Screen siren Carla Gugino has worked steadily for more than 20 years in feature films such as Spy Kids, Night at the Museum and Sin City and TV projects such as Entourage and Political Animals. Gugino is also an accomplished stage actress, having starred in classics by O'Neill (Desire Under the Elms), Williams (Suddenly Last Summer), Miller (After the Fall) and Fugard (The Road to Mecca). Now, she takes the stage at LCT’s Claire Tow Theater in a whirlwind performance as Alex, a mom struggling to get her son into an elite New York City private school and come to terms with his “gender-variant” interests, in Daniel Pearle's new drama A Kid Like Jake. Broadway.com recently chatted with Gugino about her daring new show, finding the happy medium of fame and her dream role as boozy Virginia Woolf monster, Martha.
A Kid Like Jake is terrific. Why did you want to be a part of it?
As soon as I read the play out loud, I just fell in love with it. So much of the play has to do with things that are very relatable. There’s no rulebook on how you’re supposed to be a parent; it’s one of the toughest jobs. But it's also interesting in terms of the idea of people being labeled—how we fit into society and how we figure that out along the way. I was so taken with this woman’s journey, and I thought it would be such an interesting world and person to explore. Also, in New York, I’ve only done revivals, which wasn’t an intentional thing.
What’s been exciting about helping to launch a new play?
It’s been a great experience because Daniel [Pearle] was so specific, and everything is really thought out. He really does have a dexterity as a writer that is beyond a lot of new playwrights. He is very smart and very much a voice of his generation. I also felt, in a weird way, like I was sort of exploring elements of a Chekhov or a Pinter play—finding those rhythms that are innately the music of the text. It was a natural progression from doing some of the more classic work.
Your character is so forceful. How do you come down from it? What’s your post-show like?
It’s an intense one. It really is. I always find theater more difficult versus film or television in terms of being able to release the character and live your life. You are doing it eight shows a week, so it’s in your bones, your blood, you’re dreaming about it; that one day off just is enough to rest your voice and get some sleep [laughs]. But the women share a dressing room, and that has become such a beautiful thing because we come backstage afterwards and talk about the show, give each other a hug, spray some lavender and sage into the air and have a moment to decompress. Acting is the love of my life, so in that way it’s an exhilarating process.
You work consistently in TV and movies, but you always come back to the stage. Why?
I love all the mediums for different reasons, and they all make you a better actor. They talk about film being a director’s medium and TV being a writer’s medium, but theater is an actor’s medium. There’s something pretty amazing about the fact that you step out onto those boards and you have a group of people—many of whom are strangers to you and the material they’re about to see—and you get to weave a tale, live it in chronological order and take people along with you. That’s really extraordinary and really special. There’s something about the fact that it will never, ever be the same twice that I find incredibly exciting as an actor. Also, the quality and complexity of the roles [in plays] are just amazing. I feel like in cable television they’re doing a bit more in terms of women’s roles, and occasionally you’ll get a great movie, but very rarely do you have that kind of choice in terms of really interesting women who you can’t describe in one sentence.
Do you have any dream stage roles?
I have so many, and it's always a timing thing. I'm sad that I missed doing a professional production of The Seagull as Nina, but there are a couple of roles that I'm not too old for [laughs]. I’ve always wanted to do Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and in about 15 years or so, I’d love to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The exciting thing about the stage is there’s always a bunch of roles yet to come.
Lots of people feel you were robbed of a Tony nod for Desire Under the Elms four years ago. Do you care about awards?
It’s impossible for it not to be on your radar—and a lot of people talked about it happening leading up to [the Tonys] and then feeling kind of outraged that it didn’t. I certainly don’t look for any affirmation of my value in those things; that stuff is all so fickle and circumstantial and timing-oriented. There are so many incredible actors, directors and writers that have been totally unacknowledged. But I’m always appreciative that people would say that because it makes me know that the performance resonated with them.
Which of your many film and TV characters is closest to who you really are?
It’s funny, because if a role is too much like me, I wouldn’t be that interested in playing it. The thing that excited me about acting from the very start was the transformational nature of it, disappearing into a role and embodying completely different types of people. There’s a lot of talk nowadays about "branding" yourself. I think I confused people for a long time because I was always doing different things: the mom in Spy Kids, and then the lesbian parole officer in Sin City, the wife in American Gangster and Mr. Popper's Penguins. Amanda in Entourage is a character I really love, but she was far tougher and more brazen than me. There are elements of me in all of them.
Are you happy with your level of success and fame? You’ve been on screen for more than two decades, but can you still go shopping?
People recognize me, but in a very respectful, “Oh my gosh I’m a fan!” or “You’re Carla!” as opposed to [actor] friends of mine who have a hard time going out, and I am so grateful for that. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve made some of the choices I’ve made. One of the key elements as an actor is to be able to observe people so you can play characters that are different from yourself. It’s always been incredibly important to me that I maintain enough anonymity to be able to do that. If you go out and everyone’s looking at you, you no longer have the ability to observe. On the flip side, in order to have choices of roles you want to do, you have to have a certain amount of recognition and foreign financing and all of those kinds of things. So it’s definitely an interesting dance.
You frequently collaborate with your partner, writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez. What do you guys love about working together?
He is honestly and objectively one of my favorite writers and directors I’ve ever worked with, and I know he feels that way about me as an actress. I love his dialogue. He really, really loves women and writes particularly amazing female characters. We've done smaller movies and brought in some of our closest friends. Like Hotel Noir stars Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Malin Ackerman, Robert Forster and Kevin Connolly from Entourage. Any actor who works with Sebastian wants to work with him again. I feel lucky that I have this person who I can really collaborate with and that I really love as a person. It’s kind of the best combo.