Learn the name Ryan Michelle Bathe. The actor, who completed NYU’s graduate acting program in 2001, is about to break big. Though she set her sights on Broadway (and still has aspirations of making it there), you’ll soon know her name from TV.
In 1996 there was Annie, Brenda, and Elise. The roles made famous on the silver screen by Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn now come to the small screen in an updated series version of The First Wives Club as Ari, Bree, and Ollie, played by Bathe, Michelle Buteau, and Chase W. Dillon.
Still, Bathe credits the theatre with teaching her how to act. “I graduated with a big old tool box,” she tells Playbill. “I have access to a lot of tools with which to use, so I can at least attempt to work in any medium, any genre.”
Before moving to Los Angeles, Bathe worked the circuit of staged readings in New York. After moving to the West Coast, one of her earliest projects was a cabaret titled Fame about how she moved to L.A. “so I become famous enough to get a gig on Broadway,” she says. “I called it my Bebe Neuwirth plan! Cause she went to L.A., got Lilith and then came back to New York and took Broadway by storm. That was my plan. Maybe it still is!” (So far, her plan is on course.)
Here, Bathe reveals the stage shows that most impacted her, how she hopes to balance stage and screen, and what to expect from First Wives Club and her new character, Ari.
What was your first professional job?
A commercial for healthy hearts when I was 10 years old.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
The Lena Horne Show, The Lady and her Music; The Piano Lesson, staring S. Epatha Merkerson; Jelly’s Last Jam.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
Yes. The moment in Piano Lesson when Epatha’s character finally sits down to play the piano and sings to the ancestors to clear the spirits from her house while Boy Willie is fighting the ghost. Whew.
What’s been the biggest challenge of your career?
Moving to L.A. was the biggest challenge I faced. It was such a whole new paradigm and I never felt like I quite fit in. It took some time for me to feel comfortable in my skin in L.A. It was starting completely over with no road map and I was a theatre geek! I didn’t fit in at all!!
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
Pretty much everything at NYU! It was just such a fertile ground for work work work!! But honestly, I spent a summer in high school touring Spain and Portugal with my high school Chamber Singers. And I promise, singing in those ancient and beautiful cathedrals, with acoustics like you’ve never heard, was purely transcendent. I still get chills thinking about it.
Who is a collaborator from theatre that made you better?
All my classmates at NYU seriously. I worked with Bianca Amato at the Guthrie and she was wonderful and made me a better actress. Oh! And an actor named Jeff Binder who was so good that I’m convinced that just sharing a stage with him made me better. Ken Washington was a ridiculously amazing director who made everything and everyone better. He was definitely someone who I will forever be grateful for being able to work with and from whom I was able to learn.
Now that you’ve broken big into TV, how do you balance stage and screen? Do you want to?
It’s not necessarily TV that makes theatre hard to balance, its living in L.A. There is theatre in LA, but it’s a tricky world to get in. And some of the theatres cast only out of New York City. Anyway, I would love to do more theatre. It’s my first love and passion.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
Theatre is just a lot more rehearsal... A lot more collaboration. There really are no small parts in theatre. Everyone is there to give to a bigger, collective vision. You talk about the show and your parts and your characters and points of view. That’s not necessarily happening on TV. There just isn’t the luxury. So that would be the biggest difference and also my favorite part of theatre.
What DNA from Diane Keaton’s portrayal of this character still exists in your version of Ari?
Ari is a strong woman. Just like Diane Keaton’s character. She adores her friends. And she would do anything for them.
What is completely different about Ari – either because you are infusing YOU into her or because it’s just an updated time period (or both)?
Our show is really an homage. The basic pieces are there, the themes, the big ideas. But we re arrange it and use cell phones and social media!
What do you hope is most relatable to people about Ari once they watch this First Wives Club?
How much she loves and adores her friends, her daughter, maybe even her hubby. Ari has a big heart and I hope people remember that.