Zoe Perry following in family footsteps

Written By By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic Posted: 05/05/2014, 07:08am
Array Caroline Neff (from left), Dierdre O'Connell and Zoe Perry rehearse a scene from "The Way West" at Steppenwolf Theatre. | PHOTO BY MICHAEL BROSILOW

No doubt about it. She is an actress born into a dramatic dynasty.

Zoe Perry, who is about to open in the Steppenwolf Theatre world premiere of Mona Mansour’s “The Way West,” was born in 1984. Her dad is Jeff Perry, a founding father of Steppenwolf who made an indelible mark on the Chicago stage for two decades, moved on to film and television, and these days is best known for his role as Cyrus Beene, the gay White House Chief of Staff in the hit ABC political thriller, “Scandal.”

Her mother is Laurie Metcalf, who met Perry, as well as John Malkovich, Terry Kinney, Joan Allen and others, while a student at Illinois State University, went on to become a charter member of Steppenwolf, and played Roseanne Barr’s sister, Jackie, in “Roseanne,” the hit TV series, from 1988-1997. More recently she has won rave reviews for her stage work in both London (“Long Day’s Journey into Night”) and on Broadway (“The Other Place,” in which mother and daughter shared the stage).

And then there is this amusing bit of history: Amy Morton, the Steppenwolf mainstay who received Tony nominations for her performances in both “August: Osage County,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and who is now directing “The Way West,” babysat for Zoe when she was a tot.

But enough about the parents (who divorced in 1992). Zoe Perry, 30, who grew up in L.A. and graduated from Northwestern University, has been developing a portfolio of her own. In addition to roles in “Pot Mom” and “The Ordinary Yearnings of Miriam Buddwing” at Steppenwolf, she has worked with the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”), several theater companies in New York City, and in films and television.

Here, in advance of her opening in “The Way West,” is what the actress had to say about her career and more:

Q: What is this play about, and who is your character?

A: The play is the story of a woman preparing to file for bankruptcy in California. One of her two grown daughters, played by Caroline Neff, is sort of co-dependent with her mom. The other, Manda, who I play, is a working professional in Chicago who flies back home.

Q: Was your decision to be an actress destined from birth?

A: Not really. I started at Boston College as a theater major, but then transferred to Northwestern to major in radio, tv and film, with a focus more on theory than production. It wasn’t until the end of my junior year that I overcame my fear of auditioning and got cast in a production of Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” directed by Leslie Buxbaum Danzig [of 500 Clown]. It was totally wild and fun, and it brought me into a circle of really interesting friends. So I said: Okay, this is interesting. And suddenly everything came together. After graduation I decided to go to New York to do theater, but I ended up doing just a little film and TV, so I moved home to L.A., where, ironically, I began to do much more theater. I’ve never really had any sort of five-year plan.

Q: Did either of your parents ever counsel you about a career in the theater?

A: There were a few conversations about the grief and fear, but it was a pretty skewed perspective because both of them have been successful. Yet even with that success they’ve seen stretches with no work, and knew that ‘I will never work again’ anxiety shared by all actors. In recent years I’ve come to see that what concerns me about the profession is the transient life you lead because you go wherever the work takes you.

Q: You look and even sound a lot like your mom. What was it like to work with her in “The Other Place”?

A: It was wonderful. I played several different characters, but one was her daughter, so there were some meta-moments in that. But she was so remarkable in that show, and often I just watched as a passive observer. Afterwards we were like Big Edie and Little Edie in “Grey Gardens,” watching TV and sharing a pizza. What I’ve learned from her is the importance of making sure that all the moments you collect in a play are authentic. My dad also has given me lots of great notes, but mostly he says “speak louder.”

Q: What is the best advice Amy Morton has given you as a director?

A: She is constantly coming up with amazing ways to attack a scene. As for technical advice, she reminds me to be really aware of when I touch my face.

Q: Do you have a classic Steppenwolf memory?

A: Yes, I do. I saw the very first “stumble-through” of “August: Osage County,” in Chicago and it was incredible — my favorite time of seeing it because it was so naked. During the second break, [playwright] Tracy Letts came over to me and asked, “Are you bored yet?,” and I said: ‘Are you kidding me? You’re going to win the Pulitzer Prize.” [He did.]

Q: “The Way West” is about the mixed blessing of this country’s frontier spirit, and both the self-delusion and sense of exceptionalism that comes with it. And you have to sing some “pioneer” songs, right?

A: Both Caroline [Neff] and I learned to play the guitar just for the show, and luckily we knew well enough in advance so we could take lessons. I’ve barely sung on stage before, so it’s a good thing it’s all supposed to have a homemade quality.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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