EXCLUSIVE: Tony Nominee Michelle Wilson on How the Election Changed Audiences' Reaction to 'Sweat'

By
Photo: Getty Images
"I just thought, I'm a nobody. I did not expect to be nominated,” Michelle Wilson tells ET. The actress -- up for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for her role in Sweat -- never thought her name would be read aloud when the roster of 2017 nominees was announced the morning of May 2. “It was a total and complete surprise, but it was awesome,” the actress exclaims. "I woke up at 8 and quickly fell back asleep, thinking I will press snooze.” Tonys 2017: The Standout Performances on Broadway The first person she called after getting multiple text messages with the news was her Sweat co-star Johanna Day, who’s also nominated in the same category with her, along with Cynthia Nixon (The Little Foxes), Jayne Houdyshell (A Doll’s House Part 2) and Condola Rashad (A Doll’s House Part 2). "Being nominated with Johanna Day feels like, 'Oh they got it,'” Wilson says. “You couldn’t pull one string apart without the other -- it's really gratifying. You couldn’t have one performance without the other." The whole company, Wilson explains, was “verklempt” when Sweat, also nominated for Best Play, was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play, by Lynn Nottage, centers on a Reading, Pennsylvania, blue-collar population in pain and stripped of its dignity. Wilson plays Cynthia, a middle-class factory worker forced to go against her friends in order to come home at the end of the day with a paycheck. Feud star Alison Wright plays a drunken friend who eventually turns against Cynthia.
Photo: Joan Marcus
"This is not a sexy population," Wilson explains. "It's hard-working, grinding people [that] have been invisible. What happens is you sit down and you fall in love. Then you care so much as to what happens to each and every person up on that stage." It was the 2016 presidential election that changed the energy of the show’s audience, Wilson says. “Before the election, people would say, ‘That’s a beautiful story -- that’s really too bad.’ The day after the election, our audience sat there stunned. The response was, ‘Oh, this is what happened.’” This is Wilson's second play on Broadway after performing in A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington in 2014. A mother to a 19-year-old, she grew up in Detroit and went to an all-girls Catholic high school outside of the city. Wilson got into theater because her dad wanted her to stay out of trouble. "My father said, ‘By the end of the week you have to be in three clubs, you have too much time on your hands.' I heard that if you did a play or musical you were rehearsing all the time, so you didn't have to be in three clubs." She then studied political science at the University of Michigan before moving to New York. “When I got to New York, I was surrounded by my creative community but there were times when I had to step away just to provide,” Wilson says. Now, years later, the actress is getting ready to walk the Tony Awards red carpet dressed by Anna Wintour on June 11 at Radio City Music Hall along with Day, her fellow cast members and creative team. She considers Sweat an ensemble piece, meaning it doesn’t have an individual star, but several actors whose roles are of equal importance. Ever since seeing Dreamgirls, Wilson's first Broadway experience, she's always admired the chorus. "I was always attracted to the hard workers and the people who make the magic happen." Being a part of the ensemble of Sweat, she says, is a true honor. "I'm so proud of this company. I'm proud to be a part of what I think is going to go down as one of the great American plays."