Cross-posted from The Interval.
You know how when you’re applying to college people always ask you those cliché questions like, “What is a moment that changed your life?” and you think they have to be really big and grand answers like about death or international travel? Then you get older and finally have some real answers, only nobody ever asks anymore. Well, here is a real answer that took place one night a few years ago with Kelli O’Hara in a Lower East Side bar with me dressed as a piñata. Okay, to clarify, I was wearing a dress that kinda-sorta resembled a piñata because I had been at a party. An adult party — in a restaurant with real barware and everything. Yet, only knowing a handful of people there, I’d found myself awkwardly standing in a corner. As a child, I’d always just assumed I’d be famous and important so, suffice to say, I never developed certain social skills. And here’s the thing, twenty-something girls who are not famous are seldom thought of as important. Luckily, I had other places to be and a genuine excuse (not going home to watch TV) to get out of there early. Kelli’s husband, Greg Naughton, has a band called The Sweet Remains and, in a rare bit of “trying to be useful” a few years prior, I’d put myself in charge of selling merchandise at their concerts. And so off I went.
When I got to the bar where the concert was happening, a girl about my age was on stage — a singer-songwriter, accompanying herself on the guitar. I didn’t pay much attention, and instead got to work putting out CDs. When the girl was done playing, Kelli came over and asked if I’d heard the girl’s set because she’d really liked the songs and thought this girl was very talented. I replied something very elegant like, “Oh.” Kelli declared she was going to go buy one of the girl’s CDs from her.
So Kelli goes over to the girl and I follow. Kelli tells her not only how much she’d enjoyed her songs, but also specific things she’d liked about them. And suddenly, it all struck me as really unusual. How often do people go up to strangers and take the time to tell them not just that they liked what they were doing but why they liked it? In the middle of this, the girl’s aunt stops Kelli and says, “I bet you must get this all the time, but you look so much like that Broadway actress. The one who was just on TV singing in DC.” Yes, “that Broadway actress” had recently been on TV singing at the National 4th of July concert. Kelli tried to figure out what to say, which was all it took for the aunt’s suspicions to be confirmed and for her to start telling Kelli how amazing she was. Kelli stopped her and said, “Thank you” and what she did next might not seem like much at first, but to me it was extraordinary. Kelli gestured to the girl and said, “But this is important, too.” Then Kelli went back to talking to her about her songs because that was important — maybe most especially to someone dressed as a piñata.
There are numerous reasons why we wanted to interview Kelli O’Hara. She’s a five-time Tony nominee with two solo albums who has also appeared in a major role at the Metropolitan Opera. She gives brilliantly nuanced performances and brings passion and intellect to her craft. Yet at the forefront of all of those things, are her actions in that bar a few years ago because it’s those little day-to-day actions that can be monumental. And I am so glad that when I, or others, feel dismissed and small, I know that there are people like Kelli in the world saying, “This is important, too.”
We interviewed Kelli in her dressing room at Lincoln Center Theater before a performance of “The King and I” on the fortuitous day of Good Friday and Passover and we, for sure, think she’s important.
VM: Since we’re back here at Lincoln Center for “The King and I,” it had me thinking about how almost my entire knowledge of Rodgers and Hammerstein comes from you.
KOH: Well, that’s a compliment to me.
VM: What I think is always interesting about your portrayals, especially since I’ve now looked at others, is they’re always very unique but done through interpretation rather than concept. What’s your acting process? Do you go to the character or do you bring it to yourself?
KOH: I don’t think I have any rules. I certainly studied acting and I studied the Method, which is a very different form of acting than I’d say we use in acting everyday, but it’s very useful as a tool. When doing a revival, you have a lot of people asking you questions about someone who played it before, and to me that’s neither here nor there — it has no bearing on the material that I have to use. The material that is written down in a score and script that the writers originally used is what I use. That’s the first time I try to look at it. If I’ve seen the movie or the play, I try to leave that alone and just go right to the source material. I try to see who this person is, deeply. For Anna, for instance, I read “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon. The musical is based on her book. I also read “Bombay Anna” [by Susan Morgan], which is a newer book about who the real Anna was; she was an absolute tour de force, badass. She was a woman who reinvented herself. She was not British. She was of mixed race, and she was a widow with no options. She grew up outside of India. Her mother was Indian and her father was a solider. She was very well-educated by her own desires and ambitions. When her husband died, she had no choice but to make up a person who would be hired as a schoolteacher — a well-educated British woman. I have no idea if she even made up an accent. So, to me, she’s a person who could be anything and anyone. So not only do I learn about these people as deeply as I can — whatever the material is — but then I try and see how it connects with me. So it’s a little bit of both. I don’t bring them completely to me and I don’t go all the way to them. I think we meet in the middle.
VM: There’s not a lot of backstory for Anna in the actual script of “The King and I” and yet you do have all of this other information. Then, on top of that, you have people who are like, “This is the way it’s done” and a lot of those ideas about the character might not even be textually based in the script. What’s that like?
KOH: Well, for a revival we have to respect what Margaret Landon wrote. She was interpreting her book off of Anna Leonowens’ own books, which were false. She wrote books about herself, which were false, and we can question that a little bit about this person. But we have to respect how the musical itself was written while adding some depth and channeling into deeper avenues. It worked when it first happened and only then will it work again. It’s only richer if you just put in more and more and more as long as you maintain the core of what her point is. And, for me, what I need her to be is about goodness, about education, about the equal treatment of women with men, and trying to connect the racial divide. That kind of person is someone I can fight for and give her many layers and levels, as long as there’s one clear moral compass.
VM: When you come into rehearsal do you come in with a very strong idea of how you’re going to play the part?
KOH: No. Sometimes I have somewhat of a knowledge, but she was definitely a journey that started when we started rehearsals. I didn’t start reading the books until we started rehearsals. I started “Anna and the King of Siam” before, of course, but then I started reading “Bombay Anna” and digging even deeper. Then you learn things little by little. You learn things about everybody because the characters start to become the people in the room, and you start to understand how people work together and how a human being works with another human being. That colors how you’re going to play something.
VM: When you’re doing a period piece for a modern audience does that affect how you calibrate different emotional moments?
KOH: Oh, sure. There’s this huge scene in the second act before “Shall We Dance” that’s about the King being misogynistic. He’s saying, “Your Western ideas about love are ridiculous. A woman is put on earth to please a man and a man should have many women, and a woman should only have one man.” In 1951, or 1956 when the movie was made, I’m sure it maybe wasn’t appreciated by a lot of people, but it was allowed and they could laugh [at] it. Today we have to make that scene work in a different way. We have to assume that the King knows he’s being difficult, knows that he is goading her and trying to push buttons, so she comes back with her own response. That’s a very different thing in 2015 where we need the audience to know that I, by choice, am not offended but intrigued that he’s pushing me to push back. Kathleen Marshall used to say, even during “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “We have to do this 1920s musical for a 2012 audience” and it’s true. You just have to change little things so your character still remains sympathetic and noble in today’s mind. It’s hard sometimes since the writing doesn’t always support it. You have to add seventeen layers of subtext to make it work. But Rodgers and Hammerstein are pretty magical in that I feel like almost everything that comes out of my mouth that’s written by them, even with sub-textual layers underneath, does a pretty good job. I think they were pretty magical at making shows actually say something by hiding it under so much musical comedy, in certain ways, that some people didn’t notice, but the people who wanted to could hear it.
VM: How do you deal with expectations on you as a performer? And expectations on how you’ll play the part? Is that something you think about or completely ignore?
KOH: Oh my God, if I said I ignored it I would be the biggest liar in town. I don’t think anyone could possibly ignore it. I’m getting a lot better about ignoring it as I get older because, in some ways, it doesn’t matter to me as much. I’ve realized that in the long run, really what it’s about is how I feel about it. I’m very careful not to read something or go and feed myself with other people’s opinions, even if I think they’re good. I think a lot of performers would say this, but it’s almost like an addiction where you say, “Don’t go do it. Don’t go read anything.” If you really can keep yourself from doing it — and I can because I have way too much to do with my kids — then you can allow yourself to not need or base anything off of that. The real indication is how you feel on the stage and how your immediate audience is behaving towards you. The expectations that are put on me — comparisons to people who have played the part or if this is better than the last thing I did — will only cripple me if I let them. I don’t want anyone to rob me of the fun of it because I love it. I’ve loved it my whole life.
VM: Many of the actresses we talk to mention that it’s really hard to get people to think of them differently.
KOH: Well, that’s true. But, you know, I don’t know if I’m guilty of the same thing. I might think of someone and go, “I know exactly how she’ll play that.” The first person I ever saw on Broadway was Audra McDonald because I went and saw “Master Class” when I was a junior in college. It was my first time to New York. I was twenty-one years old and I chose to see “Master Class” because it was about opera and I was an opera major. Since then I’ve watched everything she’s done, and I feel like I know that woman’s voice and I know how she does things. It’s brilliant and I love it, but I think I know what it is. Then I went to see “Lady Day” and I did not recognize that voice and pretty soon, after the first five minutes, I lost Audra and her face transformed for me and she became some other woman. I lost what Billie Holiday looked like even; it was just this person that I didn’t know and I followed her story. It was pretty magical to me and pretty inspirational. So it begs every actress to just keep trying to be different and stop worrying about whether people think they can and just prove it.
VM: Well, you’ve done a lot: everything from Shakespeare (“King Lear” at the Public in 2011) to cartwheeling on stage at the Met (in “The Merry Widow” this past winter).
KOH: I’m trying. And I’m sure that I’m a lot of the same because I do bring a lot of myself — I try to do that because I feel like all I got is me, you know. But I try to do different roles and try to immerse myself deeply and see what they need to be that’s different than the last one. Sometimes I think people are famous because they’re themselves and they do a role and you see them do it. And sometimes I’m considered, I guess, a subtle actor. Maybe I’m less of a showman and more just trying to tell the story. I don’t know what the perception is. I just want to tell the story so the story as a whole works as opposed to just making sure that I work.
(iii.) Women and Girls
VM: We talked about this with Marsha Norman…
KOH: Love me some Marsha.
VM: “The Bridges of Madison County” really galvanized a lot of girls around you and they related to your character in a way we found really interesting.
KOH: I did too.
VM: Okay, let’s talk about this.
KOH: Well, there’s the #BridgeKids movement, which are these amazing girls from all over the world and some of them are very young and some are older, but it’s amazing to me. I’m like, “What did I give you? What did that character give to you?” And the show is about choice — it’s certainly about choice — but it’s also about an amazing vulnerability, and maybe that’s what they love about it. We can make choices, but we can be vulnerable; we can do the wrong thing, but the wrong thing for all the right reasons. I think it’s basically about forgiveness, and not about someone else forgiving you, but you forgiving yourself. I think we all want a lot of that.
VM: During that show you sort of turned into this musical theatre feminist icon.
KOH: I love that. Like I said, you’re doing something within the show and deeply trying to tell the story and something comes out of it that is something like that…. You can’t go plan for that, you just have to do your work and if it’s done right and if it touches someone deeply, then those things happen. So I hope that happens in lots of ways with everything I do.
VM: I wanted to ask you about something you said at The Lilly Awards last year: “As I’m sitting here and we’re talking about Broadway and being commercial and things like that, I’ve done a lot of things that were that way. And it’s easy to not always take a person seriously who plays the ingénue and plays the supporting woman. But I’m an actress and I’m trying to give voices to them. And I’m an actress and I’m going to have to use the material that is there for me. And that’s what’s happened. And I’ve been proud of a lot of it, and I’ve been proud to give new voices to a lot of it. But I didn’t know what it felt like to say the words of a woman until this year [in ‘The Bridges of Madison County’].”
KOH: It’s true. Often times, especially with the ingénue, you are [asked] to play the essence of something and oftentimes the essence of what a man thinks you are. And that’s really frustrating. And so Marsha had a woman who was definitely not an ingénue — although it was a really beautiful true love type situation — and used that role to give women a voice that had a lot more depth. And I loved that. I loved that. There were a lot of things that she wrote that were cut that were really beautiful about what it feels like to feel loss and what it feels like to feel like maybe you’ve made a mistake your whole life and what the fear of that is. That was really beautiful to me. The whole process was so beautiful to me. It was a play, you know. Musicals are different that way. Maybe it is because there’s less to say in a musical and whenever you have a musical you can put a lot of subtext around it and build it up, if you need to, which thank God. I would be so interested to have that woman’s sensibility to write something that was so deeply feeling. I mean I think that’s why “Light in the Piazza” reached people in a good way too. I think Craig [Lucas] had that sensibility and Adam [Guettel] certainly does. I think Adam’s very influenced by having the mother he did [Mary Rodgers].
VM: Do you see any themes in your work?
KOH: I do always try to find the goodness in somebody. I can’t possibly believe in somebody if they don’t have a core. Regan was kind of a villain in “King Lear.” She was pretty damn selfish, which was extremely fun to play. With that, the beauty of the language and the absolute balls to the wall kind of character I got to play, I loved it. I loved every second. But for musicals and the way I like to sing, the through line has to be someone I can respect.
VM: Going off of that, and because today is Good Friday and Passover, do you feel like your spiritual life affects your work?
KOH: Oh, yeah, I think so. My spiritual life is an interesting thing. It’s pretty private. I was raised Catholic in the Baptist Bible belt, so my spirituality was challenged and very much a private thing and it continues to be. There’s a line in our show where Chulalongkorn [the eldest son of the King] talks about the teacher teaching him that religion is more about everyone having their own thoughts about faith and choosing what’s right and wrong and it not being about rules or dogmas or what you have to do, and I believe that. That’s kind of like me. I was raised that same way. Who in the hell are we to think we know? So I have complete acceptance of other people’s ways of life and whatever makes their lives easier. One thing I really, truly believe in is having something greater than myself to be grateful to.
VM: You’ve talked in other interviews about feeling like, if you’re going to do this, it has to be to put something positive in the world, and also feeling like in some way you were meant to do this.
KOH: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know why I did this. No one in my family did this. I wasn’t brought up in a place that did this at all. I never saw theatre growing up; I saw movie musicals. But there was obviously something that led me to do it — to absolutely be certain that I had to pack two suitcases and move to New York with no job and no prospects. I’m glad I followed that intuition. In this particular business, you don’t choose your own experiences. They start to happen and then they start to peel off and make other ones happen, and then you can start choosing. But it happens to you. And there are things that have happened to me like “South Pacific” where there were war veterans who found joy in coming to that show. I’ve worked a lot in DC where there are veterans there, and you sing something that’s spiritual or patriotic and it brings peace to people or joy to people. Or singing at people’s weddings. It became very apparent to me that it was part of who I was. It became a little bit of a duty. And I love that. I love feeling like I have purpose and maybe that’s the purpose I’m giving myself. My husband always says, “Go spread the joy” and he made that up, but it’s huge to me. That’s not to say I wouldn’t play a challenging role that would make people angry or make them think, it’s not that. But when I’m given an opportunity with music and goodness, then I want to do that. I want to go all the way to the edge of that and make it as big as I can.
VM: Sometimes we talk about the American theatre and what that means, since, other then located in America, no one seems to know. It seems like there’s something really interesting in relation to what you’re talking about and what the American theatre is.
KOH: Absolutely. If you think about the great American playwrights and how they were writing about what was happening in their living rooms, they were talking about their immediate relationships and their personal lives, and they were digging deeply into people and their personal selves. I think that’s something that might be lacking sometimes in people’s personal worlds — to dig in and find things. I was certainly raised in a place where you close down and you barrel though. I think American theatre was a place to explore the necessary demons of life and talk about them in a way that was more allowed than just saying, “Hey, buddy, want to talk about it?” I think that’s a little different because it’s not as historical. American theatre, to me, represents zeroing down on what the need is to get inside the personal hearts of people. I think it’s really beautiful if we can keep doing that instead of just fluffing everything up and hiding again.
VM: What other areas of culture affect your work?
KOH: The way families are seen. Being a mother. Being a wife. I’m a white woman with blonde hair and I sing soprano, and I do a lot of shows where it’s about racial division. That’s what it feels like to me. I mean all of them I could dig in and find some sort of comment about racial divide, so I think it’s always affected my work. I think it’s an amazing gift for me because I get to dig deeper and deeper into the human psyche and think about things that some people never think about and I love that. I think it makes me a richer person.
VM: What’s your relationship like with music? Is it the color thing? Does it immediately go to narrative?
KOH: It’s probably narrative. That’s a good way to say it. Music is a soundtrack to me of my own emotion. For instance, I’ll be listening to something and it will bring about a whole speech I might say to my child or a whole thing I’ve been wanting to talk about and I’ll just start talking to myself, “Well, Mom and Dad, I just wanted to tell you….” So that’s what it will bring about. It brings emotions to the surface and truth.
VM: Are you visual with it at all?
KOH: Not really. I’m trying to think of myself at a quiet time. I need to do better with a quiet mind because I’m constantly going and I think that’s what feeds me. I’ve been that way my whole life. But I don’t think I picture things so much as I talk them through. Words, words, words. Words and melody.
VM: What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
KOH: What keeps coming in my head is the film “The Elephant Man.”
VM: Please tell me you weren’t like three years old and watching that.
KOH: I was probably too young, but it scarred me for life. It was the part where he had a bag over his head and people were throwing things at him and making fun of him, and my mom said it was because I couldn’t stand the treatment. It was the sympathy, the way it made me feel for that man. I couldn’t get over it. I didn’t get over that for years, which is maybe good because I was never one of those kids who made fun of other kids.
VM: As a kid, did you relate to the feeling like an outsider part of that movie?
KOH: I grew up in a very small town, we had what we needed, but I did go through my share of mean kid stuff. I was a fat kid. When I would do something like sing, that would be even more fuel for the fire. My very wise thirteen-year-old brother actually sat down one day and told me that they were just jealous and that was the best advice that I’d ever had because I started to believe that and feel like, “Okay, it’s not me.” So I had that kind of stuff, but I can’t really say that I was an out-outsider because I had friends too. I probably have to thank the girls who were mean to me because they’re probably the reason I’m here doing what I’m doing and I became the person I am. They sure made me ambitious to show them.
VM: What is your relationship like with ambition?
KOH: It’s different today than it was ten or fifteen years ago. Extremely different. I always want to do this work, and I always want to do it well because I have a lot of pride and I want to respect what I do and I want my kids to respect me. But being successful in this business is very different than it used to be. I feel like there are a lot of people in this business who still represent being well-respected because they’re good at what they do or they work hard, but then, in today’s society, there’s this whole business where people are successful or treated well because of who knows what — there’s no craft. So I can’t take it too seriously anymore because if I ever was to become really famous or become everyone’s favorite, I know very well that it might not be because of what I did [craft wise] — and probably definitely not because of what I did on the stage. It would be more because maybe I had a lot of Twitter followers. And that, to me, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So I can’t put too much weight on it, and, even if I do, I have to stop myself from doing it. And if you have kids, in my opinion, your priorities better shift to them. I’m still working because I love it and I think it’s good for me and I think it makes me a good mom. I want to work, but I certainly am not going to be clawing at empty things when I can completely fill up my bucket with them — the other is a waste of my time. I’ll always be ambitious, but it’s ambition in a different kind of way.
VM: We talk to women a lot about their experiences working and having kids since our philosophy is that it’s not that women shouldn’t get asked, but that men should get asked too. So how can the theatre community make things better for people with kids?
KOH: Well, Lincoln Center is pretty awesome. We have kids running all over this building — the kids in the cast and there are so many people who have kids — it’s like a daycare around here. It’s pretty amazing. I brought Owen [Kelli’s five-year-old son] to work with me today and let him sit in the house and watch me, which I think is really important. But this is the difference between the allowance of it and the wanting to do it. I want my kid to be here at work, and sometimes I really need him to not be here at work. I think it’s about what we need to ask for. If I want to bring my kid to work, I’m going to ask for it and if they say, “No” I’m probably going to do it anyway. I just read this article in The Huffington Post; it was this woman who wrote a letter to her eight-year-old daughter because her daughter was upset with her for being at work all the time. I loved the entire letter until this one thing she said. She goes, “It’s okay that you’re asking me these questions, but you’d never ask your father.” And here’s how I feel about it: I want to be the mommy. I don’t want them to ask their daddy. I want them to want me. I want to be the one they think of as the most cuddly, the most approachable. It wouldn’t make me mad if they’d ask me first. I don’t think this eight-year-old is asking her mom because she’s been affected by society, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I think the little girl somehow genetically — I mean we feed them with our breasts — something in her wanted her mommy. The way I look at it is the universe can ask a lot of questions of us that are different then what they’d ask a man, but I don’t care. I want to be a mom to my kids. And if someone thinks I can’t do my work and the mommy stuff then I’ll show them: I can.
VM: One of the things Jeanine Tesori talked about was that she thought it was important to be visible as a female composer and all that means. Obviously, for her that’s very specific since there are so few notable female composers. You’re one of the women in this business who has been very visible as being a mom; everyone has seen you pregnant [Kelli performed in “South Pacific” on Broadway while pregnant with her first child and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” on Broadway, “Carousel” at The New York Philharmonic, and “Far From Heaven” off-Broadway while pregnant with her second child]. How important was it to be visible doing that?
(vii.) Role Models
VM: Who were your heroes growing up?
KOH: My paternal grandma was definitely a hero of mine. My voice teacher [Florence Birdwell] was a hero of mine. I loved Julie Andrews. Carol Burnett was a huge hero of mine. I could not get enough of Carol Burnett as a kid. I really couldn’t. I’ve read her biography and I’ve met her. She was just so off the wall and strong and crazy on the television playing all of these roles on “The Carol Burnett Show,” which I watched religiously and would literally get upset when the credits would roll and that cartoon would scratch her butt. But the way she talked to the audience when she’d come out and take questions and she’d just be like, “Hey, you guys!” It was the early ‘80s and she didn’t seem so feminine to me, and I really thought she was just the most amazing person I’d ever seen. She was just fearless. And I read that she was not necessarily fearless but she played like she was.
VM: What are your top five Carol Burnett sketches?
VM: Let’s talk more about Florence Birdwell, your voice teacher in college. How important was her influence?
KOH: She’s been part of my life my whole life. I knew of her when I was five and I never lost the thought of her or forgot her name, even though I didn’t even know I was a singer yet. I’m really starting to believe this thing — and I mean everybody talks about it — about self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m really starting to think there’s something huge to this. My mom used to say things to me like, “You’re really creative. You should be a creative writer.” And I remember, as a kid, I thought, “Yes, I’m a great writer,” and I’d write these short stories like, “The Elf jumped out of the woods,” and I’d be like, “That is magic right there.” You start to believe in yourself and you start to make it happen. By the time I got with her [Florence Birdwell], I think I had probably talked myself into believing that she was going to give my life purpose. I felt great going to college — I liked high school — but I felt like, “I’m going to go to college and I’m going to be with this woman who I’ve thought about all of these years and she’s going to help me figure it all out and the path is going to be clear.” And, I have to say, it totally was. Even when I veered off of it — like I went into opera — and then finally I was like, “No, I’m moving to New York! I’m ready!” and she supported it. The whole time I was like, “Because she pushed me this way and supported me, everything is clearly the way it should be” and because I was with her that was my destiny. Not only did the self-fulfilling thing work out, but she herself ended up being what I dreamed she would be. She went and got up inside of me and ripped me inside out and made me a new person. She told me to dream and told me to pack my bags, and she’s been with me all of these years too. It’s been amazing.
KOH: I mean, yeah. And you want to talk about a woman who is the strongest, most feminist woman? And she’s madly in love with her husband, who was an amazingly brilliant man, who just sat back and let her be the kind of person she was. And the kind of person she was, was someone who was so, so absorbed in her work, but it was all for us. Then you think, “Well, how could she do that and have children?” but, meanwhile, her daughter is the head of Harvard’s Department of Mammography Study and is the author of two international education books on health. They’re all successful. She’s a great inspiration and she’s her own person.
VM: I remember, a long time ago, reading an interview where you were talking about working with Victoria Clark in “The Light in the Piazza” and you said that you asked her a lot of questions about day to day stuff — like what to eat for dinner — and that struck me as really interesting. How important do you think that kind of mentoring is?
VM: What is it like having your adult life be different than the lives of the adults you were around as a child? Did you have to go through a period of trying to figure out how the values you grew up with fit into the world you’re in professionally?
KOH: Oh my God, I battle with that everyday. Nobody that I knew in my life was doing what I do or anything like it. I’ll always battle that way, although I think as I get older I battle less with feeling really different and actually recognize traits in my mom and dad that I do carry; searching them out and being like, “Oh, they’re in there. You were just never given a chance to use them.” Things like exploring feelings and having an artistic sensibility and a creative mind, I can see that in all of them now but when I was first getting up here it was quite a push and pull situation. I mean, our natural thing to do when we break away from our parents and our family is to decide in how many ways they were wrong and bad, and the older you get you start to realize, “By ‘bad’ I mean ‘different'” and then you get a little bit older and you think, “And by ‘different’ I mean ‘pretty awesome but just not like me.'” So you go full circle. When you’re a kid you love them — not always, but this is how I feel because they were good parents — but we’re very different. But I’m getting to the point now where I’m like, “We’re different, but their way is their way and it works for them.” So it’s good.
VM: When did you first feel like a grown up?
KOH: There are so many levels of grown up. I’m sure after I had my first kid I felt like a grown up. I’m sure after I bought my first house I felt like a grown up. Oh, I guess when I bought my first apartment. I signed the papers and marched straight to the Godiva [store] and bought myself some chocolate and I was feeling grown up. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know if I was ever a kid much. I think I always thought and worried too deeply about things.
VM: Well, you always seemed like an adult to me, even seven years ago when we first met. I was thinking about that and I was like, “Why is that?” One of the things I came up with is that you always seemed like you had a certain amount of self-respect.
KOH: Oh, that’s nice. I’m glad.
VM: So I wanted to ask what that meant to you.
KOH: I grew up in a small town where both of my parents had grown up. I had two sets of grandparents that lived there and two parents who knew everybody in town — it was a town of 85,000 people — and I had lots of cousins and lots of offshoots of family members. So in my town you wouldn’t just go off and be a hoodlum if you cared, since if I was in the paper for say a minor in possession then my dad would seem like a fool. Or my mom. Or my grandfather who was the doctor in town and it would be like, “Oh, Dr. Husband, his granddaughter embarrassed him.” I used to say I think that has a lot to do with why I made decisions the way that I did — because I respected them and I wanted to be part of that. And I was proud of that. And if I wasn’t part of that, not only was I embarrassing myself, I was embarrassing them. So I think a lot of the way I live my life is not just for me, which has sometimes been a burden. A lot of the choices I make are in order to make them proud.
KOH: It can be a burden to people because you want to make choices just for yourself. I think I’m grateful that I feel the way that I do — to make choices based on a lot of people’s feelings — even though it has been hard at times, especially when I was younger, but I feel like it has led me down the right road for me. I’m very happy with what has come of that.
KOH: It’s very hard. If I wanted to be in a movie and be completely nude and have big sex scenes, I could do that. That’s not really what I’m talking about. I have self worth. I do. Because of what they instilled in me and what kind of life I want to live. But I think in this business there’s the option to do a lot of things and say, “I don’t care. I’m just going to do what I want,” but what I do affects a lot of people.
VM: We talk a lot about girls and confidence. You also have always struck me as someone who knew how to stand up for herself. Was that something you had to develop? Did you just come out of the womb like that?
KOH: Yes, I came out of the womb a certain way. But I had a voice teacher who believed in me and made me feel like I was one of her favorites, even maybe in the beginning when I was completely flailing about as a freshman. I had a hard dad — if you fell it was, “Get up. Shake it off,” “Work hard,” “Don’t get too emotional about things,” but I always knew that my dad thought I was beautiful so I had a lot of self worth and I wasn’t searching for a man to tell me I was beautiful my whole life. I’ve never needed that from a man. So when you get to a world where it’s about men making decisions — men casting you, men directing you (and, when I think about my history, I have worked with women on one hand and all of the rest have been men), I didn’t necessarily need them to think I was great. If they didn’t, their loss. And that’s what you get from someone teaching you that you have worth. And when I dated men and they weren’t in love with me it was, “I’ll see you later. I should have better than that.” Then I ended up finding a man who is amazing and I’m so, so thankful for that. I guess I could have ended up in some other situation, but in my history of relationships I always felt like, even if it hurt, “Well, okay, if you don’t love me then I don’t need to waste my time here.” I think that makes you approach things differently. If a man thinks you’re beautiful or thinks you’re strong or thinks you’re smart, take the power and use it, but don’t need it. It’s a weird game in this business and, unfortunately, the women have been the ones who have had to play it. I’ll never forget when I got my first job my agent literally told me to wear a short skirt and a tight sweater. And I did. And I knew exactly what I was doing. And I got the job, but it made me feel gross about that person. It made me not like that and I’ve never done it since.
KOH: I guess it’s that thing that my brother told me, “It’s not about you. It’s about them.” I can’t fix them; I can only be me. So I’m not going to waste any time with their problems. I’m going to go forward with my life. I’m not giving them the power to be affected by it and be upset about it. Now it’s much easier for me to talk this way, since there’s not a lot happening to me that’s wrong. Yes, I’ve been subjected to everything that we’ve all been subjected to. Like a person who I thought respected me professionally and it turned out it had more to do with being physically attracted. That happens. But, in my opinion, that’s their loss for not appreciating me at the level I was appreciating them, and it’s a conversation and then it’s over, but I’ve not let it push me down or get me upset. On behalf of other people who are persecuted or who are really going through something based on that, there’s reason to become angry. In a world where I have some strength, I don’t have to pay attention to it; I don’t have to be bothered by it. If someone is like “Hey, let me grab your ass,” my only choice is to say, “Fuck you, no.” It’s not being treated badly and not doing anything about it, it’s being treated badly, making a mental note, and then moving on, and that person will no longer be in my life.
VM: I love that. Especially since I think we have a culture that really celebrates women-as-victims narratives. I’ve always really respected that you’d never allow yourself to be treated like a victim.
KOH: I’m not a victim. And the people who are victims of something, my heart is completely with them. But I’m not. I know I’ve been treated like a woman in this business. Oh, I know it. I mean I’ve got lots of stories, but they don’t have any control over me.
VM: We’ve noticed that actresses in film and TV get asked a lot more about being a woman in the industry. Broadway actresses don’t. Why do you think that is?
KOH: A lot of what is famous about film making are the movie stars and what is considered a movie star today is a lot of great acting, but also a lot of physical beauty. And that will bring women right down to being assumed to [be] only about their beauty and objectified and people assuming that if they’re beautiful maybe they don’t have brains. You have a lot of these women like Angelina [Jolie] and our favorite —
KOH: Cate Blanchett. You have a lot of them stepping forward and saying, “Do you hear me? Do you hear how smart I am?” And I hate that they have to do that so much but they kind of have to because they have to show an example. I think film has always been much more about that than theatre. There are a lot of girls who will choose to leave [those stereotypes] alone. And, unfortunately, we go back to this self worth conversation. There are a lot of women who will do whatever it takes to climb that sort of ladder and to feel like they’re filling up whatever that emptiness is, and they’ll give the wrong sorts of power to the wrong kinds of takers. And you can only ask to be respected if you respect yourself. So how can we help girls when they’re younger to go into these worlds with a thicker skin and a straighter backbone?
VM: Do you consider yourself to be brave?
KOH: Yes, in some ways. It’s like the song — if you act brave, you can seem brave, and if you do it enough you can talk yourself into believing you’re brave — “The result of this deception is very strange to tell, but when I fool the people I fear I fool myself as well” and, all of a sudden, you feel pretty darn strong. But I don’t necessarily think I’m that brave. I mean I’m an actress. I’m not putting my life on the line for any great cause. I don’t step out too boldly about anything except my children and family. But I’m brave in some ways, for sure.
VM: What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
KOH: Well, people like Marsha Norman who are doing things like the Lilly Awards and having a reach. And like Idina Menzel’s camp for girls [A Broader Way]. All of those things have power to them. I always want to feed new ideas with inclusion, so let’s do things that are for women too and make sure that if, for example, we have a new theatre company that the Board consists of five women and five men. Let’s make choices that are exactly what we’re asking for — that they’re equal. And let’s find the men that want to join us in that. I think, especially in theatre, there’s a possibility for great equality. We also have to help ourselves and ask for respect. And you make examples. Even if there’s just one example. If there’s one major female composer, get out there and shine. If there’s Jeanine Tesori — I love Jeanine. If there are two major female directors, get out there and keep working. And maybe in our generation we see a little change, but in the next it’s ten-fold. You don’t change the world in one big step, especially not this kind of thing, it’s taken years to develop and it’s going to take years to un-develop and for equality. If all of us — me and you and you and Jeanine and Marsha and all the women you’ve interviewed — if one girl is affected and changed and moved by it then that’s worth it, and we’re doing something meaningful.