The Accidental Actress

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Most Thanksgivings, the Gummer children—the three daughters and one son of Meryl Streep and Don Gummer—would put on plays for the grown-ups. The middle daughter, Grace, already had a film credit by age 6, playing a child version of her mom’s character in The House of the Spirits, but at home, she never got the lead. Invariably, she says, sipping water at Coffee Shop in Union Square, “I was either dancing or I was the servant. Or the dog.”

Things have improved. Gummer has just come from a rehearsal for the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, in which she plays a teenager in love with a cocky academic played by Billy Crudup. One of the main themes of Stoppard’s romantic brain-bender is the question of determinism: Is our fate sealed by physics and genes? Are our choices predictable? At first glance, the 24-year-old Gummer seems to scream Yes! There is no getting around the resemblance to her mother: the aquiline features, the gawky grace, even the dowdy-on-anybody-else cable-knit sweater and shawl. (“I love shawls!”) Yet all it takes to crack her Serious Actress composure is the restaurant’s decision to blast Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shoop.” “God, this music is so distracting,” she says, before singing along flawlessly (“Can I get a scoop?”). She and a friend once choreographed a “Shoop” dance for a birthday party. “It was very sexual, for 15,” she says. “We thought it was pretty great.”

Gummer’s road to the stage has been more circuitous than that of, say, her older sister, Mamie (who scored bigger roles at Thanksgiving and had her first film credit by the age 3). At Brooklyn’s Poly Prep, Grace was captain of her swim team, nurturing Olympic fantasies. At Vassar, she majored in art history and Italian, but also joined a theater co-op that required actors to work as crew and vice versa. After school she interned for Zac Posen and did costume design in Rome. Was she trying to avoid the obvious career choice? “Not at all,” she insists, comparing herself to the aimless college grad in Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture. “I still had all these passions that I wanted to explore.” Then a theater-director friend sent her a script, The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, asking if she wanted to design the costumes. After reading it, “my first instinct was, ‘I want to say these words.’ ” She starred in it Off Broadway (to good reviews) in 2008, as a teenager obsessed with sex.

It seems to have been an appropriate debut. Gummer talks a lot about the sensuality of acting. Arcadia is “a very thrilling, sexy, warm play,” she says. “The language can be dense, but it’s not cold—it can involve your entire body.” As the dancing Gummer, she has always been partial to musicals, and last year, she auditioned unsuccessfully for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. “I audition a lot,” she admits, adding, twice, “I never thought this would be easy.”

One role she did get was on a TeenNick drama called Gigantic, playing the daughter of famous actors. Shooting this very meta series last year, in L.A., gave her a taste of grown-up autonomy: her own car, her own place, “this independent life for the first time.” She enjoyed it but didn’t mourn when the show wasn’t picked up after its first year. It freed her up for Arcadia and also saved her from becoming “potentially this teen icon.” Which is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Gummer recently came upon a group of preteen girls leaving a ballet class next to Arcadia’s rehearsal space. “One of them just went”—here she holds a wide-eyed stare—“and I thought, ‘Why is she looking at me? Oh—that’s why.’ ”

By Tom Stoppard
Opens March 17.
Barrymore Theatre.

The Accidental Actress