EXCLUSIVE: Look at that face: The oval eyes, blue, and broad smile bracketed by the parentheses that form when she smiles, which is often enough. Jessie Mueller’s visage telegraphs openness and vulnerability and warmth, a combination that’s hard to fake and that has served her extraordinarily well playing women who grow, learn, suffer and ultimately triumph largely by virtue of those qualities and the talent that allows them to put those features to the best possible use. Two years ago, Mueller won the Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical for the title role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. And yesterday she followed up with her second nomination in that category, for Waitress, also the title role, of a young woman with an abusive husband, an unwanted pregnancy and a gift for pie-making.
Brooklyn-born Carole King personified the nerdy urban Jewish girl, head buried in books while dreaming of selling her songs in Tin Pan Alley. Jenna is Southern, Gentile and working class, nose to the baking sheet and dreams circumscribed by minimum wage and fear of what awaits her at home each night. When, in Beautiful, Carole King sang “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” it wasn’t to her philandering husband, but to her newborn baby. And when Jenna sings “She Used To Be Mine,” the stem-winding ballad composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles has given her in the second act of Waitress, it’s both a cri de coeur and a declaration of independence. Mueller, daughter of the Midwest, brings that openness, vulnerability and confidence to these disparate women in a spell-casting manner that’s impossible to resist.
I wasn’t too surprised, then, when many of those qualities were evident in the actress herself. She lives with her boyfriend in an untrendy Outer Borough and arrived at Deadline’s offices a few days before the Tony nominations were announced in a way as approachable as the girl next door. The girl next door, that is, with a voice that can lift your spirits or break your heart or, when she wants, both at once.
DEADLINE: Do you read your reviews?
JESSIE MUELLER: No, no. Good, bad, whatever, I don’t anymore. When I read them, words would just stick in my mind, adjectives would stick in my mind, and I’d just start to get a little crazy about it. That doesn’t serve me. I think for me it’s just better not to have an awareness of them. I get a little micro-manage-y.
DEADLINE: On matinee days, what do you do between shows?
MUELLER: Sleep. On Saturday we have a little bit more time, so I usually eat something right away — and then I go to sleep.
DEADLINE: What do you have in your dressing room? How did you make it yours?
MUELLER: Well, this time around actually I was like a big girl, and I got a tip about this lovely guy, his name’s Mike Harrison. I had a meeting with him, and so he worked on my room. I wanted a relaxing but cheery space. I didn’t want it like themed to the show. I didn’t want to go diner. It’s a little sort of country-chic-hipstery retreat. I love it. It’s like very pale gray walls and lots of pale greens, but there’s like pops of yellow, and it has a cheeriness to it. I have a couple little dishes and trays and things on my dressing table from friends and family that I’ve sort of collected over the years. And a collection of photos that I keep meaning to put up of friends who just had babies. Because to me it’s such a big moment in the show.
DEADLINE: Waitress is all Jenna all the time. Are you ever offstage during the show?
MUELLER: I just discovered a break long enough to go to have a pee in Act I. Very exciting. I turned to my dresser, I was like, “I think I can pee. and there’s even a bathroom nearby.” I might have like two minutes offstage, which seems like… It probably sounds silly, but in the grand scheme of things that’s a lot of time. If you have more than 15 seconds you’re like, wow, this is luxurious. I can blow my nose.
DEADLINE: Waitress began as an indie movie made by actress-turned-writer/producer/director Adrienne Shelley, who was murdered just before the film came out. How much of that history did you know when you became involved with the show?
MUELLER: Well, I had seen the movie when it first came out. I’m a fan of Sara’s, and I think her music is very emotional. It just sort of strikes a chord with me. I heard “She Used To Be Mine” and “Everything Changes” and I was just kind of blown away. I knew I wanted to do this. I wasn’t able to do the first workshop. I was doing Beautiful at the time, and I just felt like it was going to be too much. But I was lucky and they ended up doing another reading, and then that time around I did do it.
DEADLINE: How did your relationship with Sara Bareilles develop?
MUELLER: The first time I actually worked with her, she just wanted to hear the music. I think I first met her when she came to opening night at Beautiful. It was after she saw that, she said that she had me in her mind to play Jenna. Which to me is so interesting because at least vocally, they’re very different. But I always find that interesting when people see somebody do one thing and think they can do something completely different.
DEADLINE: Did she write in keys for your voice?
MUELLER: Yes, she did actually. She has such an insane range, but it’s much lower than mine, and to me she has no break in her voice. She might tell you differently, but I don’t hear a break anywhere. And so we just have different sweet spots in our voices. “She Used To Be Mine” is very rangy and for her the sweet spot is at the top. I don’t have as many low notes as she does. She sings the song in a different key than I do, so we bumped it up a whole step, then we went back to a half step. We tried all kinds of things. She was really generous in that way.
DEADLINE: I think “She Used To Be Mine” will become a standard.
MUELLER: It is a very interesting song structurally, because the main idea gets introduced fairly quickly, and it’s almost like a country form. You sort of get to the topic sentence of the whole thought pretty early in that first verse. And then the song finishes again with that topic sentence, that idea. But it’s different because the character has really exposed so much having gotten there. With most songs, you don’t get to that idea until the very end. Here you still do need the whole song, because it means something different when she first says it and when she truly realizes it I think at the end. I was joking the other day that I never want to have to sing this out of context. Sara can sing it at a piano if anybody wants to hear it out of context. I rely so heavily on everything that leads up to it in the show.
DEADLINE: What do you get back from the audience, when you sing that amazing song?
MUELLER: It’s so interesting, because it is a little different every night. There’s an intense energy coming at you from being on the stage, but I can sense people receiving it. And I think what I sense too is the moments just prior. It’s the “come to Jesus” moment. So many things sort of collide for the character and for my character’s husband and like that whole relationship. And then during the song it’s really fascinating, it gets very, very quiet. It just starts with piano and voice, and then the orchestration just sort of expands from there. It’s a gut punch.
DEADLINE: Did you feel you needed to make Jenna less downbeat for Broadway?
MUELLER: I think if we play the truth of this, it’s just: somebody got dealt a shitty hand in life, and she’s trying to do the best that she can with the tools that she has at this moment, without apology. That’s one of the beautiful things about the song we were talking about. Jenna really looks herself in the mirror. I don’t think she’s talking to the audience. Or in a weird meta-way maybe she is, because she’s basically saying, “Okay. I know you’ve watched this and you say why, why, why, why, why do you stay? Why do you act like this?” And the character’s kind of going, “I know, guys. I’ve been here watching it all along”
DEADLINE: So — Carole King or Jenna, who speaks to you, who more closely resembles you?
MUELLER: Me as a person?
DEADLINE: You as a person.
MUELLER: I’m probably more of a Carole but there’s crossovers. Most people would say that they’re nothing like Jenna, but I think a lot of people relate to it because there’s little bits and pieces of us that are like her. These stories about women who are sort of getting to a point in their life where they’re not girls any more, they’re not even young women, like they’re women. Both Carole and Jenna have moments where they go, “Oh, wait a second, I have to take care of myself. I’ve taken care of everybody else. That’s something as women in society we deal with. We are caretakers, we take care of many people. I mean, every human being has to find that balance between the care of others and the care of themselves. But yeah, I guess at this point in my own life I’m just really, really drawn to that. Right now. I don’t know why, but yeah.