Up and Coming: Aunjanue Ellis and Carrie Preston;Two Young Performers Ride 'The Tempest'
THEY HAVE TRAVELED separate but similar trajectories, these two young actresses: small-town childhoods in the Deep South, leaps from the safety of small colleges to large universities, intense immersions in intensely serious theater schools. Now, as major supporting players to Patrick Stewart's shipwrecked Duke, they have shot out of post-graduate obscurity together aboard the starship "Tempest."
Carrie Preston of Macon, Ga., has pulled up a chair near several pale Kabuki puppets beneath the large Broadhurst stage and its circle of sand -- the site of Prospero's magic island on Broadway. She is 28, looks 21, with her close-cropped blond hair, and plays 15 as Miranda, the Duke's daughter. Often presented as a simpering miss, Miranda in this production has dirt on her face and muscles. She is a wild child who discovers sex and then the world.
Sitting beside her, Aunjanue Ellis, 26, of McComb, Miss., projects nearly as much force offstage as she does in character as Ariel. Slender and wiry with cheekbones out to here, Ms. Ellis plays the sprite without a trace of Tinkerbell, for she too has wrung her role dry of squishy girlishness.
As agents of the director George C. Wolfe's hit re-imagining of Shakespeare's last play, the two ingenues (yes, Aunjanue is pronounced just that way) have provoked considerable critical excitement. Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, found Ms. Preston's Miranda "delightful" and Ms. Ellis's Ariel "a deliciously sly sprite."
They both also prompt curiosity: Who are they? Ms. Ellis's professional biography was so short that she added a mention of the circus skills she had learned at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, "just to get some words on the page." Ms. Preston, a veteran of Juilliard and of regional Shakespeare festivals, almost but not quite reached a Broadway stage as Cynthia Nixon's understudy in "Indiscretions."
Explaining why he cast them so prominently in the Shakespeare Festival production of "The Tempest" in Central Park and again when it moved to Broadway, Mr. Wolfe said one of his theater's missions is to expose young actors to the techniques of veterans, "so the information gets passed on."
Also, Mr. Wolfe said, given the fact that all the other major players are male, "it was very important that these artists have as much power as the swelling testosterone around them."
Ms. Ellis's earliest exposure to the power of performance was in a country Baptist church, where she was singing by the age of 3. Born in San Francisco, she was sent as a toddler by her mother to live with her grandmother on a Mississippi farm. She was not exposed to theater until her second year at Tougaloo College, when a drama teacher visiting the tiny school from Brown University cast her in a student play. Soon after, she left for Brown, where, she said, stage plays seemed less compelling than the deeper drama of African-American studies. Still, she could not shake the theater, and she advanced to graduate acting school.
Ms. Preston, by contrast, was an early starter, organizing other neighborhood children around street theater. With her mother, an art therapist who encouraged her children to be creative, and her father, a soil engineer, "we had a commune when I was in second grade, which was pretty rare," the actress remembered.
She studied ballet despite feeling self-conscious. "I was so skinny, and all the little girls would make fun of how my tights bunched down at my ankles." ("Come on!" Ms. Ellis howled.) "When I was in eighth grade I started taking an African dance class, which was really great." (By now Ms. Ellis was laughing too hard to speak.) After graduating from the University of Evansville in Indiana, Ms. Preston spent four years at Juilliard.
Ms. Ellis compared Ms. Preston's experience with the lack of artistic encouragement in her own life. "If you come from an impoverished environment," she said, "you're expected by your community to do something that will be useful to the community, and I completely understand that." She is receiving more family respect, she added, smiling, "now that I'm getting a paycheck."
AFTER MS. ELLIS'S TISCH CLASS was invited to audition at the Joseph Papp Public Theater last spring, she returned three times to test for Ariel. Finally, she was invited to read with Patrick Stewart. "And I was dirt tired," she said. "I stayed up all night, preparing but really worrying." Certain of failure, she went back to her dorm room and wept. Then came the call.
What followed, however, was graduation into a summer of terrifying rehearsals and performances. "I felt like I was 2 years old," Ms. Ellis said. With advice coming from every quarter, she took it all, thinking, "this is what I have to do to be good." Her reviews were mixed in the park, but when the production moved to Broadway, critics picked up on her more polished performance. "This time around," she said, "I feel like an adolescent, not an adult."
Ms. Preston also spent a nervous summer. Mr. Wolfe wanted her to do Miranda as a tomboy, but, she said, "I knew I was playing the role untraditionally, and there were times where I thought nobody's going to buy it." She almost lost the chance. The summer before, she had been offered a small role in "All's Well That Ends Well" in the park but refused it to play a lead in regional Shakespeare. By the time she was offered Miranda, she was under contract to "Indiscretions." Faced with refusing the Public a second time, she agonized: "They're going to think I have some kind of attitude." Begging finally got her sprung.
The two young women are not only in the same play, they are in the same current Bell South phone commercial on television. But greater success on the small and large screen has eluded them.
"I always think, it must be that I'm not pretty enough," Ms. Preston said. "I know that's not the reason, but in my head I keep getting tripped up by it."
Ms. Ellis commiserated: "With men, if they go in for an audition and they look funky, it's just a look."
But given their faces, Mr. Wolfe does not doubt that the cameras will find them. "I just hope that Hollywood doesn't swoop them away," he said. "Theater is fundamentally dying, so you have to perpetually feed it with new energy."
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