Jennifer Carpenter may have a penchant for taking on bloody roles, as the star of Showtime's Dexter proves as Kayleen in Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, now at Second Stage Theater. In the two-character work, in which she co-stars with Pablo Schreiber, Carpenter must portray different ages over the course of 30 years while grappling with a dark, romantic relationship and the way it manifests itself within that time span. TheaterMania recently spoke with Carpenter about the show.
THEATERMANIA: After eight years away from theater -- you last did The Crucible on Broadway in 2002 -- why was this the right time to return?
JENNIFER CARPENTER: I was getting a little too comfortable with the routine of Dexter, and told my agent and manager I was interested in doing a newer play. They sent this one over and it all happened very quickly. It was a play I was so excited by, I couldn't quite say why because I didn't exactly know what it was about and who Kayleen was. After one read I had so many questions flood me. I needed to do it because I was terrified of it.
TM: What were some of the questions that first struck you after you had read the script?
JC: I remember asking our director, Scott Ellis, "Why are we doing this play?" What's fascinating about it is you can pick one sentence out of the whole play, and it's as beautiful as the play in its entirety. Rajiv is impeccable with his words. What he had written was like good music.
TM: Your talent for your craft is very evident as you seamlessly show the different stages of Kayleen's life. How did you prepare yourself for that challenge?
JC: What's fascinating about the play is it's an evolution of a person. It's difficult, but the eight-year-old came quickly to me. I feel like I have a pretty fun sense of play in my life and it was easy to translate that. I wanted to make sure you see the same person in each of the ages, and my guide through that has been my hands. The play moves like a Mack truck. Once you start the ride you go 100 miles an hour, just thrash through sets and scenes, and sometimes just knowing how her gestures and mannerisms have evolved acted like a map for me.
TM: In which ways, if any, do you identify with Kayleen?
JC: I feel like I know a Kayleen in my life, and it's sometimes really hard to have empathy for someone that you experience as being emotionally withdrawn, so this has been an opportunity to sort of see things through their eyes. And I realize when I sit there that we actually have a lot in common, like the desperate need for emotional connection. My mom and sister have given me a family motto: You have one choice all day long, and only that one choice, and that is to choose fear or to choose love. Sometimes you can become so afraid of what's happening to you emotionally that it makes it a gigantic risk to choose love. That's something I identify with Kayleen. She has so much hurt that there's no way to piece her puzzle together without love and assistance and security.
TM: Many people assume that you're similar to Dexter's Debra Morgan because it seems that you play her so naturally. Is there any truth to that?
JC: At the beginning of the series I felt like she leaned on me, that Deb needed me. I wished I could teach her a lesson or two on how to behave and move forward with grace. And then there have been times in the show where I've leaned on her, like I needed to sort of hide behind her a little bit. We certainly have ambition and honest intentions in common. We both want the most out of the people we care about. While sometimes we aren't the most eloquent, we are very clear about how we feel about things.
TM: Is that a nice way of saying that you're both potty mouths? After all, that is one of Debra's signature traits!
JC: No, I think I do a nice job of using better language. Early on in the series using foul language became a habit, but I became conscious of it and I tried to break it. I think I went home to my family and I said a bad word, and I was so embarrassed!
TM: What would you like to see happen to Debra next season?
JC: I'd like to see her find out Dexter's secret. I don't know what the writers are thinking for that, but I'm really amped to play it, however it's going to fall. I feel like I've been standing on the starting line for a really long time, and I just want the gun to go off!