An Interview with Carmen Cusack
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
August 8th, 2016
Bear with me for a moment while I tell you something that’s going to seem only tangentially connected to the subject of Carmen Cusack. In 1981, Steve Martin starred in the film Pennies from Heaven, where he played a sheet music salesman who wondered why life couldn’t be like the songs on the radio. That same year he also, with no grand announcement, stopped performing standup comedy. I found myself thinking about this as I watched Carmen Cusack play Alice Murphy in the Broadway musical Bright Star, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. There was a certain multifaceted-ness in Carmen’s performance onstage that was captivating not only for it’s depth, but for its autonomy. She earned glowing reviews and a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. It was her Broadway debut and, as she says, led to a lot of people asking, “Who is Carmen Cusack?” She had played Nellie Forbush in the tour of South Pacific and Elphaba in the tour of Wicked. She’s American, but had worked in London for years. She’s done a lot of things and is, simultaneously, the new girl in town. And now people are trying to organize the facts of her life, which is always a complicated proposition when many, sometimes conflicting things, are true at once. I met Carmen at Elizabeth Street Garden—a cross between an English garden and Southern Gothic cemetery, in the heart of SoHo—to talk about her upcoming concerts at 54 Below, Bright Star, and her life both past and present.
What has your process been for picking songs for your 54 Below concert?
It really depends on the situation, it depends what I’ve just come out of, but for this [concert] I really felt like I needed to speak to my Bright Star fans and give them some of that music, but along with that I’m going to add some flavors of my own favorites that complement the style of Bright Star’s music. I’m also going to be singing some songs that were, unfortunately, cut from Bright Star. I’m so happy that we came up with the show that we came up with, but along the way they’d just continue to write beautiful songs, and several of those songs I became very attached to, and they had to drop them—these little gems kept falling off of our Bright Star wooden house that twirls around, we just had to keep letting go of these beautiful songs. So I want to surprise the audience with some of those songs. If people are going to come to the show, it’s probably going to be because they love the music of Bright Star, so I want to keep within that ilk and I also want to surprise them with some songs that they did not get to hear and fill them in on certain story lines that had to get dropped for us to get to our final product. It’s a really interesting storyline. There was a lot of collaboration and it took three years, and there’s a lot of stories. So hopefully that’s where we’re headed with the set.
Do you find your interpretation of songs changes depending on the setting? If you’re doing them within the context of a show where you’re responsible for an entire through line versus in concert?
Absolutely, it changes. But this is going to be exciting because I can bring my own interpretation into the songs, and I’ve picked songs that stand on their own without a through line. They’re just really strong songs that give a story point or, hopefully, that’s what the audience will understand: that I don’t necessarily need a storyline. I don’t really have a story theme in my show. I’m going to fill in some blanks. People that keep asking, “Who is Carmen Cusack,” I really want to answer that question in different ways and take them on a tiny bit of a journey. Not my full journey, because that would take way too long, but I want to fill in the blanks on a couple of questions that have been asked through this process.
Does that feel like extra pressure when putting your concert together? “Who is she?” is a really broad question.
No, it’s actually really freeing for me to come here and to feel no one has any major expectations of what they want to hear me sing. That gives me freedom to sing the things that I like to listen to and the things that I like to sing. There are certain roles that I probably wouldn’t go back to because my style, my musicality, my musical sensibilities have evolved. But I am going to hopefully scratch that itch for audience members that want to hear a few of my older roles that I played, like Christine Daae in Phantom of the Opera and Fantine in Les Mis. I’m going to compile them in a more edited down version of those songs.
Do you think it’s different being asked to answer that question now than at 22?
Yes, and I’m so glad that I did wait until now—not that I’ve been waiting to come to Broadway, but my journey has just been such that I’ve taken the work that I’ve wanted to take, and wherever it might have been, there it was. I’m not much of an intensively ambitious person, but I do like to do good work and I like to work with really good people, and that to me is most important. It doesn’t matter where that might be. Broadway, yes, is very special in its own right, but I wanted to come to Broadway with the right piece, and I feel like this really was the right piece. I’m just very grateful for the opportunity. But along the way, I’ve been grateful for all the opportunities wherever they might have been, because I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of amazing people.
With songs, do you find yourself usually attracted to the music or the lyrics first?
The music has to hit me first. And then the lyrics. Of course. both are very, very important, absolutely crucial. But I just need to hear a good tune, a good melody first, something that moves me in a way that I want to be moved. I also like working on music that’s honest, it’s not trying to put on a particular face or a particular style. I like honest music, and I feel like Bright Star really did that for me.
You’re doing songs you wrote, as well?
I am. I’m going to do at least one or two of my own originals every show, and alternate them, because I have many, many originals.
What’s your process like for writing your own music? Do you start with a feeling or a visual image?
It usually comes from the feeling or a story that has inspired me, and it mainly comes from my memory of my stories growing up as a child. Sometimes it starts with a lyric, sometimes it starts with melody, or just a musical lick, so I’ll get on my guitar and see if I can play that lick. If I can’t, then I record it onto my little recording device and go to my band and say, “I have this idea and I can’t play it just yet.”
When did you start writing music?
I started writing music when I was back in London, so that was almost 10 years ago.
What inspired you to start writing?
I watched the movie Cold Mountain—of course, I had written before then, gosh I’ve been writing longer than that—but what got me back into the idea of writing was I watched the movie Cold Mountain and all that folk and fiddle stuff just got in my head. It took me back to my youth, and I started getting inspired again, so that’s when I bought a guitar and started writing. Certainly not my first song, and not my second song, but I think my third song was incredibly folk—just very, very simple and an incredibly straight down the line folk tune. Not all my stuff is folk, a lot of my stuff is a bit more Americana, but I think that’s what really got me going again with angling towards an album.
As a kid, did you make up a lot of stories and things like that?
Absolutely. In several interviews I’ve opened up about how much I connect to the role of Alice Murphy, and it’s because my mother had me at the age of 16. She needed to further her schooling, so she and I both moved in with my grandparents down in Florida, and she continued her schooling while my grandparents pretty much looked after me and raised me. She was there, but I didn’t see a lot of her because she was going to school and working. I had a lot of time on my own in the woods in Florida. And there were no kids. I lived in the woods, five acres of beautiful land, and I had a great relationship with my dog. I just used to pounce about the place and come up with little stories of my own to entertain myself all the time. Still today, I really enjoy my own space and I enjoy being by myself, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s because as a kid I spent a lot of time being alone.
What’s your acting process like? With a new project, where do you start?
I read the script first and decide if it speaks to me, and usually it speaks to me through the character more than anything. Then I like to understand where that person’s from, what she might sound like, what her accent might be, and then go from there. I feel like the voice and the body, how one would carry themselves in a character and how they would sound, is really important for me to develop who that person is.
Do you look for ways that they’re similar to you, or do you look for characters who are really different, who freak you out?
It’s the ones that are different and freak me out that are the ones that I should embrace. But like anybody, I think we tend to want to stay in our comfort zone. I’ve really tried to branch out and do things that are a bit more challenging, and those are actually some of the most rewarding, like Dot/Marie from Sunday in the Park with George. It took me a while to understand what I was going to do with that role. Then the light bulb came on, literally overnight, and it just was quite magical. I loved doing that role. But Alice Murphy, immediately I could respond to her, because I felt like she was ingrained in myself, in my mother, in my grandmother, in a lot of women in my family. And men in my family. I could probably name all the different characters in Bright Star and hand them over to several of my relatives.
A big theme in interviews is how someone develops as an artist while they’re also developing as a person. Especially for actresses, because you have so many people telling you about yourself all the time, like what your type is and all that. How was that development process for you, especially since you were American and living overseas?
Luckily I don’t think I’ve ever given anyone an opportunity to say what my type is because I decided I wanted to change it up pretty much immediately in my career. I had grown up in gospel music, but then what started getting the ball rolling for me in music was classical singing. I received a scholarship at the University of North Texas for opera singing. That lent itself immediately to the role of Christine Daae in Phantom of the Opera. Nearing the end of that contract, I was asked to audition for Cosette in Les Mis, which would be the next step with the style of that singing—the soprano, the ingénue soprano. I thought, I don’t want to get boxed up in this place, I want to just confuse everyone a little bit. So I decided to take that audition and sing a Whitney Houston number, a belting number, and then all of a sudden they thought, “Wait a minute, she can belt? She can sing this other kind of style? We want to see her for Fantine.” So that’s how that happened. I went straight from Christine to Fantine. If anyone ever tried to put me in a box, I would always try and break out of it, so I don’t think I’ve given anyone much opportunity to label me necessarily.
Where do you think that confidence, for lack of a better word, came from, to be like, “No, I’m going to not buy into that”?
I was young and had just come from the states and probably was a lot cockier than the British would have liked to embrace. They didn’t necessarily embrace me because of my confidence in what I knew I could do and being able to sing all these different styles. I think they didn’t know what to do with me, and there was a point where they thought, “Who the heck does she think she is?” But, whatever. I’m never here to be Miss Popular because I never was, and I’m fine with that.
How did you continue to navigate the industry but also do what you wanted to do?
Sometimes I don’t know that you have much control over it, especially when you’re young and you’re just starting out. You don’t really navigate it just yet. You have to prove your worth and then begin to navigate it. Starting out, I just took the work. I wasn’t very picky. I wanted to gain a resume; I wanted to show what I was about. But in the past decade, I’ve started to navigate and be more in control of the things that I want to do. Nowadays, if I don’t like something, I don’t audition for it. I don’t even put it out there in the atmosphere that I’m interested.
Did you find that there was any sort of adjustment or learning process going from one culture to the other?
Absolutely. Going back to me being a bit American and a bit cocky in England, I think for women in that industry at that time in London, if you walked into a situation feeling completely in control and confident, it could sometimes read that you’re a bit of a diva. I’ve never been difficult to work with, not that I know of, and I’ve never tried to make that a thing or come across that way. I started to realize that I was going to have to walk into a room and almost apologize for being there. It was a weird adjustment for me, because to be in this industry to begin with, you have to believe in yourself, you have to have some confidence. You have to look in the mirror and do Raging Bull: you can do this, you can do this. Then when you have that confidence, to be all of a sudden struck by, “You shouldn’t do that, it makes you come across as if you know too much,” I thought, “Wow, I have to rethink this.” So I did have to start going about things a little differently in England, and I even still feel I bring that to who I am in New York. All of a sudden, people are telling me, “Don’t apologize! When you go to bow, don’t apologize for your bow! Bow. Take it.” There is very much a different approach to things in different countries.
And going through some of that during years that are formative and you’re just trying to figure things out to begin with.
When you’re figuring it all out, and you’re like, “Yes ma’am, yes ma’am. If that’s what I’ve got to do, okay. It’s really fine. I’ll just go in there and, what can I do for you?” I don’t know that that necessarily got me the jobs either. I just feel like what I’ve learned from both sides of it is that I’ve got to start being myself. I don’t need to talk myself a big talk in the mirror. I just need to be comfortable in my own skin and know that what I’m going to bring to the table, no one else can bring to the table, because no one else has walked in my shoes and taken on what I’ve experienced.
Recently, with having to do so much press and other obligations, have you had to figure out your boundaries for all of that stuff? It comes up a lot in interviews that so much of that sort of thing is stuff no one teaches you.
Exactly, and going back to your earlier question, “Would you have done things differently if you were in your twenties?” Absolutely. I would have been a friggin’ idiot, because we all are [when we’re in our 20s]. I still to this day put my foot in my mouth. Lord knows what I was like when I was younger, when I was in my twenties. At least now—because I went on tour with Wicked, I went on tour with South Pacific—I’ve done so much traveling and so many different interviews with different cultures and different people, I’ve started to realize that the best I can do is just be myself and not kick myself in the rear end all the time either. We’re all human beings and we’re all going to put our foot in it sometimes, but that’s who I am, and people are going to relate to that. We’re all human beings.
Do you find there’s some extra baggage with being a woman and trying to set boundaries or be taken seriously when you say something?
I don’t worry about that stuff. I don’t worry about being taken seriously. They’re going to take what they want to take from me and I really don’t care. That’s how it is. I’m so glad to be at this point in my life where I hope that they walk away having enjoyed their time with me, if that’s what it’s about. I hope people walk away thinking, yes she’s got something there, but I really, to be honest, don’t care. At some point you’ve just got to let it go, otherwise it’ll just drive you nuts.
Was there a formative moment that led you to that or just life experience?
No, it’s every day. It’s every day dealing with that and thinking, “Do I care today?” I care about being a good, kind person. Whatever somebody is going to take from that, however they’re going to misinterpret it or interpret it, I can’t do anything about that, so why worry about it, really? So I don’t.
Have you, to an extent, had that attitude since you were a little kid?
No, I went through an insecure phase. We all go through our insecurities, and there’s even some days, some months, some years, that we go through this up and down process of [asking] am I good enough, am I good enough? But, really, in the end it doesn’t matter. You’re either going to get the job or you’re not, and you just have to keep trucking.
What do you bring into the rehearsal room?
I like to try and be as prepared as I possibly can, and then let the rest make its way together with the rest of the cast and the director and the collaborative team. I think there’s a problem with getting too rehearsed before you enter a room with other artists, because then you’re not keeping your heart and your mind open to their work. I like to find that balance.
Do you also think about that in leading a company?
I feel like I’ve learned a lot with being a leading lady. From South Pacific especially, when you’re traveling with a cast and you’re the lead in the show. When you’re traveling with a cast, you get to know them on so many other levels, almost as a family unit. You learn about how to be the captain, how to be the mom, how to be the friend. I feel like I’ve always had that facility in me. I don’t think it’s anything you can be taught necessarily, you either have it in you or you don’t. More than anything it’s just being open, being kind to people, and voicing your opinion when you feel that something is being done wrong, if you feel that someone is being wronged, if you feel that a company is being wronged, having the balls to stand up and speak for everyone, that’s important. I don’t have a problem with that either.
Are there types of characteristics that you look for in roles that you want to take on in the future?
I want to venture further into the Southern Gothic concept. I’d love, love, love, love to do a Tracy Letts play. I’d like to do some plays and then work on music separately for a little bit. But if the right [musical] comes along, there’s nothing better than when acting and music come together and move people. I think it’s probably the most powerful thing we can do.
New York theatre can be, at times, a little insular stylistically, and have certain ideas about the rest of the country that aren’t totally correct.
That’s changing. I think that’s changing in the theatre, musical theatre, I think it’s changing in cabaret. I think people are broadening their horizons and opening their eyes to all different types of styles of music and different ways of thinking, and thank goodness, because I can’t be that New York Broadway person. I’m not a Broadway baby. I come from a lot of different places and that’s interesting, why wouldn’t they be open to wanting to hear and learn something different?
What’s something that you think can be done to improve how new work is developed?
It’s very hard to get a brand new story on the Broadway stage—and can I change that question into—I think what we need to do is start answering the question: why is it that audiences only want to go to shows that they can read about first, that there’s been a movie about, there’s been a book about? We need to answer that question. I think there’s so much more to be learned by new material and new projects. There just needs to be more of an open mind. I want to find out why that is and how we can reach an audience that normally would just sit at home on the computer and read everything that they possibly can before purchasing a ticket. I understand that the tickets are expensive and you want to, hopefully, not waste your money on something you’re not going to enjoy, so you want to know what it’s about. But that’s what I want to figure out. Because there’s so many new works and so many other stories out there to be looked at and to be appreciated, and they don’t have to come from a movie or a play. It could come from something completely original like Bright Star was.
Speaking of audience engagement, I noticed that Bright Star had a number of female fans who were thinking about the show very analytically and in a very engaged way.
That’s what I noticed as well.
Let’s talk about that.
I was so blown away by the sophistication of these young people that got it on so many levels. You’re going to go into a show, you don’t know anything about it, and it’s bluegrass, hillbilly music, and then to have been touched… this story is a human story. It gets to your heart, it makes you feel something. Not every show does that. Other shows have other reasons to move you or inspire you; this one hits you right in the heart. And why be cynical about that? I think you go into these things being a little bit cynical, but then you leave and you’re thinking differently and you’re feeling differently, and you want to call your mom or your dad, and you just want to have that connection with that person you haven’t connected with for a while. That’s magic, that’s power, and I think we all need to remind ourselves to stay open in our hearts and our minds. I was so impressed by the young people that came and kept coming because it said something to them that maybe they’re not getting in social media and they’re not getting on Netflix or on the computer or anywhere else. They needed something more pure and more honest, and I was so proud to be a part of that.
And a story with a female protagonist who has a job.
Thank you, a strong female lead. In the 1940’s of all things. It spoke to powerful young women.
Do you think with Bright Star people may have been a little confused, because you have a strong female lead (for lack of a better term) with a job, but there’s also a pregnancy storyline, and people can see those two things as being incompatible?
Yeah, that’s life. It was really touching on someone’s story from the age of 16 into adulthood. I don’t think a lot of shows can do that, there’s not enough time. Unless you do it in a very particular way, in a smart sophisticated way, you can’t always pull it off. But I think that’s why it touched people. Because they were able to invest in a young girl and see her arc in a way that’s very difficult to convey on stage in a matter of a couple of hours.
Do you have a spiritual life and does it affect your work?
I used to. I grew up highly religious. I went to Bible College. My first year of college was Bible College because we didn’t have any money, so I competed in gospel and got to the national level and was offered several scholarships to bible colleges. I got the demons cast out of me several times, and I think that was my red flag of this is not working out, this does not compute, you need to not go down this road because you’re not going to be a missionary. But I feel like my love for my friends and my husband and my family is my spiritual outlet.
Was it weird at all, going into a career where nobody else in your family did anything like that?
Well, my real father is a musician, he does gigs. Literally two years before she got pregnant with me, my mom was encouraged at school that she was a great actress—she won the best actress award in her school—and I think that she probably would have gone into the industry had she not chosen to have me, and then she got married and had three more girls. I think she might have probably tried to pursue it. But no, no one in our family did, so here we are. Is it weird? Yes, it is sometimes weird. Because I feel like sometimes my mom gives me advice that I’m thinking, you don’t really know what it’s like. I’d much prefer the advice from someone who understands this industry, but parents are there to give you advice even though they might not know what you’re going through. That’s just the way it is, that is life. We all go through that.
It’s like that thing of, if there’s a wedding of a cousin on the same day as some important career thing, a lot of people say, “Of course, you need to go to the wedding,” but I think most everyone in the industry would actually pick the career thing.
Oh gosh, I had a very terrible situation of that very thing happening, but it wasn’t a wedding. My grandfather died. And he was my only father figure in my life. Growing up especially, he was my first father figure and he continued to stay in that position. I was in Edinburgh doing Christine in Phantom, and I got the call that he had died, and they would not let me go to the funeral. Here’s the question: do I just say screw you all, fuck you, I’m getting on a flight and I’m going back to America to go to my grandfather’s funeral, or do I stay put and fulfill my contract? I was 22. I was singing, “You were once my one companion”—you know the song “Wishing You Were Here Again”? So I’m singing to my father’s grave in the show, knowing that I should be at my grandfather’s grave on the other side of the pond. And that was the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to go through. Luckily, that happened quite some time ago now. I totally respect anyone however they want to play it, if they want to fulfill their contract or they say, “Family’s more important.” Depends on the kind of family you have too.
I imagine that’s really hard to navigate, because who do you ask for advice in that situation?
You just have to ask yourself and be true to yourself and be true to your heart, and that’s the best that I could say at that point. I was so young, and I thought I’d never work again. It was my first job. I thought, “If I walk out of here [that’s it].” And also I didn’t have an understudy—one was on holiday and the other one had bronchitis. So I was the only Christine in the building. It was just terrible timing, and if I had quit and I didn’t have an understudy, it would have been possibly a real career transforming moment for me that I might not have ever been hired again. I don’t know. Of course, these are the things you have to think about.
Do you have any mentors in the industry?
Yes, I have two. Faith Prince and Dee Hoty. Faith Prince I worked with on First Wives Club, and she continued to coach me on a gala that I was asked to do at the Old Globe not too long ago. She actually does workshops for people that are putting together cabarets and concerts. I asked her advice, and we would do a little Skype session together, and I still to this day would call her at any given moment asking her for her advice. I also do that with Dee Hoty, who played my mom in Bright Star. She was so integral in keeping me sane through that.
Do you find that it’s important to have people like that?
It is. More than anything, it’s important to know that you need to ask for help sometimes. That’s been a learning curve for me, because for so long I didn’t ask for any help. I left home really young, I went to England, and became very self sufficient almost to a fault that I wouldn’t ask for help, and I’ve learned that it’s so important.
What’s something you think the theatre industry can do to make things better for women working in it?
Better pay. Absolutely. I think they expect women to work harder, because women do, for the most part. We have to do double duty in a lot of ways to prove ourselves. By the time you end up in a rehearsal situation, usually it’s the women that know what they’re doing—they know their lines, they know everything—and the men have to catch up to them. I’m not saying that for every situation, but in my experiences, that is what I’m seeing, that there’s a bit of a white male privilege thing going on. When men have a problem with hours, or they don’t want to do so many shows, they’ll stand up for themselves, and I think women should have the absolute same right to do that as well and not be considered a diva for having done that. Or not be considered, “Oh, she’s difficult.” No, it’s just a woman getting what a woman should get. A woman asking for what she deserves, absolutely. What is the saying about Ginger Rogers? She had to do the same thing backwards, and in heels.