DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Shelley, Plimpton, Olivo, Gwynne and Damiano

By Andrew Gans
15 May 2009

Haydn Gwynne
Nominated for her performance as Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot the Musical at the Imperial Theatre.

"I was on the wrong channel," Haydn Gwynne explained with a laugh the morning the 2009 Tony nominations were announced. "Part of me would just like to have been in bed and try and pretend it's not happening, but I had to get my kids up for school anyway, and I thought, 'In for a penny, in for a pound.' I found out by [press agent] Miller Wright calling me up saying, 'Congratulations, nominee,' and I said, 'Oh, what? Where? When? How did I miss that?!"

Gwynne was nominated for her performance as Billy Elliot's spirited, yet empathetic dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, the role that earned the British actress an Olivier nomination in the show's West End run. Gwynne says the Tony nod is a "huge deal for a start. I never really imagined I'd be over here doing this to start with. I really thought I shan't be getting the job in London in the first place, so to come over has been a very big deal. Although it's such a British piece, but nevertheless Broadway is the home of the musicals. It's just a huge deal. That it should have had this kind of success over here, I don't think anybody takes that for granted. It really means a lot to everybody. I know it does."

The actress, who was also Olivier-nominated for her dual roles as Oolie and Donna in the London staging of City of Angels, said there were two main challenges in creating the role played in the film version by Julie Walters: "finding the character" and keeping her fresh. "Mrs. Wilkinson is quite a long way from me," Gwynne says. "She's not close to me in many respects, so it was the usual actor's challenge of 'Can I get under the skin of who I think this woman is?' I'm now in the privileged position of having done the role before and lived with her for quite a long time.

Haydn Gwynne in Billy Elliot, The Musical
photo by David Scheinmann
"I think I was also worried when I first came out that if you play somebody for a long time, do you peak and then have trouble finding the freshness when you're doing something eight shows a week and you've done it for a long time? But actually I've found that I feel like I know her so well, whatever my version of her is. The truth is, coming and doing it with a different company and then, of course, the strange situation where you change leading men frequently is actually very helpful because you have this immense variety in the show. So you've got different things to react off all the time."

And has Gwynne, who will be with the show at least through September, gotten the chance to enjoy New York City? "I have to say, I'd love some more time off, " she laughs. "Between the kids and the school run not as much as I would like. I did have some injury time recently. Although that was pretty ghastly, it did give me an opportunity for a couple of weeks to be in New York and to enjoy New York. But I do try. I was doing a school trip with my eight-year-old a few weeks ago. We went to Ellis Island. It was great to see the city from the river. It's a pretty amazing city."

Jennifer Damiano
Nominated for her performance as Natalie in Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre.

Jennifer Damiano, who made her Broadway debut at age 15 in the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, said she slept through her alarm the morning the Tony Award nominations were announced. "My manager called me at like 8:40 and told me the news," Damiano said May 5. "That call actually woke me up, but it was a pretty great wake-up call!"

Damiano, who plays daughter Natalie in the emotional new rock musical Next to Normal, said the recognition of a nomination is "incredible," but "I feel like what's still going on in my head is that I need to make sure I'm producing what I need to produce every night onstage and that my performance is always 100 percent. Every day for me sort of revolves around the hours of 7-10 and what happens onstage and what people leave the theatre with. . . . I think that [the nomination is] sort of this benefit that is truly a blessing. I'm really honored, but I'm still just trying to keep my feet on the ground and do the best that I can every night."

Natalie, says the actress who plays her, is "lost. She's just confused. I feel like she really wants to open up, but she wants to be able to live with a clear head and to get things straight in her own life, but she can't because she's always revolving around her mother's life, and she's always trying to make sure that everything as a whole in her home is good. She's just really waiting for the time that she can finally forget about that stuff and live her own life but, for some reason, as with [her father] Dan, something is tying her down to her house and to her mother and to this conflict that has been getting worse and worse and has never been resolved.

Jennifer Damiano in Next to Normal
photo by Joan Marcus
"I think [Natalie] strives for the truth," Damiano adds. "Towards the end of the show, that's what she really wants from her mother, for the truth and the real words to be put out there. . . .Her story is basically the message of the story, which is just to realize that even though everything really sucks, at least we're aware of that. At least we're conscious of it, and we talk about it. So I think she doesn't really want everything to be perfect, she really just wants truth."

Damiano, who received a Helen Hayes Award nomination for her performance in the pre-Broadway Arena Stage mounting of Normal, says the challenge of the role is to allow the audience to see the heart that lies beneath Natalie's tough exterior. "Natalie has a lot of walls," Damiano explains. "She's a really closed-off person, but you have to be able to poke a lot of holes in those walls for the audience to see to her heart and to feel for her and her story. I think the character Henry, Adam [Chanler-Berat]'s character, really helps that and helps people see through her. She's pretty ironic and sarcastic, too, so it's just about making sure that people can see to her heart and her needs."

Damiano says her favorite moment in the show is "the confrontation between me and Alice [Ripley] I mean, when do you get to see two women saying those things to each other onstage, a mother and a daughter? It's really beautiful, and it breaks my heart every single night."

The young actress is equally taken with the rest of the six-person cast. "I feel totally spoiled. If I'm going to be in shows one day with casts of like 30 or 40 people, I'm gonna be like, 'What is this?'," she laughs. "It's incredible. It's such a blessing. Everyone is my heart. The entire cast makes up my heart. We're really all that close."

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.