Younger’s “Lauren Heller” was originally a six-line part, Hilary Duff’s character’s over-the-top best friend who works in PR and takes her top off in Bryant Park to make a splash on #ToplessTuesday. But thanks to actor Molly Bernard, Lauren has become a series regular. Premiering its fourth season June 28, audiences can continue to live vicariously through her full-out, tour de force approach to New York City life.
Bernard has always been attracted to “wildness and precision” in theatre, so it seems appropriate that her TV breakout role is exactly that. “[She] unconditionally, boldly, irreverently fucking loves herself,” Bernard told Playbill in an interview before the Season 3 premiere. But Bernard’s commitment and audacity come from deep roots in theatre. “In acting training, you stay on your objective and you play to win,” she says. “You have to go all in.” Aside from the fact that her grandfather (co-founder of the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute) was the man who introduced her to theatre, Bernard earned her MFA at Yale School of Drama; she wowed audiences and critics with her performance in Soho Rep’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. and recently assistant directed a show at SITI Company. Here, she digs into her stage background and shares lessons from acting greats Judith Light—Bernard played the young Shelly on Transparent— and Younger’s Sutton Foster and Kathy Najimy.
What was your first professional job?
Molly Bernard: I was 11, and I shot a movie called Pay It Forward. I was a kid in the classroom First stage job, if I’m remembering correctly, I understudied a one-woman show in New York, but I don’t think I ever got paid for that. It was called Washing Machine. They gave me one performance and everyone I knew came so it was a sold-out house but I don’t think I got paid for that. I think the first time I got paid was when I was hired as an actor for the Yale Summer Shakespeare Festival that was going on at the Yale cabaret. I played Miranda and I played Celia in As You Like It. I was able to buy shirts, shorts, summer things, because I made money!
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
Obviously, things interested me much much earlier, but some shows that blew my mind are the following: I saw Isabelle Huppert in Quartett when I was in college and I was like “Holy moly.” I’m really into wildness and precision and when deep practitioners of form break the form; we only have forms and rules so we can break them. I’m very into that.
I also saw [Marie Antoinette] with this actress Brooke Bloom. I had never really seen a female actress be kind of messy and kind of brave and not a classic. She wasn’t pretty, she wasn’t blonde, she wasn’t simple. She was all of her and it really changed how I then proceeded with my Yale training. I stopped trying to be a pretty, simple girl and was like you know what, I’m kind of uncompromisingly who I am and my grandfather always told me to do that. Those were some performances that teach you how to follow your bliss.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
My first year at Yale we were studying Angels in America and one of the best ways to teach the concept of objective is through Angels in America. In a well-written play basically all characters have the same objective; the working objective in Tony Kushner’s play is freedom. When I saw Michael Urie as Prior he was unbelievable. I just felt like he was free and he was doing something onstage that I had never seen. He was so alive and active and gorgeous.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
I had the great fortune of playing Richard II when I was at Yale. It was my third year at Yale and I had never played a leading role. I had only ever played these smaller parts, which I loved. I’m a great supporting actress. You don’t audition at Yale, they just assign you roles based on what they think you need. I scheduled six meetings with the department head of acting at Yale and I was like, “I really want to play this part. This is a play about a man who plays to win the entire time and he loses and I want to have that experience.” It ended up being the greatest thing onstage I’ve ever done. It was the hardest [but] most rewarding. I felt it first-hand: this play is not about me. It’s about this guy Richard and this dire situation he’s in and how can I help him win. To be able to learn that lesson not in a classroom but only with the help of an audience taught me more than I ever learned about acting.
Who is a collaborator from theatre who has made you better?
I learned how to read at one of my grandfather’s acting classes. He gave me the gift of theatre and he formed me as an adult, and as a woman, and as an artist. Hands down SITI Company and Anne Bogart have played a major role. I remember I was in class with them, and I got mad. [Anne] just stopped me and was like, “You are a monster actress. You are not your size. You are a big huge whole person. You are not cute, you are funny, you’re smart, but you’re also sexy and fierce and you have a lot of experience and you’re hungry. You are not a simple small actress. You are a monster.” That changed everything. I have a ring on my hand that I wear every day that says monster. Be careful what you tell someone who’s hungry because they might just steal it.
Tell me about something that you’ve learned from your co-stars—Sutton Foster, Kathy Najimy, and Judith Light, specifically—about straddling this line between theatre and TV.
First of all, TV is amazing right now. TV is unbelievable. I think five or six or seven years ago I wouldn’t have even been interested because I didn’t want to be on a sitcom or something cheesy; I wanted to do something meaningful. But, I think the thing I’ve learned both directly and indirectly is that the discipline from the theatre really really works in your favor in TV. I sometimes experiment—now that I’m a series regular on Younger—with trying to be less prepared and seeing what that gets me because sometimes I show up and I’m really just doing my homework. I’m not actually acting. Working hard and listening and being light and serious at the same time, while being kind, is the thing that these amazing women in theatre have taught me.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
I kind of love that you don’t rehearse it. It used to freak me out and I used to not like it. Now, I think it’s kind of awesome. You have to show up prepared and then you talk and you listen to the person you’re doing the scene with. It’s a crazy kind of stamina and endurance and it’s amazing. On Transparent especially the first time when I shot Season 3, when I had my first flashback, Andrea Arnold, the director, was like, “So you know the script, yeah?” I said “Yep,” and she was like, “OK so stick to it or not.”
What do you think is the key to succeeded as a supporting actor?
You have to know what world you’re in, what play you’re in, who you’re onstage or in the rehearsal room with, or on camera with. I think you can never play a bit part and call it a bit part. You have to play the bit part like it’s the part—the old-school theatre training of “you should be alert through your whole body” and energy.