Jessica Keenan Wynn is standing on the precipice of a new beginning. As she wraps up her run as Cynthia Weil in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical July 8—her third time assuming Weil’s signature blonde hair and stylish disposition—the actor is eyeing the release of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in which she stars as Young Tanya in the sequel to the 2008 blockbuster.
Playbill caught up with Wynn about her experience in Beautiful, filming Mamma Mia!, and translating her theatre training to the silver screen.
You’re concluding your run in Beautiful after returning in January! How has it been?
This is my third time back in the show after taking a leave, which is amazing and I’m also like, “How many more do I have ahead of me!” The company—it’s the most wonderful community of people and artists. Melissa Benoist just joined the show—Supergirl as Carole—and her energy, her positivity, her gorgeous voice… she has really brought a beautiful element into the show and it has been a joy doing the show with her for my last few months. She really raises the spirits of the company.
When you leave a production to do other projects and return, what changes for you as an actor?
The greatest thing is that it breaks you of any habits that you were locked into just from doing the show eight times a week. It’s a fresh chance to take on Cynthia, to possibly breathe a different life into her and that’s exactly what I’ve done this time around. I find that I better understand her. I better understand her this time around and I think it’s because I had the chance to step away and come back with fresh eyes. It’s been one of my favorite times rejoining the show. Third time is the charm!
You were talking about understanding her better. For you, what is it like steeping into Cynthia’s personality and getting into character?
It’s so funny—I’ve been doing the show now off and on for three years and to this day, before my first scene I’m always offstage saying my lines! [Laughs] I guess it has become a superstitious habit! But putting the wig on is one element, putting the dress on is another, and walking out with this ferocious tenacity of “I’m going to get what I want” is another. Then it’s that first scene that sets the tone of her for me throughout the whole show.
I think it was Annette Bening who said she first finds the character once she puts the shoes on, and I really do believe that by donning the wig and the dress and shoes and walking out there, she finally comes to life. She is stylish, she is sassy, and I’m madly in love with her. Definitely a bit of Cynthia played into playing Young Tanya [in Mamma Mia!]. There is an element of Cynthia that will always be in me, I think.
What is it about Cynthia that you have in you? What about her do you related to and what has she taught you?
The piece of her that was always in me, I think, comes down the genetic line through my grandmother. My grandmother was this beautiful woman, married to a Hollywood star in the 1950’s, tough as nails, and beautiful as a little doll. And she is so vivacious and boisterous. She’s louder than anyone in the room, she’s the most beautiful, she’s the most glamorous, and Cynthia has that, just turned down a bit. I went in [to the show] putting on my grandmother and what Cynthia has taught me is vulnerability, which is the one aspect about Cynthia you wouldn’t think she exudes the loudest. She can’t be just be one-sided. That really brings that multidimensional natural to her that actually influences me to be more vulnerable in acting.
And this show was your Broadway debut! Do you remember what that was like?
It was a tornado! I missed my put-in because I had food poisoning so my first time doing the show was my first time in costume, my first time with lights, my first time with moving scenery, my first time with the orchestra. Usually for a put-in, especially for a principal, you get all those elements and I didn’t. But I thrive off of active listening and being present in the moment. I love it as an actor. I love doing a different show every night. It was being thrown right into the lion’s den, like “that’s what you want, here it is times 1,000!” But the greatest way to learn is to tear that Band-Aid off. I don’t really remember a lot of it except finally at bows when they were cheering, I took a big breath and thought, “Take in this moment.” I remember kissing the stage afterwards. It was very special.
And then going into Mamma Mia! was a completely different beast. What was that experience like? Was your theatre experience helpful?
There was an element of fear initially, like this is biggest possible studio movie that I could do but it’s a movie musical. This is what I’ve practiced. This is where my heart lives. Walking onto that set, people were like, “Oh, this is your world. You know exactly what you’re doing." People looked at me with respect and that is what changed [my fear.] There was so much respect on that set for everyone: from our incredible [director of photography] to our writer-director to our producers to our cast. It made it such a great place to learn and play. I think I really lucked out walking onto that set with those talents, being alert enough to take notes, watch, and listen, and being able to take a deep breath and say, “Trust in your talent because everything you’ve worked so hard for is going to shine so bright.”
When you’re working in film rather than theatre, how did your love of active listening and being present in the moment translate to the screen as you’re shoot take after take after take?
You rehearse the scene right before you shoot it and the wonderful thing about our writer-director [Ol Parker] is that with each take, he’d go, “Try this” or “What do you want to try?” so he could have a variety of options to choose from. He was lovely enough to tell us exactly he saw but also let us play. I think I’m spoiled! I don’t know that every [film] experience is like that but for my first time, it couldn’t have gone any better!
You were talking about getting into character and being able play, but what is it like initially building the character when you’re in rehearsal?
There are so many components to [Mamma Mia!] because you’re not only doing a sequel to a massive hit but you’re also portraying the younger version of an already existing character. I got to watch Christine [Baranksi]’s work. I always cite the The Birdcage because that is one of my favorite movies and she is so darling in that! She is so witty and charming and still exudes this poised elegance. I took little pieces from bits that I watched of Cybill and The Birdcage and from the original Mamma Mia!. I would even say some of her lines to see what that felt like in my body. I tried my best to capture her sparkle. You have to infuse a youthful element to it and find your own voice. So that was really fun thinking back at 22 or 23, when you’re fresh out of college thinking the world is your oyster.
Building a character is an amazing therapeutic exercise because you’re learning so much about yourself. You’re trying on versions of people you’ve never donned before and going back to memories of your past. There are lots of elements that played into building Tanya as a character and I think even on set, day by day, there was even more to learn.
The same way that you took your theatre experience to film, did you take anything from the film world back to the theatre?
Yes, I took my call sheet, which had everyone’s name on it and I put it up in my dressing room! It’s framed on my wall! [Laughs] It was crazy to go away and have one of the most incredible experiences of my life for six months—living in a different country, going to Croatia for five weeks—and coming back exactly where I left off. But July 20 it's coming out! After I leave Beautiful, the movie will be out and it’ll be a whole new chapter! Who knows what’s next!
Flip through photos of Jessica Keenan Wynn's feature shoot below: