It’s an amazing time in the life of Elizabeth Reaser. Her career plans are on the fast track as her dreams of making it in the very tough arena of show business are being fulfilled. She began getting roles in films and TV dramas in her early 20s, right out of college, and now the parts are getting bigger and bigger and bigger. In fact, one is a leading role.
What’s more, for such a young actress, Reaser is equally at home in front of the camera as she is onstage, as she proved in July at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival, costarring in a revival of Caryl Churchill’s acclaimed Top Girls, long regarded as a difficult play to perform with its focus on the challenges facing working women in the contemporary business world and society at large. But Elizabeth Reaser seems capable of rising to the occasion, whether it be in intense drama or knock ‘em dead comedy. And the fact that she is being cast by top directors is an indication that she’s building a steady career in theater and film, if not heading toward out-and-out stardom.
Reaser has come a long way from the “country,” as she describes Milford, Michigan, not too far from Detroit. Her father was an attorney who later became a restaurateur and who now is a substitute teacher. Her mother was a housewife. She is the middle child of three girls. [Her parents are divorced.]
Of her upbringing, Reaser says she wasn’t the least bit spoiled. “The one before and after me were. I’m still waiting.” She had to do her share of odd jobs, “the oddest of what was being a caddy at a country club. But the tips were good and, hanging around the caddy shack, I met lots of boys!”
After high school, Reaser attended Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan, north of Troy, for a year. “It was really a fine school,” she says, “but I yearned to get out of the Midwest and I realized the only way my parents were going to let me was through college, so I applied to Juilliard’s drama program. I got in.” She was taken aback that her parents were so supportive of the idea, “and New York’s been ‘home’ ever since.”
Juilliard was intense, but she persevered and was awarded her B.F.A. in May 1999. Finding work in her chosen field was no piece of cake. “Having gone to Juilliard opened a few doors,” she admits, “but it was essential to find acting roles so I could invite agents and hope against hope that they’d come and see me.”
The only way to get into auditions for major motion pictures or major stage productions is by being submitted by an agent to casting directors. “It was difficult and frustrating,” Reaser explains. “You couldn’t get good jobs without an agent and you couldn’t get an agent without having been seen in good roles. It’s very competitive and agents are inundated with hundreds of requests for representation.”
After breaking in with a role on the daytime drama Guiding Light, she’s steadily found roles in independent films and onstage. Michael Greif, the award-winning director of the Jonathan Larson musical Rent, cast her as Heavenly in La Jolla Playhouse’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. Michael Sexton cast her in the role of Alice, the shady young woman who’s a part-time stripper in Portland [Oregon] Center Stage’s production of Patrick Marber’s sizzling Closer. At New York’s Classic Stage Company, she portrayed Perdita in Shakepeare’s The Winter’s Tale opposite film, TV and stage favorite David Strathairn and Broadway’s Barbara Garrick.
Reaser made her London debut, albeit not quite on the West End, in a “two-hander (play written for two actors)”—Adam Rapp’s blistering Blackbird, that was nominated for numerous awards when it premiered Off-Broadway. In a bit of an understatement, Reaser says, “It was an exciting, intense experience.”
The actress exudes beauty born out of simplicity and natural charm, so playing her Blackbird character of Froggy had to have been a “stretch.” She is the unkempt, captive girlfriend of a Lower East Side addict who’s living in squalor and clinging to the last vestige of an abusive relationship because she has nowhere else to go.
The play was done at the Bush, known for producing edgy new works, but getting there wasn’t quite smooth sailing. “Just when we thought everything was set,” she recalls, “there were problems with getting the British acting union to agree to have two Americans in roles that the union felt should be played by English actors. But somehow everything got resolved.
“The play was raw and intense, but the audience response was exhilarating. That made it all worthwhile. The thing that struck me the most was the number of young people in the audience. We were in a small theater where the tickets weren’t priced out of the stratosphere, so that was a plus.”
There was a “surprising” sidelight to appearing in such a controversial play: fans. “We were stunned at the amount of fan mail. I’d never experienced that, so it came as a bit of a shock, but in a very nice way. When you know the audiences not only like what you’re doing, but that they’re also responding, it’s as good as it can get for an actor. I love working over there and look forward to going back.”
However, that may take a while. In the last year alone, she’s had a prominent featured role in the Showtime movie Mind the Gap, the story of five seemingly unrelated people who take huge risks in their efforts to find happiness and whose destiny it is to meet in New York. Eric Schaeffer was director and costar, along with the late legendary comic Alan King, John Heard, and Todd Weeks. Reaser’s acting chops must have been obvious to Schaeffer as he cast her very much against type as a young woman from a North Carolina trailer park yearning for a better life.
Following Williamstown’s Top Girls, where she appeared in an ensemble that included Broadway, film, and TV star Jessica Hecht, this fall will be one of the best times in her life. This year and into 2006, Reaser follows with three films, and is the star of one.
In the romantic comedy Sweet Land, she stars as Inge, who transforms from a European woman in her 70s burying her husband to a young mail- order bride arriving in a totally foreign land—1920s Minnesota. In the film, she’s surrounded by such actors as Alan Cumming, Lois Smith, Ned Beatty, John Heard, and English actress Alex Kingston [Croupier, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and TV’s ER]. Of starring opposite the likes of such established stars as Beatty and Cumming, Reaser notes, “At first it was intimidating, but then after you meet them and see how they work, not at all. I learned so much just from observing Mr. Beatty, who was extremely supportive. And Alan is hilarious and a really nice guy.”
Come October, look for Stay, a psychological thriller written by novelist David Benioff [Troy, The 25th Hour and 2007’s Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman] and directed by Marc Forster, the German/Swiss talent behind the award-winning box office hits Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball. Reaser is in all-star company: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Kate Burton, Bob Hoskins, B. D. Wong, Ryan Gosling, Noah Ben [of TV’s Ed], Janeane Garofalo, and Michael Gaston. Advance word is heaping high praise on how Forster conveys a parallel plot through stunning visuals and design.
November will see the release of the romantic comedy The Family Stone, directed by hot newcomer Thomas Bezucha, a former senior director of creative services for Polo/Ralph Lauren and also a vice president of creative services at Coach. The story of a family becoming unglued when the favorite son brings his uptight girlfriend home for the holidays, Reaser auditioned only once for the role in Los Angeles. “I went in and read. They videotaped my audition and said ‘Thank you very much.’ I left without ever meeting Thomas. When my agent got the call, I was quite surprised. It was the first time I was cast off video.” (In The Family Stone, she plays one of the siblings of mother Diane Keaton and father Craig T. Nelson. The film’s costars are among Hollywood’s hottest Who’s Who: Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Luke Wilson, and Dermot Mulroney.)
“Craig T. Nelson has long been one of my favorite actors,” reveals Reaser, “so having the opportunity to work with him was such a pleasure. Diane Keaton is not only an incredible actress and an incredibly nice person, but she’s the coolest lady. It’s great when you’re working and having such a marvelous, memorable time.”
In spring 2006, Reaser begins work on another independent film, Bleecker Street. “It is an ensemble piece about a motley group of New York West Village characters and, from reading the script, it’s going to be funny, moving, and complex.”
Her statement prompted the query: Can an actor tell if a film is going to be good just from reading the script? “I guess that’s a matter of opinion,” she states, “but in my experience, not necessarily. A script might read really well and move you in a certain way, but once production begins, there are so many variables. More often than not, with any script, it comes alive with the actors and director.”
As far as doors opening because of being associated with so many A-list stars, Reaser explains, “It’s great to be in films with names, but you don’t necessarily become friends. I’ve never had the type of career that’s built on whom I know. I’ve never worked that social angle. It takes a special talent and I don’t have it, so I’ve just gone with trying to do a good job.”
Reaser counts among her blessings the day she finally met the agent who agreed to represent her. “There wasn’t anything specific that I could pinpoint, but I had a good feeling and just knew it would be a good fit. She’s young and she’s been really aggressive pitching me. She’s been very positive for me.”
To get those much sought-after jobs, Reaser often has to go to as many as 15 auditions a week in New York or Los Angeles, with the January TV pilot season being the busiest. As a result, she has appeared in episodes of TV’s Hack, opposite David Morse, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and The Sopranos.
“Like so many actors,” she points out, “I had to sometimes work part-time to make ends meet, especially when I told my family that I wanted to be on my own. For a while, I was a waitress and it just wasn’t fun.”
She explains that show business is not for everyone. “You have to have more than a dream. It’s hard and getting harder every day. You have to really want it and be determined to do just about anything to get it. And you have to stay very focused. I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to achieve what I have without a lot of pain and struggle. There are so many actors out there who are immensely talented and some I know are pretty close to starving. Even in what I would call my lean times, I never approached that; but, thankfully, I also had a lot of support from my family.”
Speaking of family, Reaser states that her parents are typical. “They want me married and they want grandkids. Thanks to my older sister, they have that. She’s delivered. For a while there, they were waiting for me to deliver but they realize they have an actress in the family. It’s the oddest thing. Most parents wouldn’t want that, but mine seem so happy for me. I’m not saying that they don’t worry about my financial future, but they’ve seen how exciting it’s been.”
Right now, she’s devoted full time to career moves. “I’m doing what I want to do, but, of course, I want to do more. I want to be doing it all the time. I want to do plays and film and I want to be doing it with the best people I can work with.”
She knows that luck and being in the right place at the right time play big roles in establishing a career. “But,” she notes, “it’s just unbelievable at this stage of my career to have done this play [at Williamstown] and to have three films coming for release this year and to have been cast in another.
With all this focus on work, work, work, what about play? “I read a lot of scripts for TV pilots and I watch TV.” Two favorite shows are The West Wing and Desperate Housewives. “I’d be so excited to get cast as a guest or in a recurring role in either or both.” Reaser says she tries to avoid watching TV reality shows “because they’re such fun. I’ll watch for 10 minutes then stop, because anything beyond that and I’ll get myself locked in.”
The question was actually a roundabout way of asking about serious love interests in her life. “When it comes to the heart, I tend to be very serious. I don’t fool around. I don’t play the field. It’s one at a time.
“I hope you’ll respect the fact,” she adds, “that I’m never comfortable talking about that aspect of my life.” Okay, but have you met the one? She pauses a moment, then asks, “Like, the one?” Yes, that’s right. “I have,” she announces softly. “I have met him.”
Then, just one more probing question on the subject: Is he in show business? “Oh, no!” she states emphatically. “So no!”
Sources: Lifestyles Magazine, article written by Ellis Nassour