Fast rise of Broadway’s Nina Arianda turns heads

NEW YORK (AP) — Nina Arianda’s summer plans will hopefully involve plenty of work.

Currently in the middle of a four-month run of “Born Yesterday” on Broadway, the 26-year-old actress says that when the run ends on July 31 she might spend a week at the beach but then go straight back to the grind.

“I’m no good if I’m not working so I need to keep on going,” she says with steely resolve.

Arianda won’t have much trouble finding jobs. Since getting her master’s in acting from New York University in 2009, she’s managed to wow critics in her off-Broadway debut, land roles in five films — including one by Woody Allen — and she has earned a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway debut.

“I’m so thrilled that people love the work and that really means a lot to me,” she says. “There’s really nothing jaded about it yet. ... It is all obviously happening for the first time and with that comes a very wide-eyed view.”

On June 12, she faces-off at the Tonys against Frances McDormand, Lily Rabe, Hannah Yelland and Vanessa Redgrave for best actress in a play. She says she loved McDormand in “Good People” and Rabe in “The Merchant of Venice,” and the mere idea of being listed in the same breath as Redgrave is shocking to her.

“I still don’t believe that I’m even close to Vanessa Redgrave’s name, like that my name is anywhere near her name. I don’t really understand that yet,” she says, looking a little stunned. “But apparently it’s happening.”

Arianda won her nod from the way she deftly handles the tricky role of nightclub singer Billie Dawn in the revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 classic comedy opposite Robert Sean Leonard and Jim Belushi.

She stepped into a part that Judy Holliday played on stage and later turned into an Oscar-winning role, and made it her own. Arianda is incandescent as a seemingly clueless blond bombshell who transforms herself into an eager, independent woman driven by a will to learn. Arianda says she’ll only watch the movie after the show’s run ends.

Using a high-pitched voice and every inch of her lean 5-foot-8-inches frame, the actress turns in a touching and funny performance that never steers toward camp. Arianda says she wants to play Billie as a woman who has lost her way and is rediscovering her self-worth.

“I don’t think that there are a lot of people who are bold enough to be who she is and to admit to not knowing something. I think that takes a very brave person,” she says. “I really don’t think she’s dumb. And I never wanted to play her that way.”

Arianda says she’s gotten inspiration from country legend Dolly Parton and pop icon Cyndi Lauper, putting up posters of both singers in her dressing room and playing their songs as she prepares.

“Dolly is constantly going — to the point where I think it might be irritating Robert Sean Leonard a little bit. But that’s OK — it’s for art. So he has to deal with it,” she says.

What it is about Parton and Lauper that influences her most:? “They don’t apologize for their art, they don’t apologize for who they are and they fully commit to what they’re doing. I think that is incredibly admirable.”

The part of Billie, especially her high-pitched sing-song voice, requires Arianda to prepare with plenty of stretching, tea and what she calls “embarrassing vocal exercises.” Alcohol, which would dry out her pipes, is frowned upon. “No fun for me for a while,” she says.

While Leonard and Belushi are the big names in the cast, they put all the praise on their young co-star. “There are a lot of joys in this play and there are a lot of joys in what both of us do. But to me the priceless thing is watching this kid walk on stage and take the play from us,” says Leonard. “Nina takes the play home in her pocket.”

Arianda, who is of Ukrainian descent and raised in New Jersey, thought she’d blown her chance at the big time when she was accepted at New York City’s LaGuardia High School — the so-called “Fame” school — only to have to leave the country a few months later. “I was so excited that I got in. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m on the path I’m supposed to be on!”’ she says. “Then we had to move.”

Her father’s job took the family to Heidelberg, Germany, where she threw herself into community theater — selling tickets, cleaning bathrooms, whatever it took — at the local Roadside Theater, which offered live productions and acting classes. She recalls seeing virtually every performance of “True West” there.

Back in America for grad school, she played roles in productions of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Three Sisters.” Her training has led to an uncanny ability to lately nail auditions: She didn’t need any callbacks for the Classic Stage Company’s production of “Venus in Fur,” which marked her off-Broadway debut, or, later, “Born Yesterday.” Within hours, she was told she had both roles.

“I don’t know what I did. I did something right because I got the jobs, but I don’t know,” she says. “That does not happen, and it is shocking to me every time.”

She has also built up a film resume that includes “Shadows & Lies” with James Franco, “Higher Ground” with Vera Farmiga, the Ben Stiller action comedy “Tower Heist,” Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (Allen’s sister saw “Venus in Fur” and raved about Arianda to her brother) and “Win Win” as Paul Giamatti’s secretary. Less than two years ago, she was working as a restaurant hostess to make ends meet.

With her burgeoning movie career, will she ever walk away from the theater? “I’m unable to do that,” she says quickly. “I would be physically ill if I left the theater.”

As for whether her galloping career will ever cause burn out, she is adamant it won’t. “No. I’ve got a lot of gas,” she says, before collapsing in giggles as she realizes how that sentence can be interpreted. “Wait! That’s not the right thing to say. I have a lot of gasoline!” But she good naturedly decides to ride out the joke. “You know what? All right, I have a lot of gas. Let’s go with that.”

She tries again: “It has been fast but I hope that I surround myself with good people who respect me and I respect them and who will make this easy for me. And long. That’s what I’m in it for.”

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