Age: “Younger than you think.”
Hometown: Las Cruces, New Mexico
Currently: Winning big laughs in her Broadway debut as a clumsy maid named Edith in the current revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
Indie Theater Queen: Singled out by New York Times critic Ben Brantley as a “delightfully polished screwball” in Blithe Spirit, O’Connor is a Broadway newcomer but a fixture of the downtown theater scene, where she’s won several Best Actress prizes and appeared in eight seasons of the New York Fringe Festival. The friendly actress laughs good-naturedly at the idea that her current scene-stealing performance somehow makes her an overnight success. “You want to say, ‘Yeah, but what about all that time I worked for free?’ Actually I’m really glad this is happening now because I understand what a treat it is.”
After spending her childhood in New Mexico, O’Connor moved to Gainesville, Florida, in high school when her dad became a professor at the University of Florida. She earned a theater degree there and brought her Gator pride to NYC. “I have to be careful how much football I watch because I get really emotional,” she jokes. “I scream and yell and jump around.” Arriving in the big city with two suitcases, an air mattress and no contacts in the theater, O’Connor grabbed the trade papers and hit the pavement. “Someone told me that you’ll get one job out of 30 auditions, so I used to keep a little log, figuring, ‘Okay, when is that 30th audition going to come?’” Luckily, her mom and dad have always been supportive. “It must hurt parents when you don’t have health insurance and you’re not making any money,” O’Connor reflects, “but they’ve always been kind. I think they’d be kind if I decided I wanted to be a crane lifter.”
Jill of All Trades: Survival jobs? O’Connor’s done ’em all, often several at a time. “I helped open Chevy’s Fresh Mex on 42nd Street and worked there for three years,” she says. “Not anymore! Good food, but I’m glad not to work there. I used to dress fashion shows. I was an artistic director’s assistant. I help people organize their desks. I’ve booked educational touring shows. Lots of crazy stuff. But I’ve been lucky that my day jobs have been flexible and not too taxing on the soul. That’s important.” Never, however, did O’Connor set an artificial deadline for achieving mainstream success. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Give yourself five years,’ but I don’t think that’s fair; you can’t time-base anything. After five years and one day, do I suddenly not want to do this anymore? I’m a realist, but this is what I want to do. And I’m stubborn, which has paid off.”
Stepping Up to the Big Leagues: In only her second Broadway audition, O’Connor nabbed the role of Edith on a Friday and started rehearsals the following Monday alongside Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson and more. “Classy, classy, classy,” she says of her co-stars. “Generous, kind—I didn’t have any preconceived notions because it’s the first time I’ve been in that kind of rehearsal room, but they couldn’t have been nicer.” With guidance from director Michael Blakemore, O’Connor gave her character a loping gallop to augment Edith’s innate klutziness: “Physical comedy is so much fun, and it can be a nice respite for the audience in a play with a lot of words.” As for the 83-year-old Lansbury’s hilarious comic bits as Madame Arcati, O’Connor says, “That woman is fierce! How does she do it? I’ll be thinking, ‘I’m kind of tired,’ and then I look at her. What a powerhouse.”
Happy Days Are Here: Now that she’s earning her living on Broadway, O’Connor can sit back and count her blessings, which include “a great friendship base, amazing parents and a fantastic boyfriend [actor Josh Lefkowitz, currently starring in The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall in DC]. I’ve got something good that’s separate from my career.” Not that her career isn’t important: “Acting is my first love, and it’s also my hobby,” O’Connor says with a laugh. “I don’t knit. People say, ‘What do you do for fun?’ And I say ‘I do readings.’ I’ve realized that if you’re going to be around for the long haul, it has to be about the work. Nothing’s for sure in this business. It’s not a ladder—it’s more like a moving sidewalk.”