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“I feel like as I’m getting older, the characters are getting younger,” chuckles Celia Keenan-Bolger, the 41-year-old actress who has played several children during her 17-year career and is currently nominated for the best featured actress in a play Tony for her portrayal of 8-year-old Scout Finch in Aaron Sorkin‘s blockbuster Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird, as we sit down at the Westin New York at Times Square to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. She adds with a smile, “This is going in the exact wrong direction!”
Keenan-Bolger, one of Broadway’s most popular and consistently strong actresses, has been Tony-nominated three times before — for best actress in a musical in 2005 for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and best featured actress in a play in 2012 for Peter and the Starcatcher and in 2014 for The Glass Menagerie — but she has never won. That is widely expected to change on Sunday night.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
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Keenan-Bolger was born in Detroit, the oldest of an urban planner and a schoolteacher’s three kids. (Her sister, Maggie, is a playwright and her brother, Andrew, is a fellow Broadway actor.) She fell in love with theater after being taken to see a local show at the age of 5, and spent the rest of her childhood acting in school and children’s theater productions. The first monologue that she ever learned to audition for a play? Words spoken by Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which Keenan-Bolger’s mother read to her at an early age.
While enrolled at a Motor City arts high school, Keenan-Bolger — and her siblings — landed an agent, who helped her to procure her first job in New York, as an understudy for an off-Broadway production. But she finished out her high school years in Detroit, and then went on to a degree from the University of Michigan, before focusing full-time on pursuing a career as a professional actor.
In 2002, Keenan-Bolger made her regional theater debut, and by 2003 had landed what seemed poised to be her big break: the featured role of Clara, a brain-damaged girl who falls in love while on vacation with her family in Italy, in The Light in the Piazza. But, after playing the role in Seattle and Chicago, and with the company set to move on to Broadway, her director, Barlett Sher, informed her that she was being relieved of the part. (She was soon thereafter replaced by Kelli O’Hara, who would go on to a Tony nomination for her performance.) It was a devastating blow. “I remember thinking, like, ‘What’s gonna happen to me?,'” she recalls. “‘I don’t know how I’m going to recover from this.'”
Keenan-Bolger soon rebounded in a big way, making her Broadway debut and garnering a Tony nom of her own (in the same category and year as O’Hara) as a singing student in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling. “That show was like a tiny little gift that just like took care of me during that whole experience,” she says. It was also the first of the parts in which she was called upon to play someone considerably younger than herself, the others including her subsequent Broadway part, as Eponine in Les Miserables, as well as parts off-Broadway in Saved and on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher; The Glass Menagerie and now To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I obviously have something inside of me that I’m not totally in control of,” Keenan-Bolger says, speculating about why people see her as a good fit for such roles, “just a part of me that understands how to navigate this better than some people, so that’s why I keep ending up here.” In the case of Scout, whom the actress plays as both an 8-year-old and an adult looking back on her childhood, she modulated the pitch of her voice and her posture depending on the era. “When we were first starting,” she admits, “I felt more secure about the kid stuff.”
In the early years of Keenan-Bolger’s career, a part in a show like To Kill a Mockingbird was unthinkable. “I really couldn’t even get an audition for a play,” she says, noting that she was regarded as a musicals-only performer until the director Trip Cullman saw her in the off-Broadway musical Saved, asked her if she was interested in doing plays and, upon learning how much she was, started casting her in his own, off-Broadway. Since that time, Keenan-Bolger has appeared in four shows on Broadway — Peter and the Starcatcher, revivals of The Glass Menagerie and The Cherry Orchard and now To Kill a Mockingbird — all plays.
Her association with To Kill a Mockingbird was supposed to last only one day. Sorkin, producer Scott Rudin and, yes, the aforementioned director Sher were organizing a reading of a draft of Sorkin’s play and didn’t feel that actual child actors could yet hold their own in the parts of siblings Scout and Jem Finch and their friend Dill Harris, so they reached out to ask if Keenan-Bolger would be willing to read the part of Scout just for that session. She was amenable, if only because she hoped Sorkin would remember her when casting future film or TV projects — but, in the end, he was convinced that, for this memory play, adults would actually be better in the roles of the children.
Upon landing the role, Keenan-Bolger undertook considerable research, traveling to Monroeville, Alabama, the setting that inspired the Maycomb, Alabama, of Harper Lee‘s source novel and Sorkin’s play, which she found “hugely helpful for my imagination,” and her accent. She also revisited Lee’s book — but not the 1962 film adaptation of it because she was too intimidated by Mary Badham‘s iconic portrayal of Scout (“I cannot do what she does,” Keenan-Bolger says). And then she went to work with co-stars Jeff Daniels, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and others, perfecting the play over the past seven months.
“At the end of the day, I just love to work so much that whatever the work is, I’ll be there,” Keenan-Bolger says. “And if it happens to be a bunch of kids, then I’ll be there.”
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