Maggie Grace finds her inner strength on Broadway

Updated at: 01/09/2013 11:37 AM
By MARK KENNEDY

(AP) NEW YORK - Maggie Grace had a scary moment during a recent matinee of "Picnic" on Broadway.

William Inge’s script calls for a struggle at the end of the play between Grace’s character and her onstage mother, played by Mare Winningham. The problem on this day was that Grace heard a crack during the clash.

After the curtain call, Grace couldn’t contain her worry. She put her arm around Winningham and was seen urgently whispering with her co-star as the two disappeared into the wings.

"I was worried about her wrist," Grace says about 20 minutes later in her dressing room at the American Airlines Theatre, her makeup and costume still on. "She said she’s OK but I was a mess backstage. I was so worried that I’d broken Mare."

It was an episode that seems to perfectly capture Grace, the rising, self-made actress who has starred on TV in "Lost" and "Californication," as Liam Neeson’s daughter in the "Taken" movies and in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" films: She simply doesn’t know her own strength.

MAKING RENT

Grace, 29, is by far this season’s most unlikely Broadway debutante. An all-American beauty who loved community theater, she left high school outside Columbus, Ohio, at age 16 and moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as an actress.

"Statistically, I think you probably have a better chance of being killed by lightning," she says, laughing. "But I had a very real mandate every month: making rent."

She arrived in Los Angeles knowing no one and with just a back-to-school catalog on her thin resume. By her second week, she had an agent and was auditioning.

Commercials and tiny roles in TV shows piled up, "CSI: Miami" and "Law & Order: SVU" among them. "I was the professional rape victim," she says. "Fill in the procedural drama, I did it."

Years of toil as a working actress and a gypsy life _ no more than three months in one place since she was 16 _ led to her big break as the snobby Shannon on the first two seasons of "Lost." Then came on-screen vampires and kidnappings that paid her mortgage and now her professional stage debut on Broadway, a long hoped-for dream come true.

"I wrote it on my New Year’s list every year," says Grace. "I definitely wanted to come back to the stage. It’s kind of how I fell in love with this whole crazy world of playing pretend for a living."

Sam Gold, who directs Grace in "Picnic," hadn’t met her before she showed up at an audition. He was blown away. "Though she looks like an ingenue, she brings a lot of strength and a sort of unique energy, passion and strength to her acting," he says.

ROOM FOR INTERPRETATION

In "Picnic," Grace plays a daughter coming of age in a small Kansas town in 1953. She’s destined to marry the well-regarded boy next door when a sexy male stranger arrives and throws everyone’s plans out the window.

Grace grew up with the 1955 film starring Kim Novak, even though her parents wouldn’t let her see it until she was older: "It was too racy ..."

Now she shares the stage with an interesting cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Marvel, Reed Birney and Sebastian Stan. Grace plays a headturning blonde, but hopes it’s more than that.

"It’s an ingenue but I think there’s a little room for interpretation," says Grace. The same could be said for her, a long-limbed beauty who turns out to be extremely thoughtful, hardworking and grounded.

She describes "Picnic" as "about the tension between individual impulse and the needs of the group and social convention." Of the playwright, she says: "Inge was never a master at innovation. He was a master of convention."

Grace fluidly uses terms like "negative space" and "symbiosis," and follows up a meeting with an email filled with insights into the work and its relevance, explaining that "in between shows my ability to conjugate verbs takes a sharp dip."

"I used to be really insecure about my self-education," she says. "I’m definitely always learning. But there’s many ways to learn. There are many, many ways to always be a learner."

It has taken her 13 years, but Grace vows it will not be another 13 before she clambers back on a stage. "This will not be my last play. Mark my words. If they’ll have me. Even if it’s a 20-person black box theater in Chicago. If they’ll have me."

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Online:

http://www.roundabouttheatre.org

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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)