Age: “Whatever age you think I am, you’re probably right.”
Hometown: Born in Livermore, California; raised near Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington
Currently: Making her Broadway debut as Crissy, the sweet-natured hippie who sings longingly of “Frank Mills” in the Broadway revival of Hair.
Schooled by Mom: Growing up on the road with a musician-turned-pastor dad, Ray and her brother became pioneers in the home-school movement. “My brother was really smart, and I definitely had a little ADD—I was very creative and active—and my mom thought, ‘Why should I send them to school when they can work at a higher level at home?’” As her family moved around, Ray played sports and cello at local schools, finally enrolling full-time in her sophomore year. “I visualized high school as being like Saved By the Bell,” she says with a laugh. “I decided I would do all the things they did on that show. I was sort of a Kelly Kapowski [the character played by Tiffani Thiessen], but I wasn’t that popular—more Jessie Spano [Elizabeth Berkley], if I’m being realistic.”
In the Spotlight: When Ray was five, she watched her seven-year-old brother audition for a production of Oliver!, then marched up to the director and demanded a part, too, telling him, “I can cartwheel!” That did the trick, and she continued in musical theater until she set out for L.A. after high school to break into acting. “I couldn’t get arrested,” she says flatly. “Nobody knew what to do with me.” After snagging her Equity card in a regional tour of Footloose, the young actress got her first big break in the title role of Robert and Kristen Lopez’s musical version of Finding Nemo at Disney World. Incredibly enough, she was double-cast with Alison Case—and both actresses ended up played Crissy on Broadway in Hair!
Step by Step: Much like Avenue Q, Finding Nemo involved actors appearing onstage with puppets, and Ray loved both the show and her castmates, calling her eight months in Orlando “really special—it was the first time I created a role, and I met some of the best friends of my life.” She jumped to a tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, then arrived in New York just in time to win both the recurring role of chef Teri Ciccone on As the World Turns and to replace Case (who took a leave for medical reasons) in Hair. “When I got the soap, I remember thinking, ‘What Broadway show could I do and still do this [day] job?’ I was thinking Nessarose in Wicked. And I said to Ali [Case], ‘I could never do Hair because you’re on stage the entire time!’” Little did Ray know that she would soon be juggling the soap, Hair and a juicy prime-time part in Damages.
Kill Me Now! Cast as Lily Tomlin’s granddaughter in Damages’ Madoff-inspired storyline, Ray turned what was supposed to be a bit part into an 11-episode stint. “Lily is a great, great lady,” she gushes. “She would brag to her friends in L.A., ‘My granddaughter is in Hair on Broadway!’” Ray's character, who shared scenes with Tomlin, Martin Short and Tate Donovan, was suspected of smuggling swindled cash. “I didn't," she says, "but I got shot in the head. It was very graphic.” Mulling her character’s untimely end, she received comfort from star Glenn Close, who reminded her, “Vanessa, not everybody gets a death.”
Tribal Bonding: Mentoring the replacement Tribe who joined Hair en masse in March, Ray assured them that interacting with the audience throughout the show is fun. “Every single day before I run out into [the crowd], I think, ‘Please know that I’m giving you love. I’m not trying to scare you!’” Her most memorable encounter came when actress Kate Beckinsale visited backstage with her mom and daughter Lily (whose dad is Broadway vet Michael Sheen). “Kate’s mother was a Swing in the original London company of Hair, and she had great stories. Kate asked me if I was going to London with the show, and when I said ‘no,’ she said, ‘Oh no! Lily and I called you Baby Spice. You were our favorite. They can’t go to London without Baby Spice!’” Laughing, Ray says, “I never lived that down with the old Tribe—but if a beautiful, talented movie star wants to call me Baby Spice, I feel pretty good.”