PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Jennifer Westfeldt

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Jennifer Westfeldt It's hard to picture the apple-cheeked, sweet-tempered Jennifer Westfeldt as a bi-polar schemer.
Jennifer Westfeldt
Jennifer Westfeldt Photo by Aubrey Reuben

But that's what the "Kissing Jessica Stein" star plays in Cusi Cram's A Lifetime Burning, Off-Broadway at Primary Stages. The ripped-from-the-headlines plot deals with Emma, the product of a privileged background, who constructs a racy fictional past in order to sell and market her new "tell-all" memoir. Things gets sticky, however, when her sister calls her on the deception. A change of pace, to say the least, from the actress who was last seen in New York in Wonderful Town, as the beautiful younger sister Eileen, a lass adored by all and never did a malicious thing in her life. Westfeldt talked to Playbil.com about the role that's been keeping her up at night.

Playbill.com: I understand you and playwright Cusi Cram know each other from way back.
JW: I met Cusi in an acting class very soon after I arrived in New York in, like, 1994. We were at the T. Schreiber Studios class. That's how we met. We've known each other ever since.

Playbill.com: Is this the first play of hers that you've ever been in?
JW: No. I've definitely done a lot of readings and short pieces of hers in more like workshop form. This is the first full production of hers I've been in. As you probably know, I haven't been doing a lot of theatre, unfortunately.

Playbill.com: Yes. We haven't seen you since Wonderful Town.
JW: I did a play last summer at New York Stage & Film, which was a great experience, to dive back in and remember those muscles.

Playbill.com: Why did you decide to do this play? What attracted you to the role?
JW: It's an incredibly challenging role, which is always very exciting. What's interesting about the piece is I'm basically playing this bi-polar, manic-depressive, but wildly intelligent and charismatic, and also wildly unlikable, character. I haven't really done that. I haven't really tackled a role that can seem unlikable on the surface of it. I think that's something that's been hard for me, living in that world. So I haven't been sleeping well, working on this, thus far. (Laughs) It's a great challenge. Playbill.com: I didn't realize the character was bi-polar. Does the character not realize she is putting forth a fictional account of her life and pretending that it is true?
JW: It's not that she doesn't realize it. She's sort of rationalized it, I think, in her mind. There's a great deal of emotional truth in the book. And we're sort of living in a time where fiction and reality are very closely linked, given what's happening in reality television, or even something like the film "Bruno," where some of it's staged and some of it's 100 percent true. The play talks about those blurry lines. There are a lot of layers of the onion that we peel away.

Playbill.com: Casting you in the role of a conniving liar seems very canny. Based on your past roles, and your innocent appearance, you don't seem like the type to play this part.
JW: Yeah. (Laughs) That was part of the challenge of this. In many ways, the dynamics of this piece remind me of "Rachel Getting Married," in that it does focus on two sisters, and the craziness and the love and the not-so-loving aspects. And I'm in the Anne Hathaway role in this play.

Playbill.com: Cram told me that you and your boyfriend, ["Mad Men" star] Jon Hamm have optioned the film rights to another play of hers.
JW: We have the film rights to a play of hers called Dusty and the Big Bad World, which debuted at the Denver Center earlier this year.

Playbill.com: Yes. Cram is a writer on the kids' show "Arthur," and the play was based on the whole media flap over its spin-off, "Postcards From Buster," one episode of which had Buster visit a boy with two lesbian parents, causing the show to be cancelled by PBS.

JW: "Bustergate!" I went to see the play as a friend, to support Cusi, and I ended up staying the weekend, because my father's also in Colorado. I ended up seeing the play a couple times and seeing it the second time through, I thought, "This is a great independent film." It struck me like a lightning bolt. Jon and I had been wanting to announce our production company anyway. It just felt like a really great dovetail. I'm trying to find the first filmmaker and producer to shepherd the adaptation, which I will probably write.

Playbill.com: Any chance of you doing a guest role on "Mad Men" with Hamm in the future?
JW: There has been some talk. The right role hasn't occurred yet. But certainly ["Mad Men" creator] Matthew Weiner has talked to me about that. We'll see. For the rest of the season I'm working on this play, so it won't be this season.

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