Two-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger is one of Broadway's most versatile stars, seamlessly moving between roles like the shy Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to the heartbroken Eponine in Les Miserables to the intrepid Molly Aster in Peter and the Starcatcher. Now, Keenan-Bolger is tackling one of theater's most iconic roles in Tennessee Williams' masterpiece The Glass Menagerie, playing Laura Wingfield opposite Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as Tom and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller. Broadway.com caught up with Keenan-Bolger to find out what life has been like in the Wingfield apartment and how this classy Glass cast kicks back.
There's such great chemistry in this cast. How did that develop?
We have the luxury of already having done the play once [at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA]. When you go out of town, you basically have nobody to hang out with except the people in your show, especially in the dead of winter in Boston. Every night, we all went back home to Zach’s and hung out. Going into rehearsals in New York, we had a different trust and familiarity with one another, which allows us to go a little bit deeper.
How did you guys kick back up in Cambridge?
We listened to a lot of music, and we talked. Zach had this dining room table, and we would sit around it and talk until 2 in the morning. One night, we all went out with Zach’s dogs in this crazy blizzard and sledded down the Harvard library steps on lunch trays. I feel so connected with those guys, having shared that time together. It was really, really special.
Cherry Jones sledded down Harvard’s library steps on a lunch tray?
I think she was the first one to go down!
What’s the best thing you’ve learned from or about each of your three co-stars?
I was so impressed with how much research Zach had done about Tennessee Williams’ life and his family dynamic. As an actor, Zach is so brave and willing to mix things up. With Cherry [Jones]…maybe because I did musicals for so long, I’m used to a very fast process, and watching Cherry, I was like, I’ve got to slooow down. She is truly working from the inside out and has thought about every single moment. Being on stage with her, and getting to see how deep what she is doing runs—that's what people respond to when they see her [in the theater]. Brian was this amazing amalgam of the two. He’s not in the first act, but he came to rehearsal every single day and kept this journal, and to this day, he sits downstairs and watches the show on the monitor. I felt a real dedication to the work from him.
Was it always a conscious choice for you to do a combination of musicals and straight plays?
I always wanted to do plays, but because I was trained in musical theater and because my first jobs in New York were musicals, I sort of stayed on that track. And then I hit a point where I had done a number of really amazing new works, and I was stressed out about singing. I felt like doing eight shows a week was taking a toll on my mental health. Luckily, Trip Cullman called me in for the play [Bachelorette] at Second Stage, and it was that crazy thing where I just had to be cast in one play and I was able to get so many more auditions and break into that world.
You’ve gone to the Tony Awards twice as a nominee, and you very well might be there next year for Glass. Do you feel like you know how to “do the Tonys” now?
[Laughs.] I don’t know that you ever really do. Certainly getting nominated again last year was so nice because I was less intimidated. The great thing about getting older is that you know so many people that are there, and so it’s just this amazing excuse to hang out with a bunch of people you respect, whereas the first time [for Spelling Bee] I think I felt like, "I don’t even belong here."
You and your husband, John Ellison Conlee, are such huge cheerleaders of each other’s work. Have you considered doing a project together?
Yes! We would love it. We actually just did a reading at the Public of this new piece [Tumacho], a spaghetti western musical by Ethan Lipton. If we got to do that together, we would be pretty excited about it.
Do you have a favorite show your husband has done, and maybe a least favorite show that you had to sit through?
I have so many favorites. He did another Ethan Lipton play called Luther that he was completely amazing in. I’ve actually learned a lot from John about being careful and picky about what you do as you get older. Maybe there were days when I would say, “Oof, I don’t want to sit through that again,” but he’s so good at choosing projects that are not only really enjoyable but he’s always so good in them. I haven’t had to endure anything terrible!
After the show, when you’re hanging out with John or with friends, is it therapeutic for you to talk about the show, or do you not talk shop?
It depends on how far into the run you are. At the beginning, I think almost every night I come home and John says “How was it?” and I can usually go into it. That’s one of the most amazing things about being married to another actor is that they genuinely are interested. Even when we go out as a cast, we’ll talk about the audience or about new moments, but you also try not to overdo it so that it gets in your head the next time. It’s a fine balance.
Was your brother Andrew excited at the idea of your famous Glass Menagerie co-stars?
I think he was as excited about Cherry Jones as he was about Zach Quinto. Part of what’s making me so excited about the audiences that we’re drawing is there are die-hard theater fans who want to see Cherry Jones, and there are Trekkies, Heroes and American Horror Story fans who would watch Zach do anything. Something that has made me so happy is how many young people are coming to see the play. At the stage door, there are a ton of high school and college kids. Our production of this play, which I read in high school and did not care for, will hopefully be a lot of young people’s introduction to this beautiful piece of work.
You are always so gracious to fans. Do you enjoy keeping in touch with them?
That’s something that I really appreciate about social media. At the first preview of Glass Menagerie, I was genuinely overwhelmed with how many people took a second to be like, “We’re so excited, this is so amazing!” I hope they’ve been introduced to something new that they wouldn’t necessarily get to see, but because they’re fans of me or of somebody else in the show, they’re going a little bit outside of their comfort zone.
Finally, if The Glass Menagerie was a musical, and Laura had a eleven o’clock power ballad, what would it be called?
Oh God! It would be called “Blue is Wrong for Roses.” For sure.
See Celia Keenan-Bolger in The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theatre.