BWW Interviews: BWW Award Winner Olivia d’Abo Opens Up About SLOANE and Other Career Achievements

Actress Olivia d’Abo is BWW’s Best Lead Actress Award winner for “Entertaining Mr. Sloane”. She is best known for TV’s The Wonder Years and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Few may know that she is also an accomplished musician. In our chat, d’Abo speaks fiercely about her passions, showing just how consummate a performer she truly is.

How does it feel to win the BWW Award as Best Actress in a play for 2011?Well, I’m incredibly overjoyed; it’s a delightful cherry on top of a beautifully baked cake.I’ve never really considered awards important but this one has been.The process of hard work and commitment that went into this for everyone involved set an unusually high bar. When that happens and you really pull it off come rain or come shine there’s a lot to be proud of. We created a very specific world and the characters of Sloane were very challenging, requiring lots of guts and gusto.Though there were clearly some questionable moments when I said to myself ‘Oh My God can I really do this? Keep this amazing locomotive of a creature alive and running around the stage for two hours straight…even if there’s no more red bull back there to get me through?” It took all the trust I have and in return taught me about really letting go of EVERYTHING which feels so good.

How did you get involved in Sloane?

I ran into Ian Buchanan and little did I know he was already cast in the role of Ed. He called me a few days later and asked me if I knew the play, as it was an English classic and would I be interested in playing his sister Kath ……..”It’s a dark comedy he said ” and the role of Kath is a sort of Blanche Dubois. Of course I knew Joe Orton’s work, but wasn’t as familiar with Sloan as some of Orton’s other plays. I was intrigued enough to have a conversation with the director Stan Zimmerman ……who coincidentally I’d also met before, but hadn’t seen in a long time. Ironically enough ,Stan and I were very close to working on a pilot together a awhile back called Olivia Master’s Life for Brillstein Grey and ABC. So he was quite familiar with my comedic skills and I had a feeling Stan would know exactly what to do to bring out my humor to play Kath and be a brilliant director for this play, and he was.

Describe Kath in detail.

We spoke about flair of the piece and the music that was coming out of England at that time.Then we got into the light and shade of the character of Kath. He asked me how I felt about playing Kath, losing the beauty and playing her as a very plain, frumpy, heavyset, middle aged woman ? I thought to myself why not ? How refreshing ! No make up, wear a wig , a fat suit, get pregnant in the second act …. which meant more padding and then dive in and stretch! To me all those things was what was so captivating about the role. What it’s meant to my career thus far is that she came into my life for a reason and at the perfect time. I was able to discover different things about myself as an actress and about myself as a person through her.

I found a different sexuality in her, a different kind of beauty “inside first” which then permeated to an outside glow, a different kind of movement …….I swayed once I put the padding on because I felt more grounded, less light so I felt more solid and planted. A character’s obstacles are always an inspiration to me. However, Kath’s strength, her determination, conviction and her courage to pull herself up and out from being crippled and oppressed by her family. And the tough breaks of her life were a revelation to me and a testament to the human spirit. It was important to me that she was seen for who she is in the play, not as a one dimensional person or a parody of the the character. I just wanted her personality to shine and outweigh everything else. I also discovered playing the underdog is where the “gold” is for an actor; it’s a deeper more satisfying journey.

Was this your first play in LA?

Not my first, I’ve done quite a few plays here, but Sloan is to date my absolute favorite hands down. I just did two right before Sloan actually which were quite fulfilling…… each in completely different ways. Cyrano another classic at the John Ruskin theatre set in 17th century Paris, in which I played Roxane. And before that I played the role of Joan in a hilarious modern comedy with a wonderful ensemble of actors called It’s Just Sex at The Two Roads Theatre. I had the great honor of working with both Frank Langela and Juliette Stevenson on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in another English play set in 16th century Venice after the battle of Lepanto written by Howard Barker called Scenes from an Execution which was directed by Robert Ackerman.

Tell me about The Odd Couple in 2005 on Broadway and what it was like playing with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane? Did you enjoy playing one of those crazy sisters? Was it easier than say Sloan?

Doing Broadway was always a dream of mine since I was a little girl. However, doing a Neil Simon play on Broadway ……..well, I’m not sure you can beat that can you?! For example, the comment I made earlier that sometimes great art will come your way and at other times you have to be an explorer and seek it out? This was one of those times for me. I heard about the auditions they were having in New York through my agent. He got me an audition a few weeks later, so I flew myself out, put myself up and went in to read for Joe Montello and Neil Simon.

There’s a feeling that comes with the territory of manifesting a role that’s meant to be and I always get a strong intuition about it that I can see clearly. For the most part if when you’re up for something all you have is your choices so then you must to go with your very deepest instinct and use it ! Mine was to play a different kind of Gwendolyn Pigeon. Having grown up with watching Neil Simon films and having watched the Odd Couple as a series, I instantly was drawn in by Oscar and Felix’s dynamic but when I saw the Pigeon sisters in the film I thought to myself “they’re so proper !” And there’s nothing proper about two sisters who’ve moved all the way from England to New York City to work and answer phones for a weight loss company called SLENDERAMA!

So for the play’s audition I gave Gwendolyn a brash Spice Girls cockney twang, a loud laugh and snort to go with it and played her from East London …..well luckily they loved it. She was lovable, funny , zany …not the sharpest knife in the drawer but earnest with a big heart. I loved playing Gwendolyn Pigeon with my on stage sister Cecily Pigeon for 11 months. I adored working with both Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick; they were absolutely joyous to watch and act with every night. Sometimes we’d crack up on stage so badly we could hardly contain ourselves and the audience were right there with us……. Matthew and Nathan are notorious for that. I wasn’t on stage as often as I was in Sloan so it didn’t necessarily challenge me in the same way. But when you do Broadway there are other challenges as well, that require just as much muscle including doing 8-9 shows a week. Every experience is unique in and of itself.

Let’s talk a little about The Wonder Years (1988-92) and what playing that role did for your career in Hollywood. Doing TV or film, I know, is not as rewarding as stage. Did you feel suffocated doing a supporting role?

It did a lot for me in many ways both personally and professionally. It was brilliantly written, extremely well constructed and a hugely successful show. People just fell in love with it and tuned in religiously to each weekly episode as audiences found the characters and the show instantly identifiable. Surprisingly we found a larger demographic than we thought we would …… it was recognized as much more than a family show. It set a really high bar for me to be part of such a well made series for all those seasons, and because of its nostalgic tone it started to become a part of classic American television.

You’ve played a princess in the theatrical film Conan the Destroyer and done many other roles including Nicole Wallace sociopath/psychopath in TV’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Considering all other roles you’ve played, is the female role in Sloan still the best you’ve ever had, do you think?

Yes, it’s still the biggest stretch I’ve had so far .

Is there another part you’d like to play on stage – classical or contemporary?

Yes, there are a few in fact. I’d love to explore doing a Moliere play. I’ve always wanted to play Lady Macbeth and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. I would donate one of my limbs to do The Seagull by Anton Chekhov and I’d also love to do Noel Coward’s Private lives . I saw a masterful production of it on Broadway with Alan Rickman ……. and it made me yearn to have a crack at it.

Let’s switch gears to your musical career. Did that come before acting? Do you like it equally? If so, why?

I’ve been writing and composing songs since I was 5 years old…”so my father tells me”. So yes, I’ve been writing, singing and playing piano longer then I’ve been acting. But acting wasn’t that far behind my musical interests. I treat and honor them equally. When my interest in acting developed I experimented fusing the two together and performing in musicals and contests at school. My father was in a group called ManfrEd Mann. He wrote ” Build me up Buttercup ” for the foundations and “‘Handbags and Glad rags ” for Rod Stewart. So ,coming from such a musical pedigree I’m constantly surrounded by music; it’s a huge part of my life that I couldn’t live without. When I make an album, compose or write song for a film, it’s a similar yet different gear shift for me than acting. I prefer not to have anything else going while I’m in that creative space and process as to not disrupt my musical flow. I think in some ways it’s a slightly deeper form of expression if you can write your own songs, lyrics and play a musical instrument at the same time. Because you have more control over the final product as it’s completely in your hands. I think you can get the same kind of concentrated -fulfilling sense of expression with acting though, especially if you are an actor and a film maker.

What do you feel is your ultimate goal as a performer?

That’s a really great question. I’ve embarked upon many facets as a performer and am continuing to explore and honor all of them. Being an artist and a performer is an astonishingly powerful and beautiful road when you’ve got a lot you want to say. I wish I cold narrow it down to just one but that’s tough for me. I’m really excited about Guest hosting Second City in May and doing a live sketch comedy show, as it’s right up my alley…I have a comedian living inside of me so I’m in the process of continuing to explore that. I think another ultimate goal is to integrate music and characters into a live show of some sort. A broadway musical would be something great to work towards. I’m actually working and developing a night club act- at the moment with Stan Zimmerman the director of Entertaining Mr. Sloan. He’s conceived a wonderful show for me called British Blondes. You know, I thought I’d reached my ultimate goal as a performer when I’d gotten through a month of playing Kath in Sloan on stage, but then I realized I was just getting started…I think you reach your ultimate goal and then you dream up another one.

Olivia d’Abo is the kind of actress that makes things happen…she is the one to watch.

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