2014 Best Leading Actress in a Musical or Opera Nominee Interview: Jennifer Ellis as Cathy Whitaker in SpeakEasy Stage Company's "Far From Heaven"

Photo by Joyce Cameron Photography

Photo by Joyce Cameron Photography

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

If you have seen Jennifer Ellis perform, you know that she is transcendent in the beauty and humanity that she brings to each of her roles. Her ability to emote through song and seamlessly shift to dialogue make her one of Boston's jewels that it must guard closely and loyally, lest we lose her to more attractive offers in other cities. Her Cathy Whitaker was as much fragile as resilient, and her beautiful balance of these two extremes made her performance even more tangible and real. In her Interview, Jen talks about her 2014 productions, a time that she replaced a leading actress in a musical with only 12 hours of notice, and her many loves off of the stage.

Jen, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to interview with us.  Can you tell our readers a bit about you and your performing history?

Sure!  I grew up on the South Shore and started performing in musicals in high school.  (My first role was Minnie in Annie Get Your Gun.  My solo was “There’s No Business Like Show Business” . . . prophetic!)  I soon moved on to community theater and college productions and then booked my first professional roles at Peterborough Players in New Hampshire (including The title role in Snow White and Dunyasha in The Cherry Orchard)  After college I toured the eastern U.S. with A Christmas Carol before coming back to Boston. 

Why did you start performing?  How did you know that you wanted to be a performer?  When did you switch from making it a hobby or interest to making it a career choice?

I started singing and dancing when I was old enough to talk and walk!  Somewhere there is a videotape of my uncle asking 4-year-old me to sing “The First Noel” at a party.  Several minutes later the camera pans by me again… still enthusiastically singing verse 15 or 27 or something.  At 5 I began singing in the church choir and did so for the next 10 years.

I never consciously chose acting as a career I just knew it was something that I loved to do.

Tell us about your theatre credits in 2014.  Which was your favorite?  How were they similar?  How were they different?

My roles in 2014 were pretty varied.

I started out the year revisiting my role as Barbara DeMarco in Shear Madness and then moved on to Queen Margaret in Henry VI.  Two murderesses there . . . (allegedly).  In the spring, I wafted around in a melancholic state as Lilly in The Secret Garden.  I fell in love with the music of Jacques Brel - which is a bit of an emotional roller coaster.   

Then I went on to do the regional premiere of Far From Heaven.

Although they were all very different characters they’re similar in that they’re all strong women.  Even Lilly sticks around for ages after dying to make sure her family finds their way before she moves on. 

Photo by Craig Bailey / Perspective Photo

Photo by Craig Bailey / Perspective Photo

What was special about Far From Heaven and the role of Cathy Whitaker?  Did you do any research into the musical or film?  If you could describe her in a word, what would it be?

I watched the film once a few weeks before rehearsals began. I loved it, but I didn’t want to be overly influenced by Julianne Moore’s (magnificent) performance.  Scott Edmiston (our director) suggested we watch All That Heaven Allows, the film that inspired much of Todd Haynes’ vision for Far From Heaven.  I really enjoyed that film and other melodramas of the period.

I think it’s tempting to look back at mid-20th century America and believe that it was as idyllic as it seemed at face value.  I obviously wasn’t born then, but it seems that it wasn’t the most wonderful time to be living in certain parts of this country if you were a woman, a gay person, or an African American. 

Cathy is special because she’s a 3-dimensional woman living in what appears to be a shiny, plastic world.  When we first meet her she seems as if she’s just another Stepford-esque woman out of a fashion magazine.  As the constructs of her world crumble around her and she is confronted with the ugliness of real life we see the veneer of her perfect exterior blister and crumble to reveal a real, vulnerable human being.  

I think one word that describes Cathy is “resilient.”

What is one thing that you love to do that is away from the stage?

One thing?  I can’t pick just one! 

I love animals and volunteer at a farm animal sanctuary whenever possible.  Hanging around with animals recharges my battery.  I love gardening for a similar reason. 

I also love to travel.  I was lucky enough to get to Australia, Fiji and New Zealand recently – all of which were incredible.  The animals in Australia were significantly less cuddly than here at home!

What is the scariest thing that you’ve ever done onstage?  What is the funniest?

I played Sister Mary in Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.  For at least the first 10 minutes of the play, I was alone on stage speaking directly to the audience.  The demographic in this particular town was predominantly Catholic, and I wasn’t sure how the material would land.  Opening night was very nerve-wracking, but it all went over really well!

I also stepped into Urinetown as a replacement with only 12 hours notice.  I wasn’t in the musical (it was at my college and I had since graduated) but I had done the show 4 years earlier and they asked if I could step in for their Hope Cladwell who was ill.  When I’m finished with a show I forget the lines and lyrics pretty quickly, so stepping in with no rehearsal was tricky.  Luckily it all came flooding back.  That experience turned out to be an adrenaline rush . . . so I guess it was more fun than scary!  

What are some roles that you would love to play?  Any roles that you think that you’d never play, but would want to anyway?

I’ve been lucky enough to cross a few dream roles off of my list, but I still haven’t played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady or Lady Macbeth in Macbeth.  Light years away from each other, obviously, but I’d love to tackle them both.

What do you think makes a good performer?  What makes for a memorable performance?

I think specificity and honesty on stage help to make a performance memorable.  I think people are moved by what they can relate to in a performance . . . even if they don’t always recognize exactly why they are moved.

What would you like to see more of in the Greater Boston theatre community

Actors!  It’s great to see so many new faces in the community.  There’s so much talent here! 

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

In just a few weeks, I’ll be up at Gloucester Stage for Out of Sterno with Paula Plum and Richard Snee.  Those two are hilarious - I think we’ll have so much fun!