and then Broadway. For someone who never in her life planned that far in advance, it was scary! I loved the play so much though, and thought the writing was extraordinary, so I took a redeye and went back to NY earlier than I planned. I slept on my manager's couch, and went for the audition for Game 6, which was the film, and then the next day went in and auditioned for Brooklyn Boy."

She describes the audition process as 'rough,' but what became evident after three callbacks was that they wanted her to do the play, and she wanted to do it. However, there was a problem – the dates of the start of rehearsals conflicted with the end of filming for Game 6. "Dan Sullivan feels really strongly about having the whole company together for the first phase of rehearsals, because table work is important and I couldn't agree more, but I couldn't get out of the last week of filming for Game 6, so it looked like Brooklyn Boy wasn't going to happen and I was devastated, because dates were never an issue. I never had two jobs in this crazy business! I remember my agent calling me and asking if I heard about the dates, and I was saying how disappointed I was, and they kept talking and it became evident that it might not happen, and it was a shock to me. At the end though, everything worked out."

As with most shows before they hit Broadway, the script continues to evolve, and Brooklyn Boy was no different. "The script that I read for my auditions had a lot of big changes made to it before getting to South Coast. In the first draft of my scene, it originally took place post-coital, which is obviously a huge difference. Not just different, but it changes the whole meaning of the scene and Eric's journey. Some other big changes I remember were also that Nina, his wife, was African-American and a photographer, not a writer. Once we got to South Coast, and started working on the script, that was the last of the big changes."

"I think that the character was always there, and as all actors do – I just found a unique voice to give it."

 

From that point on, the biggest changes had been made, and it was now onto tightening the show up and clarifying things. "It's exciting to be working on something so from the beginning, and really being be able to create a character on Broadway. You know that what you're bringing to the character, is something that's affecting the way it's rewritten or not rewritten, and that's exciting. The plot is amazing, and it's also amazing how talented Donald is, and how everyone worked together to figure out how to make something perfect."

That process of giving life to the character since day one is one she takes very seriously. "I think that the character was always there, and as all actors do, I just found a unique voice to give it. I only have one memory of disagreeing with a change to the show, and it wound up staying in. I say something like 'I like your voice, when you spoke last night…' and they were going to cut it, and I felt like it was one of the only times in the scene where either one of the characters was being direct about their feelings for each other. You obviously know that they're in a hotel room, and you know why they're there, but it's the only time they verbalize it as sort of a come on to him in a very subtle kind of way, and I felt that was important, and Donald in his wonderful way listened to it, agreed with me, and left it in."

Brooklyn Boy is of course the creation of playwright Donald Margulies, the writing of whom Ari is a big fan of. "What's special about Donald's writing, and especially about this play is that he could not be farther away from the character that he created for me. There's truths about her that I see in myself, and my friends and in people I know and it's so hard to capture that on a page, or on the screen or on the stage. He created a character that's both book smart, and enjoys going to signings and is interested in writing her own things, and merges that with a little bit of a 'Valley Girl.' The fact that he's been able to marry the two seems so truthful, and something that people should be better equipped at doing, but he's one of the only writers that I've read who's so successful at it. The beauty of his writing, which has brought together all of these dynamics which is so rare to find in any medium."

Ari's now enjoying the full experience of being on Broadway, which as she recently discovered, she actually foreshadowed a few years back. "My parents and I found old programs from every play that I had ever done, and one of them literally from 13 years ago said 'Ari Graynor dreams of one day being on Broadway' and so it's really overwhelming to have your dreams and your highest aspirations become a reality. I remember the first day of just walking in, I think the best thing for me was walking down 47th Street and seeing the poster, and then walking into the theater for the first time. The theater and everything was exactly as I imagined a beautiful Broadway house would look like, and then I think that what's been exciting for me. While things like opening night were as great as they could have been that it hasn't been about that, it's been about every night of doing the show. There hasn't been one night that I haven't felt like doing it, or didn't make a discovery, and I didn't know that it would be like that for me necessarily. I didn't know if it would, because I hadn't done theater in a while and didn't know if I'd get sick of it, or what being on Broadway would be like, but it's really been a real joy, and is every night. The work, and the people and the words and all that are so fulfilling, and it's a great community. I've learned so much, and there's nothing like it. Even coming into a place like Angus, it's all just so much fun!"

"Hopefully I'll be lucky enough for Broadway to invite me back…"

The cast of 7 in Brooklyn Boy has been together since day one in California, and have a closeness that definitely comes through on stage each night. "We all really have a familiar connection, and we're sharing in all this together. A lot of us are making our Broadway debut, and of course we're just over the moon about it all. It's going to be sad when the run ends, because it's hard to find something as wonderful as the roles we have, and there's not that many for people my age on Broadway, so it's not like I can just roll into another show. Hopefully I'll be lucky enough for Broadway to invite me back."

In terms of future hopes for stage works, she rules nothing out in terms of material – from classic to contemporary. "I would be interested in doing classic parts too, I obviously feel more comfortable with contemporary work, but I think that in order to challenge yourself as an actor, and the whole point is to challenge yourself, that you need to do different things. I feel like I'm sort of afraid to study too much, because I feel like I work as I go, but I want to study the classics, and also the technical aspects of things. I'm always looking to understand more."

Even more refreshing than that, is the one area of acting that the star refuses to get into. "The only thing that I'm not willing to do is really stupid, horribly written sitcoms. It can be tempting during pilot season time, but I realized this a while ago when I almost signed my life away to a stupid pilot. Even during a depressing period, I knew that it was something I did not want to do. You have to be careful because you only get one life and I knew that no money is worth any of that."

The last part of the Broadway experience has been the reactions of audiences to the show, and the night that I saw the show – the audience was filled with rapt attention, laughter, and tears. "There are certain moments in my scene where I can hear the reactions, and can tell if the audience is with me. Like when Eric hands me the money, you can hear them go "ooooooooh" and you can tell how interested people are, and how wrapped up they are in the story and the characters by that."

Almost everyone has been giving her praise, but every now and then at the stage door… "I had one woman come up and to me 'while I loved the show, you know, the problem with people like you is that you're why my ex-husband married someone 25 years younger than him. Men my age are all dating women your age, who am I going to date?' I said I'm sorry, and she said 'no, no, it's fine, you were fantastic I loved the show!"

The show has talk backs with the audience after every Saturday matinee that usually result in a full orchestra of interested participants. "It's amazing to hear that not only are their comments great about how much they loved it, or related to it, but if someone asks a question and there's an obvious answer, or they misunderstood something, it's great watching the faces of people who will be like 'no no, that's not that at all!' It shows how connected they are to the material, and how they feel so strongly about it. There's a lot about Judaism in the story, but so many times at both South Coast and here, people of all different ethnicities have said that it was their story, and related to their father in the hospital, and those are things I was feeling with my marriage, and I think that's what so great about it.

Arye Gross told me a great story the other day that he was talking to his doorman who wanted to see it, and there was one gentleman in his fifties, and another guy that was twenty, and the older guy said something like 'I couldn't stop crying at the end,' and the kid said 'you were crying at the end? I was hysterical through the whole thing!' Different generations had different takes but both loved it, and I'm proud to be a part of that."

Hopefully Ari will be entertaining audiences of all generations on stage for many years to come.

Brooklyn Boy is currently playing at the Biltmore Theatre. For tickets and other information, click here. Upcoming film appearances for the star include 'Game 6' which premiered at Sundance and also featured Michael Keaton, and Robert Downey, Jr.

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