The issue of Entertainment Weekly currently on stands features 2012 Best and Worst of the year — everything from our favorite movies and TV shows to best albums and books. Also featured within those pages are our Great Performances of the year, lauding stunning outings from the likes of Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Asylum to Sally Field in Lincoln. But there’s one Great Performance from 2012 that we weren’t able to fit in the pages of the magazine — that of Ari Graynor in this year’s beguilingly funny Broadway play, The Performers, which sadly only lasted about a month on the Great White Way.
Regardless of the show’s short life, Graynor — an EW favorite from way back in 2008’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist — brought the laughs to the short, funny send-up of the porn industry. Her mile-a-minute porn star character Peeps — who, we’ll add, was pregnant — kept the laughs flowing amid a cast of other stars that included Henry Winkler, Cheyenne Jackson, and Alicia Silverstone. To honor her great performance in The Performers, EW recently caught up with Graynor to discuss how she nabbed the role, how she made it her own, and how — just how! — the show could have been pulled from Broadway so soon. Read on for a taste of Graynor’s charm.
So how did it come about that you got cast in The Performers on Broadway?
My involvement started a year ago. I did a reading of it while I was doing Relatively Speaking on Broadway last season, which was the Woody Allen play. I just immediately fell in love with [my character] Peeps. She is — of all of the fantastic, lovable people and characters I have played — my favorite. She was so special on the page and, through the work of the play, became even more. She just became an avenue for my soul. She was so fun and she was so vulnerable and openhearted and present and without a filter, and I just thought the comedy in the play was so hilarious, and especially with Peeps and [Cheyenne Jackson’s character] Mandrew. It’s the best kind of comedy, where it comes from the highest emotional states possible. You’re saying really ridiculous things, but their emotional truths are deep and dark and as intense as any drama. That’s what allows it to be so fun and funny. The timing of it ended up working out really great.
So it sounds like it was a must-do kind of role for you.
Totally. Peeps was just such a unique creation and David West Read, the playwright, just wrote this incredibly unique voice for her and she was unlike anyone I had ever seen. As an actor, it’s the kind of thing that you can just chomp your teeth into. Just so fun, funny, loving and also ends up teaching me a lot about myself.
What’d you learn?
For me, it was tapping into all the parts of myself that I felt like were getting overly defended. It was an opportunity every night to be completely open in this way that she is. Peeps is almost like a child but has this wisdom underneath there and a surprising amount of depth and strength. It was a real lesson for me to let myself be completely vulnerable. Both as Peeps and on stage, which is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do.
This character Peeps existed on the page, but you also brought her to life. How much of her existed before you really took her to the level that you eventually did?
It was one of those funny things. I heard her voice figuratively and literally right from the start and a lot of my conversations with our incredible director Evan Cabnet — from before we started rehearsals up until middle of previews and even as we were about to open and consequently close — were about just staying out of my own way and not thinking about it too much and not getting too in my head. I heard her from the very start, and I felt her in a very intuitive way — not that there wasn’t a lot of work that we did with her, but there was a certain way that I just got her and that she just flowed out of me, so much that it was just about not getting in the way of that.
And you felt Peeps flowing out of you more so than other characters in the past that you’ve played?
Yeah. I think with any character and any material that you love, there is an immediate connection to the character. I think with all of them in a sense I’ve gotten them quickly. I work from a really intuitive place. That sounds super pretentious.
No, it’s actually honest and makes a lot of sense.
They can be completely different from who you are. Like the character Mandy that I played in Conviction is a far cry from Katie in For a Good Time Call… But there’s the same sense that when you connect material to good writing and to good characters, you see them. But I just think Peeps was such a big character. There were certain ways that she spoke that I knew immediately what her voice was. I knew I wanted it to be very specific. Sort of raspy. It had a specific sound to me that I knew was specific to her. That’s what I mean that she came about more clearly. There were just certain mannerisms, certain vocal things that just came out right away.
What do you think about being labeled a “scene stealer”? That certainly seems to be the role you play a lot.
I don’t know. I think… It’s certainly not conscious. I think it’s just the characters that people have hired me for tend to be sparkly and a little outrageous. In the comedy world, they’ve just had an incredible spirit and I’ve just been lucky enough to be afforded that opportunity, so I think a lot of that is innately in the writing. Then, my job is just to make that character come to life as fully as I can.
Were you shocked when the news came down that The Performers would close after just a month of shows?
I was. This was a pretty devastating blow for us because it was such an incredible company and talent, all the actors and Evan and Dave, the writer and the director, and the audiences were loving it. It’s one of the very sad facts about the timing of [Hurricane] Sandy. A lot of people obviously were impacted in a much more devastating way and this was sort of a slow burn for us. It’s hard to have a brand new comedy open on Broadway without a major star in the wake of a hurricane to mixed reviews. Financially, we had blown through our cushion during Sandy and, unfortunately, it was too hard to stay afloat. As a lover of theater, it’s so hard to put up and to stay in a play on Broadway, especially when there isn’t a massive marquee star. It’s always sad for me when a show closes before its due time. We need lots of different kinds of plays out there. We need revivals, we need new plays, we need dramas, we need comedies. It’s such an important part of our culture and a part of our art. The commercial aspect of it makes it very difficult, but better luck next time.
You had some other great projects this year — For a Good Time Call… and Celeste and Jesse Forever. How does 2012 stack up to all the years you’ve been working?
This has been a pretty magical year for me — everything from For a Good Time Call…, both the role as Katie and then through the journey of being an executive producer for the first time, and Celeste and Jesse and then this play, all of these characters to me were so different on all these experiences, incredibly beautiful in their own ways, but also very, very different. The exciting part of my career right now is that it feels like each year brings something new and wonderful and better than the next. I have no idea what 2013 looks like, but I’m excited because I feel like it’ll be something wonderful and hopefully completely different from everything else.
You hit a lot of mediums. Any preference?
I like them all. After this experience with The Performers… I mean, I’ve always loved doing theater, but this project completely reinvigorated my love of being on stage, so I’m anxious to get back on stage. At the same time, each year there are roles that become more and more fulfilling in film as well. For a long time, for me, it was about the people involved and the quality of work and obviously that is still the case, but I think there’s a different importance on the character and on the role now. There’s more importance on the role and the character for me than ever before. That’s the focus now.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky