Don’t try to look for a pattern in Jan Maxwell’s Broadway resume. With credits ranging from Dancing at Lughnasa, A Doll’s House and Coram Boy to The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the actress is always on the lookout for a fresh challenge. In the 2009-2010 season Maxwell appeared in not one, but two Broadway shows (The Royal Family and Lend Me a Tenor) and earned Tony nominations for both, bringing her total number of nominations up to four. Now she’s back on the board in Follies winning raves as Phyllis Rogers Stone, the once-wide-eyed showgirl turned bitter society wife. On a recent two-show day, Broadway.com chatted with Maxwell about tackling the challenging role while looking back on her own theatrical history.
Did you know Follies before you started working on it?
I knew some of the songs, of course, but I didn’t know the show and when my agents said that it was out of town I wasn’t interested. I was doing Wings at the time and I told [co-star] Anne Nathan, who goes back and forth between plays and musicals, “I was offered Phyllis in Follies. Is that a good thing?” She looked at me and said, “You were born to play that part. Don’t be an idiot; do it!” And then you hear "Could I Leave You?" and you can't turn down a chance to sing that song.
Do you think you were born to play Phyllis?
I don’t know if I ever think that, but I liked how she was written, how she was in pain and chasing something for 30 years that wasn’t loving her back. I thought that was so interesting, because why do you stay for so long in a relationship that’s not feeding you? But Phyllis has the ethic that it’s the long haul that counts, and I think she truly loves Ben. When he tells her that there’s nothing and nobody in his life, that’s the final verbal slap across the face that wakes her up to go into “Could I Leave You?”
How did you get started with this character?
It’s been a long process, because I lost 20 pounds for the role. I joined Weight Watchers online, because you can’t get me out of the house, and then of course when we got to D.C. we did two hours of tap every day, which helped. I think I’ve done more physically with her than with any other role.
Does losing weight for a role equal awards for stage actors, as it seems to for movie stars?
No, I never thought that [laughs]. I just thought political wife, Upper East Side—Gregg Barnes is going to put me in something tight. And he's brilliant. You can’t have a muffintop for his costumes.
Your costumes are gorgeous! Are you more of a low maintenance lady in life in real life?
I’d say that’s probably true. I’m from North Dakota, and there are six kids in my family so you kind of had to do what you could for yourself!
Is this a hard show to do every night?
The back half is very heavy for me. The second act is where I do “Could I Leave You?” which is emotionally wrenching and “Lucy and Jessie,” which is very physical. It kicks my ass, it really does. I’ve been injured up until recently so now I’m actually enjoying it.
There was a move in “Lucy and Jessie” that was ripping my hamstrings. As my physical therapist said, “You have the mobility of a 60-year-old sedentary man,” so it was rather hard on me, but I’m healing. Before, I was thinking about ending the night in excruciating pain and sitting on a bag of ice. It was pretty depressing, and disappointing because you want to give your all but when your subtext is, “Ow ow ow,” it’s hard. But then you think, “I’m not in pain…I didn’t give my all!”
Is this going to make you gun-shy of musicals?
Yeah, damn these musicals; I’m going back to acting! [Laughs.] No, I like to do different things. When I’m doing a musical I want something deeper, and when I’m doing a play I just want to sing and dance, so I’ve discovered that what I do best is complain.
So what’s after Follies?
Oh I don’t know, I’ll be lucky if I’m ever employed again.
Do you really think that?
As an actor you just think you’ll never work again; you can’t shake it.
Why haven’t you done more film or TV?
Well, I think the opportunity wasn’t exactly there, and what I have done, I haven’t really liked. I don’t like the pace, the lack of rehearsal time, the lack of discussion about what’s going on. I’m really a theater person. There’s something I don’t like about the class system of film and television, I don’t like sitting around and watching the extras trying to find a place to sit down. Obviously there’s some of that in theater, but it’s more of a community effort and I think that the actor is more respected.
Does being in Follies make you look back on your own career?
Oh yes, every time I make my first entrance and look at the theater I remember being in college and doing my first shows on a big stage. It’s rather part of the play that we all look back on our own lives too.
Are you dishing out career advice to the youngsters in the cast?
No, they’re more bitter and jaded than I am! These kids are so smart, so savvy, so talented. It just blows my mind how far ahead of me at that age they are. I jumped in a religious van to get here, and they’ve gone to all these great colleges; they have agents. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have anything when I got here.
A religious van?
Well there was a United Campus Ministry at my school and once they were going to New York for 50 bucks and I thought, “Well, I’m joining that!” But these kids know what they’re doing. I didn’t even know that Juilliard or anything like that existed. I didn’t know you could do theater as a vocation, to tell you the truth. Believe me, I’m not complaining, I feel extremely lucky coming from where I come from and doing what I’m doing. I’ve been very, very blessed by Thespus, the God of theater.
When did you figure out you could make a living?
I went to a little college in Moorhead, Minnesota, and for one year I went to the University of Utah where people were much more savvy about theater and business. That’s where it dawned on me. I finished in Moorhead and moved right away to New York. I said I would give it 10 years, and if nothing happened I would go somewhere else.
And how long did it take you to really start working?
About 10 years! I was ready to leave. I was totally broke, I couldn’t get anywhere and the Actors Fund, for the first and only time, paid my electric bill and my rent. I gave myself six more months, I was just going to just be a waitress, save all my money and move. Then—this is such a corny story, but it’s true—I got this fortune cookie and it said, “When winter comes, heaven will rain success upon you.” For some crazy reason I put it in my calendar, and that was the day that I got the call to go audition for City of Angels, my first Broadway job.
Do you give the fortune cookie credit?
[Laughs.] Yeah, right.
Also 10 years of busting your ass.
That’s true! We tend to forget the 10 years of peanut butter.
See Jan Maxwell in Follies at the Marquis Theatre.