Kelli O’Hara is an angel (she does more than sing like one as well). Therefore, taking the opportunity to chat with the Divine Miss O’Hara to discuss her series The Accidental Wolf (from actor / writer / director Arian Moayed for Topic, with a season two and three on the way), well, that was a no-brainer. It was one of the most on point chats that we have had in a while, as O’Hara had an answer ready for almost anything. In fact, while the Topic series was the focus, (seriously, check it out as O’Hara was Emmy nominated for the series in which she plays Katie, a wife and mother who receives a surprise phone call and relentlessly chases down the speaker), we also had the opportunity to chat with the multi-hyphenate about her starring role in Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age.
The following is an edited and condensed version of a recent phone call with the enormously talented Kelli O’Hara.
Brief Take: You seem to have a remarkable understanding of physical space within the series, on stage, and getting an early handle on Zoom early on in the pandemic. Is making use of physical space a conscious process?
Kelli O’Hara: Well I really appreciate that. Thank you so much. The layered aspect of it, I have to hand that to Arian Moayed. I am so impressed with his mind, the way it works and his passion and work ethic…everything. He really put all of this together and made it happen for us and gave us this place to be safe. And when you talk about space, we talked about this on TheWrap, it was a safe environment, I think that’s why the ability to say: “How do I want to do this?” and “How is this filtering through my psyche and my heart?”. It’s not a technical thing, maybe with the Zoom interviews as well, [chuckles] it’s not…I can’t think of this work as technical, it’s very personal to me.
The space—if I took it—which I appreciate that, and I don’t want to overthink it because I want to succeed in that. I felt like those were the personal moments or the personal space that she needed at the time. Or that I, filtered through her, needed. I don’t think that sometimes when you feel that you have the ability or the space environment to make choices which are with you like that or at least time-consuming or expensive [laughs] or whatever it is, I don’t think that you can always make them and they get ahead of you about it. You start to rush through true emotions or anything like that and I think that I attribute to a safe environment to make true choices.
BT: What do you lean into and draw upon when you are playing Katie, who is obviously very different from your real life person in a lot of ways?
KO: I lean into…she isn’t me, you’re right. I think that the only way, and I think that this goes through theatre, film, whatever it is that you are doing, I always talk about truth. Whether all the time I pull that off, I don’t know. But my goal is truth and the only way to access truth is through your own lens. Because this is the only thing that you really do know deep inside, whether if that is dirty truth or happy truth. For her, I wasn’t raised the way that she was, I haven’t been in a circumstance like this, my marriage doesn’t feel like this one. I know the idea of how I would feel if it was the case or I want to get inside the skin of somebody who is going through something like this. You definitely put some of your own vulnerable underbelly right in the centre of it and you have to go there as far as “How does this affect me?” I don’t simply want to make a person and then assume for her—especially since Arian is creating her for me—I feel a great responsibility to give her a real sense of humanity. Even in the moments which I disagree with, I really need to believe in her. I need for you to believe in her. Then even if she is wrong, I want the effort to have been well-intentioned and we can then learn lessons from that. I think that’s more interesting to watch and to deal with if it feels somehow as if it is linked to some truth.
BT: Interestingly, the actor playing your husband, Mike Doyle, directed a movie for the first time. You act opposite Denis O’Hare, who wrote a movie for the first time, and Raúl Castillo, who is an actor / playwright and of course, Arian. What does working with multi-hyphenates bring to this experience?
KO: I think that the difference here, and this isn’t a comment on different genres, because I think that some of my very favourite screen actors have been theatre gods. I think that you can go back and forth, but what’s happening here is that Arian is surrounding himself—and listen, I’m lucky to be part of that with people who really love this art, this art form. By that I mean all of it, not tv versus theatre, but they love it, and those are the people you get who are also writing plays, also writing and directing their own screenplays. They are constantly searching and wanting to use their voices in that way, and when you get on the set, you don’t have someone braggadociously walking in and saying “Where’s my close-up?”and “How do I look?” and basically, you have a lot of people who are saying: “Can we talk through this? Can we talk through this scene? Why did you do this? Can I understand this? What do you think about this instead?”. Arian knew that. These are the people he invited onto the set, and now, if you look at the list, it’s an embarrassment of riches and an overwhelming list of people that I respect so much as far as their art form. You look in general about the way that they think about this and I think that it’s because they truly want to do it. They want to be in the work process of it. It is not about the aftermath and it can’t be. This was an independent project, no one was making money, we didn’t even know if anybody was going to see it. It started out as a web series. I think that this was all done because people love to work.
BT: How do you feel as though this series has deepened during the time of the global pandemic?
KO: When you think about someone like Katie, who feels like she can’t do anything. You could take a whole person [chuckles] and a person, we’re all worth value, we have value, we’re worthy of being in this world. But you feel like you cannot move anything, even a tiny, tiny little inch. It feels helpless, and I think that she’s a great representation right now of “But do you still try?” and “How far would you go?” and “How much would you risk to help a stranger?”. I feel like right now, I could almost get emotional about it—and maybe I am—about these last months. What do I know? What could I do? I am a small step in all of this, and yet if every single person took that little step forward in what they feel is the right direction for humanity or, more than anything, for truth, wouldn’t it start to make a difference? Whether or not it is accidental in this particular story, whether or not she would have done anything without this phone call, I feel like it is representative of an idea that maybe it is worth it to try. Even if you fail, because we want her to learn something from it in the end.
BT: How do you feel at this time, that theatre sadly is completely shuttered, but that you are also exploring the worlds of television and movies?
KO: Well, “at this time”, which is the best part of this question, it’s been heartbreakingly a relief to know…now, my heart breaks about Broadway, because it is my life! I didn’t move to L.A., I moved to New York. I did it on purpose, I knew exactly what I wanted to be doing and I knew exactly what I want to be doing more in my life, which was to stand on a stage with this collaboration with an audience, feeling each other’s energy, moving towards something, teaching each other something. I miss that so much. But when the pandemic hit and I looked at my husband and we had recently moved to a new home and I knew that I had (the HBO series) The Gilded Age and a chance, I was cast back in November. I literally wanted to get down on my knees and just be grateful that I had something that would provide and in that moment, having the job that seemed to be going forward, or at least more quickly than Broadway, is great. But in another time, if you had asked me the question, I had done little bits of tv over the years, but I really never had time to give it more of my passion, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I think that I am continually taking theatre jobs because that’s what I want to do. That’s my love. At the end of the day though, you have to change it up. You have to learn new bits of information about being an actor. You have to trust yourself in new circumstances. I needed different scheduling at different times because of my children. I think that some people think that it is this big new leap, as if I am leaving theatre or if any of us are. I think of it more along the lines that we are just doing a couple of different things with our acting ability. It has nothing to do with switching careers. To us, it’s sort of the same thing, it’s varying it up—not every day eating the same thing or not [chuckles] wearing the same clothes every day, we’re changing it up a bit.
BT: You’re also taking on a lot of New York roles as opposed to L.A. roles. Do you see television work and theatre work as similar or perhaps utilizing different muscles?
KO: The Gilded Age is very theatrical, it’s a lot of New York actors, it is a period piece. I’m back in my corsets, I’ve been in my corset for most of my career. [laughs] I’m back in my corsets, I’m back in a wig, I have an accent, it is theatrical in that we are sort of building a world and building a world in front of your eyes that is not natural, and I love that aspect of it. And I am for the most part building it with New York theatre actors, which makes a beautiful connection to the material. You really study it, you study the time period, you do that wonderful research. The Accidental Wolf is actually one of the first things, because of the way this business works, that you do a lot of revivals and period pieces and you thicken them. You get asked to do another one and another one and The Accidental Wolf was such a beautiful departure. It’s contemporary and it is more today, more present and more natural. I think that also, it’s a lovely thing to get to do on camera because there’s no affect to Katie—Katie’s a woman, she’s a mother, she’s a wife, there’s no special accent or affect to her. This sort of natural behaviour for her sort of lends itself for me, to a vulnerable and kind of truthful place and I really love that. But I think that across the genres, even though they are different, and yes they are, we as actors aren’t different. We just use different skills, whether it be a close-up or whatever it is, but in my opinion, there’s still that need for that absolute truth. Because you are on stage doesn’t mean that you become a big caricature of somebody. It doesn’t mean that you start to chew the scenery, this is my take. You are still looking for a person, a person that can be identifiable, a person who could go through experiences and circumstances. And, in that way, become someone who your audience can feel through and from whom they learn.
BT: Where do you find the truth of the scene? Objectively, in the moment, or perhaps it is after the fact?
KO: Bartlett Sher, a great director of mine over the years, always talked about layers. These layers, when you start with the world in which you are, the history books that you read, you find out exactly what was happening within these moments. You talk to people that were personally affected by those moments. Whatever it is, you understand your world and then on top of that, then you put the personal world of the person that you are playing. What have we written? What is the backstory of that? This is all kind of like Acting 101, but you put all these layers together. Then for me, personally, I’m never going to make a plan and then walk into a situation and try to make art and do exactly as I planned. That is like if someone passes you a ball and you don’t pass it back, you catch it. You’re just going to do what you do and you don’t think anything about a collaboration. For me, that scene itself happened in that moment, when I am with Mike Doyle and he says something to me for which I didn’t plan. I could not have planned for what Mike would have done until the moment that we are shooting it. And…I don’t want to. I don’t want to know what his choices are, so that when he makes a choice, I listen. But that’s the way that I like to work. I think that there are other people…I do opera as well, and opera is very much a plan to come and try to do what you planned. But even in opera I try to fuck the system a little bit. [laughs] Because I want to respond to something. I don’t want to be on my own. I’ve never thought of this art form as a solo type of thing. I want to use someone else’s research and their joy and their pain and their experience to feed my own. I like to listen to people. I look them in the eye and understand how they are and that really moves me. I don’t depend only on myself.
BT: What have been some tv shows that you have responded to extremely positively?
KO: I have said that after years and years of doing theatre at night that I never become much of a tv…I love it. I didn’t watch enough. Back at the beginning of the pandemic, my husband and I binged The Crown, because we were behind on it, we hadn’t seen it. And when it came out this week, we were immediately like: “Let’s watch it, let’s watch it!”. We got really excited and we have been watching that. We’ve been watching The Queen’s Gambit. I wish that there was more that I…because there’s so much good. There’s so much good going on right now and very many people are making important things and all different things. I recently worked on a workshop, a five week workshop of a musical on which we’ve been working for a long, long time. And I’m excited about it, it was one that was in conversation when I was doing The Light in the Piazza, 17-18 years ago. Brian D’Arcy James and I have been working on The Sweet Smell of Success and I remember asking Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, who wrote The Light in the Piazza, to write a version of Days of Wine and Roses, the old Jack Lemmon / Lee Remick film. We put it together and it’s fascinating and the material of it and it’s lonely. Right now, maybe The Accidental Wolf is a lonely story of trying to figure something out. You think that it’s sort of universal, what you are trying to figure out, but most of the time it is very personal. I think that Days of Wine and Roses is this sort of story for me as well. I’ve been living in this place of listening and self-discovery. Through that material, through The Accidental Wolf…it’s funny, when you do look at what’s on tv right now, there is a lot of loneliness depicted. I think that it’s because right now, we all feel [sighs] a little bit like we thought we knew people and then all of a sudden you feel like you don’t. That can be a very, very lonely thing.
BT: This project seems to have deepened in time from when it first began, how has the time in between working on it and returning to it been for you?
KO: You have to understand how long this has been hopping around. When we began this, we were in the middle of when Hillary Clinton was running for president, this was a feminist story. This was an idea that this woman would take herself back, that she would take back her life and do something with it. Things have shifted and that’s how we started it as we go. It is not a saviour story, it will never be that. But then, what is it? It is a personal story, it is a story about each individual. Maybe you’re not going to save the world, but could you save yourself? Whereas we might have started with pounding our chest, we’re going to tell this great feminist story. Whether or not she’s the accidental wolf, someone else is. I think that as we go along—I know Arian and I feel this way—we put Katie in a more human place and…we don’t have to save the world. We don’t have to be the strongest female. Could we instead be a female who is being a purpose, to herself and maybe to her child. The political climate shifted greatly around it and of course, we know the whole journey for it is searching for truth. Searching for truth when everyone is telling you a different story. In a way, yes everything affects what Arian writes, I wouldn’t say according to what’s happening, as it seems to me he’s been writing ahead of it. I cannot quite understand that guy, it’s pretty magical. We go back and we look at the first season, which, by the way, when we shot that pilot episode, the baby in that episode is my baby. She’s seven. This has been happening for a while, and when we go back to that I’m thinking: “My gosh, how do you know what would happen in the next many years?!”. Because you’re kind of writing about it in that way now. I think he’s very, very intuitive and he’s sensitive. He too feels too much and we talk about this a lot. If you don’t let yourself be affected by what is around you then you’re really not making art, because isn’t this what art is about?
The Accidental Wolf premieres today, exclusively on Topic (the streaming service from First Look Media). Topic is available to US and Canadian audiences on Topic.com, Apple iOS, and AppleTV, Android, Amazon Fire TV and Roku, in addition to Amazon Prime Video Channels.