Nicole Parker stars opposite Justin Kirk in the west coast premiere of These Paper Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at Geffen Playhouse this month. Written by Rolin Jones (Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Boardwalk Empire) with songs by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and directed by Jackson Gay, the show opened to great reviews at Yale Repertory Theatre where it premiered in 2014. Now the Geffen begins its 20th anniversary season with what promises to be a British invasion on stage not seen since the Beatles. Still high on the adrenaline of a full day of rehearsal, an energetic Parker spoke to me about her experience working on the new production. I think you’ll see why the former star of Wicked and MADtv landed the role. This is one all-around great gal.
Nicole, what has it been like working on a brand new show like this one?
What’s great about working on something new is, while the creative team has done a version of the show before, they’ve made sure we know, as the new actors to the piece, that we can make it our own. That’s something you never get when you’re plugging into a show that already exists where you really need to hit the marks and you can give it your own flair but it needs to be what it is. This show isn’t set. Even from a comedic standpoint, I won’t even know whether some things I’m doing will work until we get in front of an audience and they tell me.
Both you and your leading man, Justin Kirk, are new, right?
Correct, which is kind of cool because then we as a couple can find a whole new rhythm. The entire team is so supportive and really just happy to have another opportunity to work on the show and make it better. So many times you don’t get to do that. When you do, it’s all about really defining the story and making sure that it gets told even clearer.
What are your overall impressions of the piece?
It’s really a new, unique hybrid show. Even though the songs Billie Joe has written are stand-alone Beatles-esque songs, they drive the show and fit what’s going on in the plot. In that sense, where a musical will forward plot or character with a song, or even heighten an emotion, it is similar. But it’s only done in a very realistic way with the band – in this case they’re called The Quartos – singing their songs.
That is something I haven’t seen before where, in a proper musical, someone is just going to sing out to the audience and share with us their deep wants and desires or fears. It’s all sitting within this very neat thematic idea of The Quartos existing as a very popular Beatles-like band but the band is comprised of the Benedick and the Claudio so they’re going through things even as their characters are having to perform and sing these songs.
What effect does the time period have on the play?
I love that it’s set in the ‘60s because I think that was the beginning of the movement when women really started standing out, especially in London, with Mary Quant fashioning the mini skirt and really pushing the envelope with the look. It sets up the Beatrice/Benedick story perfectly. In this case Benedick is a John Lennon/Paul McCartney type and Beatrice is a fashion icon and a successful woman in her own right. They both are very strong individuals who don’t need a mate. But then obviously they ‘doth protest too much’ and we know that they are meant to be together. I think that only supports what we love about Much Ado, which is that great sparring between Beatrice and Benedick.
Is it written in verse?
Yes…kind of. That’s what I mean about it being unique. I don’t think I’ve seen a show like this before that folds in the original text with updated verse. Shakespeare fans will recognize some of their favorite lines and it’s brilliant the way that Rolin wrote it. In some instances it just seamlessly goes from one into the other, and then it can also be used comedically to have Shakespeare’s verse all of a sudden updated as modern dialogue that might even comment on what the actual text was saying.
Is the show for musical theatre people or Shakespeare lovers or both?
I think there’s something for everyone in it. Even if you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s language, you’ve got this text that’s integrated with modern language. Of course, if you’re a lover of the classics there’s something in there for you as well. I’m not sure that there’s a dull moment in it. There’s so much going on and there’s so much to look at and listen to. Every single actor is such a brilliant comedian and physical performer.
How did the role come to you?
I had heard about the show and had that passing thought, ‘oh, that sounds so cool, it would be awesome to do it…not gonna happen.’ You know, that positive attitude we sometimes have as actors. Then the audition came up and I got to read the script. It was really up my alley and seemed like something that I could maybe be the right fit for. But just like anything, you show up to audition and see every other gal who is so great and you think, oh that’s right. I’m not the only person who wants to do this for a living. There were so many amazing women at the auditions that I’m a geeky fan of, or just good friends with. Any one of them would have been amazing. I feel very fortunate that, for whatever reason, they thought I would be the right fit.
So it wasn’t a situation where you knew someone or had an inside track?
Oh no, it was definitely a serious audition process. In fact, I don’t think people realize that, even for an actor that you might think has had great success and would never have to audition for anything – I’d say there are about 7-10 people who never have to audition for anything and the rest of us, we’re all auditioning – you’ve still got to go out there and get it.
Even after you’ve done Elphaba on Broadway you’re still auditioning?
Even after you have done Elphaba on Broadway. You just see all the other Elphabas at all the other auditions. Here we are. All the Elphabas auditioning for the next Elphaba-like part!
That would make a hilarious premise for a show.
Oh wow, it would be loud, that’s for sure.
What did you learn from playing Elphaba?
I don’t even know where to begin. You should ask my husband what he learned. There should be a support group for the partners of every person who’s played Elphaba because it’s its own trials. I say the number one thing I come away with is that it’s one of those jobs where you realize you can be pushed so much farther than you think you can. It’s not that I’ll never be challenged again. I find things in this show challenging that I’m still trying to figure out. But in terms of when this show gets tricky or it’s a long day, I think back and it’s so not as hard as some of the days I had learning Elphaba. And because of that, I know that I can do this.
That’s a great way to look at it.
It’s very empowering in terms of realizing what you’re made of. It really asks everything of you and if you can learn how to conquer it – and no one ever really feels like they’ve conquered it – what I mean is, if you can even just get through a week of shows, that’s an accomplishment. It was also a great lesson in what you think you can do versus what you really can do. It made me a much more fearless performer, and a stronger one.
You also worked on MADtv. What did you learn from that process?
That’s where I learned about not apologizing for your opinions. At the same time, especially as a woman, it was about bringing solutions. You could have a different opinion about what should be in a scene or in a line of dialogue, but you learned to be not just a problem finder but also a problem solver. You’re constantly trying to better the product, which is what I really love about writers. I love that until the last minute, even when we’re taping in front of a live audience, the producers or the other writers are still coming up changing lines. I mean in some ways it’s crazy making but I love the spirit of that. It’s constant ongoing process.
I also learned to not be so sensitive, to not be so attached to ideas, especially from working with Marty Short. A joke gets 3 choice chances and if it doesn’t work it’s out. Or if someone in the writers’ room has a better option or someone wants to pitch you a joke and it’s great, I love the spirit of, yes, take it. All that matters is what works best.
That sounds like something you can use in any situation, and especially on stage.
It definitely helped me as an actress as well because you have to let go of your ego. If you don’t you’ll be crying every night. It can be very hard when you’re working on a new show – say it’s a musical – your song might get cut, your scene might get cut, your character might get cut down. You have to always remember that it’s all about what tells the story best. As solid an ego as you have to have in the business, it’s interesting you have to put it aside for the good of the whole. It teaches you to be flexible and to think on your feet. And it sharpens your brain.
One of your other talents is doing impressions, both singing and speaking. What goes into that process?
Whether it’s speaking or singing, it starts with the shape of the actual mechanism. So, if I’m looking for Ellen DeGeneres, for example, I’m looking at the shape her mouth makes when she talks because some people will hold their jaw forward, their jaw back, they’ll be lisping slightly, they’ll be barely opening their mouth, they’ll be using their teeth too much. Then that becomes the character. When I’m searching for a character who’s not a well-known celebrity I find that maybe this person has Ellen-like qualities or I feel like this person’s voice wants to live in the place that Ellen’s voice does. It’s about characteristics.
Who are you using for Bea?
That’s an interesting question. I remember when Meryl Streep was doing interviews for The Devil Wears Prada and she said she noticed that men in power don’t raise their voices, ever. They never have the need to. So she decided her character in The Devil Wears Prada was really never going to raise her voice at all. And it gave her so much power. I had the same thought when I was watching Mary Quant. She was the Anna Wintour of the day – that fashion-forward, super-hip icon – and she’s very soft-spoken. I loved how laid back she was. Bea is supposed to be iconic so how do you be someone who stands out? I think it’s very specific things. She’s a smoker and it’s the ‘60s so I decided I would start from a very low place, a very floaty place. She’s also a trendsetter and even within the way she talks she can set a trend.
It sounds like a lot of fun.
It is a lot of fun. We’re wearing vintage dresses and, as a gal, even that is fun. It’s play time.
The title of the play comes from a line in Much Ado About Nothing. Does it have any special significance for you personally in the show?
From my perspective, ‘these paper bullets of the brain’ is all about the words that Beatrice and Benedick use to throw at each other, these barbs and insults and jokes we come up with. I like that because they are such intellectuals. They constantly use their brains and by the end of the play their hearts outsmart all those little paper bullets and overcome the obstacles. By that time, they have no words and so they end up together. It’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest examples of that fun back and forth banter between characters. That’s what Beatrice and Benedick are famous for.
We were talking about it today in rehearsal, it’s such a miracle that it actually works out for any two people to find love. We get to see in this show how many different ways you can screw that up and still have it work out. The story has a very lovely real life element to it about what a miracle it is that this thing called love actually works out sometimes. We celebrate that in the end.
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These Paper Bullets! is currently in previews at Geffen Playhouse and will officially open September 16, 2015. For tickets and more information, go to www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Show photos by Michael Lamont