The Second Stage revival of How I Learned to Drive doesn’t just mark a return for Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, back in New York for the first time in 15 years. It’s also a homecoming for star Elizabeth Reaser. The Juilliard-trained actress hasn’t been on the New York stage since she played Perdita in The Winter’s Tale at Classic Stage Company in 2003, but she’s been keeping busy with a little film franchise called Twilight, among other projects. In addition to playing matriarch Esme Cullen in the blockbuster vampire films, Reaser’s big screen credits include Diablo Cody’s Young Adult, The Art of Getting By and Sweet Land, and plum TV roles like an amnesia victim in Grey’s Anatomy and Josh Charles' lover in The Good Wife. She's back on stage as Drive narrator L'il Bit, a young girl in rural 1960s Maryland who shares a secret bond with her Uncle Peck (Norbert Leo Butz). Broadway.com chatted with Reaser about tackling divisive play Drive and tween magnet Twilight, her love for her off-Broadway co-star and how acting rescued her from her own troubled teenage years.
How did How I Learned to Drive bring you back to the New York stage?
I’ve been looking for a play for a long time, but I’ve gotten really busy with other things. There is probably no better role for a woman of my age than Li’l Bit. To get to play all these different ages and have all these different experiences, and also to work with Norbert and [director] Kate [Whoriskey] it was a dream situation. It was sort of a no-brainer for me.
Did you know the play well?
I’d heard about it when I was in school, but I didn’t see it then because I was a little scared of the content, or what I thought was the content. I thought it was about a girl being molested, and it turns out it’s really not. It’s a play about family and memory, it’s a love story and a coming of age story, and it’s very funny. I read it and I thought, "OK, this is probably the scariest thing I’ll ever do and the most exciting thing I could ever be a part of."
And is it scary?
It’s terrifying. It’s a brilliant, beautiful play, and I feel a huge responsibility to Paula [Vogel] and a real responsibility to Norbert, who I’m a big fan of. It really matters to me what he thinks, and working with him has just been incredible. I also haven’t done a play in a long time.
Were you nervous to be back in front of a live audience?
I’m nervous every night. In a movie or in TV, anyone can pull something out of their ass one time, and with some music and some editing…[laughs]. I’m not trying to take anything away from film acting because it’s also really hard and I worship the people who are great at it. But to actually have to go out on stage night after night and do it with your audience right there is so wild and scary and exciting and fun and all the things that I remember loving about it. I really have fallen in love with the experience again.
You couldn’t ask for a better co-star for your first time back on stage.
When I found out it was Norbert, it was like, "I have to do it." Honestly, I would do anything just to work with him again, and we’ve been talking about it, saying we want to do Much Ado About Nothing together or something like that.
Specifically something classical?
Yeah, we were talking about either a Chekhov play or some Shakespeare. That would be great, I haven’t worked on a classical play in so many years. I think I’d really need Norbert to do it too.
Li'l Bit in Drive couldn’t be further from vampire mom Esme in Twilight. Was that the idea?
Definitely. I needed to do a play. I needed to learn how to act again, in a focused, all-encompassing way, and a really challenging play is a great way to do that. I was not looking to go do another vampire movie, I’ll say that.
Were you ever wary of taking a role in such a huge tween franchise?
No, because I never think of it in those terms, I think, "What’s the role and who’s the director?" I thought Catherine Hardwicke was amazing, and I thought the idea of these kind of vegetarian vampires was cool. Also, I honestly didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. It’s exciting to be part of something that so many people respond to and are fans of. It’s flattering. I mean, it has way more to do with Esme than with me, but I’ve enjoyed the experience.
Are you super maternal in real life?
It’s the weirdest thing, because I’m not; I think I’m actually childish in a lot of ways. That’s one of the things that’s so fun about playing Li’l Bit, I get to connect to the parts of me that are actually more a part of me, day to day. I think I just have the face of someone who seems kind. I look like a nice person and that translates to being a nice mom, and I really think that’s all it is.
In interviews you’ve described your own teenage self as a bad girl. What do you mean?
Oh, man. I was like running away from home, going to Detroit and partying all night, sneaking out of the house and not coming home, having lots of boyfriends, telling everybody off, getting on a train to California in the middle of the night. I was really out of control.
Hold up: How old were you when you got on a train to California?
I was 16. In the middle of the night I took a taxi to the Detroit train station—or maybe it was the Pontiac train station?—and got on a train to Chicago, then transferred to a train to San Diego where my boyfriend was living at the time.
Your mom must have freaked out.
I was living alone with my dad at that point, and he was traumatized. I think he thought I was kidnapped or something. It was a horrible thing to do. That’s why I’m always telling my friends with kids, “You’re so lucky. You have the best kids.”
Do your teenage years make you hesitant to have kids of your own?
I don’t think so. I love kids, my sister has four boys and I’m obsessed with them. It just hasn’t been the thing that’s really driven me in life, for whatever reason.
When did you turn yourself around?
I think I was 18 when I knuckled down. I knew I wanted to be an actress, and I knew if I was just partying and not taking care of myself that it was never gonna happen. So I got the courage to commit to that idea, and it made me clean up my act to an almost boring extent. In drama school I would never go out, and drama school is the time to go out. That’s the time to get drunk and make out with everyone, and I was always in a relationship, I never wanted to go out; I never wanted to drink. I was really focused at that point because I’d kind of burned out at such a young age.
You’ve done a bit of everything: stage work, TV, indie film, blockbusters. What about Broadway?
I hope so! My whole life, it’s what I’ve wanted to do. I have so many friends that are on Broadway or have been on Broadway and I’m super jealous. I’d be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, for sure.
It must be fun being back in the theater community, with people like your Puccini for Beginners co-star Justin Kirk just up the street in Other Desert Cities.
It really is. He’s two blocks away from me and we hang out all the time. In L.A. we live on the same street. I can walk to his house. We’re like, best friends.
So do you guys hang out after your shows?
All the time! The only thing I would ask is that his show gets out a little earlier, because I have to wait like 45 minutes for him and I hate it [laughs]. But it’s been such a joy. When he got the offer for Other Desert Cities I’d already committed to doing How I Learned to Drive, so I was really pushing for him to do it.
Did you being here sweeten the deal for him?
I think so. I don’t think he’d ever admit that, but it totally did.
See Elizabeth Reaser in How I Learned to Drive at Second Stage Theatre.