After Liza Minnelli held her hand on Born Yesterday's opening night and declared, "This woman has just changed Broadway," it's no wonder everyone in town wants to talk to Nina Arianda. But as I made my way to sit down with the in-demand ingénue at the Cort Theatre, her reps phoned to tell me that there would be no talking: Her doctor had placed her on vocal rest indefinitely, except for those hours she brightens the stage as gangster's moll Billie Dawn. So the first-time Tony nominee and I took to our computers to chat through instant messenger — technology that would have no doubt flummoxed her iconic character, the ultimate ditzy blonde.
By Brandon Voss
Playbill: Hi, Nina! I'm bummed we couldn't speak in the flesh.
Nina Arianda: I wish this could have happened in person too. I'm so sorry I have a stupid bruise on my vocal chord!
Your career has taken off with a shot since you graduated from NYU's Tisch School with an MFA in 2009. You're obviously very talented, but do you also credit anything else for your success — good luck, timing, fate?
I think it has to do with all of the above, and to add to that equation, I've had the great privilege of meeting people who believed in me.
But you're like the theatrical equivalent of a girl who loses 50 pounds in one week on a weight-loss commercial, where the disclaimer reads: RESULTS NOT TYPICAL. Could you be giving impatient young actors false hope?
I hope I'm doing the opposite — inspiring young actors to know that it is possible.
A Best Actress in a Play Tony nominee for your Broadway debut, just two years out of school, at 26 years old... how does it feel?
It's incredibly surreal! I don't fully understand what's happening, but it's very exciting. And because it's my first time experiencing all this, I have no expectations or preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be. It's fantastic.
Have you encountered famous fans — people you admire who now admire you?
Yes, I heard through the grapevine that Estelle Parsons liked the show — I almost fainted! Not to mention Judith Light and John Larequette. PS: I can't spell.
"Larroquette." It's a tough one. Anyway, Born Yesterday's Billie Dawn is an iconic role, and you're following in the footsteps of the great Judy Holliday, who originated the role on Broadway in 1946 and won an Oscar for the 1950 film. What kind of pressure does that put on you?
Well, I was scared at first about the word "iconic," and I know that a lot of people are fans of the Judy Holliday film. But the reason why it's iconic is because of the writing and the character that Garson Kanin created. I've never seen the film, and I won't until the run is through. I figured that if I'm going down, I'll go down with my version of the character.
What have you learned about Billie that you didn't initially see on the page?
The complete absence of subtext.
What's the biggest challenge in playing her?
Allowing myself to see things for the first time.
What's the most fun part?
Seeing things for the first time.
I thought you might say the costumes!
Oh, I always love to play dress up! There are five beautiful outfits in the show.
You garnered similar buzz and attention in 2010 when you made your professional stage debut in Classic Stage Company's Venus in Fur, which earned you a Theatre World Award and a Clarence Derwent Award. When the show ended without an expected Broadway transfer, did you worry it was just a fluke and that you might not work again?
Sure. I think I'll always have that fear, regardless what happens. I need to work. I'm not a happy person if I'm not working.
Now that you're a Broadway sensation, how do you top yourself?
In all honesty, my goal is to keep working and to be a part of great stories.
Come on. You must have a dream role. Oprah says it's good to put these things out into the universe.
Oh, Oprah. Well, then allow me to put it out there: Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But there are so many parts I'd love to play, so it's hard for me to answer. And who knows? Maybe my dream part hasn't been written yet.
After playing Paul Giamatti's secretary in Win Win, you're appearing in more movies this year, like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. You play Michael Sheen's wife?
Yes. Michael Sheen is a genius and a fantastic human being, and working with Woody Allen was one of the most exciting things I've ever done. And jeez, I shot in Paris for three weeks in the summer. It was beautiful!
And you're in Tower Heist, a star-studded comedy caper directed by Brett Ratner.
I play a woman who works at a luxury apartment building led by Ben Stiller. She's in charge of packages sent and received in the building, and she's also studying for the bar. And... she's Ukrainian, like me!
Can't wait to see it. Thanks for a fun IM chat, Nina.
Thank you! I'd like to apologize again for the voice thing. I'm far more charming in person!
Playbill, June 2011 issue.