Uta Hagen would have been proud. There was her former student, Katie Finneran, nearly seven months pregnant, putting on a burlesque show in a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress and high heels, convincing about ten or so auditioners that she was sloshed on bathtub gin and homicidally enraged by children. “It was pretty hilarious,” says James Lapine, director of the upcoming revival of Annie. “She kind of knocked our socks off. She’d really done her homework.”
Actually, Finneran had had just under three days to prepare for the meeting that led to her casting as one of Broadway’s most “deliciously evil” drunken broads, orphanage director Miss Hannigan. (“Little Girls” is Hannigan’s showstopper.) But in a deeper sense, the 41-year-old—who’s already artfully stumbled her way into two featured-actress Tonys—has been preparing for the part since she was about 8. Having embarked on the hard-knock life of an actress, little Katie wore out a recording of the original 1977 Broadway production of Annie, after which she and a friend performed all the roles, including the scene-stealing meanie Miss Hannigan, in the Finnerans’ Florida living room. “I wanted to be one of those orphans,” Finneran says now, “to be singing my heart out. I wanted to be lost in that world so badly.”
Finneran invokes those memories over bouillabaisse a few days before the start of Annie rehearsals. We’re at a bistro only a couple of blocks from both the theater and the home Finneran shares with her husband, the stage actor Darren Goldstein, and their two little boys—the younger of them only 9 weeks old. In a loose gold knit blouse, her strawberry-blonde hair setting off stark green eyes, the actress looks uncannily composed for this stage of the sleep-feed-change cycle. Parenthood may still be newish to her, but the theater-life balance is not. “I’ve done that schedule for 22 years,” she says, “and I know where to find the time.”
Goldstein proposed to Finneran only a week before she won her second Tony—for the fifteen-minute role of a barfly fling in Promises, Promises—a coincidence that led to one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in recent history. Flushed with joy, she addressed the little boys and girls in the audience: “With the world being so fast right now, I want to remind you to focus on what you love, because it is the greatest passport, it is the greatest road map to an extraordinarily blissful life.” She was thinking in that moment of her younger self. “I would have wanted someone to say that to me,” she says, “because it gets pretty lonely when you want something so badly and can’t see anything coming together.”
Finneran has had the usual number of acting setbacks. She dropped out of Carnegie Mellon to study with Uta Hagen, only to spend years waiting tables, unable to afford more than one audition dress, which she shared with a friend. (On days when both had calls, they’d swap outfits at a Times Square McDonald’s.) There were near-misses at being cast in big movies, including the Brad Pitt vehicle The Devil’s Own, for which she not only learned a Northern Irish accent in 24 hours (by watching In the Name of the Father) but pretended to be from Belfast, because director Alan J. Pakula wanted to cast a native. At the end of a long day of lying to Pitt and Pakula, she broke down and fessed up. She didn’t get the part.
Theater, however, has rarely disappointed Finneran. Typecasting isn’t a problem for someone who’s gone swiftly from Cabaret to The Iceman Cometh to Noises Off, but a comedic line runs through her best-remembered roles. In that last play, Michael Frayn’s whip-smart farce, she won her first Tony for playing Brooke Ashton, whose awful acting in the play-within-the-play constituted the best performance of the night. Lapine believes that Finneran succeeds at funny in spite of her wholesome beauty. “She’s not by nature a comedic-looking kind of actress,” he says, “but her comic timing is pretty amazing.” One of the reasons he liked her for Miss Hannigan was her take on the character as a washed-up flapper with sex appeal, rather than a hopeless battle-ax. (Consider two other names that were floated: Rosie O’Donnell and Elaine Stritch.)
Finneran, who grew up worshipping the high-serious Group Theatre (the Depression-era home to Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, et al.), is a surprising convert to the pleasures of the onstage pratfall. Partly, it comes down to her options: Earnest roles in TV dramas, like one called The Inside, can’t compete. “Shooting people, catching criminals, speaking in a very low whispered tone about DNA—it’s not as much fun as hitting your head against a wall,” Finneran says. It’s fitting that one TV role she did relish, in the lamentably canceled Wonderfalls, partook of that show’s dark, oddball humor.
Finneran had a chance to cross over when she co-starred in the ill-fated sitcom I Hate My Teenage Daughter. For that audition, she’d had to shoot tape from the hospital, fresh from her first C-section. But the show’s schedule afforded her the leisure to care for her first baby. She acknowledges, very vaguely, that it wasn’t a happy experience. “How broad are you telling me to do this?” she remembers asking. “You have to trust that everyone’s telling you the right thing.” She feels most comfortable in front of a live theater audience. “I know how to tell a story to a thousand people,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t know how to tell a story to a piece of tape on a wall and a camera.”
The next milestone for Finneran seems obvious: a big starring role that’ll get her a Best Actress award. Dorothy Loudon, the original Miss Hannigan, beat out her adorable co-star Andrea McCardle for the lead Tony in 1977. Would Finneran be gunning for that, even if it meant crushing the dreams of 11-year-old Lilla Crawford? “Oh, yes, absolutely, that little girl’s going down!” She laughs, a little too winsomely, leading one to wonder where a new mother with a sunny outlook can find the bile needed to inhabit Miss Hannigan.
“Oh, please! It’s so much fun to be mean,” she says. “Everyone feels mean every day. Today you were in the subway and there was someone you saw and inside you thought, Motherfuckers! Everyone has it, so I’m just gonna put it onstage for a little while.” Perhaps it’s there under the surface after all—the hard nub of a New York theater lifer. But it shares space with the optimist, the one who also sang “Tomorrow” in the Florida living room, and the one who now says, “If it doesn’t happen, there’s always the next one.”
Previews Oct. 3; Opening nov. 8.