‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Star Celia Keenan-Bolger on Harper Lee’s Sexuality, Grief, and Tony Award Desire
Nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Celia Keenan-Bolger talks to Tim Teeman about grief, racism, sexuality, and wanting to win on Sunday.
When the actor Celia Keenan-Bolger was young, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was a “a manual” in her family’s Detroit home.
“It was one of the first chapter books in our house my mother read to me before I could read,” Keenan-Bolger recalled. “In our house it was a moral text, and I don’t think my parents were talking about metaphor and simile, but rather about racial justice and empathy.”
Now, aged 41, Keenan-Bolger is playing Atticus Finch’s daughter, Scout, on Broadway in Aaron Sorkin’s play based on Lee’s novel (booking to April 2020). It is a lovely performance: self-effacing and also pronounced and centering. The lean and limber Scout observes, prowls, judges, and interrogates what unfolds before us. She is our guide and conduit to Lee’s famed story of racism and injustice.
Keenan-Bolger has received a much-deserved (fourth) Tony nomination for her performance and absolutely wants to win the award at the Sunday night ceremony. She has already won three out of the five Mockingbird awards she has been nominated for from the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Broadway.com.
Performing in Mockingbird has been “deeply meaningful,” Keenan-Bolger told The Daily Beast over coffee one recent afternoon in Chelsea.
“When you’re an actor, there’s this thing that there are characters in plays wandering around the Earth waiting for right actor to inhabit them with a soul that matches theirs. I have never felt that to be more true than with Scout Finch and myself. I feel like my whole life in some ways has led me to this part. My family’s roots, what I believe theater can do was all kind of bound up in this story.”
Keenan-Bolger did not rewatch the 1962 movie (directed by Robert Mulligan), starring Mary Badham as Scout, in preparation for the role. “I was sure it would send me into a shame spiral. She was so brilliant and iconic in that role, that I can’t remember the difference in how I imagined Scout Finch when I first read the book and how Mary played her in the movie. I didn’t want to watch it. I just felt this will be a disappointment or complicated no matter what.”
The significant specter of the film receded, Keenan-Bolger said; the cast and crew made their own play (one of the production’s producers is Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, which owns The Daily Beast).
Keenan-Bolger also wants “to give a little bit of the performance to the part of Harper Lee, who never ever talked about her sexuality, but I think I have some ideas about what she was managing.”
Keenan-Bolger has given her a swagger, not parodically butch but emphatic. “I don’t want her to be girly in any way. I read about the Harper Lee who beat the shit out of kids on the playground who were mean to Truman Capote. I wanted to convey that swagger and fearlessness.”
Gideon Glick, she said, brings a similar, deliberately overt queerness to Dill Harris, who was modeled on Capote. “Both Gideon and I found these holes of exploration. I think I read that when Harper met Truman she thought he was a girl; and when Truman met Harper he thought she was a boy. They sought each other, and they promised each other they would put the other in their first novels. And so you have these two characters, these two outsiders.”
Keenan-Bolger is also fascinated that Lee lived in Monroeville, Alabama, half the year, and New York City for the other half. “She wrote back to all her fans, yet she was the biggest recluse,” Keenan-Bolger said. “I want to put all those dualities into Scout. There’s a lot more going on inside her, with her, than the audience will ever know about. I want the audience to know she’s not just a tomboy, not just curious, not just sensitive. There is more to her.”
Sorkin’s play allows Scout to be visibly frustrated with her father’s passive liberalism. In that, Keenan-Bolger draws on the “moral clarity of all children,” their sharpened sense of right and wrong.
Being an adult and child means Keenan-Bolger feels she can ask to and for the audience, “how does this hold up in 2019? I remember parts of it were meaningful, but how do see it in now? It’s an enormous responsibility to take everybody through that.”
She appreciates how Sorkin has re-examined themes from the book and film, particularly around race. “You could not have a play in 2019 where black people are like furniture,” she said.
Rehearsing the production, Keenan-Bolger said, Sorkin had invited all people in the color in the company “to speak up or speak out against” what he had written. One cast member had opined that they were doing “a play about our nation’s birth defect—racism.”
“I think that’s exactly right,” said Keenan-Bolger. “Whether in when the book is set in 1934, to when it was written in 1960, to the movie in 1962, and now this play in 2019, these themes endure and still need examining.”
When Keenan-Bolger read the novel again, she was horrified at its “white justice”: the killing of Tom Robinson and sparing of Boo Radley. Keenan-Bolger fought to change this aspect of the book in the rehearsal room, but was told they couldn’t change the story so fundamentally.
Keenan-Bolger recognizes that Sorkin’s play “is saying that our privilege can’t keep us standing on the porch saying, ‘There’s good in everyone.’” Keenan-Bolger hopes she and the play both practice “radical empathy,” which is not to “write off” those on the far right, but also to actively challenge them around all their prejudices.
Keenan-Bolger is on stage most of the play. Over the course of a long run she has found a way to force herself to be present; some nights are easier than others.
There was some criticism about Keenan-Bolger and Gideon Glick, two adults, playing two children. Indeed, when director Bartlett Sher told Keenan-Bolger he was thinking of having her and Glick play Scout and Dill, she told him, “I don’t want to watch that.”
But the demands of doing eight performances a week would be intense, said Keenan-Bolger, especially navigating audience responses, “especially positive responses, and not modulating your performance according to that.” More profoundly, as Keenan-Bolger noted, Sorkin has written a play for adults to deliver.
The actor looks so young, she has often been cast as a child or someone much younger than her 41 years. “So, I’d like to do more of acting my age. There was a time when I thought to myself, ‘I won’t play any more kids.’ The something comes along that’s too good to pass up, and I’m like, ‘Here I am again.’ At the end of the day I just want to work.”
As a parent herself of a 4-year-old son named William, Keenan-Bolger has been thinking lately that her parents subscribed to the Atticus Finch model of parenting, loving but letting her and her siblings get on with their own things. This contrasts markedly with her generation’s model of parental attachment and positive reinforcement.
Keenan-Bolger said she and her brother, Andrew, and sister, Maggie, grew up in a lower middle class home (both are also actors; full disclosure, Andrew is married to my colleague Scott Bixby).
Their mom, Susan Keenan, was a public school teacher, her dad, Rory Bolger, an urban planner for the city of Detroit. He played the organ at church; her mother’s parents were very cultured and loved music. The family went to the symphony and theater, and when Keenan-Bolger expressed an interest, aged 5, in performing herself her parents supported her.
The discussion around the dinner table signaled the family’s “cultural rigor.” In third grade, Keenan-Bolger was allowed to take time off school to see a matinee performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the condition, her teacher stipulated, that she came back to class and talk about it, which she did with huge and detail-rich excitement.
“It was musicals for the longest time,” she said of her fledgling theater interests, until she saw a repertory production of Nicholas Nickleby, aged around 13. “That totally blew my mind,” she said, “the rough theater of it.” She got a part in a theatrical adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. “Both have strong musical elements which helped draw me in.”
The Keenan-Bolger household was one of respect and equity; if the children asked a question they got a direct answer from their parents. Keenan-Bolger recalled watching the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird with her family, and then the 1991 TV miniseries Separate but Equal, about the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education landmark desegregation case and ruling of 1954.
The young adult books she read as a child “had a leftist slant,” she said. “Gender and race were prevailing themes.” The family, she added, had lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, and she had attended a public school where she was in the white minority where she read Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976).
She had no other ambitions apart from acting, “although I had a social justice vein.” While at the University of Michigan she took African-American studies, women’s studies, and anthropology. But her major ambition was only ever acting, she said.
In one of her first major roles in 2002, playing Johanna, in a Kennedy Center production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, she felt nervous. She had never really sung soprano, and felt “someone will find out immediately, and that I couldn’t really do it, that I was a hack. But I had no choice other than to put on my big girl pants and try to succeed. I said to myself, ‘The noise of you doesn’t belong here.’” It went well.
Another significant role was as Laura in a 2013 American Repertory Theater (and later Broadway) production of The Glass Menagerie for which she won many awards and another Tony nomination. Keenan-Bolger said she had felt the gravity of playing a character that was so iconic, and about whom there “were so many feelings.”
“It felt like John [Tiffany, the director] made us all brave enough to not try to live up to the play, but just be in it. It was the first time I felt like a legitimate actress. It felt like a serious drama in a way I never really considered myself capable of participating in. I had to step up to it.”
In 2005, she won her first awards, and first Tony nomination, for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. She was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her performance as Éponine in Les Misérables in 2006; and there came more awards and another Tony nomination for the deliciously bonkers musical Peter and the Starcatcher (2011).
Her brother and sister also being actors is “the best. It goes back to my parents. I think in our hearts we don’t feel competitive with one another. When we were younger doing children’s theater, our mother said to us, ‘There’s enough pie for everyone.’ Whether she was modeling this attitude to pass on, or it was just her M.O., I don’t know.”
So, she wasn’t a stage mom? “No, and I think that has helped.”
Keenan-Bolger’s mother died 18 years ago, when Celia was 22, and Andrew and Maggie were teenagers.
Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 47, and died at 51; her health running the full gamut of very bad to very good in that four year-span. She had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and a stem cell transplant, “after which her body never quite recovered,” said Keenan-Bolger.
“When you’re young that age can feel far away,” Keenan-Bolger noted; now in her early forties, Keenan-Bolger feels its proximity. She recalled her father once saying he was approaching his own father’s (premature) death age. “When you’re young, it all feels like a swathe of old.” No longer.
Before she died, Keenan-Bolger’s mother was very clear with her father that he should remarry, and told Celia that she “should be nice to whoever he married. It was such a generous thing, she was an amazing woman. But it was very complicated. Well, of course I would love whoever my dad remarries.” But “any feelings of discomfort” she had she also came to accept as normal to process. “That was hard.” Now she is simply, delightedly, happy for her father.
Keenan-Bolger felt she had done a lot of work, through therapy, around her mother’s death. “I felt I was in a good place about my mortality.”
Then she had William, “and I had this thought: ‘This grief will never go away.’ It will take different shapes and affect me in different ways. I will never have worked through it. I suppose that had a lot to do with how much you realize, particularly in that first year, what parents do for their child. I had never considered all of the sacrifice, all of the compassion, that is required to be a parent. That made me miss her profoundly. I just felt like there was so much in our relationship that she missed. I feel that even now.
“I think my mother understood it more than I did, in a good way. I couldn’t quite. When you’re 22, you’re like, ‘I have my whole life ahead of me.’ I was very sad but I couldn’t understand what was going to be lost.”
Keenan-Bolger’s father remarried. “They’re so in love and so well matched,” Keenan-Bolger said. “As older people in their lives, they travel a ton and have a lot of the same interests. It’s so beautiful to watch.”
There is a moment in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus (Jeff Daniels, also Tony-nominated) hears that Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) has been shot, “and in that moment something passed over Jeff Daniels’ face that I remember my father having maybe the day after my mother’s funeral,” Keenan-Bolger recalled. “He was sitting at the kitchen table, making oatmeal for us. I saw that same expression on Jeff’s face, and it says, ‘I as the father have to face the kids and deliver this terrible news and keep on going.’
“In those moments, I find it so sad that my mother can’t see this production. I really think she would have liked it. There is an invisible thread to her throughout this whole process. I do think that has something to do with being raised by a good man, who my father most certainly is, who was trying to do his best. That cannot help but emerge when I am on stage.”
Playing a child, and having a child, has made Keenan-Bolger more “curious” about how William observes the world around him. She wonders what his and his classmates’ experience of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel, will be; how differently they will understand it to her and older generations.
She thought having William would make her world bigger; “and it has, but only in the sense that is has magnified how much I love being an actor.” Her husband, John Ellison Conlee, is an actor and producer.
“In those first years of motherhood I was filled with so much self-doubt, especially because my own mother wasn’t alive,” Keenan-Bolger recalled. “I thought I was going to make up for the shortcomings she had had. But in fact I was trying to live up to who she was, and at every turn I felt like I was failing. When I went to work, I felt I wasn’t failing. My curiosity in the work generally yielded a result which was tangible, whereas the curiosity of motherhood and trying to understand my child and trying to be the right parent for my child will be my life’s work.”
“I think when I met John I said to him, ‘It’s not that important for us to get married.’ I didn’t feel we had to be married. He said, ‘Do you think you want to have kids?’ I said, ‘I do think I want to have kids.’ He said, ‘I do too, and I think if we both want to have kids, we should get married.’ And I said, ‘That all checks out.’”
Does she want more children?
“No, I think this is it. I long for William to have siblings but don’t long for another child. It’s probably just going to be him.”
She smiled and laughed. “John recently said it’s never been better and it’s never been worse.” One evening, William had asked his dad to draw a picture. Ellison Conlee did, and said to their son it would be ready for him to see the next morning. William woke up, and ripped the bottom off of it. He wanted it to be a different shape, he told his mom. (He has clearly inherited a strong creative spark from his mom and dad.)
It said a lot, smiled Keenan-Bolger, that when William was born he was given three copies of A is for Activist. He also loves King & King, “about a king looking for a queen to marry, but ends up falling in love with another man.” Keenan-Bolger isn’t sure he sees the progressive books as any different from his other favorite picture books.
William was born when President Obama was president and is growing up in the age of Trump. “I don’t have the luxury of being pessimistic,” said Keenan-Bolger. “When he was born I was filled with hope. Now I go back and forth between feeling really scared and really disillusioned, but more than both those things is knowing how great this country can be, and how good so many people who live here are—and that has a lot to do with William.”
Sunday, Tonys night, is, of course, drawing closer. Do awards matter to her?
Keenan-Bolger smiled. “Yes, I think awards do matter to me, I wish they didn’t. I have been trying to navigate that answer. This yoga teacher just said to me, ‘Surrender the fruits of your labor.’ I thought that was such an important thing to hear right now in my life as we’re creeping up on the Tonys.”
Whatever the frenzy of the season, as Keenan-Bolger said, she still has to do eight performances a week. On Tonys day, she will already have done a matinee. “The reason awards matter is just because I love theater so much. That sort of recognition from this art form which I love and from my peers would mean a lot.”
So, she wants the award?
“I do, I really do. I think with Glass Menagerie, a lot of people said, ‘I think you’re going to win.’ That affected me, and I won’t make that mistake again. Whatever happens won’t change anything in the way I approach my work, or the way I will keep pursuing my work. I want to do theater for the rest of my life.”
To Kill a Mockingbird itself wasn’t nominated for Best Play, which excited a lot of comment. Keenan-Bolger chose her words carefully addressing it.
“We all feel so proud to be part of a season where there are so many good plays, which is very rare on Broadway. There is a badge of honor in that you don’t want to be a big hit in a season when there is nothing else. For me, personally, there are so many people who have worked so hard on this play. The Best Play nomination belongs to everyone, and I would have loved that for everybody in the cast, but our overwhelming sense is that we’re doing really well. We have sold-out houses, and that helps a lot.
“People like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) and Tarell (Alvin McCraney, Choir Boy) are making plays on Broadway, and I think their lives will change because they have Tony nominations, and that makes me really proud to be part of a season that is shared with those guys.”
Keenan-Bolger is also aware of vistas away from the stage. She has appeared in TV dramas so far just here and there, and said to her agent recently, “I want to be on the next Handmaid’s Tale—something female-driven, a socially and culturally relevant piece of art on TV. Which, as it turns out, is not as hard to come by as it once was.”
She is not reading scripts, though. Her run in To Kill a Mockingbird comes to an end in November, and she is luxuriating in “the wonderful job” she has at present. The temporary unemployment between acting gigs doesn’t feel as scary now that she has a child, said Keenan-Bolger.
“I’ve come to value it instead of dread it. Boredom is actually an interesting space, either for looking back at the job you’ve just done and wondering how you would have approached it differently, and thinking about what you want to do next. A six-week gap is the ideal window.” Her as yet unplayed dream roles, she said, are to play Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
With two partners both working in the business, 2 percent of the time, Keenan-Bolger said, it can be difficult, if you’re both “unemployed or in despair. Or you’re both employed and you never see each other. The other 98 percent of the time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Ellison Conlee is a great note-giver of her performances—“Most of the time he just says, ‘You were great,’” she laughed—and both give the other counsel and support.
It was interesting, I said, that the movie and media industries have had a full engagement with #MeToo, but theater—apart from the occasional, well-reported scandal—appears not to have in the same way or depth.
“I have not had any firsthand experiences,” said Keenan-Bolger. “But I have heard other people’s stories. For an art form that is so generally ahead in the stories that it’s telling, and the way it wants to engage culturally, it is surprising to me that that hasn’t really happened. There are directors who people will say,‘Be careful’ about. In terms of gender parity more generally, there is such a disparity between the number of white men—a lot—and everyone else sitting behind the table. Maybe in the theater there are more stories of young gay men being abused, and I wonder if, as a society, we don’t take those stories of male survivors as seriously.”
It was time for Keenan-Bolger to go and prepare for that evening’s performance. There are times in an eight-performance-week when a particular show blossoms, she said, and everyone in the company is in the moment, drawing as much as they can from the text. Then there are other performances “where you think, ‘I can’t listen to these words one more time.’ You just have to stay present.”
One night she cried during a performance. “That was a result of an emotional and physical depletion I had never experienced before. If you wake up at 6:30/7 a.m., then come home after a show that ends at 11 p.m., that’s a long day. So, I took a step back and now try and rest when I need to.”
The oddest things she hears from the audience are the collective “ooooo” of shock from those attending a student matinee at a key courtroom moment. They start out rowdy until the power and pace of storytelling renders them rapt. They also cheer when Boo Radley appears, “because they’ve read the book and they’re happy to see him.”
Keenan-Bolger sees people crying too as the emotional velocity of the play increases, but what really moves her—at least in the first two rows of audience she can see from the stage—is the sight of people, by the end of the play, tenderly holding hands.
“It’s so beautiful,” Keenan-Bolger said quietly. “I would rather see that than any amount of tears. Whatever we’ve done, they’re feeling closer to the person they went to the theater with at that moment than at the moment they came in.”