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The Rivals

A classy revival of one of the 18th Century's most popular comedy of manners.

Emily Bergl

 

With her creamy features and flame-colored hair, Emily Bergl looks like she belongs in a painting from the 18th century, especially when she's in her striking costumes for her part as the petulant ingénue Lydia Languish in The Rivals at Lincoln Center. The actress has made a name for herself in projects as diverse as the horror flick The Rage: Carrie 2, the Steven Spielberg executive-produced miniseries Taken, a handful of TV appearances CSI: Miami, Star Trek: Enterprise, Gilmore Girls and more as well as stage roles in last summer's Fiction off-Broadway, The Lion in Winter on Broadway, Where Do We Live, Old Money and an impressive list of regional theaters. On a freezing day in December, Bergl, a self-proclaimed procrastinator, took some time away from her not-yet-started Christmas shopping to talk to Broadway.com about being bi-coastal, learning that her natural accent is not what she thought it was and acting with a group of stage legends every night in The Rivals.

Did you know The Rivals very well before being cast in it?
I had never read this play before I auditioned for it. I had read a lot of other Sheridan plays in college, but for some reason this one had escaped me. I really fell in love with it when I read it. I really wanted to do it, and it was a very long audition process. When I finally got the news that I did have the part, I was thrilled. I was also just so happy to get out of Los Angeles, where I live, and come back to New York.

I didn't know you lived in L.A. I think of you as a New York person.
I'm so thrilled that you think of me as a New York person because ostensibly I live in Los Angeles, but I've been working in New York since February. I basically live in Los Angeles to make a little bit of cash to support coming to New York and doing theater. Los Angeles is where I go to work, and New York is where I go to play.

What are your thoughts about the cast of The Rivals? This is truly a group of stage veterans.
It's so amazing to have a lavish period piece where there's no celebrity casting, although obviously, a lot of these people are theater celebrities. I give Lincoln Center an enormous amount of credit for casting the person who was the best in each and every role. And looking at the cast--Richard Easton, Dana Ivey, Brian Murray, Carrie Preston--it was enormously intimidating at the start. I was really, really frightened, to be honest. What's amazing about these actors is that they are experts. They are the most gracious people. It's such an honor to share the stage with them. I was always planning to go to graduate school for acting, and I always felt a little bit guilty that I didn't get an MFA. But when I was sitting in the rehearsal hall for this play, I thought, "Wow. This is as good as any acting class."

And your role as Lydia Languish is a delicious one. Do you think of her an ingénue or a comedic character?
It's a wonderful role because it's actually a character part masked as an ingénue part. It's very rare that you come across an ingénue part that is such a character, and that's why I was very excited to work on it. In a comedy, usually the one unfunny part is the young girl part. This is wonderful because Sheridan really created a play where every single person is a character. They all have these traits that get in the way of their happiness. I think Lydia is the most scrumptious role, although it's hard to get the right balance in her. I'm kind of a natural hambone, so first I had to get all the hamminess out , but then I found that I had to have the right blend of petulance and sweetness--because if you make Lydia too sweet, then she's not really interesting, and if you make her too petulant, then the audience doesn't go along with her on her journey.

The production photographs from this show are amazing. They look like paintings. Are you having fun with the physical beauty of the part?
These are undoubtedly the most beautiful costumes that I have ever worn. [Costume designer] Jess Goldstein is a genius. If he was straight, I would sleep with him. And our set is incredible. It's all so beautiful. It's funny; I was looking through books of 18th century paintings as research for the part, and I found that I look like a lot of these women from the period. If I was in the 18th century, I would be really hot.

It's certainly a far cry from your look in The Rage: Carrie 2.
Uh, yeah!

Tell me about your first foray into film.
I actually got that job when I was understudying at the Vivian Beaumont for Ah, Wilderness! I'd never done anything on camera before--not even a commercial--and I got cast in this insane movie. It was really wonderful in a way because it was trial by fire… literally! We had a lot of fire in the movie. I think sometimes that the way I learn best is under pressure. I'm a terrible procrastinator. Sometimes I never get anything done until the last minute. The movie was great because they just threw me in the deep end and expected me to swim. I actually learned more doing that movie than I have on a lot of other projects.

Are you a fan of horror films?
I'm not really good with scary movies. I don't see them a lot because I get nightmares, and if I do see one, I have to get someone to tell me exactly what happens before I see it. Shooting a scary movie is more hilarious than frightening. You're on set, and you're throwing around someone's severed head like it's a football. When I saw that movie for the first time, I thought it was the most hysterical thing in the world because I was there for the making of it. So when all of these people have these brutal deaths in the end, I just laughed continuously for the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Did you always want to be an actress?
I was always the kind of kid who put on ballet shows in the living room and got the neighborhood kids to put on a production of Annie.

I assume you were Annie.
Of course, I cast myself as Annie! Yes! Because I organized the production, I was always the star. I was a total megalomaniac when I was a child. Acting was always something that I gravitated toward. I was always in school plays, but I'm glad that I didn't get into it seriously until I was older. I think my path was to explore myself and go to college and get an English degree and learn a little bit about life before I did it professionally.

I read that you were born in England.
Yes, I moved to the States when I was seven.

Are your parents Brits? I'm wondering if they influenced your accent in The Rivals.
My mom is Irish, and my dad is British. So I thought, "Oh! The Rivals! British accent? This will be no problem!" Well, apparently, my natural British accent is slightly lower class, so I had to do a lot of work to posh up my British accent.

Not posh enough? Oh no! Did you tell your parents?
I did. They thought it was pretty funny. To be fair, no one really speaks like the accent that we're doing for The Rivals anymore. Not even the royal family speaks that way anymore. I was a little bit shocked to find that my natural accent is not as classy as I thought it was, but our dialect coach, Liz Smith, who is the best in the biz, helped me get it to where it needed to be.

I thought you were terrific in Fiction off-Broadway earlier this year. Did you find that role challenging?
Thank you. I did feel that it was a difficult part. I always get convinced that I'm going to be fired and ruin the production. That's just part of my process. The first two weeks of The Rivals, for example, I was absolutely convinced that I would be fired.

Have you ever been fired?
No, I've never been fired. I feel that it's a rite of passage for actors because almost every good actor that I know has been fired at least once. So I think I'm just waiting for my number to come up. But in Fiction, I was really worried for a long time. My character was really different from the other two characters, and you learn so little about her in the beginning. I was worried that it would seem like I was acting in a different play from the other two, but [director] David Warren really helped me.

Your resume is a good mix of new plays and classic plays as well as film, TV and theater. Do you try and pick projects for their diversity?
I really do always try and mix it up. People always ask me which I prefer, period pieces or modern pieces, movie, TV or stage. Ideally, I'd like to do everything. I was really thrilled to do The Rivals because for some reason, people don't think of me for comedies, so this was really nice to be able to do something that was lovely and fluffy and funny.

Is it hard to avoid being pigeon-holed in one kind of role?
I work at it. I was really nervous that I would be pegged as one thing, especially when I did a big horror movie and had never done anything before that. I actually turned down a lot of horror movies after Carrie 2 came out. I decided that it would be better for me to have maybe a lower profile career that's maybe heavier on theater than to become some cheesy horror movie actress. I just felt that that would be a hole that I would never be able to dig myself out of. I loved doing Carrie 2; it really handed me my career in many ways, but I didn't think it would give me the kind of movie career that I want. I have to say that I'm really thrilled--I've done a lot of plays this season, and I've done a lot of work regionally that I'm really proud of. Ironically enough, that horror movie started me on the path of life in the theater, which is something I want to continue.

Is there any chance you'll stay in New York and do more stage work here?
I am in love with New York City. I actually lived here for five years before I moved out to Los Angeles. I think it's the greatest city in the world. Unequivocally. The only reason I'm in Los Angeles is to make money so I can buy an apartment in New York. My dream is to own an apartment in Manhattan. Not that I don't like Los Angeles. I like living in both places, and that's what I've tried to do. I spent years of my career agonizing over where I should be. But I've realized that I'm not going to make a decision. I hate to use the word because it sound pretentious, but I'm almost bi-coastal now. And I hope I keep Jet-Bluing back and forth because theater in New York is really important to me. I'm not going to turn my back on New York.

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