Two-time Olivier Award winner Tracie Bennett is not afraid of hard work. For her Broadway debut, the English stage star is giving a tour-de-force performance as an addicted and tormented Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. At age 50, Bennett racked up a Drama Desk nomination, an Outer Critics Circle nomination, a Drama League nomination and a well-deserved Tony nomination for her performance. Bennett is not letting the accolades go to her head, and she attributes her old-fashioned work ethic to three decades of work in Britain’s repertory theaters. (Just last week, Bennett performed several shows with the flu!) On the day of her Tony nomination, the actress took time to chat with Broadway.com about her long journey to Broadway, the fear and pressure of playing Judy Garland and finding success on the Great White Way.
Let’s dive in and talk about Judy Garland. How did you land this role?
It was the body of work I had done, thankfully. I guess somebody saw me and said, "Bennett doesn’t mind going into the depths of pain and pathos, and she’s okay at comedy, as well; we need somebody that can do both and somebody with a belting voice and somebody little and somebody that doesn’t mind her face covered in mascara and looking like crap." So they pulled me in for a meeting and chatted about it and asked my thoughts about it. Then they said, "Would you like to do it?" I said, "Uh, yeah!" [Laughs.] I grabbed it. You wait your lifetime for these roles, and, of course, the challenge was there from the beginning.
How did you begin to approach this character? What was your research process like?
It’s the same as any other thing I do, living or not living. The difference is I’ve never played a legend before, or an icon! So I saved that bit psychologically until the last layer. You just read everything you can, watch everything you can, talk to anyone you can who may have met her. Then you put it together, and you have the genius Terry Johnson directing you with his academic brain. You get a good cast around you, and that makes your job easier. I couldn’t do what I do without the cast. I believe this is an ensemble piece.
How do you prepare to become Judy every night—and how do leave Judy Garland behind every night?
I’m very aware not to get schizophrenic. You have to learn to dip in and out so that you’re not obsessed all the time, and you live a life of a human being—your life. I usually go in two and a half to three hours before and I slowly start to prepare: I think about my danger points; I put some music on; I walk to the wings. It’s only when I’m putting the ring on, the shoes and the coat, in the dark, that I start to heavily concentrate, calm down and focus. If I thought about what I had to do, I would probably be too scared to go on. At the end, I take that wig off and I’m Tracie again, and every night I silently say, "Ta-ra love, I’ll see you tomorrow."
Have you received any reaction from Garland's children [Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft, Joey Luft]?
No I haven’t. I hope they think I’m being respectful of the part. [End of the Rainbow] is about the price of fame; we are not here to diss Judy’s memory. We are here to celebrate the legacy of her. That’s how I am playing it.
Is it harder to take on an American icon in America than in the U.K.?
Yes, of course! I was very scared of that, but I’m from the school of, if you don’t risk anything than what’s the point? You’ve got to risk with art, and you’ve got to put yourself on the line. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would have done it, ya know? I’ve got to try as best I can to serve the piece.
Well, I’ve been here on and off for quite a while, but I’m looking forward to doing everything. I am going to explore gorgeous restaurants that I never went to. I am going to enjoying sitting in Central Park. I am going to enjoy the new friends I’ve met here, who have been really kind. I want to go shopping. I haven’t been shopping yet. Can you believe it?!
What do you miss most about London?
I miss my friends, but luckily they’ve been coming over, so that’s genius.
You are a true creature of the theater. What do you love about the stage? What are some of your favorite memories?
Oh, millions of memories. I’ve come up from the ranks. I’ve been on with measles; I’ve been on with septic foot from shoes that are old; I’ve been a chorus girl. I do feel like I’m living the dream. It’s hard work, but I like it. I’m skipping to work! I’ve had a really good ride and a really good life in [theater].
Was Broadway always a goal for you?
I’m not really a dreamer like that. I have to think I’m in a pub because it was too big a deal for me to think about. You sing your Broadway songs in college but you never believe you’re going to get here, and certainly not playing her. I would have been happy sweeping the stage on Broadway, but I’m going to grab this massive opportunity and take it. To have a debut and then this [Tony nomination], I am just happy the way things are.
Did you read Ben Brantley’s rave review of End of the Rainbow in The New York Times? How did that make you feel?
Wasn’t that a love letter? I don’t usually read them, but my producers made me, and I cried. I was going, "Oh my God, I’m not that good, am I?" I’d love to meet him [Brantley] and thank him. I owe him a big cocktail! That was just amazing. He got everything I was trying to do. I was expecting, "Who is this Brit thinking she’s somebody she’s not?" I just thought, "If they are going to slam me, slam me," but I knew I’ve got a good heart and I’m a good worker.
What’s next after Broadway? Are there any roles you're dying to play?
See Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow at the Belasco Theatre.