Tony Award-Winning Jessie Mueller On Playing Carole King

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em-Jessie_Mueller_Beautiful_086_Photo_Credit_Nathan_JohnsonPhoto: Courtesy of Nathan Johnson.
Anyone who saw Jessie Mueller perform at the Tony Awards a few weeks ago will likely tell you that the earth did indeed move under her feet. The budding young star took home the award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful. And, if you are familiar with King's colorful past — as well as her one-of-a-kind voice — then it's clear this was no easy task.

But, before Mueller took Broadway by storm, the Chicago native dipped her toes into the national theater scene, gaining recognition with such leads as Lizzie Fields in Baby, Esther in Meet Me in St. Louis, and Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, for which she won a Joseph Jefferson Award.

Both inspired and proud of this hometown girl, we chatted with Mueller about everything — Chicago, Tonys, and red-carpet dresses included. And, it's safe to say we feel like we've, err, got a (new) friend.

What (if anything) is something that you can only learn from working in the Chicago theater scene?
"The things that make New York are things that can make it crazy sometimes. So, having started in Chicago, I was able to focus on work first and foremost. In some ways, there's just not as many things to get distracted by. And, the things in New York are also wonderful. They help to make the whole machine sort of function, but it's easy to get sort of caught up in things that don't actually help you do your job. I think in Chicago, I just learned — and mainly from watching people who I admire — what a strong work ethic does, and what focusing on the work and the story does. It yields really amazing results."

Tell us a little bit about the difficulties of getting to Broadway from Chicago. What was your path like?
"My path was actually very unusual. I wasn't actually really sure this was a place I was going to end up. I mean, it was certainly intriguing to me, but I was intimidated about coming [to New York]. So, I had a very unusual trajectory, in that I auditioned for a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in Chicago that was actually happening in New York. It was produced by Harry Connick Jr., who was the star of the show. He really fought for me to get the role, so he was responsible for giving me my big break. That show brought me here, and I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was the like the beginning of the next opportunities for me in New York."

What was the best/most important thing you learned along the way?
"I can't even give you the origin of the quote, but it kind of encompasses a lot of things, but business is all about relationships. Whether it's relationships you're trying to build and create on stage with someone, your relationships with your castmates, the people backstage, your producers, your customers, or your audience members. I'm certainly a firm believer now that you can have great opportunities without having to step on anyone in the way. I think a lot of people have this idea that if you want to be successful — whatever that means — you have to bulldoze everyone in your way. I really don't believe that. Your director's personal assistant on a job could be the person giving you a job three months from now. There's never anyone too big or too small. The people that I am in awe of in the business are the ones that I am amazed about how kind and generous they are. I understand why people at that level have success because they are grateful for what has happened to them, and they work really hard."

Is there anything you would have changed in hindsight?
"Everything is much better than any plan I could have come up with. If anything, I just wish I would have trusted more instead of driving myself crazy with worry about what was next, or whether or not I'm going to work again. It's amazing to be in the place that I am right now with everything that happened a few weeks ago. It's also the funny thing about knowing it can go away in a second, but you have to appreciate it while it's happening, and you have to try and experience things while they're happening."

Going back to your roots, what are some of your favorite Chicago spots?
"I love this little Italian restaurant in Evanston called Dave's Italian Kitchen, which I've been going to with my family since I was a baby. It's still the place we go when I come home. Also, A Taste of Heaven in Andersonville on Clark Street is one one of my favorite spots for breakfast; they have the best scones. I also love the museums. I was a big Field Museum kid and big into the Art Institute. The museums in Chicago are incredible."

Your entire family is involved in acting. What's it like when you all get together? Are you guys high drama?
"It can get loud! The thing that's great is we can all get together and have an understanding of each other because we all understand what we do — the highs and the lows of it. It's nice to have people — especially family — who have an understanding of where you're coming from. It's really a blessing. We can talk about work — or not."

The musical Beautiful is based on King's autobiography. What part of King's life is the focus?
"The journey is really from her [start as] a singer-songwriter teenager to becoming an adult solo artist. She wrote for hip artists when she was 16, 17, 18 years old. But, then it really focuses on the journey professionally and personally that made her the singer-songwriter she is today. It basically takes you up to her arrival at Tapestry. It's great because it relives all the wonderful songs from Tapestry, but I think it's really fun for audiences because it's kind of a sneak peek into an artist's life before they are an artist we feel we know. And, it also focuses on her friends — and fierce competitors — Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil."

You really sound like Carole King when you sing! What type of training did you go through to perfect her tone?
"I worked with our music director a little bit because I was having trouble maintaining what I was doing week-to-week. So, we'd talk a little bit about things we could tweak or change so I was able to stay healthy. It was a lot of listening, a lot of personal trial and error. When we started getting into the rehearsals and really getting into the music, I would usually record things so I could play it back. That was a big thing for me because what it sounds like in my head could be completely different from what was coming out of my mouth. Also, listening to her and picking out things that I felt were really essential to her sound."

What is your favorite Carole King song?
"This is what I love about her music: It changes with your mood. You can put on a record of hers for any mood that you're in. One of my favorites right now is "Sweet Seasons." It's on the album right after Tapestry called Music. There's another one I love on that album called, "It's Going to Take Some Time." That woman knows how to write a breakup song! She can encapsulate a feeling and mood so well, and with such depth and simplicity at the same time."
ePhoto: Courtesy of Shevett Studios.
Which song was the most difficult for you to master?
"I think it's "Natural Woman." That's the one that is the most challenging to find the balance of the real Carole King and my version. The arrangement is also a mixture of Carole's arrangement on Tapestry and Aretha's arrangement, which also became very famous. It ends up being very satisfying to an audience, but to be able to find the mix of the right amount of simplicity and the right amount of soul is sort of an ongoing thing; it's different for me every night."

What was it like meeting King for the first time?
"It was a little surreal, and it was very emotional. This was how it felt to me (and I would never assume or speak for her), but it felt like I was meeting a relative that I never met before. It was just a strange thing to look into her eyes without trying to freak her out. But, in my mind, I was thinking, 'I've been studying you, and watching you, and trying to get into your heart and your head for so long now!' So, there was this part of me that felt like I knew her."

Carole King is such an amazing, inspirational figure. She was so young and became so successful during her time spent at the Brill Building writing for others and then finding her voice as a performer later on. Does that story resonate with you at all?
"It totally resonates with me. I'm the middle child, so I love being a part of a big group, I love being a part of an ensemble. I'm not really one of those people who's itching to get out there on my own and be front and center. I mean, there are moments I am learning to get better when it is asked of me, but I think that's what's great about this show. She [King] went through that journey, and now I feel like I'm going through it. She's so cool because the more I've gotten to talk to her, even with all her fame and recognition, she still loves to play with the band. And, I think that's what it's all about. Playing with your musicians and making music together with people — that's what I do."

What's the most inspiring thing about King, in your eyes?
"I find her very inspiring as a woman because she has found a way to hold on to her joy, goodness, and her hope while also taking care of herself. She's lived through a great deal in her life, yet she's come out on the other end with a lot of graciousness — yet she's also a tough cookie. I really admire that because she seems to find a wonderful blend of being strong when she needs to be strong without bulldozing someone over along the way. Always coming from love and finding the good in people and the situation — taking the high road."

How do you take care for your skin since you're constantly sporting stage makeup under hot theater lights? Any secrets you can share with us?
"Cleanse, cleanse, cleanse! I wash my face every night. I use Cerave cleansers and moisturizers. I have really sensitive skin, so they're really gentle and great."

Do you have any superstitions/traditions before you go on stage?
"Not really. I will get in ways...like for two weeks, I'll drink the same tea before going on stage. But, one thing I do is say a little prayer every night before I go on stage. Just to sort of get my head in the right place."

How did you decide upon your gorgeous Randi Rahm gown for the Tonys? Is she one of your favorite designers?
"I was familiar with her work through another Broadway actress Laura Osnes. I read an article that she has worked with Randi on several occasions, so my agent and I got in touch with Randi and went over to her showroom. She was just so cool and had such beautiful things. The range of her designs is just so fabulous, and she knows how to dress women with curves and actual bodies. I wanted something that had a wow factor, but also had an effortless, natural appeal. There was something about it that was airy and flowy and that felt a little bit like Carole to me."