STAGE TO SCREENS: Zosia Mamet, One of the "Girls," Is Now Really Really Starring Off-Broadway
By Christopher Wallenberg
Actress Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse, is representing the 18-to-24-year-old demographic in two roles at the moment — on TV as garrulous Shoshanna on HBO's "Girls" and on stage as a grasping force of nature in MCC Theater's Really Really.
It can't be easy growing up as the offspring of a Very Famous Person. But when your dad is David Mamet, one of our greatest living playwrights and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter of films like "The Verdict" and "Wag the Dog" and your mother is the actress Lindsay Crouse ("House of Games"), you have enough show business baggage to clog up the security screener at La Guardia.
Zosia Mamet, who has captured hearts as Shoshanna on HBO's cult hit series "Girls," has revealed that awkward moments about her pedigree have already abounded in her nascent career in Hollywood. One older director she met was quick to share how much he hated her father. At another audition, as she stood before a group of male producers and casting agents, one of them remarked that she had her mother's lips. A naturally private person and self-described loner, Mamet thought about changing her last name when she started in the business, but decided to keep it.
Fortunately, the 24-year-old actress is starting to carve out her own singular name and reputation in show business, apart from her celebrated parents. Mamet, whose first name is pronounced ZAH-shah (like Sasha, but with a "z"), first burst onto the scene as Peggy Olson's sardonic lesbian friend Joyce on "Mad Men." A photo editor at Life magazine, cool-girl Joyce pulled Peggy into the bohemian world of 1960s New York and introduced her to current squeeze Abe. Mamet has also played memorable recurring roles on "Parenthood" and "United States of Tara" in the past few years.
But she's made her most indelible mark the nervous, speed-talking, "Sex and the City"-obsessed Shoshanna on "Girls" — a character so sincere and insecure at times it's painful to watch. But as the first season of "Girls" progressed, Shosh has become a fan favorite, despite her palpable insecurity, mile-a-minute speaking voice and odd inflections, her frequent use of "like" and "totes" in conversation, and her obsession with the color pink and other girly affectations. As a New York Times profile of Mamet recently put it, "[Shoshana] is the weirdest one and the most normal one" on the show.
The character, a cousin of Jessa's and a virgin up until the end of last season, was originally conceived as only a tangential friend to the three main characters (Hannah, Marnie and Jessa). But creator Lena Dunham (who also plays Hannah) has said that Mamet's eye-opening audition tape shifted her original conception of the role, and before Mamet knew it, the show went from three main girls to four.
The summer after high school, Mamet spent a summer at the training program at the Atlantic Theater Company, which was cofounded by her father. While she has mostly focused on television and film work since first becoming a professional actress at the age of 14, she wants to do more theatre. Now she's getting her chance. This month, Mamet is costarring alongside Matt Lauria ("Friday Night Lights") in the New York premiere of Really Really for MCC Theater, which is now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Written by Paul Downs Colaizzo (read the Playbill features about him here) and directed by Obie-winner David Cromer, Really, Really is set on campus at an elite college among a group of undergrads facing the woozy aftermath of a wild campus kegger. As morning-after gossip about a booze-addled hookup between Davis and Leigh starts to turn ugly, what unfolds is contrasting he said/she said accounts of the previous night that threatens to engulf everyone around them. Mamet plays the enigmatic Leigh, who comes from a hardscrabble background. When her wealthy, controlling boyfriend Jimmy (Evan Jonigkeit) finds out about her tryst, a panic-stricken Leigh tells Jimmy she was raped. But a seemingly sensitive Davis (Lauria) can't remember what happened. This twisty, sexually-charged drama offers a scathing critique of what one student in the play has dubbed "Generation Me." The characters, with their caustic wit and profane tongues, are brash, manipulative and forever scheming. As their coolly calculating minds spin into high gear, each character seems increasingly intent on selfish survival at whatever costs, no matter who has to take the fall.
Having garnered critical kudos during its run last year at the Signature Theatre in Washington, DC, Really Really comes to New York riding the wave of a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding New Play or Musical.
Speaking with Mamet via phone, the actress comes across as reserved and soft-spoken, but also smart and engaging, her words often punctuated with easy laughter.
Really Really centers on a group of "coldly-calculating collegians." Tell me about the central conflict in Really Really. And what's the play really about in your mind?
The characters behave pretty awful toward each other during the course of the play, with the playwright offering a harsh critique of today's younger generation and some pretty troubling observations about human nature. Were those troubling aspects of your character difficult to play? Or was it really important to dig down and find the truth of things, no matter how dark they are?
Tell me about your character, Leigh. Who is this girl? And what's going on with her in the play?
Has she been a tough character to figure out? Or was she clear to you from the beginning?
In a Washington Post review of the Signature Theatre production of Really Really last year in DC, Peter Marks wrote that the young people in the play "practice what the playwright sees as the sorry singleminded preoccupation of the age: looking out ruthlessly for Number One." "I'm just doing what I have to do" is a line uttered by more than one character. Granted, it's dangerous to paint an entire generation with such a broad brush stroke, but do you agree with that assessment of your generation? Do you find that to be true personally?
So do you think it's dangerous to paint an entire generation with a sort of broad brush stroke like that? Plus, to me, it seems that a generation of people is a product of a society — and in this case, with the younger generation today, they're the product of a society in great turmoil.
How has it been working with director David Cromer on this production?
Turning the tables here, what was it like to be part of the exciting upset for "Girls" at the Golden Globes last month? The show won two Golden Globes, both big upsets, and you were up there on the stage when it won for Best TV Series, Comedy or Musical. (Creator and star Lena Dunham also won for Best Actress in a Comedy Series).
Both the show and Lena herself have become such a cultural flashpoint among a certain demographic. "Girls" is a cult show in some ways, but it definitely has resonated in the wider cultural milieu. What's it like being on a show that's at the center of the Zeitgeist and resonating in the wider cultural sphere, especially amongst a certain type of younger viewer?
I've read in a previous interview with you that you never really grew up watching television and that you still don't watch much television now. So what makes "Girls" feel so original and unique among all the many good shows on TV right now?
You've talked in previous interviews how you're very different from the character of Shoshanna in "Girls." But you always seem to express a real affinity and love for the character. Why do you think you've connected so strongly with Shoshanna? Why is she so close to your heart?
In what ways is Shoshanna so different from you personally?
What are the challenges of being the daughter of one of the world's greatest living playwrights, while trying to carve out your own career as an actress and figure out what you want to do in theatre, TV and film? Can that be a real challenge sometimes?
You say that it's a double-edged sword. So sometimes it can open doors, and other times it just places unrealistic or unfair expectations on you?
Did your mom or dad give you any particularly helpful or memorable career advice about navigating the shark-infested waters of show business?
Did your parents ever discourage you away from the business? Or did they like that you had an interest in theatre and entertainment?
Where do you think that drive or interest to become an actress stemmed from? Knowing what you wanted to do from such an early age.
Is the "Girls" cast close-knit? Have the four of you "girls" — and the guys — bonded with each other really well?
What's the rest of the season going to look like for Shoshanna? In the last episode that I saw, she and Ray are dating. And they're at a dinner party talking to everyone, and she's telling a story and just suddenly realizes that he's basically moved into her apartment. Can you give us a hint at what's in store for her the rest of the season?
I know that you've said you're a voracious reader. Do you think you might ever try your hand at playwriting or fiction writing one day?
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