'Virginia Woolf' Star Carrie Coon on Her Accidental Acting Career

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Photo Source: Michael Brosilow

Carrie Coon was waiting for soccer practice to start when she decided to audition for her high school's production of "Our Town." With no experience and nothing but a latent curiosity, Coon waltzed into the room, still wearing her shin guards, and landed the lead role.

"I came home crying because I was really busy that year," Coon reflects. "I was like, 'Mom I accidentally got the lead in the play!' And she was like, 'What? You're so busy!' "

Coon is still busy, this time making her New York debut as lush housewife Honey in the 50th anniversary revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" directed by Pam MacKinnon. The play charts an absurd evening with indomitable stage couple George and Martha, played by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in this production, as the duo gradually manipulates their young guests with a night of party games.

"There are so many parts of it that are like a dream," she says of starring on Broadway. "At the same time, it's just like doing any other show; it's just that you're on Broadway now. And when somebody who doesn't know anything about being an actor says, 'Oh you're an actor? Like on Broadway?' You get to say, 'Yes.' That's the big difference."

Sitting in her dressing room in the Booth Theater on 45th Street, the Ohio native's career is anything but accidental, and she's earning raves for her performance. Her professionalism permeates the small space like the steam from her hot rollers, and a casual interruption from co-star and Tony winner Letts is simply a welcome visit from a colleague. As she meticulously rolls her ash blonde bob into the rollers, she reflects on auditioning, playing drunk, and the best advice she ever received.

How did you prepare for that audition?
Carrie Coon:
I knew that Honey was drunk for most of the play, and I actually went back to some old Uta Hagen videos where she addresses playing drunkenness. And I also spent some time in my apartment in a slip and pearls and my high heels pretending I was alone the whole day while my husband was at work and taking nips of brandy and curling my hair and making a grocery list and saying some of the lines out loud. And I had never really done that. I’m a fast memorizer, and I usually just trust that when I get in the room I’ll know what to do and try to connect with the person I’m talking to. So I hadn’t really done that sort of work, but by the time I was done, I thought, "Oh no, nobody else can play this. I know what she needs."

You did the production at the Steppenwolf in Chicago and at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. What is it like bringing the show to Broadway?
I was really scared about coming back into rehearsal. Playing drunk is so technical; I thought I would forget all of the things I learned. As soon as we started, my body would sort of respond before anything else did. Because there was a real deep body memory I wasn't expecting to have. I'm thankful for that because I think my body helped me get back where I needed to be. But the reality is we're all different people, slightly, but the play also sits in us a little deeper and the language sits in us a little deeper. There's a little less effort. It doesn't take as much pushing. When we got into the room and I saw Amy and Tracy just kind of go at it right from the get-go, I was like, "Oh, we're going to be fine."

Some people have said that Honey fades into the background in past productions, and your performance really highlights her arc. How did you approach the role?
I can't imagine a playwright writes a four-person play and one of the people is just sort of, you can take it or leave it. I never approached the role with the idea of, "I'm going to make Honey count this time!" I approached it as I’m playing a character. I love this person. I love her particular kind of isolation and her loneliness and her sadness and her striving to make her marriage work and her fear of having a family with somebody she's not sure she's in love with… She doesn’t fit in in the places you would expect her to fit and that is something that is a universal kind of story. The quest for finding your voice, which Honey is struggling to do, and being authentic inside of a relationship, which I think many of us struggle to do. While she's goofy and doesn't always have all the tools and does serve as comic relief in the play, she's just trying to figure out who she is. My mom, my grandmother, all the women in my life have struggled with how to find their voices in the face of being socialized. I think that's a really important struggle that we're still dealing with.

Your Honey also gets drunk really early in the play. How did you make that decision?
My Honey originally started off being much more prim and much more contained until she got more drunk, and Pam just decided,"We're going to blow this open, and she's going to be sort of goofy from the beginning." Like this weird smile and this awkwardness, and it's going to make people uncomfortable. I had to let go of any expectations I had of having people like me and just let her be really awkward and strange. She ends up having a lot to drink. She doesn't hold her liquor very well evidently. But also what Mr. Albee demands of the actress, these moments of yelling, "Violence! Violence!" These are hard places to get to. So to chart that when you don't have very many lines is really hard to figure out. And I was thankful that I had a great director who helped me but also didn't get in my way.

What advice do you have for actors?
First of all, save your money. Second of all, André DeShields gave me this when he was playing the stage manager to my Emily, and he said, "A lot of opportunities will come and go. And you have to remember that if you don't get it, it was someone else's turn…" That to me is the most liberating thing you can learn as an actor and then you can be genuinely happy for people and you can enjoy your own success and not get attached to things that don't go your way.