Sitting with Emily Bergl in the Oak Room Supper Club at The Algonquin Hotel where she’ll open September 30, I look around at the tables pushed together, the empty white cloths, burgundy leather banquettes, and polished piano. It’s midday and quiet. We’re alone with cabaret history here. Emily is excited. A seasoned actress, this is her first cabaret show and her premiere at The Oak Room. How did she get here?
The Town with the Concrete Cows
Emily Bergl is Irish/English though you’d never know by talking to her. She was born in Milton Keynes, England, a “new” town, built from scratch and designated in 1967. Until she was 7, Emily played on the cows placed in the fields near the train station to make the place look more bucolic. The cows are made of cement. To mention Milton Keynes to the British is to ask for ridicule. “ I loved them,” she recalls with a wistful smile.
The Bergls moved to Colorado and then Chicago where the first signs of Emily’s future emerged. “I was always organizing plays and recitals in our backyard, performing in almost every number, either playing for someone or singing back-up, producing, directing…such a little megalomaniac.” Unlike the scores of kids dragged kicking and screaming to an instrument, she begged for piano lessons. “I wanted to play the harp, but harps were very expensive. I can play the concert harp now; the next tv show I get, my character will play it. I also have a line on a Theremin.” If Emily had her way, the upcoming Algonquin show would include a xylophone or glockenspiel. She settled for piano, bass and ukulele. Expect the unexpected.
By High School, she was taking voice lessons. A born performer, Emily had come this far with no thought to becoming a professional actor. “I did a lot of plays, but made the decision I wanted my education to be broad based.” With early admission into Grinnell College (Spencer Tracy was an alumnus,) Emily stopped paying attention at school. She was pulled out of rehearsal for Camelot, and summarily told that failing English, she would not be allowed to participate in extra curricular activities. She begged her teacher to let her make up the work. “Emily,” the woman said,” Do you want to be an actor?” It was a Eureka moment. She was 17.
The self possessed young woman stuck to her plan and became an English Major. By junior year, she’d added Theater and would study a semester at The Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut. Her intention was to take time when she graduated, move to New York, waitress, and…but a visiting director, looking for someone to play younger (Emily was 21), asked that she audition for a summer stock production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. She got the role and her Equity Card. “They called and asked me to send a headshot for the marquee and I asked what a marquee was.” Her eyebrows go up.
“I memorize easily. I have a system. People start doing it too quickly, by rote. Most actors have an emotional memory. You really have to find your emotional thru line before learning your lines, then the words make sense….When I first started, I thought acting was this kind of Buddhist thing where you have to erase yourself. Now I know you have to bring something of yourself to every role, “she says thoughtfully.
Emily couldn’t afford to move to Manhattan right away. She temped during the day and waitressed at night. Five New York agents turned her down. Her Chicago representative enthused she had a “great gig” for her client playing a Holiday Elf at Marshall Fields. The young actress swore she’d move first. Everyone has her line in the sand. That November, she took up residence here in a studio on West 45th Street…above a strip club “we knew all the doormen. It was safer.” The apartment was occupied by a tap dancer who rented and, twice a week, the comic who owned it. When an old friend lost her job, she shared the bed with Emily. It was a sitcom set-up. Emily worked the midnight to eight a.m. shift transcribing for law firms. “When I was eight I could type eighty words a minute.”
Her Chicago agent sent her out for The Rage: Carrie 2, the sequel to Carrie. There was interest, but the project was shelved. “MGM said no one wants to see horror movies anymore.” It was 1996. She shakes her head in disbelief. Scream opened and the studio changed its mind. A friend in Los Angeles got his boss to submit her for the second time. She booked the film. “When I was doing my deal, they asked whether I wanted first billing or and introducing. I said, I think I should have first billing because it will set a precedent for my next movie. Now I think I should have asked for and introducing because you can only get that once. Peter O’Toole had and introducing for Lawrence of Arabia.
People ask me how to get an agent. I say, “Don’t ask me. The first time I talked to my agent he was telling me I booked the lead in a twenty million dollar movie.” Emily learned to hit her mark during test shots. It would be her first time before a camera and, unfortunately, a miserable shoot. The director and visual team were replaced two weeks in for trying to make a film as dark as its predecessor. “I worked thirty-eight hours straight once, we were so over budget, but it jump-started my career.”
I Had a Fear of Buying Shoes
Concerned that people would think of her as a horror film actress, Emily turned down the sheaf of genre scripts in her mailbox, opting to act Juliet at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. “I wanted to play all those great ingénues.” Regional theatrical experience ranges from roles in pieces by Kaufman and Hart and Tennessee Williams to Moliere. She lived out of a suitcase for five years. “I was afraid to buy shoes because I could only fit six pair in my suitcase. It meant if I bought a new pair, another would have to go.”
Ever ready to tell a story on herself, Emily relates an incident during Wendy Wasserstein’s Old Money at Lincoln Center when, deciding “to make a really strong entrance-always a bad motivation,” she tripped and toppled, spilling the drink she was carrying. With no time to sufficiently mop up, she danced on in the next scene as another character, slipped and fell flat on her face. “I usually have one fall of hockey proportions in every play…not lately, though. Maybe it’s the Pilates.”
Her FANY* winning Broadway debut was as Alice in The Lion in Winter (James Goldman) with Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing. “Be nice to the person ironing your clothes today,” Fishburne advised her, “because they may be the person giving you a job tomorrow.” In 2005, Emily played Gabriel Byrne’s daughter in the Broadway revival of A Touch of the Poet (Eugene O’Neill), perhaps the only part to which the otherwise practical actress allowed herself to aspire. “I’d done it at The Grinnell Iowa Community Theater. My calculus professor was in it…I love the thru line of a play. The biggest frustration of movies is that there are never enough takes. In a play you get a shot at it every night.”
Television guest spots came almost immediately. The list is long. Emily’s first lead was in the Steven Spielberg mini-Series Taken. She’s gone on to be a regular in Men in Trees (now cancelled) and, until recently, when her character shot herself in the head, held a recurring role in Desperate Housewives. “I’m always eating,” the very slender young woman tells me picking at her salad. “On Desperate Housewives, my nickname became cupcake because as they were touching up my make-up for a close-up, I was trying to eat a cupcake at the same time.” Currently, she plays Detective Bryant’s wife, Tammi, an eccentric photographer on Southland. In the peculiar world of Hollywood, one of the two dogs playing the police animal they’ve adopted, “the one we use for angry scenes,” only responds to commands in Dutch.
At 14, the clearly precocious Emily, read an article in The Chicago Tribune that in the same weekend President Reagan was getting two million dollars for a speech in Tokyo, Jimmy Carter was registering voters in Nicaragua for free. She became obsessed with Carter, collecting memorabilia all through college. During her tenure with Men in Trees, when the writer’s strike loomed, Emily resolved to use the hiatus for a trip with Habitat for Humanity. She went to Borneo as a regular (non V.I.P.) volunteer and, with no carpentry skills, helped build a house on stilts. “It’s misperception that volunteers have to have experience. People are needed at all levels,” she says with conviction. A high point was when the former president, generally all business, shared his water with the excited volunteer. After Habitat discovered she was an actress, Emily was asked to join The Jimmy and Roslyn Carter Work Project. Since then, she’s become so ubiquitous, appearing somewhere every year, the actress has made friends with the Carter family. She looks forward to joining them on a build in Haiti this November.
Curiously, Emily has not, to date, done a musical. “I thought it would be difficult to break out of that. I didn’t want to limit myself.” In High School she sat on a piano and sang “a sexy version” of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a number she performs in her upcoming show. “The next day a guy on the football team asked me out—which was positive re-enforcement.” Woody Allen’s idealized images of Diane Keaton on a cabaret stage in Annie Hall and the film, The Fabulous Baker Boys, furthered her desire to create an act. Still, she waited.
“Singing is so personal to me and so revealing that I think for ten years I was simply too frightened to do it.” When Emily shared her dream with musical director, G.Scott Lacy, with whom she worked on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, he suggested they create something together. She started taking lessons again, but was too busy to give it her full attention. Also, “It took me a long time to find my own voice.” A request of her agents to send her out for musical parts proved problematic as she’s not perceived as a singer; another reason for the show.
Two years ago, she and Lacy started collaborating on her current show. As the piece evolved, they performed in San Diego, Seattle, Los Angeles and The Metropolitan Room in New York City. Emily feels fortunate that Jonathan Mastro took over when Lacy was unable to come to New York. “I didn’t realize how much I missed music until I started up again. I sing on the streets now… Some people legitimately shy away from cabaret,” she continues reflectively, “there are good performers, of course, but also people who think they’re so naturally fascinating that all they have to do is sit on a stool and sing an hour of standards. If you’re gonna come see me, I wanna put on a show!”
Kidding on the Square is Emily’s vision of the 1920s and 1930s, her interpretation of an era “when men wore hats, women gowns, and there were places like The Oak Room all over New York City…a time of great danger and uncertainty…of prohibition and speakeasies…” She’s always felt a romanticized affinity for the period. “It’s not historical,” she adds. “I’m a modern girl. I also take modern songs and put them into that context.”
It’s My Belief I’ll Peak in My Eighties
I ask Emily how she feels when she sings. “’Most cognizant of my own mortality and therefore most alive,” she responds decidedly. “The moment is unique, it will never happen this way again.” She has “an awareness of the audience and a sense of shared experience” which contributes to this in cabaret even more than on stage, perhaps because of proximity, the opportunity to truly connect. “I also feel naked.” One costume is a nude colored 1920’s bathing suit. The New York Times interpreted it as a nod to Emily’s modern audience, stripping down to get more people into the show. “That’s not what it’s about. I wanted something to reflect the complete lack of artifice…You can never really present a show that’s you. The person I embody is a version of me, but let me tell you how scary that is.” She still wants to do a musical.
Performance longevity is paramount to Emily. “I’m really amazed by older actors, like Marian Seldes. It’s my belief I’ll peak in my eighties. I never want to retire. My dream is to fit cabaret into my schedule. I refuse to be put in a box.”
On August 30th, there’ll be a glass of whiskey on the piano. The Oak Room will be full. Her parents will be in the audience as, likely, will KT Sullivan who graciously recommended her. Lights will dim and once again, Emily Bergl will show an audience she’s not what we think she is.
*FANY=Friends of New York Theater. The award was for Best Debut.
The Oak Room Supper Club
The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street
August 30-September 10
Reservations: 212 419 9331 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Emily will be in the cast of Love, Loss and What I Wore at The Broadway Playhouse in Chicago September 14- October 23
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: The Oyster Bar at Grand Central
Favorite Place to Shop: Century 21; Pinky Otto on Bleecker Street
Favorite New York Sight: My favorite thing in the world to do is to take out a rowboat in Central Park. If you row right into the middle of the lake, you see around you both the trees and the NY skyline. That is absolutely my favorite view. Besides sex, I’ve yet to find anything that I enjoy doing more.
Favorite New York Moment: The week before Irene, I got stuck in that huge deluge. I was under an awning, it was pouring rain. I was three blocks away from an umbrella or two blocks from my house and about to make a run for it when a guy walked by with an umbrella and gave it to me. He said, “I’m about to get home, I’m going to change my clothes anyway. Have my umbrella.”
What You Love About New York: That I’m stimulated by people. That’s why I prefer being here rather than LA where I’m in a bubble (my car.) I eavesdrop. My every day interactions are so rich. The city is filled with characters and I get to watch them, which is wonderful for an actor. Also, people say New York is a mean place. But I have witnessed more acts of random kindness here …We live so close to each other, I think we function as one organism. I’ve been living here longer now than anywhere else. Can I call myself a New Yorker?
What You Hate About New York: I hate how NY ruins my heels, in ways shoemakers can’t fix. (You don’t walk in LA!)