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The TV and film star talks about tackling her second Off-Broadway play this summer
In Make Believe, Bess Wohl's haunting new play at Second Stage Theatre, Samantha Mathis plays Kate, a middle-aged woman who was abandoned by her parents as a kid along with her three siblings. Act I chronicles the increasingly disturbing goings-on in the children's attic playroom as they cavort without supervision. The second half takes place three decades later, when a funeral prompts a reunion of the now disaffected adults on their old romping ground.
During rehearsals, Mathis intently observed Maren Heary, the young actress who plays Kate at age 10 with precocious prissiness, hoping to establish continuity between their characterizations. "Kate is someone who likes to do everything the proper way but the circumstances become too much for her," says Mathis, noting that grown-up Kate clings to trauma. "She ultimately has to relinquish fantasies about resolutions on a not very good day for her."
Born in Brooklyn but raised in Los Angeles by her mother, the late TV and film actress Bibi Besch, Mathis grew up in the entertainment industry. Yet she had to beg her mom (whose own mother, Gusti Huber, had been a stage and screen performer) to let her follow in their footsteps.
"She hoped for something more stable and predictable and without the disappointment," Mathis explains. But when she was a teen, Besch relented, and Mathis, now 49, has been working ever since. Initially, she played the love interest in films such as Pump Up the Volume, Broken Arrow and The Thing Called Love, the latter opposite her then boyfriend River Phoenix, who tragically died of a drug overdose in front of her eyes in 1993 (a horrific experience she rarely talks about publicly). But over the past decade she's aged gracefully into character parts that show off her range, notably a kick-ass Staten Island councilwoman battling vampires on FX's The Strain and a ruthless COO on Showtime's Billions.
"I have gone through the evolution of a women's career," Mathis says, listing some of her many parts. "I was the ingénue, the older ingénue, the young mother, the older mother, the professional and the hard-bitten head of the chief of the police."
Although the majority of her work has been on screen, Mathis says she's long relished the "different animal" of stage work. In fact, when she took some time off after her mother's death from breast cancer in 1996, Mathis rediscovered her love of performing by working on Shakespeare with her acting coach. She relocated to New York City in 2000 in part to expand her theatre résumé, and has appeared twice on Broadway: in a revival of Arthur Miller's The Man Who Had All the Luck in 2002 and 33 Variations opposite Jane Fonda seven years later. Make Believe is her second Off-Broadway show in a row after Nomad Motel, which ran at Atlantic Theater Company earlier this summer.
"The screen is much smaller and more intimate -- you convey emotion in the smallest of ways and it requires you to be more subtle," Mathis says. "The stage is a much larger experience. Your voice has to reach the last row and still be incredibly honest."
Make Believe had its world premiere at Hartford Stage last fall. But the Second Stage mounting is a fresh production, with a new director, four-time Tony nominee Michael Greif, and a mostly new cast (only Brad Heberlee, who regularly collaborates with the playwright, did the out-of-town run).
Collaborating with four young performers, Mathis can't help but reflect on her own childhood in the business. She recalls that when she landed her first TV gig at age 16 she was "too arrogant to want to know my mother's acting process, because I wanted it to do my way."
And she has done it her way, which seems to have worked to her advantage, though she admits there have been many heartbreaks, both professional and personal, along the way. "There have certainly been moments of disappointment when I thought, should I be doing something else with my life?" she says, adding that she's interested in directing and producing. But for now, Billions and Off-Broadway are keeping her squarely in the spotlight.
Caroline Cao is a writer, comic writer, playwright and screenwriter. When she's not working on a script or fanfiction, she's experimenting with pasta. Follow her at @Maximinalist. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Samantha Mathis.