You’re currently an understudy for several roles in A Christmas Carol. Do you understudy often? I feel like you aren’t a “typical” understudy.
Sally Wingert: Oh, I am a typical understudy. If somebody offers me the chance to understudy, and I don’t have a job, I’m thrilled to do it.
What’s it like compared to preparing for a role?
SW: Understudy is a great gig if you can live with a certain level of anxiety. You do all the work, and then pray that you don’t go on.
Your next big role is as the waspish matron Polly Wyeth in Other Desert Cities, a role that got Stockard Channing nominated for a 2012 Tony award. How are you preparing?
SW: I’m doing it in a very sideways way. I’m reading Nancy Regan’s autobiography, My Turn. And I’m looking at the script, but I’m not memorizing it. The work always happens in the rehearsal room for me.
Why Nancy Regan’s autobiography?
SW: Polly is a wealthy Republican woman who I think was sort of modeled along the lines of Betsy Bloomingdale, who was a really good friend of Nancy’s. And that stratum of societal structure is one in which I don’t move in at all in my own life. So I want to get a feel for what that’s like, for how those people operated.
Other Desert Cities is written by Jon Robin Baitz, who’s known for writing such dramas as Brothers & Sisters and The West Wing. Does the play read like his other work?
SW: It has such a good mouth feel to it. He clearly understands how people talk. You’d be surprised how many plays are awkward in the mouth. This is one of the few plays that reads a little like a novel. It is a page turner.
The gist of the play is it is that your daughter, Brooke, comes home, has written a memoir, and there’s something in there that the family isn’t happy about. Is that right?
SW: Yes, it’s hard. It’s comp-li-ca-ted.
Which every family is.
SW: Well… yes, but I’d say this one has a really major complication.
Do you relate to this story as a mother?
SW: Deeply. Polly is not a particularly sympathetic character—although you might not say that by the end of the play. But I would say what drew me to her is she is a ferocious mother.
SW: She’s hard on her children, but at the same time very protective of her children. She’s also judge-y. Judge-y Miss Judge Judge.
Probably due to the level of society she comes from.
SW: Perhaps. But, I mean, I’m judge-y as a mother, too. My boys would tell you: I can’t let a teachable moment pass, even now when they’re 25 and 23. If I can mention, “You should be doing this that way,” I will.
Do you feel like it’s easier to play someone similar to yourself, or more different?
SW: That’s a really good question. I think there is a lot of me in every character. I have a lot of different things about me and go in and say, “This is going to work here.” I also hope—and this is such an ongoing actor dream—that I become transformative. I’ve always wanted to be a transformative actor.
What do you mean by transformative?
SW: You can be a very good actor—an astonishing actor—and not be transformative. I give you Robert DeNiro. Katherine Hepburn. Even Betty Davis. You cannot really separate them from their characters, however they play multiple characters brilliantly! Meryl Streep, on the other hand, is transformative. To be transformative, your gestural language has to be different, the way you walk has to be different, how you talk needs to be different: everything must be a different color, so to speak. But the blade is really thin on that. You shouldn’t be showy. By that I mean that to only do something arbitrarily because it makes it different from you or another character—but might not be organically rooted in that character—is useless.
So you’re saying you can’t fake it.
SW: Well, yes, but then that would preclude a lot of things. For example, I have played the mother of a child with severe deformities. My kids don’t have that. But as an actor, I will dip my toe into a lot of different mental spaces, a lot of different tragedies, just to remind myself what that feels like—to make it more real.
Is that something that you were taught? Were you told, “This is how you should get to this place”?
SW: No, I have very little official training. But I have years of watching other actors and directors. So it’s certainly not something I do on my own, but I come upon it on in my own way.
How did you get into acting fulltime?
SW: I was just a ham. I went to Robbinsdale High School, which had a ton of theater. I went to the U of M for a couple of years, but dropped out. From the moment I left high school, I started doing theater in the community and progressed from there. But I don’t have a degree.
Do you think other actors judge you for that?
SW: No, not at all.
You don’t think they view you differently for not having professional training?
SW: At my age, that’s just not on the table. When I was coming up, I ran with a scrappy crowd. When I finally got to the Guthrie and was 27, then I realized just how pedigreed a lot of actors were. But if an audition sucks, then nothing matters. If the audition is fantastic but somebody else’s audition is equally fantastic, then, sometimes, the pedigree matters.
Do you have a role that was a turning point in your career?
SW: I can tell you a role that changed my life on the Guthrie stage. I did Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. Robert Woodruff directed it, and Robert is a very, very avant-garde director. He deconstructed and took that bad boy apart. And in the process of rehearsing—which was unlike any process I’ve ever been though—something about that allowed me to be all of myself on the stage. I found a way in through Robert’s methodology that just changed me. And I never again thought I didn’t have a right to be on that stage.
Is there a role you dream of playing?
SW: Hundreds of them. Dozens. Lots and lots.
SW: Yes. All of them. I’d like to do everything.