Lauren Ward first impressed New York theater audiences with her performance as the title character in Violet, the 1997 off-Broadway musical that continues to be staged around the country. The rising star jumped to 1776 as Martha Jefferson, but her career took a turn after she played Young Sally in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies and fell in love with her British-born director, Matthew Warchus. The couple married, and Ward moved to London and became a mother of three. Now, she is back on Broadway as Miss Honey, the gentle and caring teacher who becomes a savior to the precocious title character in Matilda. The hit musical has received 12 Tony nominations, including one for Ward and one for her husband. Broadway.com recently caught up with Ward to discuss her Main Stem return, the pressure of being married to her director and her real-life juggling act.
Congratulations on your Tony nomination! How does it feel to be back on Broadway after 12 years?
I was just happy to come back to New York! I thought, “Oh, coming back to New York—with the show—is fantastic,” because I really do believe in the show, and I love my role in it. But to be recognized on that kind of platform, it’s completely overwhelming for me. I’m stunned and honored and pleased and giddy [laughs]. It’s a really amazing feeling; it’s a fantastic homecoming.
Did you have a personal attachment to the story of Matilda coming in?
Not really. When I first read it, I was really reading it for Matthew [Warchus], with him saying, with the script, “What do you think about this?” I suppose it’s personal in the sense that when you’re watching your loved one go through that creative process, you want it to be successful for them. Then they got to the point of doing a workshop, and they didn’t have a Miss Honey. Matthew was directing something in New York, so his assistant had me read for composer Tim [Minchin] and writer Dennis [Kelly], to see if it’d be okay if I fleshed out the character, and that was how I came on board. I had no intention of doing anything other than the workshop to help those guys along. It was an incredible feeling [to create the role] because I had mostly worked on revivals in London.
How did you find the right balance in playing a character that’s so caring without becoming mawkish?
I think it’s important to think about how she got to where she is and how she survived. I always think that when she’s in her classroom, she is her best self. When Miss Trunchbull isn’t around, she is able to be the person that she wants to be. At other times she is somewhat struggling, but I think she does have strength in her. Miss Trunchbull is always saying, “You’re weak and pathetic,” but in my head I think she's not because she's still functioning and doing something good in the world. She is wounded, but I don’t feel she’s broken.
What is it like to go head to head with Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull?
I love him! We’ve been doing it together since Stratford-upon-Avon [in 2010], and we have a great chemistry. We are good friends, and we really have a blast together on stage. I often say, “Good luck tonight, go out and torture me.” We have a whole little thing that we do, and we make up funny songs with Gabriel [Ebert] on his ukulele before we go out.
You met your husband while working on Broadway. Were you surprised to fall in love with your director?
Yes, because early on in my career, I dated a couple people that I worked with, and it was an absolute disaster. I made a vow that I would never, ever date anybody I worked with, and I even got a tattoo that was like me marking it because I had been so burned. I had blinders on [with Matthew Warchus], and I just thought we had a great working relationship. Then, one day—I was worried about my dog because I was doing something at Manhattan Theater Club and rehearsing Follies, and I had to hire a dog sitter—he asked if he could hang out with my dog [laughs]. Even then, my friends were like, “This guy’s into you, he’s asking to hang out with your dog and he’s giving you his favorite book.” And I’m like, “No, no, we’re just friends. We have an intellectual connection.” I honestly was very surprised, and he told me he was in love with me before we had even kissed. He was hopelessly romantic about it, a real gentleman.
Has working with him changed now that you’re married and have three kids?
I think it’s pretty consistent. The only thing that might have changed is that we have such shorthand with each other, I know what he wants, and also, I never, ever second-guess him. I really think he’s a brilliant director, and I trust him completely and love working with him. I don’t want to speak for him, but we don’t choose to work together because we have kids. That’s a lot of stress anyway, just running our household with crazy schedules and our own careers going. We hadn’t worked together in 10 years, other than I read his scripts and he uses me as a sounding board.
Do you feel like you gave up anything career-wise by getting married and moving to London?
I do, but I’ve gained in my life. I made a really conscious choice: I wanted to have a family, and I wanted to have it with him. I think all women make sacrifices in all different fields. It’s very hard if both people are working. I wanted to spend time with my children, and Matthew’s parents have always been very helpful. His dad has since passed away, but when the children were really young, it seemed like a no-brainer to be in the U.K. That was definitely hard for me because I had to start over. People think, “Oh, she’s married to a director, it’s really great,” but, actually, they’re prejudiced against you, and you almost have to prove yourself even more. It’s so easy for people to go to that negative place about it, so you have to be so much more on your game.
Are you and your family enjoying living in New York City?
I am loving it! I see old friends and colleagues all the time and it’s so wonderful. People are always like, “Do you want to go for a drink after the show?” I’m not good with drinks after the show, but I’m really good at coffee in the morning. I finish my school run at about 8:30AM, so I can usually meet people if I don’t have to do something pressing for the show. I’ve got this diary of “meet so and so there.” It’s been really wonderful.
Is there an ongoing discussion of where you and your family want to live?
Yeah, we do have an ongoing discussion. We often have to schedule it in [laughs]. It’s very hard because I personally have taken a back seat since we’ve had children so they could have a constant parent. It’s that thing where the financial responsibility has fallen more on his shoulders than on mine. You have to go where the work is, and then you have to weigh the pros and cons of how you’re able to do that work and where you’re happiest. Also, we’ve left our dog—that same dog, she’s 16 now—with his mom. I really miss his mother; she’s a tremendous woman. I feel torn between both places and I think he does as well, although he feels more at home in England, obviously. We make it up as we go along.
What’s the secret to mothering three kids under the age of 10 and doing eight shows a week?
I used to be one of those people who were like, “I have to have my 10 hours of sleep, and I have to have a nap.” I don’t know—I think you get a lot more adrenaline, plus I’m up with them at 7:00AM most days, 6:45AM some days, and I get them to school, and that wakes me up. I do have a cup of coffee, and then I also have another cup of coffee! I have a lovely babysitter who I brought from the U.K., and she’s very helpful. But it's sort of a joke that I come in with a giant latte, and if I don’t have one, people are like, “Where’s your coffee?”
Finally, any idea yet what you’re going to wear to the Tony Awards?
I have no idea. I was talking to one of the directors and she was like, “I don’t know if people lend stuff,” and I said, “Oh, they don’t lend to people like me anyway” [laughs]. So I went with my best friend, who loves shopping, to look at a few things at Saks, but I have no idea what I’m going to wear. I know I’m going to be sitting for a long time, so I have to think about how comfortable I’m going to be. I usually have about 20 minutes to get ready, so whatever it is, it’s got to be fast.
See Lauren Ward in Matilda at the Shubert Theatre.