Geneva Carr’s cool, unlikely route to a Tony nomination

Geneva Carr

NEW YORK (AP) — Stage actress Geneva Carr’s birthday this year fell on a Wednesday, which meant she had to work both a matinee and the evening show. She wasn’t complaining. It was like two gifts.

“I GET to perform twice, what are you talking about?” the actress said in her Broadway dressing room, looking aghast at the mere idea of possibly being unhappy about working. “I get to do it TWICE. Are you kidding me?”

Carr, who stars in the pitch-black comedy “Hand to God,” is still in the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming mode after a hard, unlikely path to her Broadway debut this season.

Carr is a former derivatives trader who fell in love with acting 15 years ago and scraped together a career juggling stage, TV and commercial work as “a very happy nobody.”

Now, at 44, thanks to a ferocious performance, she has earned a Tony Award nomination for best actress in a play, competing against Helen Mirren, Elisabeth Moss, Carey Mulligan and Ruth Wilson.

“I’m so grateful for where I am now but I think I’m more grateful because it’s been so hard-won,” she said. “I haven’t given up and I’ve had plenty of reasons to give up.”

The Mississippi-born Carr went to college at Mount Holyoke and then got her MBA in Paris. She was selling derivatives for French bank Societe Generale in New York — “I was cog in a very big wheel,” she said — when she went to see an off-Broadway play.

She found herself in an audience of about 10 in a 6th-floor theater at Ensemble Studio Theatre, watching Russell Davis’ “Appointment with a High-Wire Lady,” about former lovers trying to reconnect in a psychiatric center.

Carr was so astounded by the work that she took an acting class and soon quit her job. At the age of 30, when most people abandon the acting grind to get a real job, Carr did the reverse.

Her first job was in Christopher Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation” at Playwrights Horizons in 1999. She did the TV show “Rescue Me” and all the “Law & Orders.” She did commercials for AT&T and Total cereal.

It wasn’t always easy: She once collapsed in tears at her dermatologist’s office, “crying about bad skin and no career.” But she kept going, strengthened by what she’d learned as a reader for a casting director.

“Let me tell you a little secret: There are no bad actors. There are none. You have to find the right role,” she said. “I never give up on people. For God’s sake, look at me.”

The right role for Carr came along four years ago when playwright Robert Askins met her and fellow actor Stephen Boyer and was inspired to write “Hand to God” in under two weeks.

The play centers on a teenage boy played by Boyer whose rebellious thoughts and forbidden sexual urges are channeled by a sock puppet and he goes on a bloody, profane rampage after his father dies.

“I like visceral writing that people can’t help but respond to,” Carr said. “Even if they respond and they’re shocked or they’re angry or they’re offended. I think that’s the only way to reach people.”

Carr plays the teen’s mother Margery, a woman trying desperately to keep it together. She has hungry sex with a student, fends off a priest’s advances and tries to save her son from enveloping grief.

“I read this part and I connected immediately to Margery,” Carr said. “I’m completely repressed. I have a depth of rage that you can’t imagine. And hurt and love. I know this woman. On a dark night, I am her.”

Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who directs the play and earned a Tony nomination himself, said he’s happy that the world gets to see what Carr is capable of.

“There is a real spark in the work that she does that I find infectious and bedazzling,” he said. “She has risen to the challenge in a way that leaves us all in awe.”

The Broadway production marks the fourth time Carr has played the very physical role. She shows a visitor a line of bruises up her leg and says: “I think I’m going to do a workout tape called ‘Hand to God to Abs of Steel.'”

She and her architect husband — they were married within the last year — woke up early for the Tony nominations and he collapsed into screams and tears when her name was read.

Carr got over 1,000 messages that day and her eighth-grade crush found her on Facebook. “Guess who regrets turning me down at 13?” she said, laughing.

She has selected a gown for the Tonys and she is simply glowing these days. At a recent meet-and-greet for nominees, she summoned up the courage to chase after Mirren and introduce herself.

“I see her and go, ‘Helen! Helen!’ I run after her and I saw, ‘I’m Geneva Carr.’ And she says, ‘Oh, congratulations. Enjoy every minute of it,'” Carr said.

She will, perhaps more than most.



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