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EXCLUSIVE: Tony Nominee Jenn Colella Finds Her Footing in the Air

by Elysa Gardner 12:10 AM PDT, May 31, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

By the time she was cast as a heroic pilot in the musical Come From Away, first-time Tony Award nominee Jenn Colella had played both Amelia Earhart and Peter Pan onstage. “There’s just something about me being up in the air that feels right,” Colella tells ET.

Many agree with her, clearly. The role of Beverley Bass, the first woman promoted to the position of captain at American Airlines, has already earned Colella the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s Craig Noel Award, for Away’s 2015 world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, and the Helen Hayes Award, for its subsequent staging at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre. For the current Broadway production, Colella has received the Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding featured actress in a musical; she’s now up for a Drama Desk Award as well as a Tony.

“It’s overwhelming,” says Colella, who notes that Come From Away is the first big hit she’s been involved with. “That shouldn’t matter so much, but it’s extraordinary to be in a show with so much momentum. And the message we’re sharing is one that’s very important right now.”

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For the uninitiated, Away -- which collected seven Tony nominations in all, including one for Best Musical -- is set in the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, where scores of planes were diverted on the tragic morning of Sept. 11, 2001, including one piloted by Bass. The musical traces the following hours and days, as townspeople (one of them, an animal-loving local named Annette, also played by Colella) open their home and hearts to the stranded passengers and crew, who represent different nationalities, races and faiths.

The Broadway production’s many fans include Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who famously brought Ivanka Trump with him when he attended in March. “Justin was so gracious,” Colella recalls. “He made a speech beforehand about the importance of welcoming people, of different people being there for each other.”

While some suggested that the first daughter was invited because of her father’s exclusionary views, Colella points out that Trump “was laughing and crying through the show.” While Trump did not join Trudeau in visiting cast members, Colella reasons, “She slipped out graciously, because the night was really about Justin.”   

Jenn Colella in Come From Away, photographed by Matthew Murphy. Photo:

Away has no bigger champion, though, than the real-life Beverley Bass, now retired, who has seen the show more than 60 times. “We met just after the first preview in La Jolla, which was actually the night before we opened there,” says Colella. “We were in a restaurant, and she crossed the room and said, ‘I think you’re playing me,’ and I said, ‘I think you’re right.’”

A friendship blossomed, and Bass is now “trying to get me into a flight simulator, to see what it really feels like,” says Colella, who describes herself as naturally adventurous. The actress has enjoyed bungee jumping and parasailing, “and I’ve flown in an ultra-light aircraft -- which is kind of like a lawn mower with wings.”

Authenticity has been a big concern for Colella in developing Away, which has also been staged in Seattle and Toronto. (A North American tour is set to launch in October 2018.) As La Jolla brought the musical to different cities, the company and director Christopher Ashley were keen to serve their sensitive subject material with the right tone. “Washington, D.C, was an important litmus test, because it was so deeply affected by the tragedy of Sept. 11,” Colella says. “At our first preview, we had Pentagon survivors, and we were prepared for an audience that might be quiet. But the show is surprisingly funny, and they laughed raucously in those moments. There was such great energy in the room, and I think that was part of honoring the lost.”

After a recent Broadway performance, Colella met a couple of first responders. “One gentleman told me he hadn’t wanted to come at first, that he was afraid to deal with the feelings. But he said that when he saw the show, he found it was the perfect way to reclaim that day.”

Away has also enriched Colella’s personal life. The actress, who identifies as polyamorous, is dating a woman who was a fellow cast member at one point, as well as her husband. “When she and I met, I saw she was married, so no part of me pursued her,” Colella says. “Then one day she said, ‘I have a crush on you, and my husband thinks I should explore that.’”

Where the Tony Awards are concerned, Colella admits she’s a tad nervous. “I’m trying to write a speech in my head. Because if I am chosen, I’ll feel a great responsibility to say something that speaks to this moment, and to thank all the people I need to thank. I believe in gratitude, and I’m still striving to be absolutely the best I can.”

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