Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reinventing the English Rose - interview with Elizabeth Conway - comedic actress for a tragic role

With her luxurious platinum locks, enormous honey-colored eyes and a petulant mouth, Elizabeth Conway has the appeal of a pedigreed Persian cat in heat. By looking at her head shot, one would surmise that this girl, both aristocratic and defiantly unladylike, would not curb her ego or libido for the sake of propriety. It was that aura of entitled devil-may-care sensuality combined with Anglo-Saxon good looks evoking memories of a younger Kate Winslet that drew me to her while I was in the process of casting the role of Edith for The Last Fenian, a theatrical adaptation of my early Irish novel Brendan Malone. Her character is an English piano prodigy forced to abandon her dreams for artistic fame after her mother's death.
To give you a bit of historical context, during the Edwardian era in which the play in set, artistically accomplished women were venerated and afforded certain liberties that their mainstream sisters were denied.  A musical prodigy could be impractical, immodest and eccentric - and those are all the adjectives that describe our heroine. Alas, her glory days are short-lived. After her mother's death, she is forced to leave the conservatory where she was a star and take over the music school. Her ambitions crushed, she now has to adjust to a life as a mere piano teacher and the pedestrian norms of the Anglo-Irish middle-class society. To vex her father, whom she blames for her professional downfall, she marries Hugh Malone, a sickly and insecure student from University College. Irish and Catholic, Hugh is implicitly perceived as her inferior. By the same token, for Hugh this marriage provides an opportunity to burrow his way into the English academic elite.  For lack of a better word, the relationship between Edith and Hugh is a racially and religiously complicated Romeo and Juliet story. I grind my teeth as I write "Romeo and Juliet", because that analogy is always made in reference to a romantic relationship that is forbidden or at least disapproved of.
I learned from my previous productions that casting is a holistic process. Two candidates can be strong by themselves but not work very well together.  Since I already had the role of Hugh cast (J.Scot Cahoon), it gave me a point of reference to cast Edith. Cahoon is willowy, low-key and self-deprecating, evoking the images of a younger Jake Gyllenhaal so it made sense that his scene partner should be more aggressive and forthcoming. Conway's Edith may not be your traditional English rose, but she is profoundly aware of her social superiority over her husband. Together they make a convincing odd couple. I did not want the audience to produce a collective sigh of endearment, "Ah, these two are perfect for each other!" On the contrary, I wanted the viewers to grind their teeth and wince, "Ouch, this is a powder keg waiting to explode." When you see a happy ending a mile away, it doesn’t make for a very compelling story. I won’t deny that there is a market for artificial happy endings. I just don’t have anything to contribute to that market.

Disharmony creates sensory tension makes things interesting. Having a comedic actress play a tragic role can be particularly piquant and poignant.  As I mentioned before in my interviews, I firmly believe that comedy and tragedy go hand in hand. Having a line with tragic content delivered in a darkly comedic manner will stimulate different parts of the viewer’s brain.
Today, Elizabeth Conway joins us to talk about her acting career.
MJN: In one of our informal discussions you confessed that you were still getting used to seeing yourself on screen.  I think it's true for many actors who are starting to take on film roles.  They look and sound different on screen than they do in real life. Would you say it's intimidating or liberating, to have someone discover and display a side of you that you didn't realize existed?
EC: First off, it's incredibly humbling (to borrow the most cliché, hackneyed phrase!) to have a director see something compelling in you and offer you a role. It's even more of a gift in this situation, where the writer is casting her own characters that she created, dreamed up, and is now casting them off (literally-ha) into their living, breathing, 3d selves. It is a grand responsibility to do justice to someone's creation, and I'm quite flattered that you saw the exact proportions of quirky, off the beaten track, and devil-may-care boldness in my audition to complement Scot's performance. It's completely a joy to create a role, and while I'm still a bit green in my film career (and yes, do need to get used to seeing myself on camera,) when I arrive on a set, I can't ever contain how thrilled I am to be there. I get to go to work and act; how cool is that?

MJN: Have you ever been surprised by a casting offer?  Meaning, have you ever gotten a role outside of your normal range?
EC: I am always pleasantly surprised by a casting offer, as at this point in my career, it's always a little surreal to hear a "yes!" I'm very lucky that I've had the opportunity to take on a number of different characters, and gotten to play around and make them my own. By far one of my favorite roles I've ever been given was the role of Yitzhak, a Serbian trans woman in my university production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." There is a massive responsibility to play such a role in a manner that is respectful to the trans community, and it was a tremendous experience in which I was able to educate myself about gender, performativity, and important discussions about trans visibility, issues about which I, a naive 18 year old coming from a high school in rural Pennsylvania, had so much to learn. I've played everything from a cat to a homeless woman to three different girlfriends at once (in a particularly fabulous production of "Company.") As I said, I'm always excited when a director sees something a little off the beaten track in me; I'm thankful that for now that "normal" is wherever the wind blows me next-and I am always up for a challenge.
MJN: What sacrifices would you be willing to make for a role in terms of making changes to your appearance? I'm talking about something that would alter your image for the next say ... 6 - 9 months?  Making drastic changes to your weight and hair length and color.
EC: The more, the merrier. I've cut my hair, dyed it, glued it to my face, hit the gym and bulked up a bit; I love it all. It's just doing your homework in a more extreme fashion I guess.
MJN: I already talked about what attracted me to your profile when I was casting the role of Edith.  What attracted you to the project and the role?
EC: You and your enthusiasm!! I was so excited that you were interested in casting me; the audition process allowed me to be so creative and our initial exchanges allowed me to (correctly) assume that I would be working with someone incredibly zealous, passionate, and dynamic. I adore strong female characters that are a little bit out of the ordinary, and what I love about our Miss Edith is that in an era of expectations of a deferential, quiet little wife, she is bold, unapologetic, educated, and unafraid to speak her mind, or speak at all. To borrow one of my favorite lines from the play, Edith states "I'm always sincere. That's my flaw." I hardly see that as a flaw; her frankness allows her to have a relationship with her husband that is based on unfettered communication, mutual trust, and true friendship; part of what makes the "Romeo and Juliet" element of the story all the more poignant. I so appreciate her sincerity and integrity; if all writers created strong women like Edith in the fashion that you do, Marina, Hollywood would be hit with quite a force with which to be reckoned. Thank you so much for her.


  1. Thanks for the fantastic interview, Marina and Elizabeth. I could feel Elizabeth's vibrancy come through! I wish you both all the best with the play, and in your future endeavors.

  2. Apologies for the delay in getting over to read this, but thoroughly enjoyed it and wishing you and everyone involved the best of luck with the play and far beyond!