Ellen Adair Takes Life In Her Own Hands
Written by: Vaughn Stewart
Photographer: Steve Reganato @stevereganato
Actress: Ellen Adair @ellenadairg
Stylist: Mike Stallings @mikestallingsny
MUA: Hannan Siddique @hannan_makeup_hair
Hairstylist: Mideyah Parker @mideyahparkerhair
Videoagrapher: Stephen McFadden @videoguy80
When I was introduced to Ellen Adair by her lovely PR person, Rachel Jenkins, I was greeted by one of the sincerest smiles I had ever come across. Looking around I noticed that everyone working on the photo-shoot seemed to be in a very good mood — and I have no doubt that it was the positive energy that Ellen possessed in spades. As the day moved on Ellen’s mood never seemed to change as she eagerly took on the role of fashion model, moving seamlessly from one pose to the next for photographer Steve Reganato. She was wonderful to be around with that day, and her warmth, fun attitude and earthiness was infectious. Later I sat down with Ellen to find out a little about her and her life as an actress.
Vaughn Stewart: Do you remember the moment when you wanted to become an actress?
Ellen Adair: Ha! No, not really. I’ve wanted to be an actor for as long as I can remember. I do remember seeing a family friend in what I think must have been a well-produced community theatre show when I was pretty young, less than five, and I thought it was so cool that he got to be someone else other than the person I knew.
My grandmother was also an actor, and so is one of my aunts—I grew up across the country from them, since they’ve both lived in Portland, Oregon for my whole life, and so I didn’t actually see my aunt perform live until I was in high school, but I did idolize her when I was a little girl. She does mostly musical theatre, and she played Peter Pan for years running at the Portland Civic Theatre, and I had this picture of her from backstage that I kept on my desk. I thought she was the coolest (and I was right).
So I grew up going to theatre camp and putting on plays in my backyard and running around the house yelling Shakespeare speeches and just otherwise being an A-number-one theatre nerd. We didn’t have a TV, so it was actually very much about theatre.
What I do remember is the first moment it really sunk in that there were people who just did this, my favorite thing, for their job. I was a senior in high school and was backstage at a production of that high school classic, “The Crucible,” worrying about some homework I had to do when I got home, and I thought: To not have homework to worry about, to just get to do this. That sounds like the best life. And there are people who do that! Of course, actors who don’t have to do any other kind of work are few and far between, but that’s the dream.
“I don’t think of any character as something separate from me.”
VS: Was that dream something you kept to yourself or did you share it with friends and family?
EA: Oh, I don’t think I was a subtle about it. I don’t think there were even any bushels under which to hide that light. Of course, I was a kid, and kids want to do a lot of things, and that’s great. I also wanted to be a ballet dancer, but learned that my foot structure would stand in the way of that dream pretty early on. Which was no problem: kids want to do a lot of things! I also wanted to be a Classics professor for a couple of years because I liked Greek and Roman myths. I realize I am painting a portrait of my young self as a total dweeb, and it is not inaccurate.
VS: What did you do to work on your craft when you first started?
EA: When I was in college, I was not in the excellent BFA program at Boston University. I wanted some more “general” education than high school afforded me (a decision I’m very glad about), so I had a BA in English and Theatre. I took a lot of theatre classes, but what taught me the most was doing a lot of plays in college—I did eleven of ‘em. Just working on plays can teach you so much, particularly in student productions where you got to have your hands on more parts of theatre-making, and where you had to learn how to challenge yourself in case your director wasn’t.
But I also wanted more immersive training, so during the summers in college I went to professional training programs. I went to the Stanislavski Summer School at ART with the directors of the Moscow Art Theatre, and then two summers and the Summer Training Institute at Shakespeare and Company in western Massachusetts.
The first few years after I graduated, I didn’t take many classes since I was so poor, still being a non-union actor, and I was using 100% of my money for rent and food. But it wasn’t a problem, because Boston is a lovely theatre community and from literally my first week there, I was always in a production, sometimes rehearsing for one while performing another. So I got to work on my craft just by doing, again. But since I’ve been living in New York, I’m always taking some kind of class, pretty regularly.
VS: Is “going into character” natural for you or was it something you had to work on?
EA: I think the magic of “going into character” is a natural thing. I don’t think of any character as something separate from me, rather than that it’s a particular part of me, a part of a capacity that I have—and that I believe any human being has. So the character seems to come from nowhere, in a way, these new choices seem to come spontaneously out.
But I think I get to that place by spending a lot of time analyzing the script and thinking about that person’s life, what their relationship is to the other people they’re interacting with, what their attitude is about their situation, what is the story they tell themselves about who they are, and what the world is, and what they want, how they might go about getting it. So there’s work involved. And of course if I’m doing something that’s set in a different time period, I will think about a different way of carrying myself. But in general it’s not about creating something “other” rather than it is having something organically grow out of that investigation. And a lot of times I’ll be surprised about the way a character ends up expressing themselves. But that’s the fun of it! And somehow they all do end up having unique ways of being that are inescapably their own.
VS: What do you look for in a character before you decide to take the role?
EA: Something that resonates with me, or something that interests me, or something that challenges me! Good writing or someone that I admire or know on the team—actor, director—can be a deciding factor, too.
VS: Has there been any roles that have forced you to go a little deeper than you initially though when you first read the script?
EA: I think I always know that no matter what it is, even if it’s one line on a commercial, that I need to take everything to the depth of a personal level. How deep it appears to go just has to do with the nature of what the character experiences. That said, one of the things I just love about television is not knowing what my character is going to do in the next episode. So with the largest television roles I’ve had—Bess in “The Sinner,” Janet in “Homeland” and Bridget in “The Slap”—there’s always this moment of utter delight reading a new script and feeling this sense of, Oh WOW, I get to do THAT, too? It’s like Christmas. When I was lucky enough to land any of those three roles, I had no idea at the start that I was going to get to do all of the fun things that ended up being given to me.
And what I love about this, in television, is that it’s like life. You don’t know what you’re going to do tomorrow. Or next week. So it forces the actor to live the character like they’d live their life. I got in a fake fight with Dylan Baker (by the way, one of my favorite actors for YEARS and the nicest person you will ever meet) when we’d gotten the next episode while we were shooting one and I hadn’t read it yet. He was like, How can you not have read the episode? And I said, I don’t want to know what I end up doing until I’m done filming these scenes! I revere Dylan unto the ends of the earth so he probably has the right approach. But I love the life-like mystery of it.
VS: If you had to take one character that really showcased you as an actress, which character would that be?
EA: As lucky as I am to have gotten to play two pretty different human beings on TV this year, I don’t think I’ve gotten the opportunity to show my range on TV in the same way that I have in theatre.
I did this gorgeous play called “Constellations,” by Nick Payne, and it’s about the multi-verse, so it’s just two actors essentially going through all the different possible interactions in their relationship. I did the play with my husband, who is a brilliant actor and I love working with him because the trust onstage is 100% complete—anyway, we took the opportunity to make the shifts between one scene and the next as different as they could logically possibly be, extrapolating the relationship changes to their full extent. So that made doing that show like an actor’s playground.
Also, we have a little Off-Off-Broadway theatre company, called Happy Few Theatre Company, and our first show was a seven-person “As You Like It.” So all the roles in the play we split up between the seven actors, and there was a lot of fun doubling, given the gender-swapping already at the heart of that play. So I played Rosalind—always my #1 dream role; I had a Professor in college whose nickname for me was Rosalind and I felt like, “I feel seen”—but also Adam, who is the old man servant of Orlando and Oliver. So there’s no TV show ever that’s going to let me play a girl playing a boy and also an old dude.
Other roles that are particularly near my heart for being a actor’s playgrounds are Mary/Sgt. Flowers in “Mary’s Wedding”—the way it’s written, the young woman also plays the role of a young man; Pegeen in “Playboy of the Western World;” Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well;” Marie Antoinette in “Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh;” and Thomasina in “Arcadia”—my very first Equity show!
“Immigrants are America and that’s an idea I want always to stand for.”
VS: Tell me about Bess, on The Sinner?
EA: Sweet Bess! When the show opens, we think she’s just a normal, if agitated, middle-American mom. Soon we learn that she’s actually been part of this spiritual commune for most of her adult life, and all that agitation was about the fact that she’d made a choice that meant she was leaving her home and something that she’d invested so much of her life in. She’s not a leader, but she’s also not a mindless follower—she’s looking for something to really believe in, but has her own, reserved, quiet sense of what’s right. One biographical fact about her that was fascinating to me was that she wasn’t able to have children, and if she already came to the commune at twenty years old knowing that, what must have happened to her? It’s clear, though, that what she really wanted was a family. She wants to take care of people.
So, I think that’s what I can tell you without spoiling too much for anyone who hasn’t seen the show!
VS: What’s the difference from learning in classroom environment compared to being on the set?
EA: To this day, I have so much more on-set/on-stage than classroom experience, that I may not be able to say. One thing that’s great about being on set or on stage is that the whole world is built around you—so in the classroom, you have to expend some of your ‘acting energies’ to put yourself in the place, or, let’s say, with a number of different people if you’re doing an on-camera class and you only have one reader.
But if you’ve been, say, taking an on-camera class, that’s usually good practice for auditions; a lot of the work you might be doing to tell the story technically within the frame is suddenly different when they might be filming two different angles or frames simultaneously, which happens pretty often, or what it means to do a wide versus a close-up, or how to conserve yourself and keep yourself mentally switching things up to keep things fresh when you’re doing a scene over and over again. I haven’t found a classroom experience that really goes through all of those things—or could! That’s why it’s always great to do student films, it’s like a classroom experience for being on set.
The good thing about the classroom is that you can try something that you think might fail, but in a rehearsal room for a play and on the right set, hopefully you’ll get an environment like that, too!
VS: I heard that you have a crazy obsession with baseball? Where did this come from?
EA: Ha! The rumors are true! My parents both love baseball, too, so I literally don’t even remember the first baseball game I went to, I was so small. So I think that’s why the sound of a baseball game feels like the sound of my mother’s womb. Von Hayes of the Phillies was the first man I ever loved—or, it was either him, or Charles Barkley, then with the Sixers. I also played softball when I was a girl.
“And always be curious. About other people, and about anything.”
VS: Who’s your team?
EA: Phillies, always and forever. Although I love baseball so much that I can basically decide who I’m rooting for in any random given match-up and this leads me to root for many, many teams. A lot of people think this is weird, but for me it’s simple because there’s never a question of the hierarchy. I call it my Complex Flow-Chart of Baseball Allegiances. It’s basically because I like cheering for things.
VS: Where do you see your career in the next five years?
EA: I’d really like to be a series regular on a television show! I feel like I’m in a place with my craft and my career that I want (and could handle) the challenge of carrying a show myself.
VS: What’s your goal of all goals? Lay it out there!
EA: Well, the number one dream would be to be the series lead in the show that I’m writing! My friend Chris Carfizzi and I (we met on “Billions”) developed the idea for a show last year and I’ve been working on writing it. It’s about baseball writers (of course)! But it’s also about being a woman in a male-dominated field, and what it means to be an ally, and how media and news and journalism are changing so much these days.
VS: Any advice you can give an aspiring actor?
EA: Seek out any opportunity just to do the thing. I think just acting, whether it’s in a classroom, or in a community theatre production, or making your own webseries—that’s the most important thing. Ultimately, you’re the only person who can teach yourself anything, but put yourself in the place to learn it.
And always be curious. About other people, and about anything. If you’re in the business of making yourself into other people, know that everything that you learn about the world will be useful to you in making that happen.
Know if you want to be an actor for your career, that it is a business, too. Make sure you learn about the business side of things, and not just the craft side. It’s not as fun, but ultimately, if your goal is to make-believe for a living, the business that you have to do to support that fun really isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of what most people do for their jobs.
And mostly: stick at it, if it’s really what you want to do. I think perseverance is probably the most important quality an actor can have. Every actor deals with more rejection than success. It’s hard to imagine, but probably even Meryl Streep has.
VS: You know our magazine is called Cool America Magazine. What do you think is cool about America?
EA: My favorite thing about America is the diversity. Whatever historical travails may have gotten us here, it IS now a nation in which the vast majority of people’s ancestors came from other countries or other cultures. And the idea that we can all make a home here, together, and be countrymen to each other—it’s an idea that makes me want to fight for what I believe this country can be, even on our darkest day. It is both the noblest thing about the country and I think it gives this country its strength and its character. Immigrants are America and that’s an idea I want always to stand for. I’m so proud to live in one of the most diverse counties in the country in Queens County. Maybe because I grew up travelling to different countries so much, it makes it feel like home to me.
Also, that America, in its ethos, allows for diversity of expression—who you love, what God you worship (or not), what you want to say—in my book, that’s cool. That’s super cool. Even if these are ideals they are very much American ideals, and we can all fight to inch ourselves closer to those ideals, rather than away from them.
I also love that America has a diversity of terrain. I’ve only been to a little over 30 states in the country, so I can’t speak for all of it, but the beauty I’ve seen of the natural world in places as diverse as Maine, Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon, I could keep going—how incredible to have this one country with so many different kinds of beauty. It’s so important that we safeguard it.
VS: What do you think is cool about yourself?
EA: I feel like I’ve proved myself pretty un-cool over the course of this interview, in the sense that “coolness” is about being chill. I’m pretty passionate about just about anything—whether it’s acting, or politics, or baseball—I’m basically a huge nerd about it rather than being cool. But maybe I can take a stand that at long last, being passionate IS cool!
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