Before Anna Chlumsky’s comic timing returns to television in the fourth season of Veep in April, it is making its debut on the Broadway stage in You Can’t Take It with You.
Chlumsky stepped into the James Earl Jones-starring production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 play Tuesday. She replaces Rose Byrne as Alice, the play’s romantic heroine, who is the most down-to-Earth member of the zany Sycamore family. Their wacky proclivities are drawn into even sharper focus when Alice brings home her beau from a tony family.
EW spoke to Chlumsky, who had just wrapped the her HBO show, last week about jumping into the cast, coming to Broadway, and President Selina Meyer. You Can’t Take It with You runs through Feb. 22.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to play Alice?
CHLUMSKY: There’s a wealth of things. I grew up with the play, as many Americans have. I remember when it went up in September. I’m friends with Julie Halston [who plays Gay Wellington in the play] and so I was seeing all of her exciting I’m in the throes of tech and opening night [posts] on her Facebook feed and everything. I was just like, I wish I could see it, because I was going back to Baltimore to shoot. At that time they hadn’t extended so it was closing before I thought I’d be back. I was just bummed I wouldn’t even get to see it. When they called with the offer to do it, because I was in the throes of Veep, I didn’t know that they had extended it. It was really like I dreamt it. It was something else. [Director] Scott [Ellis’s] production of it is so fresh. It’s a really grown up production of it. So many of us have done it in high school or whatever. You hear the whole story, you hear all of the great lines, you get all of the jokes from a really grounded, true perspective. You really understand the period. You really understand so much of the history, where it’s all coming from, just by seeing this production. The cast is phenomenal. Number one, I was just like, “Well, if I get to see Julie Halston stop the show every day, then my life is a good life.”
You mentioned high school productions. Have you ever done it in high school or anything?
I hadn’t, no. They aired I think the Jason Robards version on Great Performances on PBS, which my mom and I watched that all the time. I grew up with the movie. The good thing is I haven’t seen it probably since I was 7 years old or something. I watched it a lot as a kid. None of those performances are in my head right now. That’s a gift. This way I get to have a fresh perspective too.
Has seeing the Rose’s performance influenced you?
Rose and I are very very different, and she’s wonderful and I love what she’s done with Alice. But it would be insane for me to try to do exactly what she’s done because we’re just very different. The beginning of any rehearsal you’re really spongey, you’re really just open to anything. So I’ve had to balance how open I am with also making sure that I’m making my own choices and staying true to how I’m playing her as opposed to mimic anything that Rose has done. It would be funky if I was just mimicking.
One of the things I love about Alice is she’s technically the normal one in the family, but she also has this undercurrent of madness, and I thought that was something that Scott’s direction really brought out. How do you interpret that? Can you reveal your take on her?
When Scott and I met at first he was like, ‘don’t be fooled, this is not simple.’ He’s so right. I’m the type of actor who will do my own backstory for fun, but it’s not required usually. You can just play a scene knowing enough about a character to play a scene. But, in the case of Alice, because this is about family, you really do have to go back in your mind from birth and think about how she was raised.
She kind of leads a double life. Lots of families kind of have their own speak, their own way of behaving behind the door, and then they have their way of behaving outside. What’s kind of funny about the Sycamores is not a lot of them go outside. They all kind of have their blissful little world. They always talk about eight years ago, eight years ago, eight years ago, and was thinking, what was eight years ago? That was 1928. So a lot of them kind of just missed the Depression. They just missed it! I think that she’s one of the only ones who’s ventured out, and had to do that thing that humans do where they adapt to whatever they’re in. But yeah she’s a Sycamore through and through. She’s romantic.
This play has a lot of going on: there are special effects, there are cats. Has any of that challenging?
I think that the more I do it, things will fall into place. I think that that’s certainly one of the trickier things. As far as challenge goes, it certainly is, but it’s in the positive context, where it’s like, oh let’s get into this dance. Especially, my gosh, the second act, what a dance that is. You’ve got to pick up your cues. It’s that delicious thing about being in the theater. Also on the TV show that I’m on that’s something that we love doing to. You can’t check out. You have to be paying attention. That’s one of the delicious things about what we do for a living. You have to be present and paying attention for at least three hours a day.
You’ve done a bunch of plays, but what is it like coming to Broadway for the first time?
It’s awesome. And also to be at the Longacre, which is a historical theater. Here’s my romantic side, right? I don’t consider myself a romantic, but in this instance I totally am. The second I walked backstage and I saw the dressing room it looks like when you see the showgirls in Gold Diggers of 1933 or something. Because that’s what they were based on!
It feels really right. You’re right, I know the theater district well. I’ve done plenty off-Broadway, but, yeah, it just feels really right and good. I’m totally blessed. I’m blessed to be with people that I know and love. It feels terrific.
Did knowing Julie before help you?
I kind of feel like it. That was the neatest thing about going backstage for the first time. I felt like I could knock on the girls’ door and see Julie, and I knew Kristine [Nielsen, Penny Sycamore] as well, we hadn’t worked with each other but we knew each other just socially. I don’t feel like I have to do an enormous amount of introducing myself.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about Veep. The big question is: what can we expect from President Selina Meyer?
It’s interesting. The nice thing about season four is that she’s still her. No matter what. She’s still Selina Meyer. All of her egoism and all of her panic and all of the things that we’ve grown to love about Selina don’t go away.
What’s interesting is a lot of the characters get pretty spread out. I think that a lot of that is pretty parallel to what happens in D.C. D.C. life can be very fluid and they kind of go where the opportunities present themselves. That’s interesting, a lot of the characters are finding their next move. Also, my God, it’s a campaign. That’s what was fun for Amy. The beauty about Amy—and it’s always what I have to remember playing her—is that chaos is the juice she runs on. I think she loves the fact that it’s unprecedented, she loves the fact that there is an enormous amount of pressure on her. As much as you like pressure, it’s a pressure cooker. Eventually you’re going to be done. The whole season was me just kind of navigating how close to the edge she was.