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Interview: Chatting with Off-Broadway Fave Deirdre O'Connell

There are working actors, there are frequently working actors, and then there are the likes of Deirdre O'Connell. In just the past 18 months you could have seen her on stage in New York in Roundabout's Little Children Dream of God and Ars Nova/Manhattan Theatre Club's By the Water (for which she was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award) and in Chicago in Steppenwolf Theatre's The Way West. Or on screen costarring in Gabriel, which was featured at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, and in smaller roles in the Melissa McCarthy/Bill Murray movie St. Vincent and the indie drama The Quitter. Or on TV in a multi-episode arc on Nurse Jackie and a recurring role as Ruth Wilson's new agey mother, Athena, in Showtime's acclaimed new series The Affair.

O'Connell is not only one of the theater's busiest actors but one of its most lauded as well. Earlier this year she received a special Lilly Award (recognizing women theater artists) for Distinguished Service to Playwrights. For 2010's In the Wake alone, O'Connell earned an Ovation Award for its world premiere in L.A. and Equity's Richard Seff Award and a Lortel Award nomination for its subsequent production at the Public Theater. She received an Obie in 2005 for sustained achievement, and as a member of the ensemble cast of Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation was honored with both an Obie and Drama Desk Award. Other awards have come from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Drama-Logue and the Independent Theater Bloggers Association.

Currently O'Connell is appearing in the new play Judy by Max Posner, now in previews at the New Ohio Theatre in Greenwich Village. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and presented by Page 73 Productions, Judy is set to open Sept. 10 and run through Sept. 26. BroadwayWorld phoned O'Connell last week to talk about this play and some of the others she's done in her amazingly prolific career.

Your cell phone has a Los Angeles area code--kind of surprising for an off-Broadway legend. When were you based in L.A.?
I got my cell phone number in L.A. and just never changed it. I would go there and do jobs for several years. I had a really good time at a regional theater called Los Angeles Theater Center that I used to work at. But I was not living in L.A. to pursue TV and film. I did one series that I just went out there to do. About 20 years ago, I moved there to try to make money and stayed for, probably, about six years--and got very lonely for New York and acting in theater.

Do you have the typical New York actor's attitude toward L.A.?
For some people it's a great place. Like, get in the car and go to the grocery store, and be by the beach, and have the weather be beautiful all year! It's also a great place to have a family; it's easier in many ways than here. But for me it never jelled. I just never felt comfortable being in a car culture like that. It's, like, a suburban place, and I could never sign on to live in that. And I missed the seasons--I grew up with them, so time passes in a weird way. So for me it was a pretty cut-and-dried thing.

You grew up in Massachusetts. Did you want to act as long as you can remember?
I always did it, but I didn't think I'd want to do it as a real job until I was in my 20s. I had always been in school plays and I was in the drama club; it sort of came naturally to me, but I didn't take it very seriously. I had all these adventures that I'd look back on and realize, "Oh, that was the time I was really happy when I was little."
My grandmother was a Ziegfeld Follies girl. She grew up with a stage mother, and was in New York dancing and acting. Her aunt--so, my great-great-aunt--was also an actress in New York. I never knew the woman who was an actress. She died fairly young, in a terrible car accident, like, a drunken ride from a party in a Connecticut--she had a classic glamorous actress lifestyle.
So I grew up knowing those stories, and both my parents were involved in theater and loved it. My mother [Anne Ludlum] was a playwright and an actress in Seattle. She started working more seriously after I was grown up, when they moved to Seattle. She did stuff in the Berkshires, and she taught theater. So it was definitely around. Maybe that's why I was like, "I'm not doing that!" I had none of the usual family trauma trying to convince people this was a good idea.

You would have proved them wrong anyway. You've worked steadily for years.
The economic reality is, most actors working consistently in the theater--off-Broadway, New York--have found some other way to make a living. In my particular case, it's because I have a rent-stabilized apartment, and I don't have any kids, and I have a SAG pension. There was a stage before my pension started where I was quite panicked: I was in my 50s and I was thinking I'd have to go back to school and get a degree so I can teach--and I was working all the time! And not just at [small theaters], I was working at the Public, at the Roundabout... [Without the pension] I wouldn't have gone into this stage of life just trying to be a theater actor in New York, assuming that I was going to be able to get TV work. I've managed to have recurring parts on TV, but that's completely a crapshoot.
One of the reasons that I wanted to move back to New York from L.A.--and that turned out to be true--is that there would still be writing for me as I aged...gracefully. I wouldn't have to give up on playing complicated and interesting parts, and that does start to be the case in a lot of movies and TV. [Speaking hypothetically] Sally Field, who has Academy Awards, and I would be competing for the same part... I don't feel that way in the theater at all. There continue to be parts. But you do have to find another way to pay the rent.

What can you tell us about Judy?
It is about three siblings in the year 2040. I think the seed of it for Max was wondering where he and his siblings would be [then]. It's funny--2040 seems like far in the future, but it's not actually. He was playing with the idea of what we've adjusted to in 20, 30 years, what are the subtle shifts in the ways that we communicate, in the ways that we live, that have happened recently and where that's going. But in a very personal story about the family.
The three of them each live in their own basement, because that's where all of their communication devices are at optimum--you know how you run around looking for cell phone service? So we're at the point where we basically stay in our basements all the time, because that's where we have the best cell phone and Internet. All three of them, at different moments, are in a love story, so all three of them are struggling with loss and love in different ways. And they are truly eccentric.
The writing is so funny, and so odd. He's doing hilarious and beautiful work on making it a slightly exotic but not a very exotic world--the way that it would be if we moved back 30 years ago. We're actually wearing the same clothes, but there are subtle differences...things like how we express ourselves and how we communicate, and how much time we spend in communication with other people without having any actual intimacy with them, and how you value it. It doesn't land on one side or the other in simple way of "Oh, look where we're going--it's going to be terrible..." But it's also not saying, "Everyone will be in much better communication, and they'll have a much better capacity for empathy."

And your role?
I play the eldest sister. I don't want to say a whole lot about it, but I've got a great love story in it. I had just been talking to my boyfriend about how, on a basic level, I think people want to be actors because they want to be in love stories. I want to pretend that I'm falling in love, and have a whole love story happen to me every single day. Wouldn't that be fun? And as you get older, you get fewer and fewer love stories, so you have to start thinking about "Alright, I want to be an actor because I want to talk about the nature of...death...or war... The big things. [Pause] But I really would love to be in a love story." Right [around the time] we were having that conversation, Max sent me the play and said we're going to do it this year. I get a love story, I'm so happy!

So you knew the author before you started working on this show?
Max Posner and I became friends at Sundance Theatre Lab. He worked for them, as one of the producers or assistant producers there. I got invited to go to the Sundance Theatre Lab in residence up at MASS MoCA, I'd say, three of four winters ago. So Max and I were around the same world together to two or three weeks, and we would find ourselves, like, sitting together at supper, and I made sure I knew how to track him down after we were done. I don't even think I was in focus that he was a writer, but he was already such a formidable guy, and so funny. I just loved him. We stayed in touch, and then I started getting invited to do readings of his plays, and the first time I did: "Holy cow, this kid can really write. I mean, wow!" I always enjoyed doing his readings. There were always really great parts for me, wildly different, but none of them like the part I have in Judy. I feel like Judy is a whole other level of writing that he has gotten to. And this is all before he's gotten a production, 'cause this is the first one.
But in terms of people who do readings of new plays a lot, Max has already cut a wide swath, and people really, really respond strongly to his writing. It's very idiosyncratic, very, very funny, but has a lot of depth. His voice is so particular, and he comes by it so honestly.

Is there something in Judy that you haven't done before an actress? Is it even possible after all the plays you've been in to feel like you could have a new experience?
That's such a good question. I do feel that, but it would be hard to define what it is. Like any actor, I find myself coming up against the same problems over and over again--like, I always tend to overthink that, or I always tend to make the character softer as opposed to being a lot tougher--but I see them coming a little quicker.
There's a lot of time in the play where each character is in our basement by ourselves, on our devices, doing things. And yet a huge amount of vocal energy is being exerted in the play; it has very precise language. The combination of having to be extremely by yourself and still and quietly doing little tasks and then entering the scene full-throttle has been a challenge.

You brought such a burst of humor and energy to The Affair. Will you be back on it in season 2?
She is back! I just shot two episodes, and I may shoot more this year. Because they write from people's points of view, the way your part is written from episode to episode is different. Because all of this is Noah's point of view, and that was Alison's point of view, the person is being perceived a little different. It's interesting. You'd better just surrender to that.

You also were on another Showtime hit, Nurse Jackie.
They were great too. You sort of can't believe the performances that people do. When you get to watch take after take, you're like, How are they going to choose which one?

Do you have favorites among the many plays you've done?
Yeah. One would be A Lie of the Mind [the original off-Broadway production]. I replaced Amanda Plummer and did it for about four months, and that was an amazing experience. There was a play called Etta Jenks, by Marlane Meyer, that was at the Women's Project years and years ago. The Vandal, Hamish Linklater's play I did at the Flea a few years ago, I truly loved.
I'm thinking of the ones that were hardest to walk away from. I think I would make the generalization that sometimes writing is absolutely humane and from the heart; [the playwright is] not manipulating the way the character functions--and you can feel that. And then sometimes it just has to do with the part hitting you at a certain moment in your life where you need to be talking about the same thing, and it just gets under your skin. Sometimes the part teaches you things you didn't know anything about; you just have to widen the borders of who you are a little bit to play it. Lisa Kron's play In the Wake--playing that particular part, I truly loved. I was completely shocked that she wanted me to, because it seemed completely out of my world. The things I had to learn about what it would be like to be that person, I felt it altered me.
The times I think I'll never love anything that much again--[you'd expect] that compassionate love for a part can only happen once or twice. Oh, no. It's happened many times, and I feel extremely lucky that way.

What about your movies?
I had one just last year, a movie called Gabriel that Rory Culkin is in. It's by a guy named Lou Howe, his first feature that he wrote. It's about a kid who's psychotic--bipolar or manic depressive. He's been in an institution, and he gets out for a weekend to come stay with his mom, and he keeps running away. He's looking for, like, his junior-high girlfriend. Rory Culkin is unbelievable in it; you really feel like you're in the presence of a kid with a mental problem, but you're inside of it with him. And I play his mom. It's wrenching, a beautiful movie, and I loved working on it. So I sort of dreaded seeing it; I felt, I just want to protect my experience, but it was so lovely and I was so happy to watch it and be, Oh, it's actually as good as I thought it might be.
There's movies that I feel are good movies that I didn't necessarily do that much in--a movie called Fearless that Peter Weir made--and there are movies that I did a lot in that are really bad [laughs]. Stars and Bars. It was Daniel Day-Lewis' first movie, it's got a great cast--Laurie Metcalf, Glenne Headly, Maury Chaykin... We were all down in Georgia together, that was, like, the most fun two months of my life. But that was a long time ago in a faraway place. I don't know if you could find it [the film] anymore.

Click here for tickets to Judy.

Photos of Deirdre O'Connell, from top: her headshot; in the L.A. production of In the Wake with Heidi Schreck (also O'Connell's costar in Circle Mirror Transformation); with Vyto Ruginis in By the Water; in Judy with Birgit Huppuch and Danny Wolohan; as Kris in Judy; with Jeffrey DeMunn (center) and Charlie Sexton in A Family for All Occasions, produced in 2013 by Labyrinth Theater Company, of which O'Connell is a member; in 2013's The Vandal with Noah Robbins. [Photo credits: In the Wake, Craig Schwartz; Judy, Jeremy Daniel Photography; By the Water and The Vandal, Joan Marcus; A Family for All Occasions, Carter Smith]

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