By Allie Volpe
Anna Chlumsky is a meticulous list-maker. From the way she approaches auditions to her methods for getting in the right headspace for her projects, the Emmy-nominated “Veep” actor has mastered the art of preparedness. Over the course of her career—she began as a child actor in the ’90s—she’s learned skills from training both in the classroom and on set. Now, she’s returned to the stage in the new play “Cardinal” as Lydia, whose plans to liven up her Rust Belt town are sidelined. We pick her brain to find out how she gets it done.
What has working on ‘Cardinal’ added to your acting skills?
Lydia’s very capable as a persuasive personality; however, she doesn’t really have the ground underneath her. That fascinates me, that you can have both. How is she so infectious in her enthusiasm for life yet without any kind of root to draw from? I think that she’s really well written, where she calls out—and this is indicative of a lot of people in real life—what’s wrong with other people but really that’s what’s underlying herself. I’m interested in this enormous façade that she puts up of being very with it and yet she’s sort of groundless and broken inside.
How does this play fit in with filming for the final season of “Veep”?
We’re on hiatus until Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] is well. We all thought that we would be shooting right now. It feels like a comfortable place to be to say with surprise can come other, happier surprises, like doing a play that I otherwise wouldn’t have been available for. It’s a lemonade out of lemons situation. It’s not a hiatus that we begrudge: We want her to rest and take her time and feel strong. It helps with the patience. Being able to work a little enables us to support one another even more.
How do you get into the theater headspace when coming from TV?
The nice thing is that it’s a short schedule. Even though it’s a packed schedule, you know what it is. It’s not like with film and TV, where you can have a 5 a.m. call and find that out at 11 p.m., and maybe you get pages at the same time. The nice thing about being in a play is you feel like you’re a little bit more in control of your own process and, at least for me, if I have time, I can map out—OK, I’ll learn my lines this day, I’ll make sure I’m off-book this day, and I’m sure I’ll have this scene analyzed by this time—whereas in film and TV, it’s very much like you have to roll with it. That said, there are benefits to both ways of working, and that’s why I consider it a cross-trained career.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Everyone at the Atlantic [Acting School] when I was learning a process, I remember all the teachers saying, “This is a technique; it’ll be fluid and you’ll get things that work for you and you’ll develop on the things that don’t.”
At that time, I was like, “No, I’m going to adhere to the technique to the letter.” I’m a very committing person—part of what I think makes me good at my job is that I can commit to something. Who’s to say if my younger self would understand this, but it is true that learning to be flexible in your process is just as valuable as having one.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
If you haven’t noticed, I can be very regimented with myself. I have an audition log where I record the details of each audition. I learned this at the Atlantic and from a book called “The Monologue Audition,” written by Karen Kohlhaas, who was also a teacher at the Atlantic. You write what worked, what could’ve worked better, and what to do for the next audition. You make a list of the things that are in your control and the things that aren’t in your control.
Even with all that preparedness, have you ever had a terrible audition experience?
Oh, yeah, all the time. The good thing is you get to a place where you’re not taking your auditions personally, and you realize that it’s your chance to practice. Sometimes you have to step away and take the personal out of it and realize it’s just business.
You’ve just got to do math sometimes. There is one role and the people are trying to fill that one role, and they’re also trying to sell tickets, and they’ve determined whatever they need to determine to sell the tickets. Let’s say there are four talented girls who fit that type. Well, three of them could be super talented and skilled and still one is going to get the role. It’s just math. Become a good actor, do that. [Laughs] That’s something that’s in your control, but once you’re at that place and you’re being called in and people know you’ve got the goods, this is not about whether or not you’re worthy. This has everything to do with math.
What was your first headshot like?
This is the first one I remember, and I love it: I was 8 years old, they did my hair super curly but it was long so it looked really ’80s. I had a crinoline slip on, and we just put this Mickey Mouse shirt that I was obsessed with over it. I looked up to this one choreographer in a production of “Annie,” and she did that thing where she wore leggings and leg warmers and a huge shirt. That, to me, was who I looked like. To this day, I think that was a really cool outfit. [Laughs] I saw a picture of myself in that context and I thought I had ownership of it.
Would you ever recreate it now?
I’m kind of always wearing an enormous sweater or sweatshirt over leggings. I’m still just trying to look like Brenda the choreographer, always. [Laughs] The coolest woman I knew.