“For me,” says Lupita Nyong’o, the 33-year-old 12 Years a Slave Oscar winner-turned-best actress in a play Tony nominee for her Broadway debut in Eclipsed, “the hardest time is the moment before I get on stage, when the mountain is ahead of you and you’re just like, ‘I can’t.’ Every day, it’s total panic and confusion as to how this is supposed to happen, especially feeling the way I feel in that moment, the exhaustion my body is experiencing, being parched in the throat, drinking water and it’s just not doing enough. Then they say, ‘Places,’ and you get on that train, and before you know it, it’s over.”
Joining Nyong’o for The Hollywood Reporter‘s third annual Tonys Actress Roundtable were six other distinguished performers who understand perfectly what she’s describing: best actress in a play nominees Jessica Lange, 67, who’s currently starring seven times a week in Long Day’s Journey Into Night that runs nearly four hours, and Michelle Williams, 35, whose intense 90-minute show Blackbird doesn’t have an intermission; best actress in a musical nominees Jessie Mueller, 33, who plays the title character and is hardly ever off-stage in Waitress, Cynthia Erivo, 29, who, between London and New York, has been starring in The Color Purple since 2013, and Laura Benanti, 36, whose soprano voice is pushed to the limit in She Loves Me; and best featured actress in a play nominee Megan Hilty, 35, whose highly physical comedy Noises Off closed back in March, but who is still feeling its effects more than two months later.
Over the course of a 45-minute conversation that took place in New York in mid-May, this all-star team talked about how they came to these parts; how originating a role compares to stepping into one already made famous by others; what Hollywood could learn from Broadway; and why, despite the mental, physical and emotional demands of the job, they still find themselves drawn back to those 40 or so cramped and creaky theaters in and around Times Square. Here is a lightly-edited transcript.
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Lupita, Eclipsed marks the first time since your Oscar win for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave that people are getting to see you, and your face, acting. Why, after Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Jungle Book, did you decide to do this show? I believe you have quite a history with it…
NYONG’O Yeah. I went to the Yale School of Drama, and the year I got there, the very first thing I was assigned to understudy was Eclipsed. I was on a flight from Kenya one day, and then two days later I was in the rehearsal room understudying the role I’m currently playing. I remember being so astounded by the story that Danai Gurira had created, these five very specific women in a very specific war [Liberia’s second civil war]. She takes us into that world that I knew very little of and really has us fall in love with every single one of those women. And I just felt like it was a role I needed to play at some point, so I put it on that bucket list and said, “I’m going to do this one day, even if it’s in a living room somewhere.” And then, after my life changed because of 12 Years a Slave, when I was asked what I wanted to do, this was it. I did it at The Public for 10 weeks and now we’re on Broadway for 17.
Jessica, 16 years ago you played Mary Tyrone on the London stage. What made you decide to put yourself through it again?
LANGE Well, for me, at this point in my life, there’s no greater role. And you know, I do think it is a monumental play — I think it’s [Eugene] O’Neill‘s best play and I think it may be one of the greatest plays, if not the greatest play, in the American theater. So it is an honor to be able to come back to this. And I find that returning to a part, especially after those — well, in this case, those interim 16 years — there’s so much more that you can bring to it because of your own life experience, whatever that is, you know, loss, disappointment, all of the things that come with living. So it was, not unlike what Lupita said, something I’ve had in my mind — for 16 years — that I wanted to return to.
Laura, it’s not often that a soprano gets to be funny. I believe that this particular soprano part has intrigued you, vocally, for most of your life, even before you’d ever seen the show itself?
BENANTI Yeah. I mean, I’m just a full-blown musical theater nerd, so I grew up listening to this record. My mom had the original cast recording with Barbara Cook on it, and I would listen, since I was maybe four or five years old, and be singing along with her. Humor is the lens through which I see the world, for better or for worse — it gets me in trouble a lot — so for me to be able to sing this incredibly difficult coloratura operatic score whilst being funny, having true moments of comedy, it’s so refreshing. So often as a soprano, you’re the heart of the show, but everything is a little wide-eyed and a little like, ‘And then she swooned.’ So to play a fully drawn human woman, especially in a revival that was written in 1962, is just a joy. I like audiences are responding so much to a soprano voice — people aren’t writing for sopranos anymore, so I hope that when we are able to revive shows in which the soprano voice is highlighted people go, ‘Oh yeah, that too.’ You know, there’s also room.
Jessie, Sara Bareilles, who’s quite a singer in her own right, came to see you in Beautiful [the jukebox musical for which Mueller won 2014’s best actress in a musical Tony], and I wonder if you can take the story from there…
MUELLER Well, I didn’t know that part of the story then, but I did meet her on the opening night of Beautiful. I had been a fan. I remember she and Phil Collins were there — I don’t think they were there together, but I met them at like, the same time, and I geeked-out a little bit. She had been working on Waitress for a couple of years, and then she told me later on that after she saw that show, she went, “Hm, I think that girl could do that part.” But I didn’t know that until much later.
Megan, you’ve pretty much exclusively done musicals prior to this. Was it a long-time desire of yours to get into a straight play?
HILTY Oh, absolutely, yeah. There’s this really strange thing that happens when people think that people who normally do musicals suddenly can’t act. [laughs]
ERIVO Yes, it’s so weird.
HILTY I’ve gotten so many backhanded compliments at the stage door where they were like, “Oh, wow, we didn’t know that you’d actually be able to act without singing!” And I was like, “What do you think happens?”
BENANTI You’re like, “No, darling. You just can’t sing.” It doesn’t mean you can’t act!
HILTY That happened a lot. So yeah, of course, especially for somebody who’s already been established as a musical theater actress, primarily, it was a huge deal for me to get cast in this. I was very grateful.
Cynthia, you, like a lot of us, saw the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie The Color Purple, and I believe it made a big impact on you. Fast-forward a few years and they turn it into a musical, with which you have been associated for a few years already, right?
ERIVO Yeah. So I did this the first time in London, in a little tiny theater called the Menier Chocolate Factory that held 200 people, so you were literally singing in someone’s face and sat on their laps, basically. On the opening night or the night of the first preview, Scott Sanders, the producer, asked me if I’d be up for coming to do this on Broadway. And I was really English about it and I thought he was joking, so I said, “Oh, that’s really nice. If you’ll have me, great, fabulous,” and then didn’t think anything of it until I got the call from my agent telling me that that was the plan, they wanted to bring it here. It turns out that my director, John Doyle, didn’t want to do it without me, and I’m completely grateful for that. And so I’m stuck with this show, which has basically changed my whole entire life. I didn’t know it would do that, but it has, and I’m sitting here with you all, which is surreal, but wonderful.
Michelle, in 2014 you made your Broadway debut in a musical, Cabaret, and did a great job. Were you anxious to get right back to Broadway? I mean, you didn’t take a lot of time between these shows…
WILLIAMS No, I was not at all. [laughs] I have this habit of not really thinking things through and then saying “yes” because I think, “Well, my heart wants to do it,” and then I don’t really think about consequences or possibilities. I did Cabaret for a year — almost a year — and that was a little too long for my first time on Broadway. I was tired afterwards and I didn’t plan on taking on the schedule and the pressure and the everything again. But when I read this play, I was like, “Well, here we go. I’m going to do that thing where I’m like, ‘My heart wants to.'”
What is the difference between being the first person to play a role on Broadway versus being the 10th, 12th, whatever. At this table, Jessie, Lupita and Michelle are the first to play their roles on Broadway. The rest of you have stepped into shoes that have been occupied by others before. When you’re the first, I’m sure it’s got its own harrowing aspects. But when you’re stepping into parts that have been played by greats before you, is that daunting, knowing that comparisons will inevitably be made? I’m going to Jessica first because each of your three times on Broadway have involved you playing one of the great parts in the history of American theater: Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and now Mary in Long Day’s Journey Into Night…
LANGE It’s nuts, but again, it’s kind of like, how do you say no to any of those parts? So you step into this kind of abyss. But no, I never think about that. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t seen Long Day’s Journey on stage — I mean, I did the one production in London but, of course, you’re not observing, you’re not in the audience, you’re not watching another actor play the part. The only thing that I was familiar with was the Sidney Lumet film with Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards. So it was as though I was doing it alone for the first time. I didn’t have anything in my mind. God knows how many revivals of this play have been done and will continue to be done, and that’s the way it should be. And everybody will put their own mark on it, and everybody will come to it with a different set of emotional experiences and every audience will respond differently to each performance. That’s why it’s theater, you know?
ERIVO Yeah, that’s the beauty of it.
Laura, you’ve done many more revivals than new shows. Has that been a choice or is that just the way it’s worked out?
BENANTI I don’t think I’ve made a lot of choices in my life. [laughs] I feel like I’m just like, “Oh, this is where I am now.” I think because, again, I’m a soprano, I end up in a lot of revivals because there aren’t a lot of new shows in which the soprano voice is showcased. And you know, just what Jessica Lange said [laughs] — you don’t go into it going like, “I have to be a carbon copy of so and so.”
BENANTI I approach each like it’s a brand new play.
LANGE There’s a reason these plays are revived, because the parts are great, the stories are great, they’re worth seeing decade after decade, you know? So yeah, those are some of the greatest parts you’ll ever come upon, and you’re not going to say, “Oh, I can’t do that because 50 years ago so-and-so did it.”
At the same time, it’s got to be kind of nice, Jessie, with a show like Beautiful or Waitress, to know that you’re setting the bar, that you don’t have to be compared to anybody else…
MUELLER Yeah. I mean, it’s a whole different set of challenges — there is nothing to compare it to, but you’re also having to create something from the ground up, which is a joy, but also very, very difficult work. I don’t write — I don’t have that gift — and I think it’s amazing that people can write a play or write a musical out of nowhere, come up with these stories and know how to craft something, work with an audience during previews, figure out what’s working and what’s not and make all these decisions. It’s amazing to me that it ever happens. So yeah, it’s kind of a thrill when you get to work with people that are open to working with you and what you’re personally bringing to it, your experience, your emotions and all those things.
In this case, it’s literally tailored to the keys to your voice, right?
MUELLER Yeah, I mean, it was amazing, Sarah was very open to that. She was like, “No, whatever key you need to sing it in. I want it to be comfortable enough for you, so that you feel strong and so that you can bring your best to it.”
HILTY That would be nice. [laughs] That sounds great.
Let’s talk about stamina and endurance, because you guys all go through a workout in your shows…
HILTY This one [Erivo] ran a marathon before a two show day!
BENANTI This jerk! [laughs]
WILLIAMS You ran a marathon?!
BENANTI Before her two shows on Saturday.
LANGE Yeah, I want to hear this story.
BENANTI Not cool.
HILTY Before two shows.
NYONG’O A half-marathon!
ERIVO A half-marathon. [laughs]
That’s incredible. What’s also incredible is Jessica doing almost four hours seven times a week, and Michelle going full-speed for 90 minutes with no intermission, and the list goes on. How do you prepare yourselves for this kind of endurance test? And how do you then manage the pain when it’s over?
ERIVO I take it minute by minute. I have to take it step by step, otherwise I’d never get there, just because of the emotional journey that this character takes and the amount of time I have to be on stage without leaving. If I start to think about where I need to get to, I’ll never get there. It’s impossible. So you just take it one by one.
NYONG’O I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I find that that’s the challenge. For me, the hardest time is the moment before I get on stage, when the mountain is ahead of you and you’re just like, ‘I can’t.’ Every day, it’s total panic and confusion as to how this is supposed to happen, especially feeling the way I feel in that moment, the exhaustion my body is experiencing, being parched in the throat, drinking water and it’s just not doing enough. Then they say, ‘Places,’ and you get on that train, and before you know it, it’s over. It’s actually blissful when it’s happening and everything around it is chaos.
LANGE I always use that analogy: it is like getting on a train, you know? It feels like this enormous freight train is coming and you either get on or, if you don’t get on, you get run over. It just kind of carries you along. Once you step out on stage, it is amazing. And I find that sometimes with those moments where, suddenly, you drift for an instant and you think, “Oh, God, where are we on this now?”, then it’s just that thing of being able to look in the other actors’ eyes, and then suddenly it just like, whoop, you’re back there. I mean, it really is a gift for actors. According to Buddhist philosophy and everything, it’s all about trying to learn to be in the moment and be present in the moment, and as an actor, that’s what you do, that is your practice. And if you’re not doing it, then you’ve really screwed up and you’ve screwed everybody else up around you, too.
Even if you’re in the moment, though, your body’s going to feel it. And so how you deal with that aspect of it? I mean, Laura, you went into yours already dealing with some health issues, right?
BENANTI Oh, yeah. Well, just to piggyback onto what Jessica said, it is a wonderful opportunity to practice mindfulness, which I feel like in our culture, in particular right now, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of. So I try to look at it, in a way, as a gift, so that I’m not looking at it as like, “I’m so tired and I want to blow my brains out.” But I think it takes a village. For me, I have pre-existing injuries from when I broke my neck in Into the Woods, so that’s a constant—
BENANTI Yeah, that was a bummer. So that’s a constant thing for me and Sean Gallagher, my physical therapist. And then my husband, who has to deal with me being on vocal rest all the time. And my dresser, Holly. And the woman who does my hair, Victoria. When I’m like, “I can’t do this,” and I’m crying and I’m exhausted, they’re like, “You can. You can.” And they get me out there. So I feel gratitude for that. And yeah, I was really sick. I had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic the day before our first preview, and I went to the hospital.
WILLIAMS It was the day before?!
NYONG’O Oh, dear.
BENANTI And they put me on Prednisone, and they put me on a lot of Prednisone and it busted my immune system. And so I ended up with all these crazy sores all over my body — it was just nuts — but still on stage being like, “Everything’s great,” and then going off stage and sobbing. So performing when you’re ill is really difficult. But sometimes, in a weird way, when I’m sick, none of my other defenses — my nerves — can get in the way—
NYONG’O Your ego can’t get in the way.
BENANTI Your ego can’t get in the way. You’re just there and you learn.
HILTY You have like, hyper-focus.
LANGE Yeah, I mean, especially in that extraordinary fatigue — you know, like when we’ll come on for our second show, I mean, you have no idea, it becomes — and I don’t mean to sound kind of new age, like, woah, woah, woah — it becomes almost an out of body experience. I mean, it’s like something else takes over and it’s doing it, you know, wherever that reserve of energy or I don’t know, something channel. Whatever it is, it gets you through.
Megan, you’re the one person here whose show has already wrapped—
BENANTI Let’s get her! [laughs]
How good did it feel when you could finally sleep in, and how long does it take the body to recover?
HILTY Oh, no, no, no — I have a one-year-old. There’s no such thing as sleep. No, I’m still dealing with physical things — I have a bruise on my tailbone, I wrenched my neck. I mean, this play was the hardest thing I have ever done physically, mentally.
MUELLER Comedies are hard!
BENANTI Yeah, comedies are hard, man.
HILTY Well, and just eight shows a week — there’s nothing harder.
LANGE Yeah, no.
HILTY You can have an 18-hour day on set — nothing is like keeping stamina for an eight-show week. So, yeah, I’m still recovering from that.
So of this crop of shows, Jessie’s been directed by Diane Paulus, Lupita’s been directed by Liesl Tommy and the rest of you have been directed by men. Does that make a difference? Do you find yourself more comfortable working with a woman?
ERIVO I am just comfortable working with someone who really wants to get the work done properly. That’s it, really. I’ve worked with both men and women as directors, and I’ve found that both of them wanted to get the work out well and put something on stage that was human and connected. John Doyle is no different. He’s brilliant, actually, I must say. He’s wonderful. And I owe him a lot.
NYONG’O Well, Eclipsed was always in the hands of Liesl, as far as I have known it. And it is a piece that is a very, very intimate female piece. The writer is female. All the characters are female. And Danai deliberately left out the masculine aspect because war is so much driven by male energy and males that the female story seldom gets told. Danai really wanted to give voice to that experience and highlight it. So I feel, particularly with this piece, it being in a woman’s hands was very, very helpful to really getting into the nuances of the effects of sexual brutality on the female body and the female spirit.
This Broadway season, the two most nominated shows are Hamilton and Shuffle Along, which feature big and almost—
MUELLER I’m sorry, what was that first play mentioned? [laughs]
NYONG’O Never heard of it, never heard of it. [laughs]
Big and almost entirely non-white casts. Additionally, there is Eclipsed, which is the first Broadway production in history to be written, directed and performed exclusively by black women. The Color Purple centers around black actresses. And Broadway audiences, too, are very diverse this year. What can our viewers who are going to be watching this in Hollywood learn from Broadway?
ERIVO That good work is good work wherever it comes from and whoever it comes from, and that everyone should be able to tell a story no matter what it is. I think that if you surrender to the fact that we are storytellers, no matter our skin color, then you’ll have a good story on your hands.
NYONG’O I think this is a particularly good season on Broadway when it comes to diversity. But that can be said of the year that 12 Years a Slave came out, you know? We had The Butler and there was Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. So you know, these things happen in both industries. The question becomes, when does diversity not become the headline, but the norm, when we don’t have to talk about it, when it’s just the way things are? That’s a time that I’m looking forward to living in.
Well, that’s what Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr. was saying, too, that it’s great now, but two or three seasons from now will be interesting, just to see if it is an aberration or becomes — and it’s not only race, though, right?
NYONG’O No, it’s not.
I think that, in many ways, Broadway seems more open to different ideas, different sorts of people, different ages and all kinds of things. Why do you think that may be the case?
LANGE Well, I mean, I think in the library of American plays, or any plays, English, whatever play, you have stories, you know? These are the stories that are being told. And it’s not being catered to audiences — specific audiences — the way that film is. Now they talk about the audience for film is what, post-pubescent teenage boys?
BENANTI Yeah, the demographics. It’s like 18 to 34.
LANGE Yeah — they’re not going to want to come see Long Day’s Journey Into Night, maybe. But I think with theater, it has just traditionally covered a lot of ground and it’s not being presented in a way that is actually catering to the audience, catering to who is going to buy these tickets, and not only come see it once but come see it multiple times, which is why these movie franchises have taken off to the extent they have. I just think that’s the nature of theater, as opposed to film.
Michelle and Jessica, you essentially made your name in films. Do you find that you are being pushed away from that medium because the number of opportunities it has to offer for serious actors has dwindled? I mean, for people who really want to act, there don’t seem to be a ton of opportunities…
LANGE Well, this is really surprising — I had this conversation with Michelle a couple of days ago, and I was very stunned when she said it. I mean, at this point in my career, in my life, and at the age I am, I am used to not having a plethora of opportunities. There just aren’t, you know?
BENANTI That sucks.
LANGE But I was stunned when Michelle said she hadn’t read a good script for—
WILLIAMS That’s been my experience, yeah. The parts, the material, the plays that I read — I mean, this play specifically was undeniably so much better than anything that I’d come across in film that it actually made the decision quite easy. All I want to do is— I want to play great parts. I want to work with great words. I want to play great characters. It’s really the only thing that makes work joyful, is when you’re not trying to, sort of, fix something—
NYONG’O Make it work.
WILLIAMS —When you’re just looking at something that’s so great and you just think like, “How am I going to rise to that? How am I going to have to like, train myself, prepare myself, better myself to meet that part?” That’s what I want to do. And I haven’t had those opportunities for a long time in a meaningful way in film, and I see those opportunities over and over again with theater. So that’s why I came back. And also to keep getting better at it. I mean, that’s the thing that I’ve found with Cabaret — the growth that I experienced in that year was like nothing I’d ever really had in my life. I learned so much. I walked out of that like a much different actor. And I want that experience again and again and again and this is the place where you get it.
LANGE I mean, people always ask, you know, isn’t it hard? How can you do this every day? But the fact is, when you have something to play, it’s so much easier than trying to make something out of nothing. I mean, really. When you have it there on the page and you’re in the rehearsal, like Michelle says, you rise to it. But if there’s nothing there—
NYONG’O Yeah. I’ve done Eclipsed now for 23 weeks all together, and I still find new things. And that’s what keeps it joyful on a daily basis because on one day, I might find something new and bring it to the table, and another day, one of my co-stars might have found something new, so I have something new to fight against to try and win over. And so, it’s infinitely interesting. But like Jessica brought up, the canon of work in the theater is such that you can find a great part and it doesn’t matter that it was played in London two weeks ago, you can take it and do it again, whereas in film, you don’t have that, you know?
LANGE That’s true. But also, I think the great parts, I mean, having done this now for, wow, this is my 40th year acting, God, Jesus, I should quit—
LANGE —is that at every age, there’s a great role for you to play, and that is not true in film.
One of the things actors say they love about the theater is the feedback of the live audience. So I want to ask each of you, what is the moment in your show when you most feel the audience, and what is the feedback that means the most to you?
NYONG’O Oh, my goodness. It’s going to be so hard to pick. Our show has attracted a lot of first time theatergoers, which has been quite an interesting experience for us onstage.
MUELLER As far as etiquette is concerned?
NYONG’O Yeah. We often have audiences that really participate in our show — you hear the laughs, you hear the sighs. There’s a moment in the show at the end of the show, not to ruin it for people who haven’t seen it, but my character has to make a decision, which direction she’s going to go, and sometimes people actually call out. [laughs]
WILLIAMS That’s amazing.
NYONG’O They give me advice. [laughs]
LANGE Interactive theater.
MUELLER But in some ways, isn’t that so beautiful?
NYONG’O Yeah, yeah.
MUELLER They’re so not editing themselves, and in every part of our world right now, people are always editing themselves and making themselves look one way more this or that or the other. They are literally just experiencing something and giving it right back to you.
NYONG’O Yeah, it’s impulsive. And I talk directly to the audience as well, and so, I always have something to report. [laughs]
BENANTI My favorite part of the show? There’s a scene before I sing “Vanilla Ice Cream” that’s very funny, and the audience knows a secret that I don’t know, and that’s always great, because I think they love that. They love having that secret and they find a lot of joy in the humor of it. We actually had a group of school kids come to see the show who had never been to the theater before, and they were yelling things — at first, they were so bored, they were on their phones, they were so annoyed — and by the end, they were like, at the edge of their seat and yelling things out. It was amazing. I mean, if grownups yelled things out, I’d be like, “Get out,” but for these teenagers to be so involved in the story, it was so beautiful. It was my favorite show we’ve done.
HILTY This is going to sound very strange, but my favorite part was my entrance. [laughs] Here’s why: I made some very strange choices in a show where there’s not much room to add much more. I decided that my take on Brooke was that she was just trying really, really, really hard. She’d never spoken in anything before, so she was the actress that was mouthing along everybody else’s lines with them because she memorized the whole page. She counted all of her steps because she knew that’s where she was supposed to be. And at my entrance, I counted my steps and stood and started mouthing people’s lines, and I could tell if people understood what I was doing immediately. Otherwise, it was like, “Oh, well, this is just for me,” you know?
MUELLER I feel like it’s hard to pick, but the moment that stands out to me right now is— My character’s dealing with an abusive partner and starts to reveal that she’s done with it, she’s had enough. It happens at a different point every night. Sometimes it’s when I say I don’t love the man anymore. Sometimes it’s when I say I’m leaving — there’s this long speech at the end. But people pipe up. They either yell or they clap or sometimes they don’t, sometimes it’s dead silence. It’s fascinating, but you can tell so much from their reactions.
LANGE [laughs] “Moment” in four hours? Let me think. No. I’d have to say O’Neill probably wrote the most beautiful ending for a play. I mean, when Mary comes back down, kind of lost in this morphine haze, and she’s gone back in time — she’s the young convent girl again — and it’s kind of this strange thing where she’s telling herself this story. That’s at least how I imagined it. And, you know, she’s kind of wraith-like, ghost-like, almost like an apparition. I think this is like some of O’Neill’s best writing, which says a lot, actually. But to end on that note, on saying, “I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time,” I mean, it’s like one of the great ending lines, I think, in all of theater. And the audience? You never know because they’ve already sat through three hours, 45 minutes. But there’s something about his writing where you can feel this kind of collective, you know, waiting, this anticipation. Maybe they’re just waiting for the curtain! [laughs] But, yeah, I mean, it is gorgeous, I think. It is the end of this kind of monumental play. So I always feel fortunate.
ERIVO Basically, every night the show is like a massive church — people are shouting out from the beginning, yelling, hands going up in the air, the whole nine yards. And there’s a moment with “I’m Here” when I finish the song — it’s happened a lot — where people will get to their feet. I thought was a fluke the first time it happened, so I discounted it, didn’t think anything of it, went on with the show. But it’s happened time and time again. So I guess there’s something in hearing someone say, “I’ve had enough of this, and I want a change and I am enough” that speaks to a lot of people — people who want to hear it, people who want to say it, people who want her to say it. And you get to the end of the show where Mister asks Celie to marry her, and every time someone goes, “Oh, hell no!” [laughs] That moment is hilarious because there’s always a silence — I always hear the silence — and someone just cannot—
NYONG’O Hold it. You can’t, yeah.
ERIVO They’re just like, trying not to say anything. And then the moment they hear it they’re like, “No. Oh, hell no.” And there’s just two of us, Isaiah and I, who are just looking, “Just wait for a second, wait for a second. Give it a minute.”
WILLIAMS Ours is interactive also. The other night, at a certain moment, somebody said, “Oh, my God, disgusting!” [laughs]
WILLIAMS Audibly. I heard, “Oh, my God, disgusting.” And there’s a lot of reveals in our play, so there are gasps and laughs. But the thing to me that stands out is in the middle of the play. I have a six and a half page monologue and then Jeff has a monologue, and in those monologues — it’s like what Jessica was saying — there’s like this collective agreement that the audience makes to listen even more intently than they have been. And there’s a silence that happens. There’s no coughing and there’s no rustling. It’s really something. It gives me the chills now thinking about it. It’s really beautiful. And sometimes we have to remember to keep pushing and not just sort of sit there and listen to this incredible silence that’s fallen over. And then, when the monologue’s over, people are people again and you realize that they have agreed as an audience to just really be there. I appreciate it.
LANGE I feel bad. I mean, I’m in the only non-interactive— [laughs]
WILLIAMS I’m going to come once my play closes and be like, “You go, girl!” [laughs]
MUELLER Yeah, let’s go get rowdy at Long Day’s Journey Into Night! [laughs]
LANGE “No, no, no. Don’t go upstairs. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t do it.” [laughs]
Wasn’t Long Day’s Journey written not to be performed?
BENANTI Not to be performed?! What?!
LANGE Yeah, he wrote it and didn’t want it published until 25 years after his death, I think, and never to be performed.
Because it’s really about his family, right? That would be awkward! Anyway, when you’re playing characters who go through emotional journeys like these do, and then you go home at the end of the night — some of you, like Laura, are in shows that end on kind of a high, others of you don’t.
NYONG’O To put it mildly.
But are you able to just turn it off? You step out onto the street. You’re back in Times Square with all the wackos out there. Can you just go back to being yourself, or is there a sort of decompression period that needs to happen?
MUELLER I want to hear what everyone else has to say! I want some tips!
ERIVO I kind of need to step out of her quite quickly, otherwise I don’t know if I would be able to go on with the night. Sometimes it takes ages — I’ll have warmed down and I’ll be speaking to people and still be sort of like, in my head. Other times it’s really easy and I’ll get out of her and it’ll be fine. Sometimes I’ll get home and just, for no reason, burst into tears, crying over something random. It depends on the day. Sometimes you’re most susceptible because you’re open and you can’t close the faucet real quick. It just takes its time. It’s like a drip instead. Other times it really quickly closes.
Michelle, you guys and Jeff Daniels don’t look like the happiest of campers when you’re taking your bows. Can you move on quickly?
WILLIAMS Do we look that miserable? [laughs] Maybe I should put on a big smile, I don’t know.
MUELLER That might be jarring.
WILLIAMS I mean, it would feel disingenuous, but maybe, I don’t know.
LANGE Or you could do what Charles Busch did at the Theatre of the Absurd back in the ’60s and ’70s — he used to come out after a performance and act as though he had no idea the audience was there. [laughs]
BENANTI “You’ve been here this whole time?!”
LANGE “Oh, my God, you’ve been watching?!”
WILLIAMS I do find the entrance and the exit, though, to the theater — the prep for the space itself, the use of the space — really important. I try and make the theater a place where I am free — like, I get to do the things that I love there. And so I do those kind of rituals before the show and after the show to really mark it as like, “This is my space. The rest of my life is my life, which is psh. But I only do what I love here.”
NYONG’O When we were at The Public, this play was very, very, very taxing on my soul, and I couldn’t face people afterwards. It took time to build the stamina, and just the stamina for my heart. And so after the show, I would head home and just keep to myself. And, upon moving to Broadway, I had that run as like a test drive, and now I’m able to come off of it sooner. But it’s the same thing — I’ll go through these rituals, and then God help all my friends and the people in my life, because I don’t know when it’s going to come out, what’s going to trigger—
WILLIAMS Oh, it’s the worst, when you’re just in the middle of your day and then you get some sort of strange—
NYONG’O You bust your toe and then it’s over, yeah.
WILLIAMS It starts to come out in all the wrong places. At very unexpected times you’re like, “Oh, no, that’s her. You are not trash, Michelle. You are not trash. You are not in the trash. That’s Una that’s in the trash.”
All right. Well, with our last minute or so here, we’re going to do something fun called “rapid fire.” Please just say the first thing that comes into your head — don’t be shy. First, the most annoying thing audiences do…
MUELLER Crinkle bottles.
BENANTI Cell phones.
HILTY Emails. Anything lighting up in your lap.
WILLIAMS I’m so glad that happens in your guys’ shows, too.
MUELLER And it’s always the quietest moments!
MUELLER I was watching someone unwrap a cellophane bag of candy last night, I think, and she’s looking at her husband like, “Is this bad?”
BENANTI Yeah, and you’re like, “Yes, it is.”
MUELLER And I so wanted to look at them and be like—
BENANTI I did that. I had to stop the show for a cell phone ring.
Okay, next. Thoughts about entrance applause…
NYONG’O: Oh, no.
ERIVO Well, the thing is, I’ve had it both ways. When we started there wasn’t and now there is. I don’t know. I feel like because you’re in the character, you don’t know if that entrance applause is for the character or for the person. Do you know what I mean?
HILTY At least it didn’t go the opposite way. [laughs]
LANGE Yeah. You just have to kind of take that beat, and then you just continue.
Non-friend or relative whose presence at your show has meant the most to you? Somebody you don’t know, you wouldn’t just go and hang out with…
WILLIAMS Now I think Jessica’s my friend, but when she wasn’t my friend— [laughs]
LANGE I always come to see your shows! She’s one of my most favorite.
NYONG’O Gina Rodriguez came to see the show this week and that was great.
MUELLER I had a lovely stagehand that I’d worked with before, and I know he wasn’t there for me, but I saw him in the audience during previews and I was like, “Oh, my God, you’re here!” That really heartened me, someone that I had worked with.
BENANTI My husband is not an actor and all of his, like, bros from college who had never been to Broadway before, all like 12 of them, came — they called it “Bros’ Night on Broadway” — and that meant a lot to me. I thought that was really sweet.
Oddest thing in your dressing room…
HILTY An espresso machine.
MUELLER That’s not odd, that’s a life-saver!
ERIVO A laundry line that I put cards on.
Benant: Mine is M&M’s with my face on them that somebody sent me.
MUELLER You have those made, Laura, just fess up! [laughs]
BENANTI I just hand paint them backstage.
What do you do during intermission…
ERIVO Eat an apple.
MUELLER Pee and sit down.
NYONG’O I listen to “Ol’ Man River.”
Thing you do on your day off…
BENANTI Panels with actresses that we love.
LANGE This. We sit at roundtables with makeup and get your hair done and come talk about what you do.
The number of performances per week you wish your show had…
Which would be dropped?
NYONG’O The matinees.
BENANTI The matinees.
MUELLER The double shows.
LANGE Double shows.
Lastly, what you would be doing if you were not an actress…
NYONG’O Massage therapy.
LANGE Massage therapy?
ERIVO I think I would be an athlete.
LANGE I might still be a waitress. I don’t know. That’s the only other job I ever had.
HILTY I’d want to be a chef. I like feeding people.
WILLIAMS I’d be what I already am: a mom.
There you go. All right. Well, we so appreciate you guys being here. I know it’s not the top thing you’d probably like to be doing on your day off, but we—
BENANTI It’s pretty great.
LANGE Hanging out with these broads? Yeah!