Ted Sod: Where were you born?
Carmen M. Herlihy: I am from Maui, Hawaii.
TS: What made you decide to become an actor?
CMH: I don’t remember a specific moment I decided to be an actor, but my mother used to tell this story about how when I was a really, really young, like 3 or 4 years old, I would stand in front of the mirror and “act,” making myself cry, and then laugh and then cry again — as if I were already studying how to do that. So I think perhaps I wanted to be an actor even before I made the decision to try and be one. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do. When I got accepted into theatre school, I made a commitment to pursue acting as a profession.
TS: Where did you get your training?
CMH: I received my BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I also trained at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London, as well as the ETW Program in Amsterdam and the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab.
TS: Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you?
CHM: Geoff Bullen was a teacher I had when I studied at RADA who profoundly changed my approach to acting. He was able to do what no other teacher had been able to do up until that point, which was to get me out of my own way. He has this method called “The Red Mist” which is basically a little trick you do to “disappear into the role” or rather, “enter into the world of the play.” It’s basically letting go of all those actor neuroses to just listen to the play, the character you play, the other characters around you and to silence out the white noise of doubt and fear and those other bits that cling to actors when we work. It’s such a small, kind of silly little thing (if you aren’t an actor or can sympathize with actors), but I believe in it and I still do it before every performance.
TS: Why did you choose to do the role of Samantha in Jenny Rachel Weiner’s Kingdom Come?
CHM: It’s a character that you don’t often see on stage. Deeply flawed and struggling with physical as well as emotional limitations. I knew it would be a part that would require a great amount of physical as well as emotional work, and to have an opportunity to be challenged by that is something I couldn’t pass up. I believe an actor never stops learning, and if we are lucky, the role we play is an opportunity to learn. I knew it was going to be a tremendous amount of work, but instead of dreading that, I really hoped I would be given a chance to do that work. It’s also a play I would want to see, and that’s usually an indication that I feel it’s something special.
TS: What kind of preparation or research do you have to do before rehearsals begin in order to play Samantha?
CHM: I actually spend a great deal of time gathering intel. I don’t work on the script before we start rehearsal. I don’t like setting in stone the character. I have a good solid idea of the play and the character, but I feel setting something in stone makes it difficult to work in notes and suggestions from the director and playwright, as well as the other actors. I like having a strong idea of my character but remaining open to whatever is discovered in the rehearsal room. I really appreciate notes and thoughts from the creative team as well as listening to what my fellow actors are doing in the room. So I make sure the prep I do before rehearsal equips me with as much information that could be helpful to the play, regardless of whether it ends up being used or not, but not so much work that it makes me feel like “I’ve got it.” That’s what rehearsal is for, To Find IT.
Before I start rehearsing for anything, I enjoy researching the thematic elements of the play. For me, Kingdom Come is a play about loneliness and the desire for connection, as well as the need to matter to someone. So I’ve been reading quite a bit about loneliness. Three books in particular have been incredibly helpful: Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick; Alone: Finding Connection in a Lonely World by Andy Braner; and re-reading one of the greatest books ever written, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
I also start compiling a playlist. Music has always been a huge part of my day to day relationship with the world. And I find it helps so much with setting the tone and mood of a play as well as relaxing or energizing me, depending on what I need for it to do at any given time.
I also start keeping a lookout for images, photos that correlate with the story of the play, or the mood of the character or a particular scene. Sometimes I come away with a binder of an image book and other times just a few, and once I came away with just one single photo.
TS: I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about Samantha with us?
CMH: I like to think of Samantha as the sort of person who would not make a great first impression. She’s definitely someone you have to spend some time getting to know. She hides. She feels safest in isolation. Although she craves connection, she also fears it. The internet provides both isolation and connection. She can project whatever she wants to that world and retain complete control of how she is perceived. Face to face connection doesn’t have that guarantee. She’s bolder when she’s alone. The internet allows you to remain alone, even while interacting with someone.
TS: What do you find most challenging/exciting about this role?
CMH: Exploring the physical life of Samantha is something that excites me so much. At theatre school, you are trained to utilize your entire body in your work: physicality, vocal work, along with the emotional and intellectual life of the character. This role requires all those elements that I went to school for. It’s going to be fun to figure out how she maneuvers in that body, what she sounds like, how she breathes, as well as all the acting stuff; it’s really building this character from the outside in. The idea of transforming completely is exciting. And the challenge to keep this person grounded in truthfulness is going to be work. I love that kind of work.
TS: Can you talk about the relationship between Samantha and her caregiver, Delores, as you currently perceive it?
CMH: Right now, I think Samantha wishes Delores would take care of her even if she weren’t being paid to do it. I think she would like to be chosen by someone as opposed to being burdened to them. Delores is a paid caregiver, and I think Samantha at times has to make a conscious effort to remind herself that Delores isn’t a friend, and most definitely not her mother, and she feels she’s a job to Delores and nothing else. But that doesn’t stop her from wishing that weren’t the case.
TS: What do you look for from a director when working a new play?
CMH: I really love it when a director loves the play. They approach rehearsals differently when they have a personal investment in the play. They care more when it isn’t just a job. I like directors who care about the details and never stop trying to figure it out. I like collaborators rather than dictators. Directors who are eager to work with an actor as opposed to just working the actor. I worked with a director very early on in my professional career that called actors “props that can move themselves.” Needless to say that director didn’t have much respect for the actor’s process or contribution and in turn the cast had a difficult time trusting the director. If I feel safe with a director, I have no fear in rehearsal. If I feel supported and encouraged to fail, I put everything I have to give into that room. I like directors who are respectful and kind enough to tell me if something isn’t working. I really respond to directors who give clear, active notes. Who allow actors to work through a scene without manhandling us when we are still trying to stumble our way through. I am not the kind of actor who likes to over-talk through things; I prefer to just try and then let’s see. I really appreciate a director who allows us the time to explore early on and isn’t so preoccupied with the end product from the first day of rehearsal. And directors with a good sense of humor are always fun to work with.
TS: What do you look for from the playwright?
CMH: I love playwrights who write about the world and not just their world. I love funny writers who still manage to make us feel. I love being surprised by a play. I love meeting characters I have never met before. I also really love it when a playwright loves their characters and fights for them. I like knowing I have an ally. I have a deep respect for writers. Without them there would be nothing. I like hearing their suggestions, their ideas, and I find even small little bits of what inspired the play to be useful. And I am always grateful when they are ready to hand over the play to actors. I never take that trust for granted.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
CMH: I listen to a lot of music. I read a lot of books. I watch a lot of movies. Late night walks through my neighborhood. Talking to other artists. Talking to people who aren’t artists. Looking at an endless number of tumblr sites and blogs. COFFEE. I still write letters. I watch every Mets and Warriors game I can (there are very few things more dramatic than a sports game). I try to keep up with current events and the world around me, from pop culture gossip to the political landscape. I people-watch. I binge-watch TV shows. I stay interested.
TS: Students reading this interview will want to know what it takes to be a successful actor — what advice can you give young people who say they want to act?
CMH: Be kind. To yourself and the people you work with. Enjoy what you do and love it. The minute you stop loving it it’s time to move on. Also, be GRATEFUL for every opportunity you are given and know that because you got that opportunity someone else lost out. Have fun even when it seems impossible to have fun. Enjoy yourself. And remember TO PLAY.
Kingdom Come is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Kingdom Come, Roundabout Underground, Upstage