A few years ago, Jessie Mueller faced a decision. At the time, she said, the decision wasn't "huge," but she was still unsure if she knew she wanted to leave the Chicago theatre scene behind for a job in New York City. After all, the Muellers are known for their work in the Windy City, and Jessie had won a Joseph Jefferson Award in 2008 for her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel.
But, on she went.
"I wasn't looking far into the future," she explained. "I had an opportunity that popped up, and I felt like I had to go for it. I remember having conversations with my mom. I was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' She said, 'Honey, it's a gig. Go do the gig, and see what happens from there.' I think you can try to plan all you want, and some planning is good, but to me, it's like God has the reins… So, at the time, it wasn't like, 'I'm doing it! I'm moving to New York!' I couldn't really wrap my head around that, so it was like, 'I'm going to do this next thing, and whatever happens after that, I'll deal with it.'"
The gig was a workshop of a re-imagined On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which later bowed on Broadway in 2011 (Mueller in tow, with Harry Connick, Jr. headlining) and jumpstarted her career in New York City. Since then, Mueller was nominated for a 2012 Tony Award, danced her way into Nice Work If You Can Get It (replacing Kelli O'Hara), tested her comic chops in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adorned slippers as pure as gold in Central Park for Into the Woods and embodied the iconic Carole King (winning herself the 2014 Best Actress Tony Award for Beautiful).
Her final performance as Carole King is tonight.
"I think what's happened to me is very unusual," she said, "so this break will be really wonderful because I'll get some time to step back and really appreciate all of it. I've also just been really, really busy, and I love that. I'm a workaholic. I like to be busy, and I like to go from thing to thing to thing, but it'll be great to have a little break — just creatively, too, to replenish the tank and try to figure out what's next and fuel some new creative energies. But I never expected anything like this to happen. I really, really didn't, and it's very humbling — it's humbling in the respect, too, that I know all of it can change on a dime because that's kind of how things can work in this business.
"I came from a very different world, where it was like you try to put show to show to show back to back, and you're just grateful to get your insurance weeks. I'm amazed [that] what's happened to me has put me in a different place from that, at least for the time being. Who knows what will happen in the future, but I'm very grateful."
Riding high on the success has been nice for Mueller, but she admits that she's not one to thrive on awards and praise.
What grounds her? "It's my family. It's my faith. It's my boyfriend — the people I surround myself with," she said. "The accolades and all that are wonderful and great, but it's not the stuff that really matters — and I don't say that in an ungrateful way, I just try to say that in a realistic way. Things happen in life, or things happen to people you love in life, and it just makes it very clear, very quickly what's important. That's the kind of stuff I think that keeps you grounded… I never want to walk around like I'm somebody. I think that's the easiest way to just fall down."
Aside from her parents, Jill Shellabarger and Roger Mueller, brothers Andrew and Matt and sister Abby (who works just a few blocks away at Kinky Boots), Mueller's guiding light has been her grandmother.
During her Tony acceptance speech, she made sure to send her gratitude to Evanston, IL, where her grandmother lives. ("Grandma, I know you couldn't be here tonight, but I think about you every night I step on stage.")
Mueller confided, "I just think of the moment where my dad must have turned to his parents and said, 'I want to be an actor,' and what they must have thought about that. She and my grandfather — he's no longer with us — have always been so supportive of our family. My grandmother, especially when we were in Chicago — she lives in Evanston now — she would come to every show and every opening, and she was always so proud of us, and I just really respect her for that because she's from a different generation. I don't think it maybe was the easiest thing for her to watch, especially her granddaughters [getting] into this business. I don't mean to sound sexist, but I think as a woman of her generation, she was more wary of watching her granddaughters go into this than her grandsons, and she's just always been so supportive of us, and supportive of us pursuing our careers, which I just love her to death for."
Mueller finds comfort in the fact that she's surrounded by a family of artists. Aside from relating to an everyday actor's highs and lows, they also "understand my crazy," she said (a kind that separates creative types from literals). Her boyfriend, Andy Truschinski, is also an actor. He opens in The Heidi Chronicles March 19, and Mueller is excited to have her schedule clear to attend his opening night. But, the self-proclaimed workaholic shouldn't be free for too long. She just workshopped the lead role — Jenna, a pregnant waitress trapped in a small-town diner and a loveless marriage — in Sara Bareilles' Waitress musical, and although casting has not been confirmed for its world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre, it looks as though Mueller's next project is in place.
"The workshop was so exciting," she shared. "There was just this energy in the room. Coming from Diane Paulus and from Sara, there was like an energy — there was a crackling that was happening. I think people are going to be surprised. They're going to get introduced to these characters and be surprised by how much there's a little bit of themselves in everyone that appears in the play. It's just a really hearty, meaty story about life and choices and all the stuff we have to navigate as we go through life. And then, on top of it, there's just this gorgeous music that she's written that sounds like her, but it's so of the world that they've created for the piece.
"Whether or not the world knows it yet — she's already a superstar — but I think that [Sara Bareilles is] one of those people who we're going to look back on in 30 years, and she's going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think she's that kind of writer, and she's that kind of talent, and it's really inspiring to be around somebody like that. It's inspiring to be around women like that in a business that I think is very difficult. I mean, I'm not in the music business, but I'm in a part of the entertainment business, and I just have so much respect for people who can keep their core, keep their individuality, and navigate a career in the way that they dictate because I think that's what I get from those two women, [Carole King and Sara Bareilles]."
Although high-profile projects pad Mueller's resume, she's not one to take work lightly. Moments in which she's overcritical "will never stop," she said. "The day I stop doubting this is what I'm supposed to do is probably the day I should stop doing it… I think the doubt is something that keeps you honest."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)