Tony Nominee Jessie Mueller on the Importance of ‘Carousel’ and ‘The Post’ (Exclusive)
By Leigh Scheps
Luck is not the reason Jessie Mueller has been nominated for her third Tony Award this year for her third leading role in a row. Her talent radiates from the stage, and people are noticing. “I am so grateful. It makes me feel like it wasn’t a fluke,” the actress shares with ET about her continued success on Broadway. In 2014, she won the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful, and two years later, she was nominated for originating the role of Jenna Hunterson in Waitress.
Now, the 35-year-old from Illinois is getting attention for her captivating portrayal of Julie Jordan in the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which has been nominated for 11 Tonys. The iconic musical, which debuted in 1945 during the Golden Age of musicals, tells the story of a New England mill worker (Mueller) who falls in love with and marries an abusive carnival barker, Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry). Bigelow then takes his own life after getting caught for robbery and later returns to see how his family fares without him.
“It gets down to the nitty gritty of the human experience,” Mueller explains. “It explores the scope of a human journey on this earth and what might happen when that part is done and the next part of the journey begins.”
As Julie Jordan, Mueller sings the famous song “If I Loved You,” performed by Shirley Jones in the 1956 film adaptation and Barbara Cook in its first revival on Broadway. “Scores like this don’t come along every day,” she says of the show, which is now in its third revival and is one of the most watched musicals at the New York Public Library. “I think it still captivates people because it’s still honest and real. We all make these choices every day about who we connect with and the decisions we make day to day.”
One of those decisions is when Billy hits Julie. The show’s controversial material, more than 70 years old, still has relevance in 2018 with the ongoing news coverage of sexual harassment allegations that have emerged since late 2017. When the #MeToo movement hit, the cast was in the middle of rehearsals. “One of the things it did shed a light on was the world is ready for this. The world doesn’t pretend these things don’t happen,” Mueller says. “We are ready to air them out [and] talk about them, as uncomfortable as they may be. But that’s always what drama has done; brought up uncomfortable, dramatic things and asked people to look at it.” The actress, who has performed in other productions of Carousel, already understood the subject matter and believes “the more that we talk about these things the better.”
While Mueller is now starring in a piece with modern-day pertinence, she recently made her film debut in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated biopic The Post, starring Tom Hanks as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Kay Graham. In telling the story about their decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, the film deals with another relevant conversation: maintaining journalistic integrity and honesty in the shadow of a seemingly corrupt presidential administration. “Any time we were waiting in a green room together or waiting on the side of a set, there was always something we could talk about,” says Mueller, who portrayed Judith Martin, one of two female journalists in the Washington, D.C., newsroom. “I feel like it fueled the whole film and showed the need of what the film was shining a lens on, which is that history tends to repeat itself if we’re not careful.”
Being on a film set, admittedly, was “very different” for Mueller, who up until now has acted onscreen in a couple of episodes of ABC’s The Family and Blue Bloods. She was encouraged by her agent to audition for the part thinking it would be good practice for her, not realizing she’d get cast in a film of this caliber. “When you’re doing a theater piece, you rehearse and rehearse and you sort of go on a trajectory every night, but when you’re doing film, you stop and start and pick things up,” she says. She took advantage of the opportunity to study her fellow actors -- particularly Streep and Hanks -- from the monitors during filming. “They know when to turn it on and when to save it. To watch their technique, then talking to Steve and kicking ideas around was fascinating.”
Featuring an ensemble cast, Mueller was one of The Post’s many seasoned theater performers -- including married couple Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg and Matthew Rhys -- cast in supporting roles, and working alongside Coon and Letts, who recently had their first child, offered some comfort. “It was fun to get to sit and work and talk with them every day,” Mueller says, adding that while she hasn’t seen the couple’s newborn, she’s so “thrilled” for them. “I just saw [Carrie] at an event yesterday and got to catch up for a second.”
While another feature film is something the actress is eyeing, for now, she’s contracted to the Imperial Theatre for eight shows a week, bringing Julie to life. Hoping for more opportunities to “change it up,” Mueller is happy with where she is at now, which is not bad considering her third Tony nomination.
“Every role and experience is so different because of the experience I had, whether it’s the process or where I am at in my own life, so this one feels really sweet,” Mueller concludes.