Finding Agency Is Krysta Rodriguez’s Mission on Broadway
Krysta Rodriguez is all about agency. If a character doesn’t have it—or isn’t seeking it—she isn’t interested. That’s only one of the insights the Broadway star shared with me in a Theatrely interview as The Collaboration began previews on Broadway.
Anthony McCarten’s play, starring Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michele Basquiat and Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol, follows the two artistic giants as they come together to put on an exhibition in the ‘80s. Rodriguez plays one of Basquiat’s girlfriends, Maya, a composite character based on several real-life partners of the late painter. The MTC production opens December 20 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The star was also most recently seen as Cinderella in Into the Woods, a starkly different character from Maya but no less able to hold her own in a topsy-turvy world, real or imagined. Below, I talk with Rodriguez about why supporting roles are important, what it means to be a part of the Spring Awakening generation, how to explore women’s rights in the ‘80s with a contemporary lens, and more.
Theatrely: So we've talked a little bit about how your character comes in like a hurricane. Do you ever see yourself personally as storming Broadway as well?
Krysta Rodriguez: I’m certainly attracted to the roles that do that, so I think maybe that means that my personality lends itself to that sort of thing. This role reminds me a lot of when I did Ilse in Spring Awakening, where it’s a second-act new energy that comes in and shakes up what’s been happening and alters the course of the action. I thought that was a really fun way to enter what is a two-hander for the most part. Me and Eric [Jensen, who plays gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger] have roles that move the story along, but if you’re going to be that person, you might as well come in screaming curse words and throwing things—and that's what I’m doing!
Does that feel like a new challenge for you?
I think because I have done a number of plays in other areas, it didn't feel like a big challenge in that way. It’s just wanting to check that thing off the bucket list, and especially coming immediately from Cinderella [in Into the Woods], which is such a huge musical performance, it’s just been a real relief to not have to carry a show vocally and emotionally as much and get to watch these titans do their job.
Yeah. The way that you were describing the role earlier, it feels like it’s a true supporting role, which are the best sometimes!
Erik and I talk about this—it’s like supporting in the truest sense of the word. We’re there to actually hold them up and give them what they need to to tell the story. And those roles can be very exposition-heavy and uninteresting, but this play has found a way to make them both very interesting. I think we have tried to give a lot of care to these smaller characters and make sure we know what their relationship to everybody is. We wanted to make sure that we've really given them a full life on stage and off stage.
What is the most common denominator between you and your character?
She’s a New Yorker. That's where we started, I give off a very New York, no-nonsense vibe of getting things done. And Maya, her whole point of the scene is that she has a very clear objective when she comes in and she needs to get that objective accomplished. So I think it was very easy for me to access that forward inertia that comes from being a no-nonsense New York person. There’s much about her that I don't understand, or I won’t ever understand. That downtown art scene was a very specific moment in time, [as was] her relationship with Jean. It was explosive and abusive and tender and all kinds of things. I fortunately don’t have those experiences, but I have enough to draw from to know what she could mean.
You can’t always have a direct experience to draw from—it’s part of the craft. I like this idea of “inertia,” though. Do you ever read a part in a show and decide there’s not enough drive?
I don’t ever want to be a bystander…so I do have that inertia. Things like Cinderella...she doesn’t have agency, but the whole quest is for her to find her agency. And that was exciting to me, a slow burn from having literally no options and being a servant in her own home to creating a life for herself. That was not anything that she had, and I thought that was really curious. I think I end up bringing that perspective to any role that I play. If I feel there’s even a seed of that, I like the challenge of threading that through.
I feel like there’s this Spring Awakening generation that has all risen up together with a similar mindset of agency and drive. Is that something that you talk about all together?
I think you never know what you’re doing when you’re doing it. I look back at that time and I think it was such a pivotal moment of a change of scenery on Broadway. It’s very hard to find roles of that age that have real stakes. That was a huge step forward in having representation of young people and their sexuality and all of that on stage. I remember singing “Touch Me” for an audience for the first time on Broadway and just being like, “where else in the world are you seeing these 20-year-old-and-younger children owning ‘this is how [it is].’” It really struck me as we’ve been going through all the reunion stuff, the documentary, and performing at the Tonys that not only did we get to do that, but we had women on stage representing sexuality in the lyrics of that song. They’re saying, “this is what I like, this is what I want.” And we took for granted at that young age that that’s not something you get to see a lot: women, especially young women, owning their bodies and needs and desires. So I’m really proud of what that show might have done to move the needle in that direction, but as adults, it’s been really fun to meet each other where we are. To have started our careers so early, they’ve now gone through so many phases and every time we see each other, it’s a new phase of our lives. And that’s really cool to get to grow in the business with people.
Is there another needle you want to move now?
I certainly have done the wife thing and this [role] is very different, so I’m grateful to be in an area where I can leap back and forth between different things. I think ultimately the needle gets moved by having more [diverse groups of] people writing. It’s not a coincidence that as more women and people of color get in the writers room, and more of them get to the top of these industries, that we’re seeing the best [content] we’ve ever seen, the most complicated female roles we’ve ever seen. My agency is to say “No.” It’s to say, “I don’t want to play this” and only wait for the thing that will please me. And then if it does that… I will do that job better and it might end up having more success and it might affect more people. That’s what I can do. I’m also very passionate about trying to find new work, developing new musicals and new shows and getting in on the ground floor. I’m on the board of the Performing Arts Project and I went to an arts high school—I go back and teach there all the time. I’m passionate about creating better audience members because we’ll get better art if we have better audience members who will vote with their pocketbooks.
How does Maya and The Collaboration as a whole fit into that mission statement?
Maya’s aim coming into the scene is that she needs money for an abortion. There was a lot of discussion about: Have we earned the right to talk about this? Who gets the right to talk about this? What struck me about the character is that she is so matter-of-fact about it. There are so few representations of people who actually want, need, and follow through with abortions in media—and I understand it. I think it’s a very interesting storyline to have a woman who’s unsure if she wants to have children, [and] then go forward with having the child. That makes the show fun or more interesting or complicated. It’s a clear evolution for a female character, but we rarely get to see the other side of it.
Did you see POTUS? There is that line from Julianne Hough that got such a rousing reaction—has there been a similar reaction in the first few previews for you?
I did! And, no, the reaction has been a bit different. I do have a line where [Warhol] says, “Well, it’s your body.” And I say, “Last time I checked!” [Ed. note: Maya comes into Jean-Michele’s apartment to get money, but he’s not home. Instead, she finds Warhol also waiting for him.] We have to remember that this is 1984. This was almost in a time where [abortion] was more accessible, in a way. Of course, there’s always stigma and inaccessibility… but it was part of the birth control conversation. Once the AIDS crisis was happening and different things surrounding morality became restrictive, it all of a sudden came back on the table as something we had to debate. And that’s the situation we’re in now. So, I think what’s great about Maya is representing a version of it that doesn’t involve stigma. There was something similar to doing Halston and playing Liza Minnelli… this is a time period, post women’s liberation [but] pre-Reagan era, where things were just accepted in a way that they aren’t now. We think that we are more progressive now but we were actually more progressive in some ways then. So I’m excited to be able to represent that. The reaction that I did get was from women, who would have been that age in the ‘80s, saying, “This was me, I had a boyfriend. He wouldn’t pay for it. We had to deal [with it ourselves] and it wasn’t even a question…and that was how all of our friends were living our lives.” And they were really affected by seeing that. I hate to even say that it’s even that big of a part of the scene. It’s the reason I come in, but we don’t dwell on it. It’s not what the point of the scene is, which is why it was a calibrated conversation. Do we handle it with more kid gloves? Or do we make it what it is? A matter-of-fact objective to her day is that this is on the list of things that has to happen today.
Just like Maya, Krysta is on a mission. It will continue as she takes on powerful, important, and game-changing female roles on Broadway and beyond.
The Collaboration is now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.