An Interview with Lilli Cooper

Written by Sarah Rebell

Photography by Marisa Chafetz

May 14th, 2019

Lilli Cooper made her Broadway debut as Martha in the original Broadway cast of the musical Spring Awakening, back when she was still in high school, while studying for the SATs and applying to colleges on the side. In the ensuing years since college (she received a B.A. in Film from Vassar), she’s continued to work steadily on Broadway, playing roles from Elphaba in Wicked to Sandy Cheeks in SpongeBob. Currently, Lilli is starring as Julie in the new musical adaptation of Tootsie, which she refers to as her “first grown up show.” It is a role for which she just received her first Tony Award nomination. I sat down with Lilli the week before Tony nominations were announced, for a conversation about her career, what it was like growing up in a theatrical family, her thoughts on helping to create an updated version of her character in Tootsie, and more.


This show is basically your first big leading role in a new musical on Broadway. How has that been for you? Do you feel more responsibility in terms of, for instance, being a leader to the cast?

You know what’s interesting about that? I thought that might be something that I would feel, but I felt way more of a leader in SpongeBob. I was one of the several actors who had had more experience, because it was a pretty young show. And in this show, I often say that it feels like my first grown up show. And so, I don’t think that I’ve necessarily taken on a leadership role. Santino [Fontana] is really just so perfect for that and he is our absolute rock. I just feel like I’m along for the ride, which is really awesome.

When you’re playing a major role like Julie, how do you maintain and keep up your stamina on stage every night? 

It’s really hard. I liken it to running a marathon. You can’t just wake up one day and choose to run a marathon. I mean, you can, but it would really suck. It takes a lot of years of practice and pacing yourself. Earlier on in my career, [I had] a tendency to go all out from the beginning. It’s not like you’re not doing your best in every show, but you have eight shows a week, so you really have to distribute your energy out in the right way. I learned that the most, I think, during Wicked, doing Elphaba, because that was physically and vocally one of the most demanding jobs I’ve ever had. I really couldn’t do it in the beginning; I didn’t have the stamina to do eight shows a week in the beginning. But I built it up; it’s something that you have to continually build up every time you do a show because, same with training for a marathon, you lose that, and you need to build it back up again. Dietarily, I avoid gluten and dairy. I’m not totally religious about it, and that doesn’t actually affect my voice, it more affects my energy and how I physically feel. I work out every day, or I try to, when I’m not incredibly busy. I’m a very active person, so I like being very physically active all the time. I get depressed when I’m not out and about and busy and doing things. And I haven’t taken voice lessons in a while, but every time I get the chance to get back to it, I really love it. I always say my voice teachers still train with their voice teachers, because you just can’t stop learning.

When you did Wicked on Broadway, you were a standby, so you didn’t necessarily know in advance when you’d be on performing the role. Did you train differently for that marathon, so to speak, than doing a show where you know you’ll be on stage eight times a week?

I think so. A lot of the women who played Elphaba on Broadway have also stood by for Elphaba, and a lot of them say that it was harder to stand by than it was to do the show eight times a week. You get into the groove of things when you’re playing the role full time, and you get used to it. But when you’re thrown on last minute, it becomes this crazy adrenaline rush. It’s so scary, no matter how many times you do it, it’s still horrifying. So it was a roller coaster ride of emotions and of physical exertion. It was more mentally preparing myself, because I had to be ready to go on at any moment. I even went on in the middle of the show once, which was so scary, but it was something that felt really special, because I felt like I was very much needed. I actually ended up really loving doing that, because it felt like a challenge. It was something I was definitely scared to do, but I was happy that I was able to do it.

Another aspect of doing Wicked that I imagine could be challenging is that, unlike your other Broadway credits, you were stepping into an already established, long-running show.

It’s a very, very different experience. Stepping into a part, and especially in such an iconic role, feels a lot like fitting into a puzzle piece. It feels very different creatively than creating a role from scratch, from day one. It’s a different challenge, because you never want to completely imitate the person who played the role before you, but you can’t completely recreate it, because it’s already been created. So it’s finding the balance between the two, and that’s a unique challenge. It was something that I was constantly working on. I had rehearsals for Elphaba a year into being in the show. We were constantly getting notes, and constantly working on really fine tuning it. Every woman who’s played [Elphaba] really has their own version of it, but at the same time, still has to stand on three or enter from wing two. And so, it’s finding that balance of throwing in your own creative energy and filling in that puzzle piece.

What was it like for you to go from Elphaba to Sandy Cheeks? In that case, you were originating a role on Broadway, but playing a character who was already well-known in her cartoon form.

It was exciting, because it was really the first time that those characters have been imagined as real-life people. I felt like that gave us some freedom to discover the characters in our own bodies. I knew that I wasn’t going to pretend like I was an actual squirrel onstage, because I wasn’t in a squirrel costume and I wasn’t making squirrel noises—it was the human version of Sandy Cheeks. It felt like such a unique experience to be able to do that. It was these beloved characters that people love, but we were able to [present them] in our own original, new, fresh way, which was just so fun and fulfilling and creative. It’s definitely big shoes to fill, because people recognize the voices of these characters and, again, we didn’t want to completely imitate the actors who do the voices [on the tv show]. We wanted to make our own versions of them. So, it was a fine balancing line.

I recently spoke with one of your SpongeBob costars, Stephanie Hsu, who talked about some of the forms of physical movement that inspired her character, Karen the Computer. Were there any elements of character research that assisted you in your approach to creating Sandy Cheeks?

Absolutely. Sandy Cheeks is a karate master, and I actually took martial arts classes for months leading up to rehearsals. I semi-learned how to use nunchucks, and we incorporated some karate moves into the show. I’ve been a dancer my whole life, so it was really fun to use my body in a way that I hadn’t before. And physically, it really helped me create this character, because cartoons can do things that humans can’t do. We had to figure out how we could show these characters in a human way, with physical moves that humans do, and the martial arts training really helped me do that.

Going back a few years, you made your Broadway debut in Spring Awakening while you were still in high school. What was it like to be creating a role and experiencing all of the pressures of the industry for the first time, while also still discovering who you are as a person?

I think it was very meta, because the show was really all about discovering yourself and being a teenager, and not really understanding the world around you. It felt like I was experiencing those things in my real life, as well as portraying them on stage. I think that, in turn, it was very cathartic, and it helped me grow and learn about myself. But it was such a whirlwind. I think it was something that I didn’t really understand fully until I stepped away from it. I was a part of Spring Awakening for about two years, and I started it when I was 15. So that included me applying to colleges, doing SATs, having to take a vacation from Spring Awakening to do a play at my high school so that I could graduate, going to prom—all of those things, while also being in a hit Broadway show, and then leaving the theatre and signing autographs. It was very surreal. I felt like I was living this double life, but they paralleled each other in a unique way too. And then when I left, it was really eye-opening because I really realized how big and epic this was, not really while I was in it but definitely after I stepped away. And I went to college, and I was just doing school full time, and I finally acknowledged, “Wow, that was a big feat,” and I didn’t really know that it was when I was doing it. I think that a lot of the story of Spring Awakening had to do with communication, or lack thereof, between the generations. Being able to do that [show] and tell that story allowed me to get way closer to my parents, and to understand the value of communication. It’s something that I’m still working on today, 13 years later. But it was definitely something that stayed with me, for sure.

You grew up in a theatrical family. So presumably, when you first entered into the business as a teenager, you maybe knew a little bit more about the ups and the downs than most kids starting out.

I think I really did see the polar opposite ends of the spectrum of success in this industry. I knew the worst side of it and I knew the best side of it. I think that was really helpful, because it allowed me to get into this knowing what it could be. Looking back, I wish that I would have been more confident in myself and my abilities. I don’t know that that is even unique to my career, though. I think that’s just being a young person in this world and not understanding who I was. But I saw my dad [actor Chuck Cooper] win a Tony Award, and then I saw my dad on unemployment for six months. And we ate beans and rice for several days at a time because that’s all we could afford. It had its glamorous moments and it had its rough moments, but I think that’s the beauty of what we do. If anything, that drew me to it even more. I was surrounded by it so much my entire life, physically, growing up in Hell’s Kitchen right around the theatre district. My parents bringing me to the theatre all the time, being backstage at my dad’s shows all the time. One of my earliest memories is being backstage at The Life with my dad and taking naps under his dressing station, and walking around during the show, and meeting all of the ensemble girls, and just falling madly in love with them, and wanting to be them. I loved the idea of theatre as an escape. I think that a lot of actors look at it that way. You’re given an opportunity to be somebody else, and not everybody gets the chance to do that. It’s really exciting to not only be somebody else, but to tell stories that have the potential to be so meaningful to the world. I think Spring Awakening was my first experience of really seeing how storytelling can change people’s lives.

In the nearly 15 years that you’ve been working in this industry, do you feel that you’ve observed any changes in terms of how women are treated?

Sadly, I don’t think that I’ve seen a drastic change. For example, the fact that Anais Mitchell is the first woman to write a book and score [for a Broadway musical] in I don’t know how many years—so many years. And there was one female director nominated for a Tony last year. [It was SpongeBob director] Tina Landau, and very well deserved. I’m obsessed with her. But the numbers are pretty clear. As much as I think that women are being highlighted in media, and in representation, I still think we have a long way to go.

Do you ever feel you have had to work extra hard to convince people to see you as a woman who could play a leading role, as opposed to the teenager in Spring Awakening?

Yeah, I really do. It’s shocking how many people come up to me after the show and literally say to me, “Oh my God, you’re grown up.” Yeah, that’s what happens to humans, they grow up. I think I was just burned into people’s memories as this teenage actor. When you start young, people have a tendency to remember you as this young person. So I feel really lucky to be able to be in this [Tootsie], what I refer to as my first grown-up show, because I feel like I’ve broken that boundary and pushed past that niche that I’ve been pigeonholed into for a while. It’s really important, because we do grow up. I’m not going to play a teenager for the rest of my life. It would be nice if I could still, but I don’t think I can get away with it anymore. It’s just funny to me how it comes as a surprise to people that I’m a woman now.

In a similarly meta way to what you were saying about being a teenager playing a teenager in Spring Awakening, you’re now an actor playing an actor in Tootsie. Is your character Julie’s struggle of trying to figure out how to have a personal life while being a working actor something that resonates with you in any way?

One hundred percent. I think Julie’s biggest struggle, and it’s something that she’s buried down deep, is that she has chosen this path, but in doing so, has blocked herself off from really developing relationships outside of her job. That is a tricky path that a lot of actors fall down, and I’ve definitely found myself in that boat before. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in the same city where I work. I can see my family all the time, and luckily most of my family does what I do, so I’m very lucky in that sense. But I look back on the friends that I’ve made over the years. I travel so much for what I do. I’m busy in a way that is just different from any other career. I have to be in my prime at nine o’clock at night, when most of my friends who work nine to fives are asleep. So you really do have to be willing to sacrifice the time and commitment it takes to maintain friendships. I’m lucky enough to be in a relationship that I’ve been in for four years, but before I met the man that I’m in love with right now, it was next to impossible to date, and to be with anybody for a long period of time. It’s a lot of sacrifices, but the benefits have to outweigh the negatives. I think that in this world, and luckily in my career, they have.

Early on in Tootsie, Julie thinks she has found a mentor figure in fellow actor Dorothy Michaels. Are there any women with whom you’ve worked who have been mentors to you, or a surrogate family of sorts, when you’re off doing a show far from home?

I think I always find a community of women in whatever show that I’m doing. And so I think it can change from show to show. I mean, my mother is my rock. She grew up as an actress too, and she’s always the person that I’m going to call whenever I have anything to either complain about or ask about or brag about, or anything. But I think that it really feels like women in theatre can have each other’s backs. For example, in the show that I’m in now, there’s a text chain that all the women in the cast have. We just feel really close. I’ll go to Julie Halston and ask her advice, or I’ll go to Sarah Stiles and cry on her shoulder. It’s really nice to have that community.

The film Tootsie came out in 1982, before you were born. How familiar were you with the film? Had you seen it before you started working on the show?

I remember it was a movie that my mom suggested I watch when I was pretty young, because it’s just a classic comedy and she grew up watching it. I’d say I was probably ten or eleven when I first saw it. So I knew of it for sure, but by the time I auditioned for it, I hadn’t seen it in years. So I re-watched it when I auditioned. I knew it in terms of the actors who were in it. I remembered it so vividly, watching Jessica Lange and Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray and all these iconic actors. So, it was iconic in my mind in that way, but I did have to refresh myself.

In that case, how much did it resonate with you when you re-watched it as an adult, knowing that the musical was headed to Broadway? Did the movie impact you in terms of the decisions you made and your approach to the show?

I actually wasn’t given the whole script until maybe my final call back. I was just given sides. I actually had to ask, “When does this take place and how different is Julie from the movie?” I was glad to hear that she’s quite different from Julie in the movie. They’ve eliminated her being a single mother, the father character is no longer in the show. She’s not dating the director, Ron–all things that I think are so important, and especially for telling the story today. So I was glad and relieved and grateful that the creative team and the writers were so passionate about updating the script, and really making it relevant to today. The most creative aspect of the theatre is starting a show from the beginning, from the ground up. And if you’re lucky, you are a part of a creative team and cast that feel incredibly collaborative, and with Tootsie it absolutely has been that. I would have phone calls with Robert Horn, our book writer, for hours before we started rehearsals, just talking about my character. It’s so cool to be given that opportunity, because there are some instances where you walk in, and you read a script, and that script goes on stage, and that’s it. For there to be an open conversation, it’s so creatively fulfilling.

Could you give an example of a way you’ve shaped how the role of Julie is perceived and presented?

Totally. So, Julie and Dorothy develop this relationship, and they become very close. Then Julie is truly, deeply betrayed. As the lead woman in this show, and as the woman that Michael Dorsey falls in love with, we know that we need to care about Julie. We need to fall in love with her too, and understand that. I think there were phases of the show where we didn’t really get to understand her emotional arc, particularly through act two. Throughout the rehearsal process, and throughout all the phone conversations that we’ve had, we have really fleshed her out in a full, well rounded way. For example, there’s a song reprise in act two [“Who Are You?”] that originally was sung by Michael, and I pitched that it be sung by Julie, particularly because it just means so much to understand where her emotional status was in that moment. So things like that, really fine-tuning her journey so that we care about her and understand why Michael would fall in love with her. That was something that I was really, really passionate about, particularly from Chicago to New York.

What are your professional goals for the near future, in terms of the type of material you hope to do and the kinds of stories that you hope to tell?

I really like dipping my toes into everything. I was able to do my first play a year or two ago, and that was really fun. I love the idea of acting and performing in every different kind of medium. It’s still theatre, but plays feel a little bit different from musicals sometimes. I don’t know specifically the kinds of stories I want to tell; I just hope that they can resonate with me. It’s hard to really narrow down what you plan on doing in your future, because you have to grab at every opportunity that comes at you. I’ve been doing readings and workshops for years that have been moving slowly along the path it takes to get a fully fleshed out, produced show. I would love for any or all of those to come to fruition eventually. I always love starting from the beginning, because it feels like you’re really a part of the creation of the piece. It really feels like it would be a different piece if you weren’t a part of it, and that you get to contribute in a way that’s very unique. But if I were the luckiest person in the world, I would be performing in every facet, in film and television, and comedy and drama, because my taste is really eclectic too. And it flexes your chops in a way to do different things, so I just want to do it all.

Is there anything that you feel like you want to say that you haven’t yet had a chance to say about your experience with Tootsie?

I just want people who might be avoiding or fearing this show, because the movie was made a long time ago and it’s problematic today, to know that we have been so adamant about representing our world today in the show and acknowledging that. I think that’s one of the most important updates that we’ve made to the show. So, I want people to know that we’re taking into account our social climate.