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Henny Russell's life informs the politics Oslo
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
The first play veteran character actress Henny Russell appeared in after her mother died was J. T. Rogers' Oslo, about the back-channel negotiations that led to the momentous 1993 handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House Lawn. Initially scheduled for a limited run at Lincoln Center Theater's intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater last summer, the show was such a hit -- even at three hours and with a known outcome -- that its Broadway transfer was swiftly announced. Eight months later, Oslo and its original cast are once again recreating history at Lincoln Center's larger house, the Vivian Beaumont Theater. And the three disparate supporting characters Russell portrays are important players in these covert dealings.
"Certainly Marianne Heiberg was a real person and instrumental to the process," says Russell about her first part, an executive and Middle East policy expert married to Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs. "I read as much as I could about her and her life, including a book that she wrote. You'll see her in footage from that time; she was always present but not necessarily at the forefront."
Russell also plays a fictional Swedish hostess in one scene, but the role that resonates the most for her personally is Toril Grandal, a Norwegian housekeeper and cook who kept the Israeli and Palestinian diplomats fed during their marathon mediations. Like Heiberg, Grandal was indeed a real person. However, since there's little information available about her life, Russell decided to base Grandal on her late mom. "My mother was from Norway," she says. "She came to this country when she was 20 in 1950. I grew up hearing a Norwegian accent my entire life, so it comes really easily even though I don't speak the language. My mom passed away in August 2015, so this was the first play that I booked afterward. It just seemed so fortuitous. I was playing a Norwegian character with a Norwegian accent, which I had never done before."
Although the Israelis and Palestinians disagree about almost everything through much of the play, the one thing that always calms them down and unites them is Grandal's Norwegian waffles. In one pivotal scene, she enters bearing her heart-shaped, carb-heavy treats just as they are about to get physical. "We were in rehearsals when we realized the guys needed more dialog there," Russell recalls. "They couldn't go from coming to blows to suddenly sitting down and eating. Previously, I had showed J.T. a book my sister and I put together of my mother's recipes, and he asked, 'Can I take a look at the one for waffles?' The next morning we got a new page for the script and my eyes filled with tears. He gave me the line: 'This is the waffle recipe of my mother. Passed on from her mother. It is simple but precise.' And then I recite my mother's recipe. J.T. knew my mom had passed away, and it was so lovely of him to include that. My mother was always taking care of everybody, and she was very big on feeding people. It was a way that she brought people together."
Because of the long hiatus, Russell says the company didn't simply restage the show; they went back into rehearsals and reexamined everything. "There are text changes, little things you may not notice or remember from last time," she explains. "There's been a lot of tweaking as opposed to changing. One moment that's different is when I come in with the waffles. Before, I sort of stopped them from fighting. Now I come in and I don't know what's going on and they see me and there's a pause. Instead of Toril breaking up the fight, her presence makes them realize how badly they've been behaving. It's a subtle little thing in how that moment plays. Rather than me stopping them, they're stopping themselves, which is different."
One thing that hasn't changed is the batch of waffles the props team needs to whip up for every single performance, though Russell admits that they're not actually her mother's recipe. "They're probably using Bisquick or something -- it's easier," she explains. In fact it turns out that, because of her gluten-free diet, Russell has never made her mom's signature dish herself. But a recent Christmas gift may change that. "I got a waffle maker!" she says. "So I may have to cheat and deal with the consequences."
Top image: Henny Russell, center, as Toril Grandal in Oslo. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.