An Interview with Jessie Mueller
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
October 11th, 2016
Jessie Mueller is in a diner—not the diner she inhabits eight shows a week on Broadway in the musical Waitress—but an actual diner. The Skylight Diner on 34th Street, to be exact, which has actual pies (freshly baked on the premises), an actual counter, and an actual gumball machine anachronistically chained to an ATM. The thing that’s so swell about diners is the way they can inhabit so many spaces at once: present tense, but always a little in the past; distinctly somewhere, but could be anywhere. Jessie, too, seems to be living in many spaces at once. Her plan was to work in her hometown of Chicago, but she’s had a thriving career in New York. Since making her Broadway debut in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, for which she was Tony-nominated, she’s gone on to appear in a wide range of roles in such shows as The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Drama Desk nomination), Beautiful (a Tony win), and now Waitress (another Tony nomination). She’s firmly established herself as a Broadway leading lady, and yet, by her own admission, is still reconciling exactly what that means for the way she wants to live her life. She’s as nice as everyone says she is, and yet still remains slightly elusive. Anyway, Jessie Mueller is in a diner and this is what happened.
You’ve been in Waitress since it started previews last spring. Have you found that your process for preparing each night has changed?
Yeah, a little bit. We’ve also had some new people coming and new swings coming in. And, just the way the calendar lined up, it was like we went from rehearsal to tech to opening to awards season to sick season to vacation season. I think that really changes everything from day to day, and from night to night, because it feels like a little family. We always joke about it, but it is. It’s our little diner family, so every time somebody’s energy is different it really affects everything. To me, that’s sort of how I look at coming in and figuring out whether anybody different is on, or whether we have different subs in the band, because the band is on stage for most of the show. That really affects us too because it just changes the energy of things. I think I’m learning about myself that I’m one of those people that really is different every day. Some days I have to warm up a lot. Some days I have to stretch a lot. Some days I come in and I’m ready to go. I’m trying to get better about kind of honoring where I’m at in that moment because I have to acknowledge that before I can do my job.
There’s so much going on in the world right now. As an actor, do you like to kind of take that on stage with you in some way or do you try to block it out?
I don’t know if you can really block it out. I certainly try not to take it on stage with me but it affects me, for sure. It also affects other people too, and I feel like we are what we have to work with on stage. We literally are our instruments. There was a month where all the shootings were happening and then the Orlando tragedy happened. There was a month there where it was so potent in the theatre and we found it really helpful to check in with each other because I don’t think there’s any way you can block it out when you bring it on stage. At least I can’t. I’m a believer in, you sort of have to check your day at the door, but you have to honor your feelings [too] because that’s all you have to work with. That’s all I have to work with. I have to filter [the character] through me so I have to be aware of where I’m at. It does change things a bit from day to day, depending on the day and what’s happened. I will notice that the happier parts were really easy for me today or the sad parts were really easy to dig into because of what’s going on in the world or what’s happening in my life. I find that it does affect me, but I definitely try to put checks and balances on it.
And Waitress is an interesting show in terms of tone and how you calibrate it, because it has very serious subject matter and then it also has—
Laugh out loud funny moments. I think that was a big concern for them crafting the piece, and especially from the early workshops, and then when we did the show out of town, before Broadway, it was trying to find that tone and the transition between certain different tones that occur in the play. That was a big concern for Diane [Paulus], the director, and the creators and the writers and all of us to make sure that the audience felt that all of that was really funded and it was all coming from the same people and it didn’t feel disjointed.
When you got the script for the show, what was your entry point into the character?
I had seen the film that this was based on, so I had sort of knew what the story was about before I ever read a script, really. When I first got involved, there wasn’t necessarily a book writer involved in the project. They were still looking for that, so we were pretty much working with the screenplay that I was somewhat familiar with—bits and pieces of it that Adrienne Shelly wrote. I think for me, for this one, my first way in was actually the music. I remember hearing early demos that Sara [Bareilles] did, just Sara on the piano, and being blown away. It was, “Hey, we’re doing this workshop, can you do it? Here’s a couple songs. We’ve got Sara Bareilles on board to do the music and lyrics.” I heard the couple of songs and I was floored, and I think from that moment on my gut knew I wanted to be a part of it. “She Used to be Mine” was on that early demo. “Everything Changes” was on that demo. I think the one that really got to me was “Everything Changes.” I felt like there was something in the emotional core of that that I just connected to. I don’t know why. I’ve never had a child and thank God I’ve never been in an abusive relationship, but there was just something at the heart of it that I just felt like, “I get this. I get this.”
From there, do you look for ways that the character is like you? Different from you?
I think it depends on the character, because sometimes the differences are more glaring and sometimes the similarities are more apparent to me. I think actually with this one, early on, there was something about the emotional core of it that I felt I understood, but actually there was a lot of me that didn’t understand the character’s choices so I was like, “I have to figure out why this person would do this, why this woman would make this choice, why this woman wouldn’t make this other choice or would stand for this sort of treatment, if you look at it from the outside.” Then, it was the work of trying to figure out where’s the similarity in my life. I haven’t been in the same position as this character, but I certainly understand questioning your life, doubting, standing up for yourself, and not being able to do so. I remember I had an acting teacher in college who would talk about minimizing and maximizing. I guess it’s that sort of thing. You kind of look at something and you find where you kind of align with it and then you go, “Well, it’s sort of like this but it’s bigger,” or, “it’s sort of like this but it’s smaller.”
In a show with a complicated character where part of the journey is about the choices she’s not making rather than the choices she is making, for you as an actress, was there a challenge to keep that active?
I actually found the similarity in Beautiful [as Carole King]. That character is very reactive, and it’s interesting to have that in a protagonist. You get that a little bit in Jenna, too, I think at the beginning, but as the play goes on she starts to make more choices. What I think I found so interesting about it is she makes some really bad choices. She’s been so repressed from making choices. All of a sudden she gets to, and she just sort of choice vomits all over everything and makes what most of us would deem some ill choices. But yes, to have a protagonist like that who is very, in my brain, sort of reactive, is kind of challenging, but it’s also really fun because you’re so reliant on the group and what everyone is doing. I love that about both of those pieces; it all has to work together. All the pieces have to work together, which is always a great reminder because it takes so many people to do what we do. It really makes you appreciate the whole. We very much rely on each other. It’s a very tight-knit group with that trio of the three waitresses. This week has been so fascinating because I have a new husband. Nick Cordero’s moved on to A Bronx Tale and William Popp came in as Earl, so it’s been that learning curve of, “Oh, I have a new husband,” which really changes things for me because you have these new dynamics to play off of, and maybe the trajectory of one seems a little different now because the person is different, and trying to figure out the sort of nuances and minutiae of that.
Is it interesting for you as an actress to do that in front of the audience? I know from talking to other people where they’ve had actors come in that you don’t get a lot of rehearsal time with them.
No, you don’t. Yes, it’s cool and it’s terrifying at the same time because I’m such a perfectionist. I want things to be right, which is stupid because I’m in the theatre, and you can’t be perfect in life anyway. It’s something I’m learning with doing a lot of long running shows. It’s such the challenge to get into rhythms with people, and it’s a constant challenge to make sure that you’re being consistent and that you’re still being fresh, and that you’re playing what’s inside of the moment, you’re not playing what’s outside of the moment. You’re not playing the bit, you’re playing the intention behind the bit always. It’s actually a really good reminder to get new people in and new energies in. It really sort of changes you up and you have to remind yourself to not work from the outside in, but to be really present and reactive in the moments, and not get locked into maybe what it was, and to trust that there are people around helping to craft, watching from the outside and making sure that you’re on the right track and that you’re still honoring what’s happening in the moment with that new person. It’s a big challenge. I don’t think from the outside people can appreciate what a shift that can be when new people come in and out. It’s still sort of new to me. I come from a regional theatre background where you go through a show for two months, if you’re lucky, and you build it with all these people and then that’s done. It’s a completely new sort of thing to me to work with people for six months or a year and then have new people come in and still do that same show and find your way again with these people.
In general, do you like to come into rehearsal with a lot prepared or do you like to wait?
I feel like I probably wait. I feel like I always show up to the first rehearsal thinking I should have done more, but I think, for me personally, what I’ve learned is that I can read the script, I can think about it, I can listen to the music—or learn the music if I have it—and I could do research on the character, but there’s only so much I can do on my own because, like I was saying, it’s so much about who you’re playing off and who that person is, and that changes who you are as the character. I’ve never figured out how to be off the book coming into rehearsal. I’ve only been able to learn my lines in rehearsal with repetition, so I never perfected that skill. I always wonder if that would give me more freedom. I really rely on the process, I really do, in the room as it’s happening.
Are there other areas of culture that affect your work?
Oh gosh, yes. Yeah. I feel like I maybe don’t realize it in the moment, but I’m very sensitive. I don’t say that as a good thing. Sometimes it’s bad. I’m very affected by the things that go on around me and people’s energies and stuff. We’re sitting in a diner now and I’ll probably be thinking about this during the show. Just getting back in an environment that we’re trying to reenact every night. I’m a very visual person, so I often find that I look for pictures and images that correspond with what I’m working on. When I started working on Waitress I started [looking for images]. God bless the internet. You can Google “diner” and you can Google “pie” and all these images of pies and waitresses and diners and kitchens and pie racks and pie display cases and the glinting metal of a diner countertop. It’s so evocative. I often find myself gathering pictures. Sometimes I’ll end up with a random one and I’m like, “Why did I pick that?” Something about it reminded me of the character or reminded me of a moment in the play.
The emotional life of the character?
Yeah, the emotional life of the character. I remember coming across a picture—I think it’s from a film—it was just this picture of a girl, and she looks nothing like me but I was just like, “That’s Jenna, that’s Jenna.” It was just the look on her face, the surroundings, she’s on the street. It just felt like her to me.
If you go to a museum, do you have an immediate emotional response to what you’re seeing?
I guess maybe depending on what I’m working on, if I’m working on a piece at the time, maybe. I’ve always loved art museums and there are certain things in those museums that I’m more drawn to than others. An emotional response? That’s really interesting. I get a little obsessed with music. If I find a new album that I like I kind of play it on repeat and I will find that I will gravitate toward things that correspond to what I’m working on. The museum thing is interesting, though. I wish I knew more about modern art because I feel like I would have more of an appreciation for it. I love painting. I used to paint. I don’t really much anymore. I’d like to get back into it. There’s just something about it that I respond to. It’s an emotional response. It’s something about the texture. There’s just something about it, to me. I don’t know whether it’s the texture or the process. I’ve just always been really intrigued by it.
But you used to paint?
Yeah. I never got into oils or anything. It was just acrylic. I used to take classes when I was in high school, and I painted a lot in high school, and I found it to be very clearing, very soothing, almost like a meditative process.
It’s different than theatre because it’s more singular in the sense you have control over everything you’re putting on paper.
I think that’s why I liked it too, and that’s why I like looking at paintings, especially something like a Van Gogh where you really see the paint. You see the brush stroke. You see the, like you said, the sort of control aspect, but to me, I think what’s also fascinating about it is the sort of chance of it all, the fact that those two colors mixed on the brush at the same time and that one swipe creates a cloud. I love that about it, the sort of chance of it all.
With Waitress, one of the things I talked about with Diane Paulus was how they brought the tone into the visual elements of the show to make a unified world. For you as an actress, once you start having the costumes and the sets and all of that, is that helpful?
Absolutely. I think because I am such a visual person, I love sets, I love costumes. The costumes are also really informative to me because of literally how that person feels. When you’re doing a show and you’re in a corset, it gives you so much, or when you’re in heels. A friend came to see the show the other night and it was so funny because she’s an actress and she said, “Oh my God, you guys get to wear flat shoes. You get to wear those tennis shoes. You just look so comfortable, I was so jealous.” I thought, yeah that’s true. We get to run around in tennis shoes and cotton dresses with biker shorts underneath. It’s so comfortable. It’s one of the most comfortable costumes I’ve ever worn, and yet I don’t think of my character as being comfortable in her skin. I was thinking about it the other day, and I talk to my physical therapist about it a lot. I realize how much I don’t stand up straight on stage. I don’t know if I was conscious of it at the time, but there’s something that feels false about being open-shouldered and being very lifted as Jenna. It doesn’t feel right. In the end I find that I do that, but for most of the play I feel like she’s a little more protected than that.
I want to ask you one of the questions that I am kind of obsessed with asking actresses. When you’re starting out and you’re in the industry, you have a lot of people telling you what your type is, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, this is the type of part you should play, this is the type of part you should not play. How does that affect you as you’re trying to develop, not only as an artist and an actress, but also as a person?
I think I got really lucky in that people didn’t know what to do with me. I never felt like I was the pretty ingénue, so I think I figured out—whether I was really conscious of it or not—that’s not what my calling card is, so I’ve got to figure out something else. I have to do something different than other people do. Growing up, as a young girl, you see all these images out there, and I just felt like, “I don’t look like that. I don’t look like a musical theatre girl.” I think, in the beginning, I was really afraid that that was going to be a roadblock for me because in my mind I thought, “Well, I don’t look right and I don’t sound like everybody else.” I think I learned, too, like most of us do, no one else sees us the way we see ourselves. I think in a lot of ways, like I said, I got lucky that people were confused by me, and in a way, that ended up being a really good thing for me, because I didn’t feel like I had one thing that I was good at or one thing I was supposed to develop because I didn’t really have anybody saying that to me. I remember talking about it a little bit because I went to theatre school, I went to Syracuse University, and they talk to you in there about types and trying to figure out what your strong suit is and really working on that. I also had really great teachers who let me explore things and let me do this belty song here, and do this soprano song here, and learn what I could of dance. I knew I was never going to be an amazing dancer. I also had an amazing voice teacher in college, Tish Oney. She was fascinating because she trained classically and yet she was also a Jazz vocalist, and I think it was a blessing that she came into my life at that point in time, because it was somebody when I was at that very influential age who was like, “You don’t have to sing one way, you don’t have to sing one thing.” I think I was really lucky in that I had people around me that didn’t see the world that way, didn’t see the business that way. I think it’s [typing etc.] really mostly helpful to the people that are casting, which is why I guess I understand people that are teaching or giving the advice mention things like that because that is sometimes how the people giving you the job are viewing things. I think it really has to do with, it just makes it easier for them because they know what category to put you in, they literally know what file folder. You’re a dancer, you’re an actor, you’re this kind of singer, you’re this kind of look, you play this role but not this role. More often than not, that’s what you hear actors talking about. “Oh my gosh, I’m only seen as this one thing and I want to do something else.”
Right. And when you have people telling you that you’re not the right type for something it maybe prevents you from trying something that you’re actually—
Really good at. I think I was always really lucky in that I always got to do a lot of different things. And I started in Chicago. After Syracuse University, I came out to Chicago and I just got to do lots of different things. I didn’t get put in a box by somebody else, and I liked doing different things, and then I guess people were open-minded enough to let me do that.
Was your perspective coming into the business different because your parents are actors?
I think I maybe had a little bit more of a realistic viewpoint of the whole thing because it was their job. They are artists, but I also saw the day-to-day side of it and the fact that you work really, really hard, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and you have to run your life accordingly. I saw the non-glamorous side of it. I don’t think it’s very glamorous anyway. I understand the part where we have to pretend to be glamorous so that we can sell things, but I joke about it all the time. It’s such a glamour profession and there are parts that are wonderful and fun but it’s really, really hard, and I don’t say that as a negative thing. I say that as a pride thing. It’s good, hard work. It really is. I knew that growing up.
Is that other aspect—the press and events—something you had to learn to manage? And how to have boundaries in terms of what you need to be able to do your actual job on stage?
I’m still figuring that one out. I think I always have to remind myself that this is me, and so I can go do this many things in a day and then do the show at night, but maybe I can’t. So, learning to be okay with that and trying to figure out what you say yes to and what you say no to. I never want to disappoint anybody. There are some things that I would like to be a part of, or causes that I would like to support, but I do have to think about what my responsibility is for the thing that I’m actually hired to do at night or during the afternoon, so that when I show up to work I’m ready and I’m full. And not just to do what I need to do, but to be there for my friends and have my brain still working, so that if something drops on the stage, we’re able to just deal with it and go on. So that I feel like I’m really functioning on all cylinders and not completely exhausted. I don’t know how most people do it, honestly. I really struggle with that because that, to me, is still very new—the whole part of your job that is not what happens on stage.
I have a feeling a lot of people struggle with it.
But you’re supposed to look like you’re not struggling.
Yeah, which I think is doubly true for women.
Oh my God. That’s like what we were talking about before we started the interview [Ellen Barry’s New York Times piece on young women in India], you know? I’m thinking about coming here and talking to you and getting my picture taken and I’m like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do to my hair? I left all my makeup on vacation. I’ve got to go to the theatre and put something on my face.” I’m like, “Do I? Why do I feel this pressure to do this?” Then reading an article about what’s going on in the world and the options that some women have and I’m like, “Oh, well, me and my champagne problems about should I put a curling iron on my head or not, it doesn’t really matter.” I don’t want to be disrespectful and look like showing up like a mess, but I think it’s a fine line of trying to figure out how much of that to invest in.
It’s a pressure women have. Something that comes up fairly frequently in interviews is the idea of women and likability. That there’s a whole other thought process that women go through a lot in terms of saying no to things because they still feel greater internal pressure to be seen as likable.
Or to be like, “I can handle everything, I’m so capable.”
I get that. I still think that in our world and sometimes in show biz, a man saying no to something seems strong and a woman saying no to something seems bitchy. I do see that double standard. I do find myself personally considering, “If I say no to this, how will so-and-so feel, and will it look selfish of me, and how will I look? Will they think less of me?” Rather than just, “Are you able to do it or not?” Just being more cut and dry with it. “Do you want to do it? Do you not want to do it?” Not considering everybody else’s feelings before your own. I think part of that is sort of societal pressures of feeling like you’ve got to get everything done and not look like we’re breaking a sweat.
What’s your relationship like with the idea of being ambitious, being seen as ambitious?
I guess I always sort of thought of myself as not being very ambitious and I’ve had certain people in my life who have sort of faulted me, or I felt faulted me, for not being ambitious. Or early on in college thinking, “I’m not ambitious enough. I’ll never make it.” I think I am [ambitious] in many ways, but I think it has more to do with how I’m not satisfied with doing an okay job really at anything, and so maybe that’s my version of ambition. I always want to do really, really great work, and I think sometimes that translates into, “Oh, I’d be really interested in doing that project or this project.” I do also know that as great as it all is, and as gratifying and satisfying as success can be, whatever that is to somebody personally, it’s not everything that matters, and if you don’t have other things in place in your life that fulfill you, there’s nothing that you do on a stage that’s going to make up for that.
Do you think it could also just have to do with the baggage the word “ambition” has?
I guess sometimes in my mind it has a negative connotation, but I think it’s interesting you ask about that. We should break it down. Where does that perception come from? Is it a perception that to be ambitious you have to knock people out of the way to get where you’re going? I don’t believe that that is necessary in this business anyway. I’ve seen so many wonderful—and I mean that—wonderful people reaching a level of what the world would deem success in a really honest and genuine way. I think I’ve gotten to watch a lot of people like that, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people like that, and that has made a lasting impression on me. You don’t have to do it in a nasty way. You just don’t, but I think a lot of people do, I think especially a lot for young people. There can be a lot of cattiness in people who are trying to come up in the business and it’s just really not necessary. There are so many other things you can focus on.
Do you have a spiritual life and does that affect your work?
Absolutely. I had a moment last night. I was in there talking to my compatriots, Keala [Settle] and Jenna [Ushkowitz], the other waitresses, and I was just frustrated about something. They were like, “You need to get out of the way.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, whatever.” In my mind I was like, “I’m going to fix this, I’m going to solve this.” They were like, “You need to get out of the way.” Sure enough, I got out of the way, or I tried to, and it was like things started to fall into place. I really believe that God is in control. I think that that goes almost into the ambition, the discussion that I can have all the grandest plans in the world of what I think I want to do or what I want to do next, and it’s just been so apparent in my life that God’s like, “I want you here. I want you to do this and I’m going to take you here and even if you don’t understand it, you’re going to figure it out later, or maybe you won’t.” I do believe everything happens for a reason.
Do you ever find any conflicts in values, in terms of wanting to stay true to who you are, with what the industry asks of you?
I struggle with: If I’m a Godly person, how does being in a business which seems so self-centered, how does that fit? How does that all come together? I think I’ve only been able to do the kind of things I’ve been able to do and have the experiences I’ve had because of what I believe God has given me and the opportunities He put in front of me and the people He’s helped me encounter and all that. I think it’s a very weird business sometimes. It tries to make you look at yourself the way other people are looking at you, at least that’s what I struggle with. We like looking at people who are on a stage or in a movie or on a magazine. Our culture just loves it. We’re obsessed with it, and I think it’s such a trap. It can be such a trap to get caught up in that. I find it so odd.
It’s something that’s come up in interviews a few times: the struggle between wanting to feel like they’re doing good, but then the industry stuff that puts a lot of focus on themselves in ways that feel weird.
In order to sort of play the game, for lack of a better term, enough so that you could be at a point where you could do some good in the world.
They kind of go hand-in-hand in a very strange way.
In a very strange way, yeah, especially as women. I wish there was a way we could negotiate that better, where people paid more attention to what we were doing instead of how we looked while we were doing it. I think we’re making strides, but it’s very odd.
Yep. And now there’s the whole social media thing. You’re one of the few people who isn’t on it.
I’m not. It would be so bad for me. I judge myself enough. I don’t need one more outlet to [compare myself]. I don’t want to market myself. I think that is the weirdest thing. If it has to be done, I want to let someone else do it. I just feel really weird about it and, to me, I understand social media as a tool for that and I think it’s really smart and very, very beneficial, but for my soul I think it’s not beneficial.
I’ve been wondering if for women, again, it’s especially tricky because it’s putting more of your personal life out there and making yourself very approachable. And that can be used as a selling point for a woman: Look how nice and approachable she is. Like with all this stage door stuff, and then you add social media to it…
Right, but does that go back to our talk about ambition and humility? If we’re not kind and approachable, does that mean people are going to think we’re a diva? Or the flip side is that double standard of if a woman shows up on a red carpet and looks hot and great, does that mean she’s not smart and/or funny and/or humble and/or empathetic to those around her? It can all be in one package, but our media compartmentalizes it so much. I think it can be very hard to walk the line of how approachable to be to, say, fans, and how private to be. I think for me and my own sanity, I have my family and my friends, and then I have my work. I’m thrilled if people enjoy my work and enjoy what I get to be involved in, and that’s a part of me because I like to bring myself to my work, but that’s not me. That’s my work.
That’s what I’m willing to share, and my personal life is separate for me. At the point I am in my life, that’s what’s best for me right now.
What’s something you think can be done to make things better for women in the industry?
I think the best thing I can probably do is just try to be honest and try to be myself, because we’re not going to knock down stereotypes overnight. We can get into a whole conversation about gender roles and all that. That’s not going to change overnight, but what we can do is just honestly represent who we are to each other and hopefully, after a while, there will just be so many options out there for young women to look at and be like, “Oh, I could be this or I could be that.” We talked about that a lot [doing press] because it comes up in Waitress. I guess it’s the first all-female creative team on Broadway. We were all actually kind of surprised by that. We were like, “Wow, this really hasn’t happened yet?” I never really wanted to focus on it too much, but I think the great thing that can come out of it is that that’s like an option on the table now. When you are growing up, you don’t know something exists until you see it and you have some sort of connection to it. I guess it’s just human instinct. We see something that is deemed worthy or beautiful, and then we want to be that. As long as we can keep putting out, whether they’re images or conversations, all these different varieties of things and people. I feel like that’s a small thing that I can do. Sometimes, as scary as it seems to just go, here’s what I think and here’s how I feel, or here’s what I want to wear, or here’s how much time I’m going to spend on my hair and makeup today, or if I want to say “fuck it,” that’s okay. I don’t have to be like anybody else.