These days, The Americans star Alison Wright hasn’t been able to get a good night’s rest. “I am too excited most nights to sleep,” the English actress exclaims. “I have a lot going on and I am pumped by it.”
Wright, who’s played ‘Poor’ Martha Hanson on the hit Cold War espionage series for five seasons, is now making her Broadway debut at Studio 54 in the play Sweat, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. “It's something I've always longed for,” Wright, 40, says of taking the stage during a phone interview with ET before an evening performance. “I did a lot of growing up in the theater. This was always a dream.”
Wright plays Jesse, a middle-class worker who faces a layoff from her job on the line of a factory floor. The shakeup gets to Jesse and her friends, who find themselves pitted against each other to stay afloat. Wright says the play by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage hits home. “I grew up in the northeast of England. As a child, it was a time when all the coal mines were closing,” she says. “Fathers, sons, grandfathers were all suddenly out of work and the backbone of the towns and villages disappeared. It’s the same story we’re telling, but Sweat is specifically about Reading, Pennsylvania.”
Drunk, disheveled and with dark black circles under her eyes is how Wright’s character appears onstage for much of the drama, which before transferring to Broadway played at the Public Theater, where Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton got its start. It takes place in 2000 and 2008 and tells the stories of struggling blue-collar workers who might not have voted in 2016’s presidential election, Wright believes. “I had empathy for a great chunk of people that I had previously been pissed at,” she explains. “Because I was partially blaming them for where we are today. But after I read the play I didn't feel that way anymore.”
These days, quietly tip-toeing backstage in tap shoes is Wright’s hidden talent. She grew up performing in musical theater before moving to New York at 22 years old in 1998 to pursue her acting career by studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and The Barrow Group. Wright got her big break in 2013 -- at 37 -- being cast in The Americans and promoted to series regular for season two. Roles on Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, Blue Bloods and in the 2016 movie The Accountant with Ben Affleck followed. She’s now part of the ensemble cast of creator Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan.
“It was an easy sell,” Wright recalls of getting offered the part of Pauline Jameson. “I got a phone call and [Murphy] asked me to do this show, which blew my mind in itself that he gave me the part.” By the time they hung up, she had already packed her bags for L.A. Wright had already heard of the show, starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, through the trades. It tells the backstory of how the feud between two of Hollywood’s iconic leading ladies began on the set of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? “[Murphy’s] a real champion of women, and he proves that with the characters he writes,” she says of the series that highlights how hard it was for aging women to still be desirable in Hollywood as they got older. Crawford and Davis were 58 and 54, respectively, when What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? came out.
Wright’s character, Pauline, is director Robert Aldrich’s (Alfred Molina) assistant. While she is based on Aldrich’s real secretary from the time, it’s perhaps the only composite character on the series. Pauline, who represents a lot of young women in Hollywood during that time period, tries to get a screenplay she wrote seen by Crawford in hopes of directing her in the film. But Crawford turns it down, saying she has no interest in a female director. “People are talking to me already about how much that episode affected them, whether they are writers, directors or producers. I hear from people every day that it resonates with them so deeply because it's still very much the same experience they're having today. So, I know the story is really touching people.”
While fans of The Americans still don’t know if there will be more of Martha on the show, looking ahead, Wright says she’d love to be in a movie by British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year). But for now she’s relishing in the success she’s had -- and hopes to continue -- in her career by playing women vastly different from each other. “I don't know if I ever thought this would happen, so I am grateful I am finally getting to work after a long time of waiting in the wings for my turn.”