'Book of Mormon' star Nikki M. James on her Tony Award year
As the theater world looks ahead to the Tony Awards on June 10, there’s one Broadway actress who’s still enjoying her status as a recent Tony winner. Nikki M. James won more than just hearts with her starring turn as Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon; the New Jersey native took home the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 2011, a well-deserved win for the girl at the heart of Broadway’s most outrageous musical.
EW chatted with James–who’s currently in pre-production for a film adaptation of the off-Broadway musical Lucky Stiff–to find out more about Mormon life and her year with Tony.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you think of when you think back on this past year since you won the Tony?
NIKKI M. JAMES: Well, my birthday is June 3rd, so my year with Tony starts around my birthday. Since my birthday was June 3rd and the event was a few days later, there were all these celebrations happening. I hadn’t planned anything for my birthday, but I walked out of my theater, the way you always do, and thirty of my friends and family were standing at the stage door singing. It was really amazing that my friends and family weren’t going to let me ignore my birthday in the midst of all this craziness about the Tonys. The thing that you could imagine is that it becomes the only thing you think about, so it was nice to have a night where my friends were like, “There are other things happening in your life as well!” I think the best part about the experience, besides my friends and family being incredible, was being with my three co-stars. The four of us getting to do [the Tonys] together, and the lead-up to it, was amazing. We’re really bonded together I think for the rest of our lives because of it.
What was your first post-Tony show like?
I don’t want to sound sour grapes, but this is the thing that nobody tells you: it’s terrifying to go back onstage. It was for me, anyway. You get the award, it feels amazing, and you’re on top of the world, and then Tuesday night, you have to go back and just do it again, and the world doesn’t put this pressure on you, but you have this pressure on yourself. On Sunday afternoon I was a Tony Award nominee and I was just me, and on Tuesday I was a Tony Award winner, and that means something to me, and so I felt… not scared, but as if the crown didn’t fit. Like I was wearing shoes that were slightly too big for me. If you win an Oscar, that performance is finished, it’s done, and you never have to do it again. It took me probably two weeks after the awards to feel like I gave a good performance again. To get less self-conscious before I could let go of the jacket a little. I feel like that’s the thing nobody admits.
Do you ever re-watch your speech?
It’s a really humbling experience—I use that word a lot—I did not expect to win, and I don’t know what kind of person goes into an event like that feeling as though they deserve it. I certainly didn’t feel that way, as anyone could see from the speech. I only watched [it] once afterwards, because as much as people compliment me and talk about it, for me to watch it feels like an out of body experience. To see yourself in that level of emotion, that Sally Field type of emotion. [laughs] I’m like the Sally Field of Broadway.
Where do you keep the award?
For the first couple of weeks, I carried it around with me. I would bring it into my bedroom when I would go to sleep, and then I would bring it into the living room when I would be watching TV. I just didn’t know where it was going to live, and so finally it ended up on this side table in my living room. There’s a lamp and a Tony, and also they give you the envelope, so the envelope is there as well, and a single rose that was in one of the bouquets that my mother had given me that night. So that’s how it’s sort of displayed, kind of cheesily. I’m sure some day I’ll move to a nicer apartment, and in my dream world, I’ll have a baby grand piano and I’ll have more than one trophy, so it can have a partner of some kind! I don’t care what it is.
NEXT: “Don’t you know that I have a Tony Award!?”
Can you ever say “I won a Tony” to end an argument backstage with your cast members?
[laughs] No! I make jokes about it with my hair dresser, my wig guy, who’s amazing and we have a great relationship. He’ll be putting in a pin and I’ll say, “Don’t you know that I have a Tony Award!?” I’m certainly not like that, but you know, you think it means something, but the truth of the matter is that your work speaks for itself, and when I walk onstage with every single one of those actors and we go into the war together, those kind of things fall away.
What were your favorite fan moments from the past year?
Well, I have two. [laughs] Okay, so… this girl started hysterically crying when I met her just a few weeks ago. Hysterically crying. Like I was a Beatle. It was so bizarre and amazing and strange, because I felt like, I am certainly not worthy of this girl’s tears. That was just one of those moments where you want to turn around and look behind you because you think, is someone important here? Because certainly all this nonsense can’t be about me. But it was real. There was nothing fake about it. And I gave her a big hug and we did a bunch of photographs and it was the sweetest, sweetest thing. And then my other favorite one… I wear a wig in my show, and my hair is straight, and so often times I’ll come out of the stage door and it’ll take people a minute to register it. I was signing autographs and this guy had both a regular Playbill and also a souvenir Playbill, and I went to sign the regular Playbill and then I went to sign the second Playbill and he was like, “Oh no, no, you don’t have to sign that, just this one.” And so I moved on, and then I went, “Wait, why?” [laughs] And I could tell that he didn’t know I was me!
So he thought you were in the ensemble?
And that’s the flip side of winning! You think people are going to think you’re important, and then they don’t even recognize you! [laughs] And then–I’m kind of embarrassed about this moment–I said something like, “Oh, I won a Tony but I can’t sign your Playbill?!” And he said, “Oh my gosh! I do! I do want you to sign it!” So I signed his Playbill, and [co-star] Andrew [Rannells] was standing right there, and he said, “Did you just tell that guy you won a Tony so that you could sign his book?” It’s totally something Andrew would say. He teased me about it for a while. So those are the flipside moments of my favorite fan experiences. The one where I kind of force myself on this person. I had a “Don’t you know who I am?!” moment. Or, a “Don’t you know who I think I am?!” moment.
NEXT: “I can not tell you how grateful I am that I am not nominated for a Tony Award this year.”
How do you feel about your co-stars Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad getting pilot pick-ups?
From the very moment all of this momentum started happening for the show, I knew that there was no way that all of us were going to be able to stay together forever. Mormon has been our lives for a really long time, and so it’s not surprising that it’s time for them to move on. I knew. I mean, look at Andrew. He’s absolutely gorgeous, he’s so compelling, he’s got this incredible quality where he can be both totally likeable and engaged and just have that sense of irony, that little dry wit to him that’s perfect for situational television. And then obviously Josh had all these projects in the air even before we started working on Mormon, so we knew it was going to happen in some capacity, and it was still really sad. We’re coming up on their final performances in the next couple of weeks, and I went into Andrew’s dressing room the other day and he started to move out and I looked up and I got upset and he looked at me and he said, “I know.” We’re not really ready to walk away.
Who are you rooting for at the Tonys this year?
I am totally in love with Once. I love how small and simple it is, but also how huge the emotions are. I think Cristin [Milioti] and Steve [Kazee] are incredible and deserve a million accolades and everything that they’ve received so far. But that being said, I will be very sad if Audra [McDonald] does not walk away with her first leading actress award. Also, I shouldn’t say this, but I can not tell you how grateful I am that I am not nominated for a Tony Award this year. [laughs] I am so happy that I don’t have to have that stress and worry about the dress and worry about the this and did you go to that party and did you meet this person and don’t have that glass of wine because who knows what Tony voters are coming to the show that night. I am so happy! And I’m excited for them, but I am so happy that I don’t have to do it. I just can’t imagine having to do it two years in a row. Judith Light is doing it two years in a row, and it’s crazy!
What advice do you have for somebody going through the Tonys this year?
Well, Audra said to me last year, which is the advice I would give her this year, is that it goes by so fast and it’s so overwhelming, so just remind yourself to breathe and slow down when you can. She said something along those lines to me when she came to see the show last year, and that meant a lot to me. I started a journal so I could write down some of the things that I wanted to remember and the people that I’ve met and the lovely things people said to me, where I went to different events and what I wore. Also, I tweeted to Steve Kazee, “Go shopping now!” Because you just have to wear so many outfits.
What’s the status on this rumored Book of Mormon movie?
Oh gosh. I don’t know who writes those rumors. What we know about the film is what everyone else knows about the film, which is not much. It may happen, we may be in it, it might not happen, maybe it’ll be animated. All the conjectures that you hear are the things that we hear, and often we’re getting them from the same sources… the world wide web! So nobody has approached us officially about it, and I know for a fact that the only thing I do know is that they are excited and interested in doing a film, and I would love to be a part of it in any capacity, even if it’s an animated film, which actually I think would be hilarious and awesome.