Rae Gray, currently in Broadway's The Real Thing, is down to earth and incredibly charming in this new interview with The Pickwyck.
Tell us about your first car, first job as a teenager and first acting job.
- "Because I grew up in a metropolitan area (Chicago), and move around a lot, I’ve never had my own car. But I learned to drive on my parents’ red Buick LaCrosse. We call it the Shaqmobile because Shaquille O’Neal does commercials for it. My first non-acting job as a teenager was babysitting my neighbors’ kids. I was four or five when I booked my first acting gig. It was something like a PSA for the National Safety Council about safe driving; I had to act out being in a car accident on a rainy night. My first professional theatre gig was an adaptation of Lowis Lowry’s Number the Stars at Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park, Illinois. The director of that show, Diana Basmajian, is now my acting coach in New York and, coincidentally, helped me prepare for my audition for The Real Thing."
What is your favorite book, TV show, movie?
- "My favorite books are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and IT by Stephen King. My favorite TV shows are Breaking Bad (AMC), Modern Family(ABC) and Saturday Night Live (NBC). My favorite movies are Billy Elliot, Jurassic Park, Capote, When Harry Met Sally, the Before Trilogy(Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, etc.), Ghost Town, Lost in Yonkers, Love Actually, Dan in Real Life, The Dark Knight, and Ratatouille."
What is your favorite NYC spot?
- "The American Airlines Theatre of course! Actually, any Broadway playhouse or off-Broadway theatre is magical to me. I would pick the Imperial (because of Billy Elliot the Musical) and Playwrights Horizons (because of The Flick) as two of my other favorites. I am a baseball fanatic so I frequent Citi Field and Yankee Stadium in the summer (even though I am a die-hard Cubs fan). In terms of food, one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had was at Le Bernadin in Midtown. For breakfast and chai lattes: MUD in the East Village. For dessert: Momofoku Milk Bar in the East Village. For pre-show meals: Maoz in Midtown. For Pizza: Bleecker Street Pizza in the West Village."
What has been your quintessential New York moment?
- "There have been too many to name, but most of them involve sitting in the seat of a theatre or stepping onstage. Our first day of tech for The Real Thing at American Airlines, I stepped onto the stage with the whole cast and crew and looked out into the audience. Surreal and breathtaking. Another New York moment is getting hit in the face by flying falafel in Times Square."
You have worked with Sam Gold prior during a workshop for 'Humans'. Describe working with Director Sam Gold for a second time?
- "Sam, of course, is always Sam: brilliant, calm, funny, enigmatic. He’s a great storyteller because he eradicates the necessity for suspension of disbelief. He makes everything as truthful as possible so the audience isn’t taken out of the story. For example. in The Real Thing, there are several phone conversations that take place on stage. In this production, there is always an actor offstage speaking on the phone with the actor onstage so the actor onstage isn’t “acting out” a phone conversation. A conversation is really happening. Those details are one of the reasons Sam is so great. That said these two processes were very different. The Humans is a brand new play - one that Sam helped shape and grow – whereas The Real Thing is a play that’s been done many times. With The Humans, he had to figure out and help decide what the story is. He had to make sure that the story was being told in the most realistic way and the rules of the world of the play were consistent. With The Real Thing, he had to figure out a new way to tell an older (but still relevant) story. This started with deciding which version of the play would be done, and it turned out to be a mix: different phrases and lines coming from a few different sources. Once the script was set, he had to find his way into it, his access point. It’s a tricky play; Stoppard is so good with words and it’s easy, if the story isn’t being told adequately, to get lost. I think Sam’s way into this piece was music. The main character Henry’s favorite music is 60’s pop, which is ironic because Henry is all about good taste – at least as a writer – and his taste in music is rubbish. That said, it immediately shows us he’s a romantic, and that, despite his heavy language, he can be all light and fluffy on the inside. Sam added more music to make that heavy language more accessible. There is live music at the top of both acts, and in the scene transitions, the actors sing along and harmonize to sixties pop songs."
This is your first Broadway show. What were your thoughts prior to going into it and presently now that you have gone through rehearsals and tech?
- "I think it’s easy to get lost on titles like “Broadway.” I’m incredibly grateful to be “on Broadway.” It’s thrilling. But at the end of the day, it’s still a bunch of actors and directors and designers in a room trying to tell a story, which is what’s happening at every other theatre in the country. And these artists are just as gracious and talented and even insecure as artists at any other theatre. I think the differences are mostly logistical. For example, Broadway shows get a few weeks of previews rather than one or two, a little more time to iron out the kinks. Doing a Broadway show is the same journey but there are more luxuries involved."
Cynthia Nixon, who played Debbie in the original Broadway Cast, is now portraying Charlotte. Did she have any advice on the character of Debbie?
- "I haven’t had the chance to discuss this with her but I’d love to at some point. I don’t think she is one to give unsolicited advice; she’s very respectful. When I did this play three years ago at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, the first thing anyone said to me at rehearsal was, “Did you know Cynthia Nixon did The Real Thingand Hurly Burly on Broadway at the same time when she was 18?” I didn’t know that. But ever since, I’ve been in awe. I admire her very much and I bet she was a sensational Debbie."
'The Real Thing' is cleverly told as a play within a play. Do you feel as if your life is like that as well? What would your play be about within your own life?
- "I think the play within a play in my own life is whatever show I am working on. Life always imitates art and vice versa for me. When I’m working on a play, my whole world revolves around the show that evening so it can’t but help seep into real life. I find it’s especially true of on and off-stage relationships. If it’s a truly convincing chemistry onstage, I think that’s often a reflection of chemistry and respect offstage. I believe I am quoting the incomparable Amy Morton when I say, “The head knows it’s acting but the heart thinks it’s real.” I also recently wrote a play about the last year of my life, and when talking about the people that the characters are based on, I often use their character names rather than their real names by accident. The blending of fiction and non-fiction is fascinating to me. I think I’ve been built – based on my excessive imagination – to live simultaneously in a real world and a fictional one that has sprung from it. It’s fun if you’ve got your feet planted firmly in reality."
The tagline for 'The Real Thing' is "it's about the moment you stop thinking and start feeling". Do you act on feeling or rational thought?
- "This is a great question because that’s also the tagline for my life. My biggest obstacle is always my head. I think way too much about everything. It makes easy and fun things difficult and complex. Sometimes giving your brain too much power leaves you out of touch with your emotions. It makes it impossible to make decisions and move forward. The only time I act on feeling is when I first meet people. I love a lot of people immediately. I always need to say to myself, “Okay Rae, take a breath. Think about them rationally. Don’t jump to full on admiration. Because that can lead to being let down later.” Like with everything, balance is essential when it comes to feeling and rational thought. That’s what makes The Real Thing so beautiful. It’s got so much head and so much heart."
What has been the most invaluable advice you have received over the years?
- "Probably from my mom: don’t let fear keep you from doing what you love. I love performing but had terrible stage-fright. I love people but was very shy. I love traveling but was terrified of flying. Doing a lot of what I feared has allowed me to get past it and enjoy it. Also my guitar teacher said something brilliant to me today which sums up a lot of advice I’ve gotten from many mentors. He was quoting Beethoven: an artist “must have the heart of a gypsy and the discipline of a soldier.” It’s so true. You have to have passion and artistry but your foundation is work ethic. I think a lot of artists – actors especially – overlook that."
We know that you were a student at University of Chicago. Have you graduated or are you postponing your studies to be in this production?
- "I’m still in school, graduating in a month! I’m in my last quarter now, working on three independent studies (one is on memoirs/non-fiction, one is on the history of Los Angeles, and the third is on Tom Stoppard). I met with professors in Chicago before coming to New York and we mapped out a syllabus, and now I do the work and email it to them every week."
Do you prefer television, film or theatre? And why?
- "Oh gosh. I could write a whole book on this answer. I’m going to start off by saying I love all three, and hope to do them my whole life. That said, in terms of control (and with exceptions), theater is the actor’s medium, TV is the writer’s medium, and film is the director’s medium. I think the best actors started off as theatre actors, and I think that’s where you learn to be present and honest. I’ll always be partial to theatre because that’s where I started out. But if theatre didn’t exist, I would be satisfied with TV and film acting. I did my first feature film last winter and a bunch of TV in L.A. this summer and I had a ball."
What has been your favorite role to date and why?
- "Ever since I did The Real Thingat Writers Theatre, Debbie has been one of my favorites. She is smart, passionate, and her own person. She also has a deadly wit that threatens to crumple her equally witty father, Henry. I also loved playing Becky in Greg Pierce’s Slowgirl, a two-hander with William Petersen at Steppenwolf in the summer of 2013 and the Geffen Playhouse in Spring of 2014. Becky is the opposite of me in just about every way. She says what’s on her mind and she knows what she wants. I admire that bravery and ownership. Lastly, Liesel in The Book Thief at Steppenwolf Theatre. I didn’t have to act for a minute in that show. The story did all the work. I got completely lost in it."
What is your process when preparing for any role? How do you become that character?
- "I think it takes a lot of work to create a character. This is where the “discipline of a soldier” comes in. I read the play at least ten times, and then I fill in the blanks. I use this book called All About Me by Phillip Keel, which is a fill-in-the-blank book of personal questions like, “Do you believe in God?” or “Have you ever had sex on an airplane?” These are things I know about myself so I feel like my character should too. Once you get onstage, you have to let all that work go and just live it, the part of the iceberg you don’t see. Also, sometimes you have to do historical research (when I did The Book Thief I was immersed in books and movies about the holocaust) or physical research (I did a play where I had dystonia and a reading where I had turrets). And you have to make choices. I think you have to do as much work as possible when it comes to character development. A lot of actors don’t realize how hard acting is, and creating a character is one of the most difficult things to do."
What are you most passionate about in your own life?
- "My primary passion is people. I think the closest thing we have to magic in this world is the space between two people and what passes through it. That’s why I’m an actor and writer. I spend my life re-living and re-creating that space.In terms of activities, acting and writing are my two “callings.” I listen to music all day (folk, pop, rock, hip-hop, movie scores); I love watching live music and I love to play the piano and guitar. I am a baseball fanatic (my goal is to visit every MLB ballpark in the country; so far, I’m at 9) and love the Blackhawks (hockey) and Bulls (basketball). I also take dance class (jazz, ballet, tap) and think there is nothing more visually stunning than going to the ballet. Recreationally, I love softball, bowling, mini-golf, tennis, ping-pong and board games. I am quite a foodie and was raised on Chicago fine dining. I’m in love with my two shih-tzus, Charcoal and Tybee, back at home in Chicago. I am very fortunate. I am passionate about a lot of things and have the ability to partake in most of them. I try not to take that for granted."
Who would you want to be your "Freaky Friday"?
- "Probably Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon or Ellen DeGeneres. Those guys seem to be having the most fun. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMvYTUSez_0
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SH16TuCYyE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g59GrPrt6CQ
What was your most embarrassing moment onstage?
- "I think, in general, the worst moments onstage are when you obviously mess up a line or skip something. The most terrifying moment is the second of blankness you sometimes have before a line comes to you. There’s no adrenaline rush like that one."
What is the Chicago theater scene like?
- "A family. I was raised by the Chicago theatre community, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s full of the most incredible people, and you get to work with them again and again. Everyone in the Chicago theatre community has each others’ backs. We suddenly and tragically lost a couple members of the community this year and I was astonished and warmed by how we all came together to handle it. And that’s just the people. I haven’t even gotten to the talent in this city; it’s insurmountable. I learned everything I know by doing and watching Chicago theatre. And it isn’t commercial so all of the decisions about the art are made for the sake of the art rather than money."
Stay in touch with Rae via her Tumblr page: