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A Rising Talent Finds Inspiration In A Theater Vet

Nina Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl accompanying a corrupt tycoon to Washington, D.C., in the Broadway revival of <em>Born Yesterday</em>.
Carol Rosegg
Nina Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl accompanying a corrupt tycoon to Washington, D.C., in the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday.

There are three names above the marquee at the Cort Theatre, where a revival of the '40s comedy Born Yesterday is playing. Two of them are familiar — Jim Belushi, who plays a corrupt businessman, and Robert Sean Leonard, who plays a virtuous reporter.

But audiences might be forgiven if they've never heard of the third star — Nina Arianda, who plays Garson Kanin's not-so-dumb blonde Billie Dawn — a pivotal role, and a character made famous on Broadway and in film by Judy Holliday.

It was certainly a question Robert Sean Leonard had, when his agent called, offering him the part.

"I said to my agent, 'I love this play, I love this role, but I'm going to have to go on your word here. Is this the girl? Do they have the girl?'"

Leonard remembers his agent expressing confidence in the newcomer. "He said, 'This is her. This is who we've been waiting for.' And boy was he right!"

Arianda, who's 26, is making her Broadway debut in Born Yesterday. She's been getting rave reviews, but she admits she was nervous taking on a role so identified with another actress.

"I thought, 'OK, why is it iconic? Is it because of Judy Holliday?'" says Arianda.

Ultimately, she decided there was a more important factor.

"The text is timeless, and the text is fantastic. It makes a performance iconic," says Arianda. "If I thought of it that way, it took a little pressure off, and allowed me to kind of do exactly what I could do, which was just do it my way."

From Grad Student To Tony Nominee In Just Two Years

Arianda's is one of many sparkling performances in a Broadway season that has brought in over $1 billion in box-office receipts. But it's just the latest success in a career that's been on a fast track since she finished graduate school at NYU just two years ago.

Last season, she made a splash in an off-Broadway show — David Ives' Venus in Fur — and has since worked on several movies, including Woody Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris. Now she's nominated for a Best Actress trophy at the 65th Annual Tony Awards. (The ceremony airs live from Broadway's Beacon Theatre on June 12.)

Arianda got the stage bug as a child in Paterson, N.J. By the time she was 16, she was studying acting in a summer program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She remembers going to the open-air Globe Theatre to see a production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, directed by and starring her fellow Tony nominee Mark Rylance. She watched from the pit, standing, in front of the stage. By the end of the play — it's a father-daughter story that turns on an estrangement and a redemption — she was sobbing.

"And then he blew me a kiss, offstage, and that was just — that worsened my sobs," says Arianda. "That was one of those theater moments. ... You know, when you see a performance like that, it makes you want it even more — gets you hungrier, in a way."

Two Peak Performances From An Actor At Midlife

A couple of blocks away, at the Music Box Theatre, that same Mark Rylance is starring in the British import Jerusalem. It's been quite a year for him. This fall, he appeared in a Broadway revival of La Bete, playing a vulgar 17th-century performer named Valere and delivering a 25-minute tour-de-force monologue — in rhyming couplets.

Mark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in <em>Boeing-Boeing </em>in 2008. He is nominated again for his leading role in <em>Jerusalem</em>.
/ Simon Annand
Simon Annand
Mark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing in 2008. He is nominated again for his leading role in Jerusalem.

"Valere was so innocent, so child-like, really," says Rylance. "I mean, a terrible, terrible character — you wouldn't want to spend much time with him at all. But to play him was very immediate, and like being a kind of insect really."

As splashy as that performance was, Rylance's Tony nomination is for his role in Jerusalem, which has been described as a kind of state-of-the-British nation play. His character, Johnny "Byron" Rooster, is a former daredevil who lives in the woods and deals drugs to teenagers. Rylance says Rooster cuts closer to the bone.

"Rooster is more to do with me being 51 and the end of my life approaching — you know, still some years off, but that whole thing of being around 50 and thinking, 'Well, you're not getting younger, and here's where we've been so far, and where do we want to go?'" says Rylance. "It throws me into much deeper waters."

Byron tells tall tales, mixing the mythic with the contemporary. Playwright Jez Butterworth says he shaped the role of Rooster for Rylance after meeting him several years ago and discussing a very early draft of the play.

"It was one of those meetings that ... you knew that this was gonna be one of the important collaborations of your life. You just knew, straight away," says Butterworth.

The result of that meeting — which has already won Rylance and Butterworth awards both stateside and in England — could lead to a Tony Award for one or both of them Sunday night.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.