Elizabeth Marvel in 'The Book of Grace'
I would love to sit in a chair and wear a pretty dress and just relax."
Elizabeth Marvel has made a career of tackling intense roles on the New York stage, including acclaimed turns in Hedda Gabler, The Seagull and Top Girls. The low-key Brooklyn mother of a young son is currently delivering a devastating performance as abused optimist and wife Grace in Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ provocative new family drama, The Book of Grace, at the Public Theater—the first of three back-to-back off-Broadway runs the actress has planned for 2010. Broadway.com stole a few valuable minutes with Marvel to talk Grace and beyond.
Your part in The Book of Grace looks exhausting. Do you ever want to just kick back and do a Noel Coward comedy?
I’m dying for people to let me be funny! I would love to sit in a chair and wear a pretty dress and just relax. But I’m one of the few idiots that will dare to be set on fire emotionally night after night, so that’s what they hire me for.
Did you always see yourself performing dramatic roles?
I never had any preconceived ideas about acting, because I always thought I was going to be a visual artist. When I finished high school I didn’t have much direction—I was a Deadhead kid who ended up bumming around London seeing a lot of theater. That’s where I saw the performance that made me want to act: Vanessa Redgrave doing A Touch of the Poet. At that point, I had heard of Juilliard and, more importantly, that there weren’t any academics there—I’m not a fan of school. So Juilliard became the one and only place I applied to. Lucky for me, I got in.
There’s a lot of visual art worked into The Book of Grace. Was that part of the appeal for you?
Not intentionally—we’ve just got a stellar group of designers who brought the show to life that way. But I did get to work with the props people in designing Grace’s book, [which is] my character’s collection of evidence of good things in the world. It’s filled with things that I’ve written and drawn, and pictures I’ve cut out myself.
What items would make it into The Book of Elizabeth Marvel?
My God, I have so much bounty in my life. My son telling me that I’m beautiful and he loves me every day—my husband says the same thing! Getting to be an artist in this time of great recession and decline in the arts. Getting to do Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play at the Public Theater. I’ve been making art with artists that I care about in New York City for 18 years, and it’s always paid my bills. I’ve never needed another job. I couldn’t be luckier.
Your co-star, John Doman, was scary as hell on The Wire—and he’s even scarier in this play.
He’s not in reality! He’s a very sweet, warm man and a gentleman. He just happens to be very, very talented, and like any good actor, that means he can access any dark room in himself, which must be where the “scary” comes from.
Your resume shows off a lot of “dark rooms.” Ever access those rooms when you’re not onstage?
You know, just last week I was coming home from a two-show day and I was so tired. I was lost in this beautiful story I was reading, and these three drunk guys sitting across from me on the subway threw a lit book of matches on me for no reason at all except I was there and they were drunk. This thing lands in my lap and almost sets me on fire. Fortunately I put it out on time, but after that I just got off the train and cried. The point is, no, I did not access my inner Medea! I cried until I got myself together, then went home and hugged my son.
That’s a brutal commute, even for New York.
Yeah, but I’m not going to ride my freaking bike from Brooklyn, so I’ll deal with it!
You’ve got two more projects right after The Book of Grace: That Face at Manhattan Theatre Club and Ivo Van Hove’s The Little Foxes revival at New York Theatre Workshop. Are you out of your mind?
Yes. In some places they even overlap. When I set off on this season of theater for myself it was a really great idea in theory. Now that I’m in the middle of it, and my son is having to deal with the challenge too, I’m not so I’m not sure I’m going to make it to the other side.
What’s your ultimate dream project at this point in your career?
Being a series regular that’s not the lead on a respectable TV show that films in New York.
What respectable shows are on your DVR?
If you’re asking what show I’d like to be on now, anything character-driven with great writing. Something like The Sopranos. But I honestly don’t have DVR. And all I watch is Rachel Maddow.
What’s the one thing you’d like to go see on stage then?
I really want to go and see the Wooster Group’s North Atlantic. But my son also really wants to see The Lion King. [Laughs.] And those two disparate choices kind of sum me up in a nutshell.