Since appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1998, Gretchen Mol has proven herself to be far more than just a pretty face. After appearing in star-studded films Girl 6, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown, Donnie Brasco and Puccini For Beginners, Mol made a splash when she took it all off in The Notorious Bettie Page. The actress starred in off-Broadway’s The Shape of Things and played Roxie Hart in Chicago before heading to the small screen as brothel owner and mother-from-hell Gillian Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Now, Mol is playing another complex matriarch in the world premiere of The Good Mother by Francine Volpe. In the New Group production, Mol stars as Larissa, a troubled mother who must face the truth about her past after a disturbing incident involving her disabled four-year-old daughter. Broadway.com chatted with the actress about dealing with pre-show anxiety, feeling “unhinged” in Los Angeles and her secret to memorizing the complicated chorography in Broadway’s Chicago.
When did The Good Mother first cross your radar?
I got the script from my agent, and it was a page-turner. I was totally intrigued by Larissa; she’s such a puzzle to me. She was flawed, but I could understand her flaws. She’s so multi-faceted—a friend of mine described her as a prism, because a different side of her lights up with each new character that comes onstage. I thought, that’s how we are. That’s how I am, certainly. So I met with [director] Scott [Elliott]. I hadn’t done theater in so long, and I have two small children, so I wasn’t sure it would be right for my lifestyle. But I was probably just looking for excuses because I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off [laughs].
What is it like having four different men as scene partners?
It’s really delicious for me. I’ve never had an experience like this. It’s like going to acting class every night and doing a scene study. I’m on a roll, and I can’t really think. I have to let go, which is great. All of a sudden, I come to the end of the play and I’m in a different place than I was the night before, emotionally. You don’t have time to stew backstage and think too much.
Larissa is the mother of a four-year-old autistic daughter who is never seen by the audience. What's that like to portray?
It’s only through the character of Larissa that the audience has an understanding of who her daughter is. We know Allison is on “the spectrum,” but the spectrum goes from zero to 100, and I had to decide where she was on that spectrum. I can communicate with her in a way that other people can’t or wouldn’t understand. Being a mother, you feel that way about your children anyway, no matter how communicative and healthy they are. You're the one that really understands them.
Since having kids of your own, you’ve stopped taking work in Los Angeles. Has staying on the east coast worked out for you?
When I was pregnant with my son [Ptolemy, now 5], I lived in L.A. I enjoyed it for the time being, but when you’re pregnant, you get clear about your life. I became strongly opinionated that I needed to come back to the east coast, where my own mother was and where my husband’s family was. [Mol is married to film director Kip Williams.] I felt a little unhinged in L.A. I never really felt that there was a home for me there; I’ve always felt like New York was home. And there has consistently been more work for me here.
Including Boardwalk Empire, which films in New York—what kind of feedback do you get from fans about the show?
I don’t usually get recognized, because I look so different with the red wig. But I’m amazed that a lot of women love Gillian. I think it’s because she’s such a fighter. She’s a very polarizing, hated person for the most part, but people love to hate her. Some people are utterly creeped out by her because of the [incestuous] relationship with her son, but a lot of women like her because she gets away with exactly what the men do. I always find myself defending her and saying, “Wait a second, I didn’t scalp anybody. I only drowned someone in the bathtub!” [Laughs.] I’m always amazed at what the male characters get away with, and they can still be somewhat heroic. It’s a double standard.
Have you ever resisted any of the wild things the writers ask you to do?
No, I trust them. It’s not my job to—I’m not in the writers’ room, and they have their ideas. There have certainly been times when I’ve looked at it and was shocked… “No way!” or “That would’ve been interesting to know when we started.” But that’s the interesting thing about working in television: You don’t start off with all the answers the way you do with a play. There are endless possibilities, and it’s really fun to work in that. You will never totally know what your character is capable of. It’s scary and challenging, but it’s the best way to work.
What’s your fondest memory of starring in Chicago on Broadway?
The rehearsal process is always the most fun for me. I remember learning the dances and feeling so alive after those rehearsals, because I was using a part of myself that had been dormant. I studied musical theater [at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy], so I had done dance and all of that, and it was like coming home for me in some ways. I was using muscles and sides of myself that I hadn’t really accessed. With dance, I could never go into a class and just pick it up, watch and do. So with Chicago rehearsals, I would videotape the dance captain doing the dance as Roxie and then I would take it home and study it and do it in my living room. That was so much fun, because I was getting control of something that scared me.
Would you ever want to do another musical?
I would love to, but it’s a huge physical commitment. What I’ve learned from The Good Mother is having my little ones…it takes a lot. My schedule with Boardwalk Empire, they have been really long days at times, but I can be home a lot as well. I might have one 14-hour day, but then I can be home the next day. But with my regular off-Broadway schedule, I’ve definitely felt it. My kids are still so little—my daughter [Winter] is not even two. They really need me.
See Gretchen Mol in The Good Mother, playing a limited engagement through December 22 at off-Broadway's Acorn Theatre.