On May 5, The Hollywood Reporter gathered six women who are giving — or, in one case, gave — extraordinary performances on Broadway this season, and who have been Tony-nominated accordingly, for our second annual Tonys Actress Roundtable at Milk Studios in Chelsea.
Three are nominated for best actress in a play — Helen Mirren (The Audience), Carey Mulligan (Skylight) and Ruth Wilson (Constellations), all Brits who are known best for their work on screens big and small. And three are nominated for best actress in a musical — Kristin Chenoweth (On the Twentieth Century), Kelli O’Hara (The King and I) and Chita Rivera (The Visit), all Americans who are universally regarded as goddesses of the Great White Way.
While the backgrounds of these women may be varied, their response to being with one another was uniform: sheer awe. Rivera, 82, a two-time Tony winner who started on Broadway at the age of 17 and originated major roles in West Side Story and Chicago, said, “I’m sitting next to Helen Mirren? This is a trip!” “Likewise,” replied the equally excited Oscar winner, 69, who could become only the second person ever to win an Oscar and then a Tony for playing the same character (Queen Elizabeth II).
Just moments earlier, Chenoweth, 46, who won a Tony in 1999 for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown before turning Wicked, and O’Hara, 39, who has accumulated a remarkable six Tony noms over the last 11 years (but is still in search of her first win) — students of the same voice teacher at Oklahoma City University — snuck an awestruck personal photo together in a way that made sure Mirren and Rivera appeared in the background.
Meanwhile, the two first-time nominees, 29-year-old Mulligan (whose one prior Broadway appearance was 2008’s The Seagull) and 33-year-old Wilson (up this year for her Broadway debut), positioned themselves in the middle of the group and lapped up the wisdom around them. Mulligan expressed great disappointment that her performance schedule has precluded her from seeing the others’ shows (except for Wilson’s, which had its limited run in the winter). All of the other women concurred except for Wilson, who said, “I’m gonna go see them all!”
Over the course of a 45-minute conversation, which you can listen to and/or read below, the women candidly discussed how they came to the productions for which they have been nominated; the demands, on body and soul, of the parts they played; the differences between acting on stage versus screen and audiences on Broadway versus the West End; the sorts of roles that actresses should seek out and should avoid; and a host of other topics including how they avoid getting sick, what they think about entrance applause, when audience members are most annoying, the number of shows-per-week that they wish they could give and what they imagine they would be doing if they hadn’t become actresses.
Helen, nine years ago you gave one of the all-time great film performances as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Now you’re playing Her Majesty again in The Audience. It’s an unusual trajectory — usually people play a role on stage and then reprise it in a film. How did this come about?
Mirren: Yes, normally it’s the other way around, isn’t it? Well, of course, it’s a very different piece, even though it’s written by the same writer [Peter Morgan], but a totally different take on the Queen and what she does in her life. It’s more political and it stretches over a long, long period of time — basically her whole life-span. So it was a really tragic day for me, the day that Peter told me that he’d written this play [laughs], because I knew that I was gonna have to do it, and I so didn’t want to do it because, you know, none of us wants to repeat things; we all want to move on.
Kristin, On the Twentieth Century hasn’t been performed on Broadway in 36 years—
Chenoweth: I wasn’t even born then! [laughs]
When it was first done, it was done with Madeline Kahn, who I know was a hero of yours, and my understanding is that it’s a part you’ve long wanted to play. How did it all come together?
Chenoweth: While I was doing my Masters at OCU [Oklahoma City University], where Kelli and I went [the two women both worked with the same voice teacher, Florence Birdwell], my teacher told me about the role and I went, “Eh,” you know? I was 22 at the time and didn’t really think about it. And then several years ago, I was working with [Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green, the composers, and they told me that I should do the part. And then we did a reading maybe three years ago and I went, “Oh, yes!” I loved Madeline Kahn from the Mel Brooks films, but wasn’t even aware that she had done the original. But I hope that I have a little homage to her in there along with my own — obviously, we want everything that we do to be ours.
Chita, you stepped into The Visit a long time ago, reuniting with a number of people you’ve worked with on other memorable projects, including Terrence McNally, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. It was originally supposed to be on Broadway in 2001, but then a number of things happened — 9/11 among them — that caused financing to disappear. What led you to stick with it through so many ups and downs?
Rivera: I first got involved 14 years ago. At that time, had we done it, it would have been the birth of a baby; now it is the birth of a teenager. [laughs] I have all of these images in my head from all of the incarnations, you know? Ann Reinking was involved originally, Frank Galati was involved originally and, of course, Freddie was alive at the time. So I still [remember] all of these rehearsal rooms and how hard everybody worked on it. I think that John Doyle and Roger Rees really brought it to where it should be, and I don’t think we would be where we are today if it had not been for all of those incarnations. I don’t know where I would be if it were not for Kander and Ebb and Terrence McNally. We’ve done so many pieces together — so many wonderful pieces [including Chicago for Kander and Ebb and Kiss of the Spider Woman with all three] — that Freddie knows exactly how I speak; Terrence knows exactly how I feel, what words sound good in my mouth; and, of course, John Kander writes the most beautiful music you could possibly hope for. We have an extraordinary company — every part is a very valuable part and that’s why we love it. Also, this is a wonderful piece for today, unfortunately — I mean, we still have all of the problems that [Swiss dramatist Friedrich] Dürrenmatt had written [in the 1956 play that inspired The Visit], but it is funny. There is a humor — a little sick [laughs]. But it’s an extraordinary part for me, and when I think about the fact that I’m — you know, I started out at SAB [The School of American Ballet] a ballet dancer and now I’m sitting next to Helen Mirren? This is a trip, and a fabulous trip for Chita! [laughs]
Mirren: Likewise! Likewise!
Kelli, three of the five performances for which you previously received Tony nominations were directed by Bartlett Sher, and two of them, The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, were performed at Lincoln Center. So do you feel particularly comfortable doing The King and I for this same director and in this same setting?
O’Hara: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it feels like a homecoming in a really wonderfully comfortable place to be — the same director, the same musical director, my same dressing room! [laughs] It’s a great place to build something with freedom. But it also is a very new thing — it’s a new project and it’s a new type of role for me, so [in those respects] it doesn’t feel any bit the same, really. It just feels like a lot of freedom with a brand new thing. It’s good.
Carey, David Hare and Bill Nighy have a long history — they’ve collaborated on many different projects, and this is the third time that Bill has starred in a production of Skylight in the last 18 years. I imagine that they have a sort of ease with each other. What was it like to step into this world in which they already have a long history? I imagine that having Stephen Daldry as your director might have helped…
Mulligan: Yeah. They’re all just so lovely and easy to hang out with and such interesting people. David’s fascinating to be around. David and Stephen Daldry have worked together a lot, so they’ve got a really good thing going on. And Bill’s the nicest man on the planet, so it was all very easy from the beginning. They’re also straightforward — we were running the play by the second afternoon of rehearsals. Did you [Helen] have that with The Audience [which Daldry also directed this season]?
Mirren: With Stephen? Yes. He’s an incredible technician. There’s no sort of fluffy stuff around; you just kind of get to the nitty-gritty very quickly.
Mulligan: Yeah. Bill always says we never spent any time figuring out who our animals were, you know? We just went about doing the thing.
Mirren: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Ruth, you came to Constellations right on the heels of shooting season one of The Affair, for which you received a well-deserved Golden Globe Award. I believe you go back a long way with the director, Michael Longhurst. Did you guys plan to work together on this or did it just work out that way?
Wilson: I went to university with Mike and — wow, 13 years ago now — we did The Crucible. He directed me in this tiny theater up in Nottingham. And we sort of separated and didn’t see each other socially or professionally, but then this came around. I’d seen the production about two years ago in London with Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, and it blew my mind. It was incredible, it was really technically difficult as a piece and challenging. I also loved that it was a modern play, which I’d never done before. So Mike came to me and offered me the part to do it over here, and I jumped at it — a chance to work with him again, of course, but also to work with Jake [Gyllenhaal] and do that play and try it for myself. It was an amazing experience to do.
Each of these roles clearly placed great demands on body and soul. I want to come back to Ruth first on this topic, because although your show ran only 70 minutes long and without an intermission, it was no piece of cake…
Wilson: 65 scenes. And they ranged from three seconds to seven minutes long.
One moment you had to be drunk, the next moment you had to be very serious — it was like a master class in acting. What was it like preparing for and executing those rapid-fire transitions?
Wilson: It was really hard. That was the hardest part for me, was transitioning that quickly, within a split-second — not even a second — beat between scenes. And some of the dialog was exactly the same, so it was just about changing intention given the circumstances of the scenes. It felt very technical to begin with, but once you got on top of that technicality and you were riding it like a wave, it was very exhilarating because you were ahead of the audience and you could feel the audience responding to it and enjoying it. But sometimes we would get lost and jump to the end of the play and have to scramble our way back — it was a nightmare! [laughs] You could not lose focus for one split-second. If you did, you’d be lost. Every night was a wild ride. It was incredible to do.
Kristin, you’ve called Lily “probably the hardest role I’ve ever had,” I believe because of the extreme vocal range and the very physical comedy that’s demanded of you by the part. Can you talk a bit more about how it compares to things that you’ve done in the past?
Chenoweth: It sort of is a role that encompasses everything at once. I have a number — much like what Ruth was saying — in act two where she’s deciding which role to play, Mary Magdalene or Babette, a real slut, and she goes back-and-forth constantly. And, you know, it’s operatic in nature, so I have to constantly stay technical — but then there’s the comedy. And it’s like what Ruth was saying: once it starts, you have to stay ahead. One night, I relaxed for a second — I just dared relax for a second —
Chenoweth: And I got totally—
Chenoweth: Lost. And to get back — talk about flop-sweat! I thought, “This is either menopause or flop-sweat!” [laughs] Yeah, it’s hard. It’s a beast. But every lady here is doing a beast. I don’t speak during the day. I warm up physically and, obviously, vocally, constantly. And I try to live like a nun.
And you were saying something before we began taping about always wearing gloves…
Chenoweth: Well, I know everyone thinks I’m insane, but I use these [pulls out her gloves] when I shake hands. The other day I actually washed them like they were my hands.
Mirren: [laughs] The Queen does the same thing! She always wears gloves because she’s terrified of getting a cold. Her fear of getting a cold is so huge.
Chenoweth: Doesn’t that make sense, though?
Mirren: Totally. And she very rarely does get a cold.
Chenoweth: See? I guess I’m learning from the Queen! [laughs]
Speaking of the Queen, I want to come back to Helen, because another very rapid thing that happens in a show this season are the transitions in The Audience. One moment you might be the Queen at her coronation, and the next moment you’re her in the present day, and if the audience blinks they miss the costume and hair changes even happening. Internally and logistically, what’s that like for you?
Mirren: Ah, you know, the magic of the theater is the whole point, isn’t it? We actually do use magic — you know, there are artists whose specialty are quick changes, and we use their tricks of the trade. But, yeah, you know, it is unlike any other play that I’ve ever done. You know, usually there’s a story to the play — it begins here, and then you get to here, and then you have an emotional scene, and then you go over there, and, you know, acts one, two and three, and you’re telling a story. Here, it’s, you know, jumping backwards and forwards, and each scene is its own story, in a way. So I completely concur with what both Ruth and Kristin have said of concentration. It’s been unlike any other play, including Shakespeare or [Eugene] O’Neill, you know, complex material that I’ve done in the past, [Jean Racine‘s] Phèdre. I’ve never needed concentration like this. If you let go for a second, you’re lost. “Where am I? What’s next? Where are we going?” You just have to keep this parallel technical and emotional thing going all the time. So yes, it’s very similar. It’s interesting.
Chita, you started in this business at the age of 17. 65 years later, I’m curious to know what you’ve found gets easier with time and experience and what does not…
Rivera: I tell you, it’s almost funny. Being a very energetic person who has danced her entire life, who was a tomboy — rode bicycles, climbed trees, did all sorts of things — for me to stand still and focus like I have to focus in this play is really hard! I mean, at first, I started to shake because she is very still and extremely focused because she comes for a very particular reason: the entire town is poor and she is the richest woman in the world, and she’s come for this one reason, which there’s no need to tell. But that’s what’s hard. I come off and I have to take a breath after the first couple of scenes because I’m used to going, “Hacha, whoopie, jazz!” [laughs] Well this is not the same — not when you walk on with a casket, you know? It’s a completely different bag of beans. And I love it because I have always loved a challenge, and this is a terrific challenge. This is really a play with music. And it is written so beautifully and John Doyle has done such a phenomenal job in directing it that, as I was telling Helen, you step into this world of his, no matter what has happened during the day, you step into that painting, and everywhere you look around that stage is magic and it’s beautiful, so you can live there for ninety-some minutes. That’s the beauty of the theater. And after all these years of being blessed with what I’ve been blessed with, to now meet Roger and John and be stimulated again? Hell, I could go on forever! [laughs]
That reminds me of something that you say in the show…
Rivera: Yeah. There’s a line that really makes me laugh: “I’m unkillable.” [laughs] It’s a great line — there’s several really great female lines — but the first time “I’m unkillable” got that reaction I went, “Well, really, what’s so extraordinary about that?!”
Carey, at no point in your show are there more than two people in the room in which the show takes place, you’re always one of them, and almost all of the interactions that occur there are very intense and just about to boil over. At the end of the show, when you come out to take your bows — maybe it was just the night I was there, but my sense is you’re still in the zone, you’re not exactly smiling and having fun, it’s more like, “Get me outta here!”
So I’m curious: when you play a part like that and then you have to go back out into Times Square, can you go right back to being Carey, or is that difficult?
Mulligan: Yeah, I can. It’s funny. I didn’t train and I didn’t know what I was doing for a long time. The first play that I did that really helped me figure out how to work was The Seagull — I did that with [director] Ian Rickson and we came out here with it. Up until then, I’d sort of tried loads of ways — you know, if I had to cry in a film, I’d think of some horrible thing happening to my family, something like that [laughs], just all this shit. Anyway, I did The Seagull and Ian said, “You’re never gonna be able to put yourself in the shoes of Nina. You’re not gonna run away to Russia and have a baby and—” You know, all that stuff that happens to her. “So you’ve got to start building up this imaginary world.” And so that’s what I do: I have an imaginary world, and lots and lots of memories of this character, and I have a photo on my mirror in my dressing room of what I imagine Tom’s — Bill’s character’s — wife looked like. And then when I come off? I mean, I come off pissed off if I’ve done a bad show, you know? That effects me, that makes me sad. But not about the show, really. The show has a cycle to it — it ends and leaves you in a good place. Whereas we [she and Ruth] both did Through a Glass Darkly—
Mulligan: Which doesn’t leave you in a good place—
Wilson: No. An awful place.
Mulligan: So this is a play where I come out, I take the hat off and then I’m done with it.
O’Hara: I’m getting a master class here — I love it!
Kelli, in addition to singing beautifully, you have to maintain an accent, dance in a massive and probably very heavy dress—
O’Hara: 45 pounds.
Rivera: Oh, my God!
—and act with a million kids.
Chenoweth: That’s a germ-fest right there!
So, in this part, what have you found to be the most unexpected challenge — most surprising thing — about playing Anna?
O’Hara: You know what I’m learning about so much? I think it’s on the page: this is a really, really solid, strong woman who has a main purpose. It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and you think it’s one-note — I mean, I never thought that, but people often do. But learning about her — there’s a line in the second act where this British man that comes to visit says to her, “It’s extraordinary how one gets attached to people who need one!” And what I’ve learned about her is how very much she needs to be needed — and that’s so something I can identify with as a mother, as a teacher, as a professional who wants to make change. And so she feels grander to me than I would have ever given her credit for before. See, I come in and I play with these children and, as a mother, that seems really easy to me, so I can get lost in not giving it enough weight. The challenge for me is to understand how very important what she’s doing is — this widowed woman went to a country where women were on the floor and made change, and that, to me, deserves a little bit of time and attention. And so it’s actually grown on me in this huge way where I’m learning to adore her and learning to feel very much like I would have liked her as a person if I had met her.
Helen, do you find that having played the Queen on film has made playing her on stage — not easier, but — were you able to slip right back into the character, or was it a totally new experience?
Mirren: No, it’s not a new experience. When I did it the first time, I knew nothing about the Queen, really — you know, I always said she was like Big Ben: she’s there. [laughs] I sort of passed her in my life, but I never thought about her or thought about how she worked inside, and I had to study her and really think about her. And as I did my research for the film, it dawned on me, idiot that I am, what an incredible achievement it is — what an amazing thing she’s done over this long span of time. So the majority of my work of trying to understand who this person was really took place before the movie; coming into the play, all of that, in a sense, was in place, and I brought that research to the play, definitely. Most of my research [for the play] was to do with her before she became Queen — I wasn’t really interested in looking at her from 27 onwards. All of my work in researching her was looking at her even before she knew she was going to become Queen — so from zero to 17, basically — to find who that little person was, the person before all of this descended upon her.
Chita, Claire is, I think one could say, a somewhat cold character—
Mirren: No, she’s hot!
Rivera: This is not necessarily a story about revenge. It is a huge European love story. It is a love story, that’s what you find out.
Okay, well, generally speaking then, do you find that it’s easier or harder to play a character who is not instantly “likable”…
Rivera: I think we all have all of these qualities that she has, depending on how your life goes and what you decide to do about certain situations. It’s written so wonderfully that all you really have to do is say those words and be put in that situation. She has this purpose, and it’s very clear to her and it’s absolutely necessary for her to do these things that she came there to do. The love story is so strong that they end up, actually, together, in Capri. A lot of Americans like happy endings, but life does not necessarily have a happy ending. She wants the truth told, and she tells it, and he realizes that he screwed his life up and leaves as she wanted him to leave.
O’Hara: Oh, the worst part about this is we never get to see each other’s shows!
Wilson: I do! [Her show’s limited engagement ended in March, while the others’ shows are still running.] I’m gonna go see them all! [laughs]
Rivera: One of my favorite moments is my curtain call because I come out without the cane. Now, this [pointing at herself] is a dancer, but this character has an ivory hand and she has one leg, so I just bust out in my gray wig that I absolutely adore and my black Martha Graham dress and I run — I mean, if I could do chaines or a cartwheel, I would! [laughs]
Chenoweth: I say: last night? Do some chaines. [laughs]
Carey, over the seven years in-between your Broadway debut in The Seagull and Skylight, you’ve done a lot of movies — a lot of very good movies — including the just-released Far from the Madding Crowd. What have you found to be the biggest difference between film acting and theater acting? And which, in all honesty, do you prefer?
Mulligan: I don’t know, I used to think that I prefer theater, and I do love theater, but I’ve had some really good film experiences recently and worked with some amazing people. It’s just about the people, really. It’s always about the people. I don’t really think about roles — “dream roles.” It’s always about who’s gonna be the person on the screen or who’s gonna be the person on the stage and who’s gonna direct it and put it all together. I went to see Ruth in Constellations one day before I started, and it was so extraordinary — they were unbelievable — and I sat there going, “Ah! Oh, I can’t wait to be on stage!” You know, you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach where you think, “Ah! This is so exciting!”? When you see something brilliant? I never sit in a cinema and go, “Ah! I want to be in that film!” You know? It’s a sort of different thing. You just get that kind of thing in the pit of your stomach where you just can’t wait to do a play if you see something really great and you’re inspired by it. I think that’s the only difference. Everything else is just about the people.
Ruth, when you do an intense two-hander — just you and the other actor, Jake Gyllenhaal in this case — eight times a week, do you learn something about yourself?
Wilson: I don’t know, really. I think every show you discover something different, partly because of what the show holds in itself. This was such a beautifully-written play — it’s about life, generally, and about death, and about physics and love. So every time you do anything, you’re kind of researching and digging deep into it, and this demanded so much, in terms of technicality, but also emotionally connecting and setting it up for the audience. Every night, I had to stand there and look out into this pitch-black audience — couldn’t see a single face — and I had to contemplate taking my life — you know, euthanizing myself — and facing the end. Often, I was thinking about breakfast or thinking about where I was gonna eat food after [laughs], but a lot of times I was there and I was thinking, “I’m gonna have this moment in my life. At some point, I’m gonna have to face death.” And it was kind of incredible every night to face that. And I feel slightly honored that I have to go through that process, in a way, that I’m forced, as an actor, to keep reflecting and thinking deeply about who I am and what my fears are and who my friends are and what’s important. So that play? That’s what it did for me. It made me stop and think, actually, and reflect.
Rivera: Well, that’s the wonderful thing about our being lucky enough to be in the theater: we learn so much about ourselves. During this particular show [The Visit], I say to Anton, who’s Roger Rees, “We’re both old, Anton.” Now, I’m a jokester — I love to clown around and I love to laugh — but I’m old and this is God’s way of just making you say it, live up to it and be proud of it! [laughs] That’s what we do. And that casket is there every night [in her show]. It’s fascinating if you just live in that world for the amount of time that you have to. There are all sorts of messages that you get, and there are all sorts of things that you learn.
O’Hara: And not only about myself, but these people — whoever we’re playing, you conjure up somebody else. Someone comes to mind and I understand her better than I did before.
Chenoweth: My mother.
O’Hara: You start not only to self-evaluate, but you can find the reasons and the feelings inside other people, and I think it’s a gift because a lot of people just walk through [life].
There have been some really great actors who have said that they kind of lost themselves in certain parts. Do you see how that could happen? Has that happened to any of you, where it actually gets to the point of being a problem?
Wilson: No. Well, you can lose yourself in a moment, and that’s actually exhilarating and you can [go] off thrilled because you’ve emoted and you’ve felt and you’ve connected. But I’ve never gotten to the point where it’s a “problem” or it’s infected my life in some way.
Mirren: I played an alcoholic a long time ago. I had basically never drunk before that because I couldn’t afford to, but I realized I had to know what it was like to be completely drunk every night. And so I went through a period, doing the play, of drinking a lot, you know, literally drinking so much — thank God they didn’t have mobile phones in those days [laughs] — that I was waking up on the park bench at five in the morning having no idea how I got there.
Mulligan: Did you? Oh, my God! It wasn’t Prime Suspect, was it?
Mirren: No, no, no. Before. It was Teeth ‘n’ Smiles at the Royal Court. I would drink to know what it was like, to understand what the attraction was, what the need was. And I’ll tell you: it was great! [laughs] You don’t give a fuck! I absolutely loved it. But I did find myself drinking a lot and I had to rein it in at the end of the play. So that was the only time I’ve experienced that. But I just want to say — you [Scott] said earlier on about Chita playing someone “cold.” The important thing for all of us is to play the driving force in a play, as opposed to the person sitting on the side saying, “What do you feel about that?” Or, “Can I come with you?” “No you can’t.” “Oh, okay.” You know? In other words, so often the female role is this bland, you know, un-driving — If the female role is a driving force, you don’t care if it’s nasty or nice; it’s driving, and that’s what gives us the opportunity to live the way any man who plays Hamlet lives; it’s not the playing of Hamlet, it’s having those thoughts in your head, being able to experience those philosophies and those thoughts and those ideas and that imagination. To be able to go through that every night? What an unbelievable gift! And, you know, we’re excluded from that, from so much of that, as female performers.
You’ve all worked in multiple acting mediums — media. Have you found that the theater still offers women the best opportunities to play real, developed, substantive characters?
Mirren: Not necessarily.
Wilson: Not necessarily. I feel safe that theater will always serve women in different ages. I feel like there’s always roles because it doesn’t matter so much what age you are, actually, playing whatever, whereas TV and film are much more concerned about what you look like. So I feel that theater does have a range of roles for a range of ages for women more than TV or film does — but it’s changing. TV certainly is changing. I mean, you look at American TV at the moment and they’re all led by women, or a lot of them are. So it’s changing, which is great.
A question for Kelli and Kristin: You’re both in revivals now, like Carey, but you’re in musical revivals, for which many people arrive with memories that are very ingrained in their mind of a prior film or theatrical incarnation. Is it daunting or exciting to know that you’re performing for people who already have expectations, in their mind, of what they’re signing up for? In other words, do you feel any differently going into a revival of a musical versus an original musical?
O’Hara: I don’t feel any different because I don’t watch the movie and I don’t see anything; I just read the script and I see how it makes me feel and how it connects to what I can bring to it in 2015. I mean, I can’t do anything but assume it’s a brand new show. There are a lot of expectations, I know. A guy came to the stage door the other day and said, “Did the King die in the movie?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s in the script.” He said [skeptically], “Mmm…” [laughs] And you can’t help that. You can’t help that people have their own vision of things. But people ask me this a lot because I go back-and-forth — I usually do a revival and then a new thing, which is what I love to do. And I realize that I really feel no differently about them. The only thing is they’re sometimes set in a different era, but I approach them exactly the same.
But you do make a conscious effort to alternate between the two?
O’Hara: I try to, I try, only because — if I’m doing a musical, especially — I want to learn something I’ve never heard before, I want to see how it feels on my voice or have something written for my voice. You know, King and I was written for a woman who didn’t really sing [Gertrude Lawrence, who hadn’t appeared in a musical for years before the show bowed in 1951], so it’s a very limited range. Last year, something [The Bridges of Madison County] was written for me. You know, that kind of thing. So I have a wonderful challenge now of bringing as much as I can to a score that wasn’t mine.
Chenoweth: I just learned I was in a revival when you said it! [laughs] I have been lucky to do a lot of original work and I’ve done revivals, and I’m just like Kelli. I don’t have a movie to reference here — actually, that’s not true, there is the John Barrymore–Carole Lombard [1934’s Twentieth Century] — but I just look at everything as new.
Rivera: Of course it is.
Wilson: This production was done two years ago — Constellations — and I saw it. I didn’t know that I was gonna be doing it. And it was really hard, actually, getting Sally and Rafe out of my head. For pretty much the whole rehearsal time, we were doing bad impressions of Sally and Rafe, thinking those were the characters. But then, as soon as we started previewing it, I think we started finding our own voice within it. We’re very different actors than those two, so actually it turned on its head. But it’s hard when you’ve got an imprint — I’ll never do it again — because they did such a great job and you’re sort of thinking those are the characters that are on the page — but you bring your own thing to it.
O’Hara: And don’t you depend on your leaders, the people you trust and your collaborators to let you know if there’s something — especially with something like what I’m doing where there’s an iconic thing, like the waltz — you know, I depend on them to say, “Now, this is gonna have to be done. Everything else can be your choice.”
O’Hara: In fact, we got in trouble that way, some, because they said, “This is the part where you—”
Chenoweth: Oh, no.
O’Hara: And I said, “No, no, no, no. Explain to me kind of how it should be, but I don’t know what it is.” But we all need to be thinking of it as the first time.
For those of you who have also had a show on the West End and then come to do it on Broadway — which this year includes Helen and Carey — what are the main differences between West End audiences and Broadway audiences?
Mirren: I say British audiences are like this: they go [challengingly], “Okay, what have you got?” And American audiences go [excitedly], “Okay, what have you got?!” It’s just that little difference.
Wilson: They [American audiences] want you to succeed more.
Mirren: They’re like [excitedly], “Come on, give it to us! What is it? I’m ready!” You know? “Give it to me!” And Brits? They’re cool — I’m not dissing the British audiences — but it’s [skeptically], “Okay, come on. What have you got? We want to see it.”
Rivera: I think British audiences listen better.
Chenoweth: They do. They listen better.
Mirren: Yes. I think that’s true.
Rivera: They did [Kiss of the] Spider Woman up in [the Performing Arts Center of State University of New York at] Purchase, then Garth [Drabinsky] got it — produced it — and we took it to London and then came into New York and won six Tonys or something like that. But they killed it in Purchase, just killed it — there was no time for it at all — and it made me very sad. I’ve done that a lot: I’ve played [Bye Bye] Birdie in London, I’ve played West Side [Story] in London, Spider Woman, so many things. I wanted to take this [The Visit] to London first.
Mirren: Did you? Interesting.
Rivera: Yes. Because I feel so many times that — ah, this is not very nice to say — American audiences are affected by what the English people think, and sometimes accept it [a show] quicker.
Mirren: I think vice-versa too, Chita. If something that’s a huge hit in America comes to Britain, there is a propensity to say, “Okay, we’re going to embrace it.” But I think you’re right: British audiences listen in a particular way. But there’s the fun of an American audience!
Rivera: That’s right. That’s absolutely true.
In our final minute, we’re going to do something that we did during last year’s roundtable and people had fun with — Kelli [who also participated in the 2014 roundtable], some of this will sound familiar. It’s sort of a free for all…
Mirren: Oh, no! We’re British — we don’t like those sort of things! [laughs]
Entrance applause: Yes or no? Do you like it?
Mulligan: No. Hate it. Hate it. Terrible thing.
Mirren: No! It’s terrible.
Chenoweth: Now, Chita and I— [laughs]
O’Hara: I like it in a musical — if it’s choreographed in. Because if you don’t get it? Really awkward! [laughs] But in a play like last year? [Bridges was a dramatic musical.] No!
Mirren: In a play, it’s not appropriate.
Most annoying thing that people in the audience of your current show do…
Mulligan: Commentate on the process. I cook a meal in the first act and I have people trying to commentate on how I’m cooking.
Wilson: There was a lot of coughing. I did my play over the winter and there were a lot of colds and coughing going on.
Chenoweth: The phones.
Mulligan: Lighting up all over the place, yeah.
Rivera: Oh, Lord!
Mirren: And also not clapping at the end, but filming it with your camera. That is really rude.
Chenoweth: Come on, put your phone down!
Non-friend-or-relative whose attendance at your show has meant the most to you…
O’Hara: Julie Andrews.
Chenoweth: Hal Prince.
Wilson: Carey Mulligan!
Rivera: Zoe Caldwell.
Mirren: [Incumbent Prime Minister of the United Kingdom] David Cameron was at ours.
Helen, will you be adding another Prime Minister to your company, if necessary? [The U.K. elections were days away; Cameron was re-elected so no addition was needed.]
Oh, I know, what a drama!
The number of shows per week that you wish your show had…
Chenoweth: Six. No matinee.
Rivera: I think six. I never thought I’d say it because I like matinees.
Mirren: Matinees are great, but then not an evening show.
Rivera: That’s right. Totally.
O’Hara: Sunday’s my favorite day — that one matinee in the middle of the day!
Mirren: Sunday’s nice.
O’Hara: Six shows would be so nice.
And finally, what would you be doing today if you were not an actress?
Chenoweth: I would be a forensic scientist.
Mulligan: I would probably work with elderly people.
Wilson: I’ve always quite liked the idea of being an archeologist, sort of scrubbing around in the dirt. [laughs]
Mirren: I’d be a hairdresser.
Rivera: I think I’d be teaching dance — it would have to be dance.
O’Hara: Well, I’d probably say a teacher — but I want to be a chef! I want to be, like, on The Food Network — but mostly I just want to taste! [laughs]