Jayne Houdyshell
Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf in a scene from A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Jayne Houdyshell’s (pronounced HOWDYshell) name hangs in the marquee window of Broadway’s John Golden Theatre, where she is currently starring in the most Tony-nominated play of the season, A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Just yesterday, it was announced that the originally slated 16 week hit will extend into 2018.

Hnath’s imagined sequel is based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, A Doll’s House.  In it, Nora abandons her doting, narcissistic and oblivious husband Torvald in search  to find her own identity. She leaves behind three children and her own former nanny, Anne Marie, who is left to care for Nora’s children.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2, Nora (Laurie Metcalf) returns to the house she left 15 years earlier to confront Torvald (Chris Cooper) about divorce papers that were never signed. She also encounters her now grown daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad) and Anne Marie (Houdyshell), both of whom are thrown into the middle of Nora’s pursuit for closure.

Houdyshell’s journey to Broadway has been similar to an Aesop fable. For years, the Kansas native worked “slow and steadily,” appearing in over 200 shows throughout the country and honing her craft.  In her mid-forties, she committed to finding work exclusively in New York-a risky move that paid off beautifully through critical acclaim and numerous awards.

“After all those years of kind of living out of a suitcase, I’m very happy to be living in my own home, sleeping in my own bed, and going to work every day in my hometown,” Houdyshell told Manhattan Digest over the phone during a recent interview.

Despite battling a cold and enduring a major early conversation faux pas from this journalist who believed that she had been Tony nominated only 3 times (“It’s actually the 4th, but who’s counting,” she joked), the gracious Houdyshell proceeded to discuss her current Tony nominated role, her career path, and what’s on her acting wish list. She also revealed her views on marriage, a theme which is prominently woven into A Doll’s House, Part 2.

MD: You’ve been nominated three—scratch that—four times. Last year, you took home the statue for your role in The Humans.  Take us back to 2006 when, after 27 years of doing regional theatre, you finally received your first Tony nomination for Lisa Kron’s play, Well.

JH:  First and foremost it was exciting and thrilling. Well was my debut, so to have received a nomination, it was beyond beyond my wildest dreams. I was grateful for it, but it was also somewhat bittersweet because the day they announced the nominations, we had closed the day before, so I didn’t have the opportunity to continue doing that beautiful show. I had a long journey with that play from the developmental phase to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway. So that nomination was the culmination of a long and a beautiful journey with a particular piece.

MD: You seem to be at a point in your career when you can pick your projects. What attracted you to playing Anne Marie in A Doll’s House, Part  2

JH: Number one, the play itself attracted me. It was so smart and witty and unusual. There is something very fresh and unexpected about the play, so I wanted to be part of the project in general. Added to the mix is the character of Anne Marie. She’s an interesting extrapolation of someone who already existed in Ibsen’s original play, on which our show is very loosely based. It was interesting to think about that character that Ibsen wrote and then spin out on that. So the challenge of playing her was fascinating to me. Also, it was alluring because of the actors who were signed on to do the play. Condola Rashad is someone I love and respect so much. I worked with her before in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway.  Chris Cooper’s film work is something I’ve admired for years. Laurie Metcalf is someone I’ve also admired through her film, television, and stage work. So, it was kind of a no brainer to say yes to it. Every element was dreamy. I also wanted to work with Sam Gold. It was a great offer and I was really happy to have it come down the pike for me.

MD: How did you prepare for the role? 

JH: I reread the Ibsen play, or Part 1 as we call it. (Laughs). Although Anne Marie appears in the Ibsen play, it’s a very small role. But she has one tiny pivotal scene with Nora in which you get this backstory on her history. That was the most informative and helpful thing for me in creating who this woman might be 15 years after Nora slammed the door- which is where our show starts. A lot of the character choices for me came directly out of A Doll’s House 2. The script is very direct. Everyone says exactly what they mean, so you get a tremendous amount of information right off the page. I had a very clear template from which to work.

MD: Both of the monologues on marriage that Nora and Emmy deliver are quite heavy. Nora says, “Marriage is cruel and it destroys women’s lives.” Emmy says, “I think it’s good to be stuck in a marriage.” Your character, Anne Marie, observes that “Marriage makes a lot of people very happy.”   Having been on both sides of the fence, what is Jayne Houdyshell’s point of view on marriage? 

JH: I don’t think much about it quite honestly. I’ve been unmarried for so long. Having had a 6 year marriage in my twenties, which ended in divorce leads to me believe that it is an individual thing. I think some people are suited to it and some people figure it out as they go. They become very good at being married. Others never quite adapt to that “sociological norm” – and I’m putting that in quotes. For myself, after I passed through the emotional fallout of leaving a marriage and going through a divorce, I found myself very happy in my solitude and singleness. I can’t say that I made a decision to be single for the rest of my life, but that’s kind of the way it’s panning out now and I’m happy to be a single person. But, I don’t have any negative viewpoints about the institution of marriage. I don’t particularly feel the need for a partner in order to lead a fulfilled and fulfilling life. We live in a day and age now where some people kind of set their own rules for a given marriage as opposed to playing by a universal, consistent set of rules, which was true in the time when Ibsen wrote his play.

Laurie Metcalf, Jayne Houdyshell, Condola Rashad and Chris Cooper in a scene from A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

MD: I found an article in the Washington Post from 2014 when you talked about your early days as an actor in NYC. You were quoted as saying, I lived very close to the bone and struggled to pay my bills often. But I always did it. That was a real point of pride for me, and part of the way I defined success.

What did you do to survive in those lean years? 

JH: I was able to eke out a living as an actor, so I was very fortunate. There was a brief two year period when I was in New York, transitioning from being a regional actor to wanting to work steadily in New York. I didn’t have immediate work in the theatre. I took care of a friend’s child as basically a part-time nanny, which really helped. In general, I’ve been fortunate to always earn a living and pay my bills as an actor. There were many years though, when my income was so low that it was a struggle.

MD: Successful actors are often asked what advice they would give to younger students breaking into the business, but I’m curious to learn what wisdom you might share with middle aged actors  who, like you, worked regionally and then moved to New York later in life to continue their performance careers? 

JH: I don’t know that I have definitive advice. All I can offer is what I did:  I tried to keep the faith that if I had been able to work other places for as long as I did, that the chances were good that I’d be able to sustain myself as an actor in New York as well. I knew it would require patience and a willingness not to give up on myself if it seemed hard in the pursuit. For a couple of years, it was a struggle because even though I was a consistently working actor throughout the country,  casting directors, producers, and directors who work solely in New York didn’t know me. So, being an unknown quantity was frustrating at first, but I told my agent that I’d do any reading or workshop that would come along. I did a lot of those and that was a great way to get to know people and for them to know me as an actor. As it turned out, one of those workshops ended up being the play Well, which in turn led to great things and turned my time in NY into a really positive experience. I think perseverance is really the key and to not to give up on one’s self.

MD: You’ve starred alongside some notable talent: Larry David, John Stamos, Bernadette Peters, the late Brian Bedford, and now, your entire colleagues from A Doll’s House, Part 2. Even though you’re a Tony Award winner, do you ever get star struck when you learn that you’ll be working with these folks?  

JH: I guess I do get a little star struck by people, but once we get the past “How do you do?  My name is ___”   and get down to the first read through, all of that drops away very quickly. Then, we’re just a bunch of actors in a room, trying to do the best we can with a new project. The process of going into rehearsal becomes very humanizing.

MD: Are there any existing roles into which you’d like to sink your teeth?

JH: Not so much anymore. I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of roles that were great, but I’ve been doing mostly new plays in recent years and I really like that. I like the experience of coming to material which no audience has seen or heard yet. Working with the playwright and director and originating a role is something I really enjoy. I have a feeling my next thing that I most want to do may not even be written yet.

A Doll’s House 2 is playing at Broadway’s Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street between 8th and Broadway) through Jan 7, 2018.  For tickets, visit the box office or click here.