Tonys Actress Roundtable: 5 Nominees on Pee Breaks, Colorblind Casting and Surviving Eight Shows a Week, Denee Benton, Christine Ebersole, Jennifer Ehle, Sally Field and Laura Linney sit down for a wide-ranging conversation about life on Broadway.
For the fourth year in a row, The Hollywood Reporter paid a visit to New York to chat with a group of Tony-nominated performers about their journeys to and experiences on Broadway. A year after “the Hamiltonys,” the Great White Way is less in the forefront of the national conversation, but make no mistake about it: plenty of other great shows (plays and musicals, originals and revivals) have moved into the neighborhood, driven by their own top-tier talent (of all ages and levels of experience, more than a few direct from Hollywood).
On May 8, THR convened a gathering at Highline Stages in the Meatpacking District with UnREAL-turned-Broadway breakout Denee Benton, 25, who’s playing Natasha, a countess engaged to one man but then ensnared by another in 1812 Moscow, in the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; SNL alum turned two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole, 64, who’s playing Elizabeth Arden, a cosmetics pioneer in mid-20th century America, in the musical War Paint; Pride & Prejudice darling turned two-time Tony winner Jennifer Ehle, 47, who’s playing Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s Foreign Ministry who helps to broker landmark advances towards peace in the Middle East between 1992 and 1993, in the play Oslo; the double Oscar and triple Emmy winning screen legend Sally Field, 70, who’s playing Amanda Wingfield, a former Southern belle raising her children under trying circumstances in 1937 St. Louis, in the play The Glass Menagerie; and three-time Oscar nominee, four-time Emmy winner and now four-time Tony nominee Laura Linney, 53, who’s playing Regina, a calculating woman from a complicated family in 1900 Alabama — and, on other days, Birdie, a sweet and wounded woman from the same family — in the play The Little Foxes.
Ehle, Field and Linney are nominated for best actress in a play and Benton and Ebersole are nominated for best actress in a musical.
To begin with, I want to ask how each of you came to these particular roles — and in Laura’s case, it really is roles. Laura, you’re nominated for playing Regina in The Little Foxes, but every other performance you and Cynthia Nixon trade off and you play Birdie. How and why did you arrive at this sort of an arrangement?
LAURA LINNEY Well, the Manhattan Theater Club approached me about doing The Little Foxes. It’s one of those plays that you think you know and then you read it and you realize, “Oh, I really don’t know it.” And as I was reading it I realized I understood Birdie much more than I understood Regina. So I asked the theater if I could play Birdie and they said no; they said, “No, you’d have to play Regina,” and I sort of put it off for a while, and then another season went by and another season went by and they came back again and said, “How about it?” And I said, “Okay. It’s with my favorite director, Dan Sullivan, so yes, of course I will.” And then about a week went by and in the back of my brain I had remembered that Cynthia Nixon had always wanted to play Regina. And there’s something about these great parts that once they’re done, they hibernate them for another decade, and then they come back, but great parts are meant to be played and they’re meant to be played by good people, and I thought, “Well, why not, if this is something that she really wants to do, if it’s something she’d be willing to do—” I called Dan Sullivan and said, “I have this crazy idea: what if we play Birdie and Regina in repertory?” I thought it would be good for the play, I was very curious to see what it would do to a play — thematically, what would it heighten, what would it lessen, how would a company react, what would it be like to play two things? So he went for it, and then he called [MTC artistic director] Lynne Meadow and she went for it, and then they called Cynthia and she went for it, and we’ve had an amazing time. It’s something that men do quite often, but women have never been given the opportunity. So I’m very grateful to MTC for letting us doing it.
Christine, one of the things that’s rare and special about War Paint is that it’s a musical with two women front-and-center. There haven’t been many of those. In your case, it’s you as Arden and Patti Lupone as her rival Helena Rubinstein. How, 11 years after you were last in a musical on Broadway, did you wind up in this show with her? Did you know each other?
CHRISTINE EBERSOLE Patti had been working on this musical longer than I had. I was brought into it last year, but they had been working on it several years before that. I got a call from Scott Frankel one day and was offered the role so I jumped on board. It was the same creative team that brought you Grey Gardens, so we had a history together. And I’ve known Patti for 40 years, just being in the business and New York. This is the first time we’ve worked together, though, and it’s been really thrilling. I find her very inspirational.
Sally, we should note that The Glass Menagerie marks your second time on Broadway, 15 years after your first. The part of Amanda is one that seems to have intrigued you for a long time, at least as far back as 2004 when you played her as part of a Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center. How and why, 13 years later, did you wind up returning to this part?
SALLY FIELD Well, this is one the roles for women that always hovers somewhere near mind. It came to me through [producer] Scott Rudin and [director] Sam Gold. There was a production not long ago, so the thought was, “They’re going to have to put Glass to bed for another ten years and not bring it back.” But Sam had done a production of it in Amsterdam and had fallen in love with the play in a way he didn’t think he ever would and wanted to do a version of what he had in Amsterdam here on Broadway. So Scott and Sam called me and asked if I would I come on board with this, but be very mindful it was not going to be your Aunt Gladys’ Glass Menagerie. This was going to be Sam Gold pulling the pieces apart in an interesting and bold way. So, of course, I said, “Yes, I would like to do that.” I would have been here in New York on Broadway as much as I could, but I was always raising children somewhere else and now I’m not.
Welcome back. Jennifer, it’s been 10 years since you were last on Broadway. Oslo show marks a reunion for you with the show’s writer, J.T. Rogers. It’s really kind of amazing how far back you two go.
JENNIFER EHLE Yes, we overlapped at North Carolina School of the Arts. I was just there for one year and JT was in the year above me. Even back then he was writing. Sometimes he would write speeches and the school didn’t like that because when people were doing monologues they wanted it to be an established author, but he would make up names and sort of surreptitiously slip people monologues every now and then. I was a freshman and one day he came up to me, and I remember the piece of paper — he’d written this speech about a girl who is heartbroken and ate an entire chocolate cake to comfort herself. Anyway, then we had years where we would run into each other now and then, but we didn’t know each other very well. And then he suddenly emailed me December 15  and said, “We’re doing a workshop in January.” And we would be doing it at my favorite place to work in the whole world, the Beaumont [Theatre at Lincoln Center]. When I was three years old I remember standing at the back of the Beaumont while my mother, Rosemary Harris, was teching A Streetcar Named Desire, playing Blanche. I remember her ex-husband, who I was very close to, in his little skinny jeans, with his 1970s jean-butt, trying to block me from seeing them tech the rape scene. There were a few street scenes, and for a few matinees, [the actress playing Stella] Patricia Connelly’s daughter and me and the Stanleys’ son would walk across the back of the stage holding balloons. I remember seeing my mother stand backstage — she was supposed to be in the bathroom in the bathtub as Blanche — going “Shh, shh, shh.” And I remember that feeling of an audience — that palpable, dark, kind of something. Otherness. I remember that very strongly.
Denee, The Great Comet is drawn from 70 pages of War and Peace, and I think it’s fair to say that for most of theater history, the reflexive move would have been to cast a white actress as a Russian countess from War and Peace. In recent years, though, and particularly after Hamilton, people have displayed more imagination about what you can do with casting — what some people call “colorblind casting,” which we also saw this year in A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Amelie. I’m curious how this worked in your case: was it somebody with imagination coming and saying, “We know Denee is a great actress and we want to go after her for this part?” Or was it you saying, “Even though it doesn’t necessarily on paper read as a part that is obvious for me, I want to show that I can do it?”
DENEE BENTON Well, this is my Broadway debut, so I’m not in the position to be being offered roles. I auditioned for it. It came through my agency’s office. Natasha was actually always played by a woman of color — Phillipa Soo did it when it was off Broadway, and then she was busy with Hamilton when they were moving it to ART, so they opened up auditions. I remember getting it through my email and seeing and hearing the song “No One Else” and really connecting to it. I just felt like my essence understood Natasha in a very real way. I had the fear, though, and I called my manager and was like, “Are you sure they’re not looking for like a pretty white soprano?” But I felt like I could do it really well. I went to the audition and there was me, there were Asian women, there were Hispanic women. For me, it’s less about the fact that Natasha is Russian. Everyone here talked about these great roles and how every actor or actress wants to play a great role. Natasha is one of those. The archetype that she represents — of innocence and beauty and light and this coming of age — she’s the every girl. So, to me, every girl should have access to playing the every girl. And I’m not the first person to discover that the images we see affect the world we live in. So, on that level, it’s exciting and thrilling to see the black girls who come to see this show and see their eyes lighting up that this is possible. On the other hand, it’s just a great part and I’m happy that I get to do it.
Speaking of how young girls might be inspired by this, what inspired you to pursue a career on Broadway? I think their might be some overlap — did I hear that the 1990s TV movie of Cinderella was important to you?
BENTON Yeah, there were a couple things. I was always a dramatic kid. I mean, I loved it, the magic of it all. I had a crush on that, you know? But yeah, that Brandy-Whitney [Houston] Cinderella when I was like seven? I was little and I watched it over and over and over again. I was obsessed. Whoopi [Goldberg] was the mom, Victor Garber was the dad, it was a fairytale, so who cares right? So, yeah, that was very inspiring to me.
You were with this same part before the show came to Broadway. But is there anything about doing Broadway for the first time here that has taken you by surprise?
BENTON This is the hardest role I’ve ever done, thus far, and you don’t have time to recover, right? You finish the show and you’re just sort of this empty sponge, but then like the rest of your life is waiting for you to be a human. For me, it’s just not there. This show gets the best part of myself that I have to give right now. Someone put me in contact with [2016 Tony winner for Hamilton] Leslie Odom, Jr., and I talked to him and he was like, “Don’t put pressure on yourself to feel normal right now.” Once I kind of stopped doing that, it was helpful. But it’s challenging. Everyone’s like, “Is this amazing? Is it a dream?” You’re like, “Yes — but I kind of feel like I’m dying.”
FIELD People always say, “Are you having fun?”
BENTON I know, I told my dad stop asking that.
FIELD I go, “Well, ‘fun’ is a relative word.” It’s fun and I’m sure that’s somewhere in the mix, but that wouldn’t be the first word.
Christine and Jennifer, you’re both in new shows this year, and you’ve both previously done new shows and revivals — in fact, you both won a Tony for an original and a Tony for a revival. Do you approach one type of show differently than the other?
EBERSOLE I think it’s challenging to do a revival because oftentimes you can’t win. You’re always compared to the person who did it before and you’re not as “piquant,” or whatever phrases they use, as the person who originally did it. It’s always, I think, more satisfying to do an original piece. Then you’re creating it for the first time.
EHLE I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it before. When we did [a revival of] The Real Thing it was so, we were doing it for the Donmar Warehouse and the idea of ever doing on Broadway was impossible — I mean, it wasn’t in the cards. And because it was a little bit, not deconstructed, but it was compared to the early eighties Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons version, which I had seen, I guess I felt free. I didn’t feel like I had to stick to anything — it didn’t feel like a revival for some reason, I guess because it was the Donmar and it was just that thing of being in a room trying to figure out how to make this work. In [the original] The Coast of Utopia, it was new to Broadway, but it was different because the play was still changing — that was exciting. There were a lot of moving parts with Oslo — there are accents and we move a lot of furniture.
Sally, The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway in 1945. This is the seventh revival of it; as you mentioned, the sixth was only four years ago. Why is it important for a show like this to continue to be revived? Are there always new things that somebody can bring to it?
FIELD I can’t really answer the question about why it’s important to have another revival of this show. I don’t know. It is a very bold look at it that Sam Gold wanted to do. So, of course, that would be interesting. And that I had done it before and now I was recreating it in a different way, through Sam’s vision of the story he wanted to tell. I think we all feel that great literature always invites interpretation, and bold interpretation especially for something that has been done so frequently. I think it’s always interesting for actors. It forces you to have to let go of everything you thought you had to hold on to, and that’s always a good thing.
Laura, I wanted to read a quote of yours to you before I ask my next question, something that you said in an interview a few years ago: “I really believe that it takes about three months for a show to gel. No matter how good it is or how prepared you are, there are certain things that only time can take care of. It has to cook.” Now, The Little Foxes opened on April 19 and will close on July 2, just slightly over those three months —
LINNEY Three really good shows. [laughs] But to bring it back to the question of original versus revival, is that timetable moved up in any way by doing a show that’s already been done before?
LINNEY No, absolutely not. It’s the thing that makes the theater different from any other art form: it’s time. That ingredient is something you can’t force, you can’t generate. It’s just the benefit of earning the time of doing it over and over and over and over again. If you see a show for opening night and then you see it a month later and a month after that and a month after that, you’re gonna have completely different experiences. It’s like a family that knows each other decade after decade after decade — just your relationship to the table that you sit at, your intimacy with the thoughts behind the words, your knowing the person who you’re working with. It’s what I love about the theater more than anything. I know that I’m not gonna really know this play until months after we open — really know it. It’s almost like a Chinese puzzle. You get to a point where time allows it to crack open and then there another set of problems and then you solve that set of problems and then something else cracks open and then there’s something else. It’s the joy of a long run. A lot of people will ask, “How do you do it over and over and over and over again?” What I don’t think people experience is how it just keeps unfolding onto itself — if it’s well-written. And to see the chemistry and the alchemy of a particular cast together on a particular set with the lights in that particular house, it’s really — it’s heaven when you get to experience it.
I want to ask you about the sense of responsibility that I know you all feel to your shows. None of these are one-woman shows; a lot of people have to pull their weight for these to come together at every performance. What is the moment in your show when you feel the greatest responsibility to deliver, whether it’s something that you have to do or say or sing?
EBERSOLE Well, with War Paint, I find that it’s when I first appear on stage — it’s kind of the launching that helps me get into the space and inhabit it. And there’s like a high B flat that I’ve gotta sustain in it every night, so I know once I get through that everything is golden, pretty much.
EHLE My character is a character within the play, but she’s also the narrator, and I aim to feel that I’m leading the audience by the nose as opposed to hauling them by a rope around their necks. I did the show last summer [Off-Broadway] for three months and the last two weeks were fabulous. And then we had six months of gestation and now we’re doing it again. But I know it will still be another three months because we have the new space, new so many things. But I’m just navigating that: leading them, you know? Feeling their muzzle is fun.
BENTON Our show kind of never stops moving. I never leave the stage and there’s stairs and corsets and gowns and it’s a beautiful spectacle at some points. But the very last scene, when Natasha feels likes she’s ruined her life and has tried to commit suicide, everything is sort of stripped away. It’s just Pierre and I and it’s just the piano and the lights are completely up and it’s a moment of a real, tearful breakdown, of like, “What have I done?” It’s kind of the heart of the show, when humanity sinks in and the gray sinks in. So if I don’t feel like that moment was truthful, I’m like, “The whole performance was ruined!” So that’s probably the moment I put the most pressure on myself.
FIELD Yikes. You know, I almost can’t answer that question because I think it would have to be from the very first second Amanda appears. That moment is one of the hardest things because Sam doesn’t want us totally in character yet, so try doing that! Then I have to drag the wheelchair up the stairs in these little high heels that he wanted me to wear that will slip through the cracks in the concrete floor that they pull. Then I’ve got to get my wonderful costar, Madison Ferris, up the stairs and back into the chair, which is a workout for both of us and real and true. But, the blessing in that is that it is real and true, and any time we don’t have to act it’s a complete blessing. And the house lights are up, and then the house lights go down so slowly that no one notices, not even us really. But I never leave the play and Amanda never stops driving the play, in a way much more fiercely than I think has ever been done before. Amanda is the one who changes all of the props, changes the tables, she moves everything around, there’s no scene breaks, there’s obviously no act breaks, there’s no intermission. So there’s not even a transition to think while time has moved on because you wanted it to be memory that just rolls over the top of each other. So if I can get on the stage without falling over or dropping the chair — which I could do at any moment, and many times it’s been nip and tuck. I lost my shoe once, I’ve been like, “Uhhh—” I couldn’t get it quite turned around right. But once I’ve got Maddie in the chair I think, “Okay, I’m on the horse now.”
LINNEY I’m with these ladies, I think it’s from the very beginning, or the beginning of every act — there are three acts in mine. And it’s regardless of whether I’m playing Birdie or Regina. If it doesn’t start right — it can be different, but it has to feel in the groove or it has to feel like I’m not ahead of myself or behind myself. Similar to what Jennifer is saying, sort of living thought the moment where you can sort of step on the conveyor belt and the play will take you along, as opposed to moving the conveyor belt yourself.
We’ve touched a little bit on the physical challenges of these roles, but I want to hone in more on that. A person who goes to see you guys once should be reminded you’re doing these shows, on average, eight times a week for at least a few months, and it’s a grind. Laura you mentioned there are two intermissions in your show. Sally, your show has none. Sally, would you prefer to have a break? Laura, would you prefer not to have interruptions?
FIELD Once I’m there, standing there in the audience — and literally they’re right there looking — I repeat to myself, “Own this. Own this. Don’t let it own you. Don’t get ahead of it, don’t drag behind it. Just do it.” And I get the chair out there — even if it’s all verklempt, it doesn’t matter, I’ve got the chair up there — and then it’s such an emotional drive for her, so different than any other Amanda, so high-pitched, both emotionally and comedically, and hurtling toward this sort of Greek ending with a violent place. “The Glass Menagerie? What?!” I’m tremendously grateful that I don’t have to let down, ’cause then it’s driving me. Now, I’m in the car and we’re just going. So I’m grateful there are no scene breaks, even.
LINNEY Much to my surprise, I love our intermissions. When I asked Dan, “Are we going to do these two intermissions?” [The play was written with them.] He was like, “Yeah.” And I thought, “Oh, God.” But I find that the acts are very potent because of them. We come on, start with a bang and then all of a sudden it’s over. So what is a two-and-a-half-hour experience doesn’t feel like one at all. You get on and then it’s like boom, there’s the first act, and then the second one and then the third — they build. Ironically, the act that is the longest feels the shortest. The third act does feel very short and, in reality, it’s ten minutes longer than the others.
Christine, in your show you and Patti go number for number, essentially, and then meet for a great duet called “If I’d Been a Man.” Based on your vast experience with musicals, is there any way to prepare yourself to have to blow the roof off the place eight times a week for however many months? Is there anything you actually can do or you just have to deal with pain management?
EBERSOLE It’s vocal management. One of the things that’s really exciting about working with Patti — she missed a couple of shows because of vocal issues. The understudy was tremendous; I mean she was absolutely heroic. But the thing about working with Patti is there’s no slouching around you, you know? She’s always upping my game. I feel like I’m on the court with Venus Williams, you know? I’ve got to be ready for the ball. It’s very different than doing a play. When you’re doing a musical, everything surrounds that one muscle, you know? The whole day, the whole week, the whole year.
Jennifer, you’re performing on a stage not unlike Sally’s, where there’s not much there in the way of scenery and props, and what is there is on the actors to move around. Does that impact the rest of what you have to do when you’re up there? Do you mind it?
EHLE Well, when we were doing it last summer Off-Broadway, I certainly had cheat-sheets in my pockets. I would have to have one for every act that would say what furniture I had to move in that next scene and where I entered from, because basically if I’m ever off stage, except for a couple of pee breaks I do have strategically placed, thank goodness—
FIELD I wish I did.
EHLE —I’m running to get to the next place. And then I have the cheat-sheets. Then when we moved up to the Beaumont I brought my cheat sheet, and I had it in my pocket, and we’re doing the dress rehearsal, and I realized that I really need reading glasses now and I didn’t think about that! So I come off stage and I get out my cheat-sheet and I’m looking at it and I’m like, “It says run — what? Where am I supposed to be running?!” Then I had to write them really big. But now I’m flying solo without the cheat sheets now.
Denee, The Great Comet is staged in the most elaborate and complex and cool way, with the audience surrounding a pit on the stage, and a catwalk extending through the orchestra to the back of the theater and all kinds of stars in-between. You guys didn’t do the Off-Broadway version at the same theater and barely had any time in the new theater before previews started on the Broadway version, so how did you — and a cast of 33, 23 of whom are making their Broadway debuts in this show — prepare for that?
BENTON I was very thankful that I got to do it in Boston ’cause my body was a mess. I hadn’t really dealt with having to be that strategic about how I took care of myself before, but over the summer I started going to vocal therapy. I was rehearsing, singing, running up and down the stairs because the breath support is insane — and you’re in a corset. But here are things you can’t really teach yourself how to do until you do them. In the rehearsal space it’s tricky — we just had tape and paper diagrams and you’d be like, “I’m walking up the mezzanine now,” and you think it takes seven seconds and then you get there and it takes 15. We really only had six days in the theater itself. And I’ve gone from maybe having been to physical therapy once in my life to now seeing every specialist New York has to offer, from orthopedic to the shoulders to the voice to everything. If I ever have to stand still and say anything on a stage again I’m going to be like, “That’s it?!” It’s pretty insane. It makes sense that there are 23 Broadway debuts in this show because I feel like any seasoned actor would have been like, “You want me to do what?!” But we’ve made magic happen in a way that I don’t think anybody really thought was possible. But it takes stamina — like, some of my cast members average 60 flights of stairs a night, through backstage stairs to the onstage stairs to everything. We’ve all lost like 10 to 15 pounds. It’s pretty insane, the physicality of it all. Plus playing instruments and singing and belting and crying.
FIELD Okay, I won’t complain again about lifting a wheelchair! [laughs] All of these anecdotes may beg a question for some: why put yourself through this?! Why do anything eight times a week for hours a night for months on end? What is it about performing in the theater that keeps you coming back?
EBERSOLE I have no other skills. [laughs] I love what I do, you know? I have a passion for it. And I feel blessed that I was given a gift to sing. So to be able to share that? It’s a wondrous experience.
EHLE Yes, I love it. And, I mean, there’s nothing like it when its working, when it’s singing and flying and—
LINNEY And there’s nothing like it when it’s bad! There is nothing like it when it’s bad.
FIELD That’s the truth. Yeah, I mean it’s what I do. I would have been here [on Broadway] a lot earlier but I was raising kids on the west coast. But yeah, there’s nothing like it. There’s absolutely nothing like it. It’s without a doubt the most dangerous, the most alive, the most thrilling feeling. These are crafts we’ve all learned over our lifetime. The immediacy of it, and really the danger of it — I mean, there is no safety. This is a dangerous business. A dangerous craft. It’s about that flight that you get to take. You’re so totally and utterly and completely alive. You know where your fingers and your toes are. You are completely alive — and you’re exhausted. [laughs]
Sally, your career began with great success in television, but at that point the dream was to do film. And then that opportunity came along and you certainly did that well, too. But was theater always the top of the mountain for you?
FIELD Theater was always the top of the mountain because I was one of the lucky kids who had a theater arts department when I was a kid. I had a troublesome childhood family situation, so, that theater arts department gave me life at 12. I found a stage and that was the first time I could hear my own voice talking to me. And when I got off the stage in the late fifties, I heard only what I was supposed to be and I lost track of what my old self was telling me. So stage was always it for me. I was addicted to it, always. I almost didn’t graduate high school because I couldn’t do any of the other classes, you know? But then I got sucked up in another world — first television and then film — but also I had a family. So always, in my mind, this was the “someday” thing. How could I come and do a play for six months with rehearsals and all of that? You know, five, close to six months, all in all? Even when you have a good solid 16-week or three-month run, what do I say to the kids? “Buh-bye! Let me know how it all turns out!” I just could never figure it out. So it’s sort of a better late than never situation with me.
Denee, you’re at an interesting point. This is your first Broadway show and it’s obviously going great — it’s the most Tony-nominated show of the season and you’re up for personal recognition, as well. You’ve already done some television work, and I’m sure film is going to be next. How do you envision theater factoring into your plans going forward?
BENTON My dream is to be able to do everything. Different things excite me in different ways. I think theater is one of those things I’d like to come back to but have a little bit more leverage. But it’s what you fall in love with, when you’re standing in the center of the stage and showing the world your soul. That feeling that you get? It’s pretty magical. So I think I’ll always have to do it. But I’d like to dip into the film world.
With our remaining time, I’d like to play a little game we call “Rapid Fire” — I’m going to raise a topic and you say the first thing that comes to your mind. Your most unusual ritual before or after a show or during intermission?
EHLE After the end of act one I walk down through the vom and I go past Stephanie, who is the wonderful woman who puts a mic on me because there are certain bits in the show where I have to speak over video projections. She’s very sweet and she always does it in a yoga pose, and she holds out a thing of chocolate-covered almonds and I take one. That’s our ritual. That’s my reward at the end of act one.
LINNEY I have handshakes with my stage manager. It’s a secret, sacred ritual. [laughs] FIELD As soon as I get off that stage, as long as it’s not a matinee, I go right to my dressing room and waiting for me in there is one of those four-ounce bottles of water — except it’s not water. It looks a great deal like a urine sample. It’s Chardonnay. From then on, I’ve got it tucked in my pocket.
EBERSOLE Just getting ready for act two — I change my lipstick and Richard comes in and takes the pins out of my hair because I have a very quick change where I have to change the wig and costumes and everything in less than a minute.
BENTON I’m just hightailing it to the bathroom. My pee breaks are very strategic cause you’re on stage for so long. Those are the things you don’t think about.
FIELD How long are you on stage before you get a pee break?
BENTON Well, nothing compared to you.
FIELD Okay, I was just wondering.
BENTON But my bladder is like this big [makes a small circular shape with her hand], and there’s just so much singing and water!
FIELD Sam wanted our show to come in at just two hours flat, but it’s usually two-eight.
BENTON I’d be in Depends. [laughs] FIELD And sometimes, when I’m standing down there with the chair, just before I got up, I’ll go, “Oh, no.”
Oddest thing in your dressing room?
LINNEY Odd? Probably me.
BENTON I’ve got a lot of Russian dolls that fans make.
EHLE I have a lovely little thimble that the stage managing team gave me when we did the show last summer. Cynthia Nixon had told me that the thimble used to be a symbol if a woman was in love or had a crush on another woman in the company — they would leave a thimble on their dressing place because in Peter Pan, to Peter Pan a thimble is a kiss. That’s one of my most precious things in my dressing room.
EBERSOLE I have a fun pink dressing room. And my friend Peter Glebo, who did the dressing room, gave me this big poster of Marilyn Monroe standing outside of Elizabeth Arden’s salon.
Entrance applause, yes or no?
FIELD I don’t get any! I don’t get any because they can’t figure out what’s going on.
EBERSOLE I think it works in musicals.
Most annoying thing audience members do?
LINNEY Phones — they don’t turn off their phones.
FIELD Any kind of movement, breathing, talking, sneezing, coughing. Coughing! Like, put your hand over your mouth!
BENTON We have shakers in our show, and during the last scene, if they’re shaking them, I’m like…
But that’s self-inflicted — you guys hand them out! Do you read reviews?
BENTON I read mine. I was excited. It was my first time!
Thank you for your honesty. What you do on your day off?
EBERSOLE This is our day off!
EHLE I take the kids to school.
FIELD I rarely really have a day off. I don’t remember what they’re like.
LINNEY It all just turns into a big blur. It’s a Monday when the rest of the world is working, and everyone knows they can’t get to you until Monday, so then everyone gets to you on a Monday.
BENTON What’s hard about doing theater is you’re doing press at the same time. With like film or TV, it’s like a year later.
EBERSOLE My husband says theater eats everything.
The number of performances per week you wish you could do?
FIELD I wouldn’t mind getting rid of both of the matinees — let’s talk real! Two show days are so hard.
EHLE Matinees are my favorite.
BENTON My ideal would be four two-show days and then three days off.
FIELD You know what? I would definitely double up days and give us more than one day off so we can come back to the world. I don’t even sing and listen to my voice!
Non-friend or relative whose attendance at your show has meant the most to you?
LINNEY John Glover came very early. I’ve just admired him for so long, and he was so kind and so supportive. It’s nice when there’s someone who you admire, who you don’t know very well, who comes back and says, “You’re on the right track. Good, keeping going.” That makes a big difference.
BENTON Definitely. There are heroes, but then for me there was this 16-year-old girl who saw our show and then was talking to our choreographer. She was a black girl and she was like, “Denee was a princess up there. I didn’t know we could be princesses.” For me, any time I’m exhausted— I wrote that down ’cause sometimes it’s important and it’s helpful to make it bigger than yourself and remember we have a huge impact.
What is the biggest thing, and you’ve all had experience in Hollywood as well, what is the biggest thing that Hollywood can learn from Broadway?
BENTON Oh, I have a lot of thoughts. I just feel like theater is always been ahead of the curve with the way that we cast things and the way that we write things and just deconstructing a theater and telling a story in a completely different way and not getting stuck on, “Well, will this sell?” I mean, the Hamiltons of the world happen far before anyone in film gets the idea that we’re allowed to do this. For me, it’s the casting and the imagination.
FIELD What I know to be true about being in the theater community, whether it be Broadway or just theater in New York, is that it’s very different than the Hollywood community. There is a real feeling of community. There is a feeling of, “We all know how hard this is.” That’s not to say all Hollywood gatherings are just awful, but there is a feeling of less camaraderie with other performers in Hollywood than there is here. The feeling here is that we’re all together in this noble work that’s breathtakingly difficult and isn’t for sissies, and so everybody is applauding everybody’s shows and can’t wait to get to see everybody else’s shows. That kind of feeling in the world that I’ve grown up in, in Hollywood, doesn’t exist. It’s way too competitive. There’s a feeling that, “If you have a hit show, what’s going to happen to my it show?” Here, there’s much more a feeling of rooting for each other.
LINNEY Absolutely. And going “Hurray, good work happened!”
FIELD “I can’t wait to see it! I can’t wait to get there!” And it’s real and true.
What would you be if you were not an actor?
EBERSOLE I don’t know, maybe a minister.
EHLE I have no idea.
BENTON Maybe some sort of political correspondent on a show on CNN so I’d get to talk a lot. [laughs] FIELD It’s not a question. I wouldn’t be. I would not be. It’s what I am, it’s what I’ve always been. There was nothing else. There was just nothing else. I would be really, really unhappy overweight person somewhere deep in Tuscaloosa.
LINNEY If I could be good at it, I’d like to be a great florist. I’m terrible — I just put things and it looks ridiculous, I kill every orchid anyone ever sends me — but there’s something I love about the idea of being around flowers.
Well, thank you for giving up one of the Mondays when you could’ve pursued one of these other things. We really appreciate you doing this.
Denee Benton, Christine Ebersole, Jennifer Ehle, Sally Field and Laura Linney sit down for a wide-ranging conversation about life on Broadway.