With her slight frame and enormous doe eyes, Cristin Milioti could easily have gone the ingénue route, but the actress had a different plan for her theatrical career. Milioti made her Broadway debut in Martin McDonagh’s bloody, dark comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and her off-Broadway resume is awash with equally dark shows like The Retributionists, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, That Face and The Little Foxes. She showed off some of her musical chops in Broadway’s Coram Boy, but now she’s doing double duty as an actor/musician playing ‘Girl’ in the stage adaptation of Once. After an acclaimed off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop, Milioti is now taking center stage in the show at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre. Broadway.com caught up with Milioti, who chatted about brushing up her piano skills, balancing her dark theater resume with comedy on 30 Rock and creating sexual tension with Steve Kazee.
How are things going with Once on Broadway?
It’s pretty amazing. There were some line cuts, but essentially it’s the same show [as at New York Theatre Workshop] and there's great trust as a company, which is helpful. We're all so thankful to be here. We get to play the most amazing music, and I think for almost everyone in this company, music is our number one love.
Do you think of this as a musical or as a play with music?
I go back and forth, because I think it really straddles that line. For the most part I think of it as a play with music, but that may be because I've never done a musical! Enda [Walsh] has written such a gorgeous script, and we always talk about the songs; it’s not like we break spontaneously into song.
Was it the music that drew you to the show?
Oh my god, yes. My whole life, I’ve had this secret fantasy of being a musician, and this allows me to live that out. [Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova] have written such gorgeous music and they've gotten a group of people together who just absolutely love playing it and that's intoxicating. That was definitely what made me fall in love with it.
I read that you hadn’t seen the film. Is that still true?
It is. I hadn't seen it when I got the job, and then we started working and I didn't want to be influenced by anything; I just wanted to approach it on my own. But I can't wait to see it when everything's done!
What was it like creating Girl with [Once film star] Marketa Irglova in the room?
The weird thing is, they did tailor the film roles to fit [Irglova and Hansard] because they weren't actors, but she was very clear with me that she was playing a role. She's an incredibly kind person, and the thing I was most intimidated by was playing her music for her. As far as acting was concerned I knew that I wasn't playing her, but the first time she saw me play it was extremely nerve-wracking. You want to be respectful and do it the best that you can.
Have you always played the piano?
Kind of? I grew up with a piano, and my aunt taught me chords. I played with bands in high school and I could do like, C chord, G chord, D chord; really simple, rhythm piano. I was familiar with the instrument enough that it wasn't like learning from nothing, but I’ve never played with two hands doing two different things, I've never played a classical piece, I've never played anything that complicated.
So how much work did you have to put in to get ready for Once?
A lot. When I auditioned there was concern about my playing not being up to snuff, so I was given 10 or 12 days to learn "The Hill" and a classical piece. My friend [Broadway vet] Santino Fontana is an incredible piano player and he wrote out these charts for me, and I sat every day for six or seven hours and I learned them. I had friends come and watch me so I wouldn't be nervous when I went in there. Once I had the part it was the same thing but less intense to learn the other four songs, maybe four or five hours a day of sitting and learning.
Is it muscle memory at this point?
It's getting there. There are certainly still nerves but it's become less of, ‘Let me put my head down and get through this without making mistakes, please God please God.’ Now it's more like an extension of what I'm feeling and that's awesome.
You have this gorgeous voice, but you’ve never done a musical before?
God knows I’ve tried! I've auditioned for musicals a lot, but I think my voice didn't really match what they were looking for. I went to school for musical theater for a year and dropped out. Legit musicals are not quite my forte. It's really a happy accident that the way I sing just worked for this.
Not a fan of theater school?
Not a fan. I often felt like they were trying to change the way I sounded instead of embracing it, and I kind of bristled against that.
‘Girl’ is such an interesting role, a young romantic lead that isn't an ingénue. What parts of her do you connect with?
This role is amazing, especially for a young woman. She's a very strong woman, and I wish I could be more like her in some ways. She's very direct and she's not sentimental. I often have trouble with directness in life, and I'm very sentimental and nostalgic. Maybe we share a sense of humor. I like sarcasm.
You and Steve Kazee have really lovely chemistry. Was that immediate?
It was. It’s funny, I’ve never had a romantic relationship on stage that’s normal [laughs]. I did this play Stunning and I loved the guy that played my husband but I was like a child bride being continuously molested. So in Once I’m not getting raped, I’m not getting beaten, and I was like, ‘This is great!’ But our connection was pretty instantaneous. [Steve and I] have a very similar sense of humor, so it was just there.
As an audience member, I wanted you to kiss him so badly!
I know, isn’t that great?!
Do you ever feel yourself almost going for it?
No, that’s one of my favorite parts of the entire show. I think that’s so lifelike and so much more powerful. I feel like kissing is so much more of a cinematic thing, and I love the fact that we barely touch in this. It creates that tension for us and the audience and it’s fantastic.
Are you drawn to darker material?
I guess I am, but it’s not a conscious thing. I think it’s just more interesting. That’s what’s so cool about Once: There is a layer of darker stuff, but it’s balanced by this incredible light. I’ve gotta tell you, my parents were fucking thrilled when they watched this because they were like ‘Oh my god, finally, we’re not uncomfortable watching you!’ I mean, they love everything, but there was definitely a sense of relief like, ‘Thank god you’re not being beaten on stage.’
As a complete opposite, you had this crazy comedy guest spot as ‘Sexy Baby’ Abby Flynn in 30 Rock. Did you expect it would be such a hit?
Not at all! I don’t usually watch my stuff because A: it usually makes me want to quit acting and B: I’m like I filmed for two weeks and I’m in it for one minute. So I just thought ‘OK I’ll be in this for 10 seconds.’ So I did watch it, but I had no idea that it was going to get the reaction it did. That was pretty incredible.
Sounds like you had fun!
It was one of the most fantastic working experiences I’ve ever had. 30 Rock is my favorite TV show and Tina Fey is one of my heroes. She was a dream to work with and the whole cast was just absolutely lovely. I also think I was really attracted to how much fun I had, as opposed to the darker stuff I do. I was there five or six days, but I was on cloud nine the entire time.