Amy Morton has a history of playing passionate, intense women on stage, and now the Chicago-based actress is taking on her biggest challenge yet: Martha in the 50th anniversary production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After directing a production of the modern classic in Atlanta (with her current co-star Tracy Letts as George), Morton earned critical acclaim for playing the role in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company production will open at Broadway's Booth Theatre on October 13, marking Morton’s first appearance on the Great White Way since her Tony-nominated turn in Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, August: Osage County. Broadway.com chatted with Morton about her extraordinary collaborations with Letts, her Hollywood turn as George Clooney’s sister in Up In the Air and the incredible demands of playing the gin-soaked Martha on Broadway.
What’s your first memory of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I saw the movie with my father and mother on TV when I was 10 or 11. I remember being fascinated by it, but of course not understanding what the heck was going on. Why are these people so mad at each other? My father had a running commentary—he produced and directed industrial films and commercials, so he would go, “You hear that ice tinkling in the glass? That’s great filmmaking.” I found it really interesting.
What is it like returning to the play after performing it in Chicago and Washington, D.C.?
It’s great, because we’re not the same people we were two years ago. It’s deeper for me, and I feel more in my own. At first, we were worried that with this much time off, we’d forget too much, so we tried to get together every couple months to run lines. Albee is not easy to learn, so we didn’t want to have to start from scratch.
The lines are rapid-fire, for three hours. Was it daunting when you first picked up the script, realizing you’d have to learn it all?
It’s a bitch of a play. It’s incredibly hard to do, and it’s very daunting when you start chomping into this thing. Now I feel great, having had the experience of doing it twice before. I think all of us feel more confident this time.
You directed Virginia Woolf in Atlanta. Was it difficult to relinquish the choices you made in your own production?
As an actor, when I start working on the stage, it’s so consuming that the last thing on my mind is looking at it as a director. The job is too big; you’re mono-focused on the task at hand. I didn’t have a problem with that at all, and I love working with Pam [MacKinnon, a 2012 Tony nominee for Clybourne Park]. She’s so bright and detailed and down to earth, she’s great to work with. But I walked in the first day of rehearsal already familiar with the story of the play, and that was helpful. I’ve worked with Tracy so much, and we work together so well—we have a shorthand, and we find working with each other really fun.
What is the secret to maintaining the type of professional chemistry you and Tracy have?
This is the seventh or eighth time we’ve been married! We have a great work chemistry, and I don’t know why, it just is. I love directing him, too, because he’s a great actor to direct, just freakin’ brilliant. There’s nobody better to work with, and I feel so lucky to have that.
This production is very different than the movie. Did you use the film as a tool in your preparation?
I didn’t. I quickly forgot those iconic portrayals and all the baggage this play comes with, because I was too busy figuring out how to do it. You have to treat it like a new play—every time you work on a play, you still have to tell the story from the moment the lights go up, and you have to navigate it as you would a new play. I was so busy, I was like, “Elizabeth Taylor? I don’t have time to think about her!” [Laughs.] “I’m trying to learn my lines!” If you start thinking about that stuff, it really screws with your head.
You lost 15 pounds during the Broadway run in August: Osage County. Could the same thing happen with this demanding role?
Yeah, I have a feeling I’ll drop some while I’m here. The play is so rigorous that during the run of Virginia Woolf in Chicago and Washington, they had to keep taking in my costumes. Both August and Virginia Woolf are three acts of…well, what they are. You lose weight! [Laughs.] All that breathing, all that aerobics will make you lose it.
Martha can down a dozen drinks before even getting tipsy. Did you play with her level of inebriation during the rehearsal process?
Albee came to Chicago when we were in rehearsals and he’s so great to talk to about the play, because he’s not very precious about it. He said, “Martha holds her liquor better than anybody in the world.” In the last half of the third act, she starts…I don’t know if drunk is the right word. The language for Martha gets more poetic, and gets farther from the down and dirty. It almost feels trancelike when you’re doing it.
What do you think about Julia Roberts playing Barbara Weston in the August: Osage County movie?
She’s a really great actor, so I’m fine with it. I’m too old for it anyway at this point, are you kidding me? I think it sounds like a great cast and I’m thrilled for it.
You seem to choose your film and TV roles carefully. What drew you to guest star in Boss on Starz?
I’ve always believed there is great power for an actor when they use the word “no,” because it’s not used often in terms of accepting or not accepting work. I’ve spent most of my career not getting hired, so there hasn’t been a whole lot of me crafting my career until August: Osage County. In terms of Boss, I find it fascinating that this is a great series shooting in Chicago, which means a lot to me as a Chicago actor. There’s a large number of great Chicago actors having real parts, and I can’t give them enough credit for doing that.
Playing George Clooney’s sister in Up In the Air is about as Hollywood as you can get.
I know, it’s hilarious! I was a nervous wreck the first couple of days—there I was on the first day, and they’re saying, “This is George Clooney.” And I’m just like, “What the hell?!” Luckily, George is incredibly down to earth and extremely generous and great. He’s like your brother. It’s very different for me, working in film. It took me a while to say, “Okay, you have to calm down.” [Laughs.] “You don’t have to worry about playing to the last row.” And then it got really fun. I started having a great time.
Of all the roles you’ve played at Steppenwolf, which was the most challenging, and which was the most fun?
Virginia Woolf is definitely the most challenging. At times it can be the most fun, but at times the most torturous. I loved doing August: Osage County. I loved doing Berlin Circle by Charles Mee; that’s in my top five. The Royal Family—I loved doing that play. There’s a ton more. I’ve been incredibly lucky.
Do you have to make sacrifices in your daily life to give an uninhibited, full performance in Virginia Woolf every night?
I live like a monk. I can’t go out during the day to a bunch of museums or anything, I have to conserve my energy. I sleep as late as I possibly can, I eat a lot of protein and then I come home, eat a little something and go to bed. When I got here, I immediately caught a cold, and I’m just getting over it. It sucks to do this three-hour epic when you’re not feeling great.
Do you ever wake up and say, “I’m too tired today, I can’t do this”? How do you keep yourself motivated?
I can’t call in sick if I’m not sick; I’d be in big trouble. It’s my job, and I don’t have a choice. Everybody has days they don’t wanna go to work, of course. But once I’m up there, the play takes me. I just get on the ride. I have a very nice job, so I just say to myself, “Your job could be a lot worse, so shut up.” I’m on Broadway in the 50th anniversary revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I mean, seriously, does anybody wanna hear me complain? I don’t think so!
See Amy Morton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Booth Theatre.