If you’re looking for someone to play the clichéd “hot girl” role, Marin Ireland probably isn’t your woman. That’s not to say that the willowy, comely actress doesn’t have the looks to carry such a part. She’s just too interesting a talent to waste on such a character. As she put it recently over salad at Café Orlin in the East Village, “When you’re trying to look pretty, it’s a lot easier to compare you to other people. I always felt intimidated in pilot season trying to audition for ‘the girlfriend.’ Whereas when it’s like, ‘you’re auditioning for the part of this meth addict, trailer park whatever,’ it’s like, Great!”
True to her word, Ireland appeared with neither stitch of clothing nor a single line in Adam Rapp’s Nocturne (2001), and as a girl with a “regular” face in the Broadway run of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty (2009), and she recently played a home-grown terrorist, Aileen, who eventually slit her wrists in prison in the first and second seasons of Homeland.
Her current part in The Roundabout Theatre’s The Big Knife which opened a week at the American Airlines Theater in New York, is something of a departure, at least superficially. In the Clifford Odets play, set in 1948, Ireland is Marion the Veronica Lake-maned wife of the doomed movie star Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), who spends most of his spare time slugging scotch and sleeping with ingénues. At the play’s outset, Marion pleads with Charlie to turn down a hefty studio contract overseen by the bully Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) so they can focus on their family. But this being Hollywood, things descend into epically disastrous territory as scandals emerge and Charlie is forced to the edge of a very steep moral cliff.
Here, Ireland chats about cautionary tales, weirdos and the romance hidden in even the darkest of stories.
Marion is such a glamorous woman. Is this the most glamorous role you’ve ever played? On stage for sure, at least on this level. Usually I end up being the frumpy or mentally challenged or in Reasons to Be Pretty, regular. Or a weirdo. I play a lot of weirdos. But in this play, there’s a glamour that comes from the era. The way those clothes fit and feel, it’s not just the glamour—it’s the posture they give you. The pants, the flow of the fabric, the way the shoes feel. But Doug [Hughes] and I talked about her and Charlie like they’re both junkies: they have this need for each other and they get locked into these situations, so I don’t feel like I was playing a purely glamorous stage role. This play I feel like everyone in it is bananas. Everyone is ravenous and totally bonkers. It’s not a play where the glamour is the essence of the whole piece. That’s what I think is so interesting about this: they’re glamorous people existing in this bloodthirsty upside down world.
Like a really beautiful homicide scene. Exactly. They’re all at their breaking point and people are just doing horrible things to each other. But yes, it was an exciting thing. And it was a tough thing trying to figure out. Doug and I talked about Slim Keith. We were trying to think of somebody who wasn’t an actress. Marion doesn’t want anything from the other people in this industry. That makes her very different from everyone else in this play. So we were trying to find a texture for that that felt like the lady of the house, the good hostess, but not Jackie O. And Slim went shooting with Ernest Hemingway; she was a really robust California girl. She was smart and she didn’t take a lot of shit from everybody. Because we were trying to figure out How does it look and feel and sound if it’s a little less caring what people think of you and something that’s in you a little more?
Marion is kind of the moral compass in this work. Was it a challenge to do that while still remaining sympathetic? I was definitely worried that people in the audience would get fed up with her or feel like she’s a wet blanket or boring in relation to these other people. And what often happens when you get pretty far into the process, you start to realize whatever your worries are as an actor are the character’s worries and that can really help you relax about some of that stuff. She has that line about how “I wish the world were more serious so I could be my superficial self again.” Yeah, she’s aware of it that she’s not a lot of fun right now. I think that’s why she’s trying to remove herself from this situation. She used to be a fun broad, I think.
Pretty much everybody thinks the celebrity culture today is awful. But seeing this play and the brutality of the studio system was quite shocking. Does it make you grateful that you live in this particular era of acting? I do think that it’s a hard thing for people watching this play to go, oh boo-hoo, Hollywood guy with too much money. I don’t think Odets is asking you to have sympathy for him particularly. I think he is an anti-hero. I think he’s a guy where it’s really in the last ten minutes of the play that he starts to wake up. He is a guy who makes bad decision after bad decision after bad decision. If you feel for him, great. You can also spend a lot the play watching it play out as a cautionary tale. I don’t think you need to empathize with him. That’s what makes the play tricky. I know Odets talked a lot about wanting it to feel Elizabethan in scope. And it is more like Richard III or Macbeth, watching someone make a slew of terrible decisions and they’re in the rubble and there’s just carnage. It is the ultimate rise and fall of human behavior.
You mentioned you’ve played a lot of “weirdos.” Is that a product of what you’re attracted to? I think it’s a combination of the things that scare me and are challenging and also the parts you tend to get are the ones that make you light up a little bit more in the room when you’re thinking or talking about them. With Homeland, when I auditioned for Aileen I had like two pages, I didn’t even know she was a terrorist. But the casting director for Homeland casts a lot of theater in New York. And she had just cast me right before that in A Lie of the Mind where I played a woman who had been beaten so severely she was almost entirely brain-damaged. The first time you see her she’s covered in bandages and she wakes up and she’s gargled. And then the whole show, she speaks gibberish. So I think the casting director was like, Well, I think this might become a crazy part. I know this girl is game. So I feel like there is some thread there. Even though it’s a lot of crazies and weirdos it’s not the same kind. So I feel good about that, I don’t feel typecast as one particular kind of crazy.
One of the first roles for which you received a lot of attention was in Adam Rapp’s Nocturne, in which you were naked on stage and had no lines. After starting out with that, is there anything you would say or have said no to? I’ve done a lot of weird stuff. Blasted was a real pet project of mine and that I helped bring to Soho Rep and in that someone beats a baby, I get raped and I give a guy a blowjob and then he punches me in the head. But that play, it sounds crazy, it’s a love story. I think it’s the most beautiful play ever. That for me is the driving force behind all of this. A Lie of the Mind, it’s like Romeo and Juliet. I have a really hard time watching gory stuff and horror movies. I have said no to some horror movie things. I wouldn’t rule it out, I could probably be convinced to do one. But sometimes, I just get ill. I did this part [as a serial killer] on The Following, and I killed a bunch of people in really weird ways. But they sent me the pilot to watch, I had no idea what it was at the time and I could barely get through it. I kept having to pause it and get up and walk around the room for a bit. I was so upset.
Portrait: Getty; Others: Joan Marcus