Soon after actress Rutina Wesley was introduced to the Broadway world, she was snapped up and whisked away to TV land. The Juilliard graduate made her Broadway debut in David Hare’s The Vertical Hour in 2006, playing a student opposite Julianne Moore. She jumped to In Darfur at the Public Theater, then landed the role of badass best friend Tara Thornton on the HBO series True Blood. After four seasons battling vampires, werewolves, witches and more on the small screen, Wesley is spending her hiatus on stage, starring opposite Jonathan Groff in Jeff Talbott’s racially provocative new play, The Submission. Broadway.com caught up with Wesley to chat about her stage roots, the trickiest bits of True Blood and how her soul mate gets her through it all.
How did The Submission cross your radar?
I was sent the script and was immediately intrigued. It’s got so much fire and asks such interesting questions. Who has ownership over stories these days? As an actor I want to be inspired and challenged mentally and physically, and this play calls for all of these things, especially playing a character like Emilie Martin who has so many textures and layers. I can’t even put into words how happy I am to be here. I’ve been dying to do a play. The last time I was on stage was when I did In Darfur at the Public in 2007, and ever since I’ve been saying, “Play, please?” I’m honored to come back, especially in a new play. I get to put my stamp on it, and I’m excited and nervous about that.
I sort of wanted to see, do I still have it? Am I "too TV" now? Will they be able to hear me? Do I still remember all the stuff I went to school for? Once I got into that rehearsal room, it all came rushing back. I was like, OK, this is how you sit and stay focused for five hours. This is how you play and you create, and working with Eddie [Kaye Thomas], Jonathan and Will [Rogers] has been like a dream. I love those boys. It’s kind of fabulous to get to be the only girl. I get treated like a little princess.
Is it hard being so brutal with the famously nice Jonathan Groff?
It is! He’s so genuinely nice it’s really hard to tear each other apart in the way that we do. We kind of have to look at each other and say, “Love you!” But we all get along and trust each other, so we can actually go there and it’s OK. It’s a safe world. Everyone’s on the same page, we all support each other and we all have each other’s back.
Your made your Broadway debut as an unknown actor. Now you’re back, and definitely not unknown. How is the experience different?
It’s kind of cool that I’ve got like…fans now? I’m meeting people at the stage door who say, “I love you on True Blood and I came from London to see this,” or, “I just watched new episodes, and you’re so different in this!” That’s really great to hear, that someone can recognize that you’re not just Tara. I went to school for eight years for this, so that’s another reason I’m happy to get back on stage and go, “Look! I’m an actor! I can do other stuff!”
Is it odd to have fans?
It is a little odd, but not in a bad way. It’s kind of like people looking up to me the way I looked up people. Like when I saw Caroline, or Change for the first time and saw Tonya Pinkins and Anika Noni Rose. Or Viola Davis and Angela Bassett—when I met them for the first time, I was all wide-eyed: “I love you so much oh my god you are amazing and I want to be like you!” And I’m now starting to get that a little bit. It’s an honor to be a role model for someone, and it’s an honor to have someone enjoy your work.
Are you enjoying being back in New York?
This is home for me. This is where I fell in love; I met my soul mate [her husband, Juilliard classmate Jacob Fishel] here and went to my dream school here. It’s very nostalgic for me. I miss the grind, I miss the rawness of it. I miss asking some random person on the street for directions, or someone asking me and actually knowing where to tell them to go. I remember when I first got here I was going the wrong way on the wrong subway and so it’s kind of nice, after 10 years, to consider myself a New Yorker. I think I always will be. And I love the Yankees. There you have it.
Tell me about this soul mate of yours.
He’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve met on this earth. He’s smart, he’s talented, and he’s a gentleman. He’s not that guy that’s trying to hit on you. He doesn’t try. He doesn’t have to do anything. He just has to stand there and you’re like, “Ohhh, those blue eyes. I’m done.” There are not a lot of good people out there. I’m very lucky that I met him, we fell in love and six years in we’re married and we’re going strong. It’s kind of amazing how time flies when you’re happy.
You’re working with another Juilliard classmate, Nelsan Ellis, on True Blood. What's that like?
Nelsan was a year above me. I did one of the first plays he wrote and we’ve been kind of close ever since, and now working on the show together we’ve just gotten closer. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to have somebody I knew on the show. I spent my whole first week thinking, “Oh my God, don’t fire me, don’t fire me, I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t fire me.” But then I would say, “It’s OK, it’s Nelsan, breathe, don’t freak out.” It was so surreal. I didn’t expect that I would be doing some television show about vampires and running around killing people.
Has there been anything on the show that’s made you say, “I don’t know if I can do this?”
I would say that’s all of True Blood. I’m gonna be duct-taped to a toilet? OK. I’m tied to a bed by a crazy vampire? OK. I have to bite someone and suck their blood? OK… what? It’s surreal, but the scenes are great. Each episode is like a mini-movie because we get to play with all these fun props and we get to be big and go to theatrical extremes. It’s so playful, and it’s fantasy and reality all mixed together. Anything can happen, and that’s what I love about being on the show. It’s like an actor’s dream job.
Tara has gotten it on with a lot of people on True Blood at this point; what does your husband think of the show?
He completely supports me in everything I do, and I think it helps that he’s an actor as well. At the end of the day, I come home to him. There are a couple of things he might not have watched, but for the most part he sits down with me and we watch the show together. It’s great to have someone that’s that supportive of you.
Actors sometimes say "never date another actor," but it sounds like it works for you guys.
It really does. You have to know that it’s not real, that it’s acting. I had a hard time the first year leaving Tara at work. I’d come home and I’d just have this funky Tara energy and he’d be like, “What is this? Can I have my wife back please?” It was hilarious.
Do you have any post-True Blood dream roles?
I’d like to do a romantic comedy like Notting Hill, which is one of my favorite movies. I like to do funny, silly stuff, and it would be nice to do something that isn’t so dramatic and crazy all the time! Maybe some Shakespeare? I’d love to do another film version of Romeo & Juliet. I’m not too picky as long as it’s a good story. I’m thankful that I’m able to do what I want to do, because a lot of people don’t get to do that, and I get paid to do it. I’m living my dream, and it’s awesome, for lack of a better word.