As only the fourth actress in history to be nominated for two Tonys in the same season, Jan Maxwell has joined an exclusive sorority. (For the record, the others were Amanda Plummer, Dana Ivey and Kate Burton). Maxwell received this singular honor for a pair of roles in which she donned retro outfits and sleek '30s wigs: Broadway diva Julie Cavendish in Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of The Royal Family and jealous wife Maria Merelli in director Stanley Tucci’s revival of Lend Me a Tenor. In interviews, the veteran actress is unfailingly self-effacing, giving no hint of the comic powerhouse she becomes when the curtain goes up. But in the five years since her first Tony nod (for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), she’s learned to accept the attention that comes with being one of Broadway’s most valuable players.
Has that hit you that you’re the fourth actress ever to get double Tony nominations?
That didn’t even occur to me until somebody told me, and I was just over-the-moon honored by it. I’m still kind of slapping myself, trying to take it all in.
What kind of reactions have you gotten?
It was overwhelming to come home that day [the nominations were announced] to literally hundreds of e-mail messages and phone messages from people I’ve worked with in the last 30 years—I’m talking dressers and ushers and producers and teachers from high school—sending their heartfelt good wishes. It was almost a “this is your life” situation, and the calls are still coming in.
Which Tony do you think you’re going to win?
Oh, I don’t know! It’s been a celebrity-filled season, so I have no idea. I’m not even thinking about that, I’m just enjoying it as it happens.
It must make you feel good that even though you don’t have a high-profile away from the theater, you get your choice of great roles on Broadway.
People think I pick my parts, but actually I audition and fight for them [laughs]. I think that’s why I’ve gotten such a huge response from the theatrical community. I haven’t done a motion picture—any motion picture—and I’ve not had my own TV series, so this [recognition] is gratifying for all of us who live here in New York and make our living doing theater. I’m so incredibly grateful to the nominating committee for remembering me in Royal Family and giving me a nod for Lend Me a Tenor.
Are you having more fun chatting with the press than you used to?
That’s a little hard, because it makes me feel self-conscious. It’s not somebody else’s lines, they’re my lines! And when something really nice like this happens, you start to sound like Pollyanna, when I have more of the personality of Dorothy Parker: “What fresh hell is this?” [Laughs.] I’ve just decided to take awards season in its purest form, like when I was in college [at Moorhead State University in Minnesota] and I first learned about the Tony Awards. I was doing summer stock, and they would wheel in the TV every June and we’d watch it. I would think to myself, “This must be another planet,” because it seemed so far away, something that never would be in my life. I have to appreciate that it is in my life, and it’s a really lovely thing.
Are you going to wear a period gown, in honor of your two roles?
Ha! Maybe I should get [Tony nominees] Cathy Zuber [The Royal Family] or Martin Pakledinaz [Lend Me a Tenor] to design me something from the late 1920s or early '30s. That’s where I’ve lived for the last couple of shows. But no, I have no idea [what I'll wear]. I’m not really good at that kind of stuff.
Who is going to be your date—your husband [actor Robert Emmet Lunney] or your son, Will?
They’re still arguing about it. Of course, they’re both going to come, and my mom and dad are coming, too. But who’s going to sit next to me? I don’t know. The last thing we discussed is that my husband would be there for half of the ceremony and my son would be there for the other half.
Switch off between categories, so you can confuse the TV audience.
Give them both some TV time!
In the featured category, you’re up against your Royal Family co-star Rosemary Harris. Have you heard from her?
We’ve talked, of course, and we couldn’t be happier for each other. At least we’re not up against each other for the same show. I think she’s used to this. She’s been nominated something like eight times and probably won it a couple of times. I’m not really sure. [Note: Harris won the Tony in 1966 for The Lion in Winter and has received eight other nominations, including a 1976 nod for the role Maxwell played this season in The Royal Family.] She was always so loving and gracious to me.
Anthony LaPaglia [Maxwell’s husband Tito Merelli in Lend Me a Tenor] called you “the Chinese gymnast” because you get every laugh.
We’ll be backstage, and he’ll go, “There she goes. She splits! Scores! 10! She lands it every time.” He does this sports announcer [voice], and it cracks me up. I love what he’s doing with Tito, because you expect this very romantic tenor of La Scala, and he comes in, this regular guy who’s just trying to appease his wife and get over his indigestion. He tickles me.
How did you develop your incredible comic timing?
I have no idea. Sometimes I don’t even know why people are laughing! I truly just try to find the reality in every situation, even when it’s over the top.
Of course, there are limits even to your ability to make something work—as in [the poorly received 2008 comedy] To Be or Not to Be, another period farce. What was that like?
The cast called it “the perfect storm.” Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was very discombobulating, because it was a script that seemed to work on the page but once we tried to get it on its feet, it just wasn’t jelling. Believe me, we worked very hard to make it work, but it was almost logistically impossible. You can be in something that’s a joy, like The Royal Family, or you can be in the perfect storm, where nothing is working. No matter what you try or how much you rehearse or how much you think about it, it’s just not going to float.
Do you have a special affinity for the 1930s and 40s?
I really don’t. I think it’s just serendipity that all these shows are happening at the same time.
Everybody remembers how good you were as Baroness Schraeder in [the 1998 Broadway revival of] The Sound of Music.
That was the same time period, you're right. [Director] Susan Schulman cast me because she saw me in A Doll’s House with Janet McTeer. That role [in Sound of Music] was a lot of fun because you get to be the salt in all that sugar. It’s a role that’s written to stand out a bit because she’s not as happy as anyone else, and she gets dumped [laughs].
Your career has taken off in the past five years. How have you and your husband avoided feeling competitive?
Well, he’s my biggest fan. He’s been incredibly supportive, and he has to deal with a lot—not just my ups and downs but the daily grind of getting up with Will and getting him off to school. There’s no competition; he couldn’t be happier for me. He does make fun because I got two nominations—he does everything twice now. When he texts me, every “I love you” is twice; every “congratulations” is twice.
Do you enjoy being the mom of a teenage son?
It’s great. I hate to brag about my own kid, but he’s such a cool guy. It’s in my [Lend Me a Tenor] contract that he can be at the theater [during the show]. He comes up and does his homework. I have an hour and a half off, and when I get off stage, I go upstairs yelling, “Read! Get going!” I crack the whip up there. We’re way up on the top floor, and he’s very respectful of everyone. We have a great time. He just gave me a Mother’s Day card, and the front of it said “to the mother of all mothers.” Inside he wrote, “You’re the coolest mom ever,” and I was in a puddle of tears.
You seem to have such a romantic view of the theater. Where does that come from?
I think it’s just from doing it exclusively in my career. I believe in actors. When you go through that stage door, nothing little happens. [Nineteenth century actress Eleanora] Duse has a quote where she says something about when a bunch of actors start reading a script for the first time, you’re with family, and what you’re about to partake in is a beautiful thing. I love situations with possibility, and I believe the theater promotes possibility and empathy—and those two things are very romantic.
See Jan Maxwell in Lend Me a Tenor at the Music Box Theatre.