After two decades in the theater, Kristine Nielsen finds herself a first time Tony nominee for her hilarious and touching performance as spinster sister Sonia in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Nielsen has previously stood out in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, Miss Witherspoon and Betty’s Summer Vacation, as well as the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Die Mommie, Die! and more. In Vanya, Nielsen performs a one-two-punch of a dead-on Maggie Smith impression followed soon after by a heart-breaking phone call in which her character is asked out on her first date. Broadway.com chatted with the lovable actress about all things Tony Awards, her dream role and her “remarkable” real-life love story.
Congratulations on your Best Actress nomination. Are you excited that you will forever be known as “Tony nominee”?
I am! I have many good friends who are Tony nominees and Tony winners, so I’m very, very happy to be able to join their little club. It’s a nice acknowledgement from all the years [laughs].
When you found out you had been placed in the lead actress category rather than featured, what did you think?
I wasn’t sure. I thought that probably was the end, but I also thought, “Oh well, that’s okay. I still get to do that phone call [with an unseen admirer] every night.” There’s so many ways at looking at parts. We’re all supporting or we’re all lead in that weird way. I guess I was in a Sonia frame of mind, which was “I support the two [stars, Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce]!” So it was a shock to be elevated, but I do think Christopher’s writing deserves that kind of elevation.
You’ve co-starred with Sigourney many times now. What did she say about your Tony nomination?
Oh, unbelievably supportive. We all went out and celebrated. She’s as strong as they come and as generous as they come. I’ve been lucky to have done a number of things with Sigourney, and I’ve always loved her and felt like she’s one of our wonderful actresses. I feel disappointed for her. I was hoping that we three would all be nominated in different categories; that was the dream.
This is your fifth Christopher Durang show. Why is his writing such a good match with your talent?
I feel like we both have a drive to try to change the world. We love to laugh and we like to look at the absurdities of life. It’s more fun to try to change people’s minds about things or make people look at something in a mirror if you can get them to laugh. You see it and it’s fractured and it’s funny, and then you go, “My goodness, he was actually talking about something very, very important in our world.”
When you read this play, did you dream it would end up on Broadway, with six Tony nominations?
No, not at all. My guess is that most actors would tell you that you never think about where a play will go. The remarkable journey was that Chris created it for Sigourney and for me, and he was so happy to add David Hyde Pierce to the mix. He really gave us all a gift with this play. I must say that the greatest thrill we have is the young people [in the audience]. They come to see Sigourney or David, from familiarity of their work, and then they love the play. They say, “This is my first play. I love it!” and we’re like, “Yes, I remember that feeling.” So, I’m so happy!
You touched on this earlier, but Chris wrote Sonia around you?
I think he started off thinking of me. It always makes me laugh, because he was like, “I started off imagining you and me living in the country with Sigourney coming in and out all the time with her wonderful, successful career.” I was like, “Great, we should be whining in the country together.” He said, “You get to do the phone call and have hope for love.” He wound it around in a great way.
How would you feel if Maggie Smith came to see the play?
I’d never want to know [laughs]. I used to "do" her, and that’s why Chris put it in the play. Whenever I would fail doing auditions or feel really blue, I’d say, “If only I’d done it as Maggie Smith.” It would always seem much better if I’d do it like that, except then they’d think of her and want to hire her and not me. [Chris] remembered that and put it in like a trump card. It was just a nice insanity that he pulled out from the past. I try to do it with as much love and respect as possible, because she’s a titan of the theater. I love her.
Director Nicky Martin told us that in another time, you could have been as big a star as Lucille Ball. Has your theater career kept you from pursuing TV?
In a certain way, of course. But in another way, there is nothing like the theater to me. There’s nothing like that communication. It’s our version of church, where people come together and call and response with each other. It’s so satisfying, and I find that with a camera—it’s hard for me to know who it’s reaching. I’m not skilled at it. I’ve talked a lot about it with Sigourney, because she’s a master at the camera. She’s so present, and it’s so unforced. I always feel like a clown in red shoes and big red nose.
You’ve done lots of leading roles outside NYC. Is there a starring role you’ve dreamed of doing here?
Well I would love to do [Thornton Wilder’s] Matchmaker. I’ve felt that she is this crazy Irish woman, trying to survive, and that’s Kristine. I’m half Irish, so I kind of laugh and go "Dolly Gallagher Levi." I would love to have that opportunity, if somebody would beg for old me. Who knows!
Did you meet your husband [actor Brent Langdon] doing regional theater?
Yes, I did. I met Brent when we were doing Omnium Gatherum down at the Humana Festival. He is from Louisville, Kentucky. He was the fight director on our show, and I just sort of seized the day [laughs].
How long have you two been married?
Three years. We’ve been together 10 years. I guess that’s when you realize, "Well, we’re together and we’re older, so why not " [Laughs.] I didn’t wear the white dress; we did go to City Hall, and it was a very beautiful time, and I was able to share it with my family that I still have. So, it was great.
Is he excited about all your acclaim this season?
Oh, he’s to the moon. He’s so helpful to me, because we’re just working actors. We don’t have machinery around us that many people acquire during the years, so we’ve been figuring it out together. I’m so happy, and he’s in the same boat I am. We laugh [about our relationship] and go, “This is kind of remarkable.” And if someone like Kristine Nielsen...gosh anyone can dream! It sort of explodes that idea that it’s only certain people.
Have you thought about your Tony dress? Will you wear something like Sonia’s gown in the play?
We’re trying to find a designer that could possibly be interested in me! There actually are people that have been very, very nice, but I’ve been teasing everyone that I’ll be wearing Donna Karan bedding; I’m not that gorgeous person on the red carpet, but I feel I’ll find something great and it will be fun. I’m sure I’m going to feel like a million dollars. I just want to be recognizable, that’s all! I want to be comfortable and recognizable so people go, “Oh, that’s Kristine Nielsen!” [Laughs.] I don’t want to have a mask on or anything scary that is not me—that’s my goal.
Do you feel like the favorite?
Oh, no. No, I don’t think I’m anywhere near the favorite, and I think as I say honestly, it’s been a fabulous year for plays and for actresses and I’m so happy to be a part of that because there have been terrible years for actresses, when they’re searching for somebody to nominate. I feel this year they could have gone with so many wonderful performances. I really, honestly, am just happy to be part of it this year.
You’ve been a working actress for 20 years now. What advice do you give to young actors?
Nothing matters but the role. If it’s the role you want to do and it stretches you, you need to do it, even if it’s for $5. It doesn’t matter where it fits in the economic place, and that’s really hard for actors. You just don’t want your niche to become very small and very specific. You want to keep expanding yourself so your heart and your soul keep opening, so that you can play different colors of different people. You can’t play the same role over and over again. And I think that’s where Nicky Martin helped me out this time; he was like, “I want you be very subdued for as long as you possibly can [laughs] until Maggie Smith.”
Don't miss Kristine Nielsen's Tony-nominated performance in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Broadway's Golden Theatre.