It’s been almost nine years since Kentucky-bred, Juilliard-trained Jennifer Carpenter made her Broadway debut in The Crucible alongside Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. She’s been in Hollywood ever since, starring in films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Quarantine and creating the role of badass, foul-mouthed cop Debra Morgan in Showtime's Dexter. (Unfortunately, her personal life has had its own drama; she recently filed for divorce from her Dexter co-star and husband of two years, Michael C. Hall.) Right now, Carpenter is back in New York, co-starring with Pablo Schreiber in Rajiv Joseph’s darkly funny two-hander Gruesome Playground Injuries at Second Stage. It's a love story, told in non-linear scenes, of Doug and Kayleen, who always reenter each other's lives when one is injured but can somehow never quite connect. During a break between shows, Carpenter gave Broadway.com the skinny on why Gruesome is just what she needs right now.
How did Gruesome Playground Injuries lure you back to the stage?
The play terrified me. I was scared out of my mind to do it and yet I couldn’t say no. It's unique because you can look at one part of it and it’s as beautiful as the whole. It met me at the right time. I needed to be a part of this story, and I needed to have some watchers to see me go through this. It feels relevant.
What do you love about playing Kayleen?
Early on, Rajiv told me that Kayleen doesn’t cry, and I’ve never played someone with such an enormous restriction. Just recently I was told that if I feel so moved I can cry in the last scene, and now of course I can’t. The scene is about being accountable for her part in why [this couple] could never connect, and also forgiving Doug [Pablo Schreiber] for being so selfish. She’s seeing everything for what it is and for what it wasn’t. The play changes for me every day.
Your last time on stage was in the 2002 Broadway revival of The Crucible.
That was incredible. I came to every rehearsal, even if I wasn’t called. I got to watch Liam Neeson and Laura Linney work, and Laura and I are still very close. I remember standing and bowing next to Arthur Miller and Laura and I thought, "Well, I can die now."
You didn’t die, but you did head to Los Angeles.
Yeah, and I didn’t work for a while! I went out there with two suitcases and I lived on lawn furniture in the guest house of a friend of a friend who didn’t know I was staying there. When he came to town, I would go sleep on someone’s couch. It was pretty terrible.
How long did that last?
Almost a year. I waited tables. I actually waited on the Wayans brothers the day before I auditioned for White Chicks, and they didn’t remember me at my audition but they gave me my first job out there. They taught me a lot about working in front of a camera. They’re very patient and very ridiculous. And very good tippers.
Did you have a backup plan of any sort?
My first day at Juilliard, they said, “If you have a backup plan, you should go execute it now,” and I didn’t have one. When I got into Juilliard, my Dad said, “Well if it doesn’t work out, I can always get you on at Ford,” and that was actually really nice, a strange but comforting safety net. But I still don’t have a plan B!
What do you love about being back in New York?
You can’t avoid life here because it slaps you in the face every day. In L.A. it’s easy to retreat, which can be a lovely thing, but I’m at a time in my life where I need to be with friends, go to museums, get that slap. I ran the New York marathon with Jonny Lee Miller, who was on [Dexter] this year! We would run the hills in Runyon Canyon and Griffith Park on Saturdays. I wanted to run it in under four hours and I ran it in 3:34. I wore my medal for days.
Your Dexter character is known for her inventive and colorful language. Any faves?
I like “Christ on a crutch” and I like “Shit a brick and fuck me with it.” That one’s gross. The one I liked most this year didn’t have cuss word in it: “I’d rather put a campfire out with my face.” That made me laugh.
Are you and Debra similar?
I cuss a lot less! And I breathe a lot more. As much as I love playing her, it’s been nice to have a vacation from her. After Dexter I’m going to take a vacation somewhere warm, and then I’m going to do some jury duty. I’ve already postponed. I’ll chalk it up to research.