Gracie Hays talks to Carmen Cusack, the buzzed-about actress at the center of Bright Star.
Gracie Hays: So, my understanding is that you discovered your passion for performing when you were just a kid, singing gospel in church.
Carmen Cusack: I started singing for the youth choir at this Baptist Church my mom and I went to in Panama City, Florida. I was really shy, and it kind of got me out of my shell. “Amazing Grace” was my song, and every Sunday the youth pastor would coax me into singing to start the youth service. And then, when I was five, he asked me if I would sing for the adult service one night. I hadn’t told my mother about it, so when they said they had a special singer and the pastor brought me up, she had quite a look on her face. That’s where it all started.
GH Outside of singing in church, what kind of exposure did you have to art when you were growing up?
CC: I'll be honest, there wasn’t a lot. My family wasn’t wealthy enough to go to the theater. Movies were a real treat. I wasn't really exposed to art until I got into high school and started learning choral music. My music teacher took a liking to my voice, and started getting me to compete. The first musical I remember seeing was [The Legend of] Calamity Jane, which was on TV on Saturday afternoons. I remember watching that and thinking, “That looks like so much fun."
GH: Do you remember the first live theater performance you saw?
CC: The first big blockbuster performance that comes to mind is when I was in my twenties—I know, that’s really sad. I was in Great Britain then, and showed up for an audition for Phantom of the Opera. It was just a plain cattle call, I didn’t have an agent or anything. I stood in line out in the rain for hours and at the end of the day I finally got in and sang a couple of songs. The director pulled me aside and asked if I’d seen the show before and I said no, I hadn't, but I was very familiar with the music because I’d had opera training at this point, through the scholarship I’d gotten for college. So then he asked me if I could go see the show that night. I was like, I would love to, but I don’t have any money at the moment. And he said, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll let you in. We just want to make sure that you see the production, because we want to bring you in tomorrow to do some acting work.” So I went to the show, and then the next day I got the job.
GH: Had you had much experience acting, before that?
CC: I had acted a little bit in high school, but beyond that, all of the acting training I had gotten was from my opera studies at the University of North Texas. I’ve pretty much just learned on the job ever since.
GH: I read that after Phantom, you got a job performing on a cruise ship.
CC: That’s right. Even though I had gotten this great scholarship, back in Texas, I realized it wasn’t going to pay for all my schooling, and at a certain point I couldn’t afford to continue. I had been living in Forth Worth, working as a waitress, and commuting two hours every day to Denton and back, so that I could go to my classes. I was working my butt off, but I still wasn’t making ends meet. I felt really fortunate to have gotten the scholarship, but I wish I’d learned how to throw a football instead, because I probably would have been able to graduate!
Since I couldn’t finish school, I needed a job, and all of a sudden the cruise-liner gig came up. When I took it, my plan was to stay for a year—sail around the world, getting paid to sing and dance, and save up enough money to finish my schooling.
That never happened, because I met someone on the Queen Elizabeth II. The jazz pianist on the ship, who was from England, asked me to marry him, and I was like, “Yeah, okay. Let’s do it! Let’s see what happens.” I didn’t want to go back to Texas; I wanted to keep exploring places outside of America. Of course, the marriage didn't last very long, but I was still very keen to carry on with my travels. That whole experience taught me so much.
I just fell in love with the character. Alice is born into this environment that doesn’t really fit her, and she has this need to sprout away from her community because she knows she has more to offer—I connect to that.
GH: You ended up performing on London’s West End for fourteen years. When you first moved there, did you see yourself as an outsider?
CC: Yeah, I would say that I did, for a while. At that time George W. Bush was president, and everyone was making fun of him. Of course, he’s from Houston, so as soon as I would say that I was, too, people would just want to talk politics. They’d be very aggravated by everything going on. I learned very quickly to not put on too much of an American accent—I tried to fit in and be as British as possible. It’s funny, considering what we have now, Bush doesn’t look so bad anymore!
I will say that I learned to have a better appreciation for Tex-Mex over there, oddly enough, because I sure missed it (laughs). I started making flour tortillas from scratch, because they didn’t sell them in London back then.
GH: You’ve said that when you first read the script for Bright Star, Alice Murphy was a character that you instantly responded to—that you felt she was “ingrained” in you and your family.
CC: I just fell in love with the character. Alice is born into this environment that doesn’t really fit her, and she has this need to sprout away from her community because she knows she has more to offer—I connect to that. Like Alice, my mom had a child—me—when she was in her teens, so it was easy to relate. And then on top that, you have the Southern roots and the folk music; all of that is just in my bones.
It hit me again later, during the last week of rehearsals at the Kennedy Center, before Bright Star went to Broadway—that was when Edie wrote the opening song that’s in the show now, “If You Knew My Story.” I remember reading the lyrics, and starting to sing, and I couldn’t finish. I started crying, because it really felt like I was that song. Just those opening lines: “If you knew my story / You’d have a hard time / Believing me / You’d think I was lying / Joy and sorrow never last / I’ll die trying not to live in the past.” It goes so deep into my soul, to the things I encountered as a youngster being raised by a teenage single mom. It brought me back to all the things I had to overcome—to thinking that you’ll never be able to see your dream fulfilled when you come from a tiny, woodsy background. It was surreal, when I sang that song on Broadway for the first time.
GH: On the one hand, it must be helpful to feel so close to your character—but I wonder if it’s draining, too.
CC: It is a challenge, definitely. During awards season last year, I’d get called up at 4 or 5 a.m. to get dolled up into make-up and go do a set of TV interviews. I was also doing eight shows a week, which is no joke. The only way to get through was just to be present. It can be tough to reserve something for yourself, amid all that. I think you can find yourself going down a rabbit’s hole if you let yourself go too dark, too deep into the past. Ultimately, that’s not serving you, and it’s not serving the audience. It’s not serving anyone.
I remember reading the lyrics, and starting to sing, and I couldn’t finish. I started crying, because it really felt like I was that song…It goes so deep into my soul, to the things I encountered as a youngster being raised by a teenage single mom. It brought me back to all the things I had to overcome—to thinking that you’ll never be able to see your dream fulfilled when you come from a tiny, woodsy background. It was surreal, when I sang that song on Broadway for the first time.
GH: Has your mom seen Bright Star?
CC: She saw the opening show on Broadway. I think even for her, it’s hard to go back to that time in her life—and to see her own daughter who was in her womb when she was only sixteen struggling with something similar. I think it was bittersweet for her to be there that evening. But I know that she was very moved, and that she enjoyed the show.
GH: You play Alice at sixteen, and then you play her as an adult, a little more than twenty years later. How do you jump between those different ages?
CC: Well, I think the accent helps a little bit. I always enjoy an accent, because it really informs who a character is. Luckily, I was able to jump into that North Carolina dialect pretty easily. I decided early on that the young Alice was going to be rebellious and really throw her accent around, taking full ownership of it. I wanted her to swirl those words around in her mouth, so that it felt like a lovely Slurpee or a caramel. Then, as she got older and became this intelligent editor, I tried to bring it back a bit. As we all do, in life. We all start with our accents, and then you start to recognize that you have to become more “articulate” when you become a professional. I’m older-Alice’s age in real life, so that helped, too. I always thought that sixteen-year-old Alice was going to be a challenge for me to go back to, but I actually had more fun playing her. I will never stop being a kid at heart.
GH: You write and perform your own songs, too.
CC: Well, usually that creativity comes to me when I’m in between contracts and not on stage every night. Luckily, I’ve recently had some time to nestle at home in LA, and have been able to get back into it, a bit. I have a live album coming out soon. The next thing I want to do is an album with all my originals. I’ve done some shows where I’ve performed pieces from Bright Star along with songs I’ve written that stay close to that sound; I wanted to kind of dip my toe in in to see what kind of response I’d get, and once I saw that people were liking it, I thought, Great, I’ll keep this going, and I’ll put together another album as soon as I get a chance.
GH: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
CC: I’ve been writing songs ever since I can remember, but I’ve only recently started to go back and think about my childhood, and use it as songwriting material. Along with all the good experiences, there were some crazy things that happened when I was growing up, and I’m starting to appreciate that I can write about those things. I finally feel like I’m at a place where I can just say, This is my life. I don’t feel I have to be secretive anymore. None of us are alone; we’re all in this together.
GH: In 2002, you performed in Les Misérables at the Curran. Do you have any memories about being here?
CC: I had never been to San Francisco before, and I just completely fell in love. In a weird way, it reminded me of all the things I loved about London. San Francisco is so cultured, and has that kind of brisk coolness in the evening, and yet it’s so beautiful during the day. During that first visit I was just like, this is heavenly!
GH: What do you hope that San Francisco audiences take away from Bright Star?
CC: I hope they leave singing the tunes with a smile on their faces. I want them to feel completely and utterly filled up, all the way. And I know this story does that.
Carmen reprises her Tony-nominated role as Alice Murphy in BRIGHT STAR: November 28 - December 17 at the Curran.