Celia Keenan-Bolger was nominated for her first Tony Award in 2005 (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), her second in 2012 (Peter and the Starcatcher) her third in 2014 (The Glass Menagerie) and her fourth just weeks ago. As Scout Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Keenan-Bolger is the audience stand-in, the eyes and ears through which we observe crushing racism and some small reach for hope.
She’s not the first to take on the role, of course, and in this interview she describes how she felt the day in March when Mary Badham, who played Scout so indelibly in the 1962 film version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, was in the audience at the Shubert Theatre. Also in this conversation, Keenan-Bolger recalls one of the most extraordinary moments of her stage career, tells us about learning to be “combative” when necessary, what she gleaned by watching Aaron Sorkin at work, and shares the key to understanding this remarkable production.
Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Bartlett Sher, based on the novel by Harper Lee, is playing at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. Jeff Daniels stars as Atticus Finch. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: The idea of playing Scout must have come with intimidations on many levels, not least because everyone who has seen the movie – and we’ve all seen the movie – has the image of Mary Badham ingrained in their mind. Were you thinking, How am I going to fight this ghost?
Celia Keenan-Bolger: I certainly did not go back and watch the movie, because I can still see her little scowl in my mind, and I know what an impression that performance had on my whole life. So I felt like, You must not go back because you’ll just be in a shame spiral, you’ll never be able to do what she did. And that was a good thing, because of the way that Aaron adapted the story. It’s not the Scout from the movie.
And because of who I am, and what I bring to the table, and my many more years around the sun than Mary Badham had, I have different things to bring to the character. I always felt like I had access to that little person, Scout, and that there were many events in my life that led me to understand who she was and is. But I will say, Mary Badham came to see the play, and I was so nervous. I actually just felt like, I can’t…
That’s what I was building to. I’d love to hear about that day.
Keenan-Bolger: I mean, it really…I felt a lot of different things. I felt like I’ll never be as good as she was, but that’s not…it’s a completely different piece. So it’s not about being as good as Mary Badham was in the movie. It’s about me trying to be the best version I can be in this, in 2019, in the play, but she was so generous about the play and to me, and spoke about it in such a way, it really was not all about her. Her whole relationship [with Mockingbird], I think, since she was a ten-year-old doing the movie, is to keep this story alive, and what she said [to me] was, you know, this play is taking the story to the next generation, and that’s what Harper Lee would have wanted. That’s what Mary feels is her life’s work, and so that part of it was very surprising and moving. Like, it really was not about her telling the story about her and Gregory Peck hanging out on that front porch, which you know, I would have been very interested in, but her relationship feels very much about the book and keeping the book alive.
Describe that night for me. I know you introduced her to the audience, correct? Obviously you knew she was going to be there, or did you, I don’t know?
Keenan-Bolger: I got a heads up that she was going to be there, and they said we want to recognize her, that she is in the theater, and you know, maybe she’ll come back and say hello if she, you know, feels up for it. Would you want to introduce her? And of course, I was like, absolutely.
But then my entire performance that night, there was a strange, invisible thread that I felt connected to – to her, to Harper Lee, to all the young women who have read that book and felt moved by this great heroine. I also felt more self-conscious than I have in a long time doing the play. I’d done it so many times, and at a certain point you stop questioning your choices or watching yourself from the outside, and suddenly I was sort of back in my head again and thinking, like, is this who she thinks Scout Finch is? Is this an okay version? Does Mary like the play? Is she having such a strange experience watching a story she knows so well suddenly sort of turned on its head? I really wondered what the experience was like for her.
Did you get to talk to her about that?
Keenan-Bolger: I did, and she couldn’t have been more generous. I really couldn’t believe…the first thing I said was, what was that like for you? And what she said was, I can’t believe how well you all captured the sense of humor of the piece. Now that is something audience members have said to me as well. I sort of forgot how funny it is. You go back and read the book and the book is really, really funny, and I mean, the play is funny, and thank goodness, because the themes are, you know, difficult enough that you need some relief. She was incredibly gracious about the entire experience.
So she came backstage?
Keenan-Bolger: She did. We introduced her, she got a huge standing ovation from the audience, and then she came back and talked to us, and she said, “Ask me anything, ask me anything you want to know.” She was able to talk about the piece and her life’s work as it pertains to her role in [Mockingbird], which is basically going around to schools or community centers or anybody who asks and talking about To Kill a Mockingbird. And then she was saying about her experience watching the play, which I expected to be very challenging and sort of strange for her, but she said “When I wasn’t howling laughing, I was crying my eyes out,” which is a good response.
I remember one of your tweets when you said you noticed a boy in the audience who started crying. How do you process something like that when you’re on stage?
Keenan-Bolger: That was one of the most extraordinary moments I have ever had in the theater. Because Scout talks to the audience so much, I do have a sense of who is in the front row, and trying to connect with the audience I’m going to look them in their eyes. When we started the performance that night, I did notice that there was, like, a ten-year-old boy in the audience with his parents, and I sort of thought, what is this going to be like for him? Because it’s a long play and it’s pretty heavy, and I wonder if he’s read the book or if his mom has read him the book. I just didn’t know, and he was very attentive the whole show, until we got to Tom Robinson’s verdict, when Scout, Gem and Dill [announce] the 12 guiltys, and he burst into tears. I could not believe that a little boy would have that kind of empathy for a fictional character on a Broadway stage. I couldn’t really check in with him after that, but it was so moving to see, and he had a few other times where he just got really upset during the play. I thought, I couldn’t believe the kind of parents that would raise a child that could be so feeling during a theatrical experience. It was really, really special.
Did you ever hear back from them? I’m guessing you didn’t, but…
Keenan-Bolger: We did. We had a little back and forth. It was one of the moments where I thought, like, social media actually is a good thing. I tweeted about it and a woman responded, “that was my son, and he loved the play so much, and that was an experience that we as a family will never forget.” It took me back in a way, because Mockingbird had such an important place in my family, and was used as a sort of manual about how to be a good citizen of the world, and walking around in other people’s shoes, and the injustices that our country is built on, and to see that reflected in someone, another tiny person experiencing this piece for the first time, it was moving on many different levels.
Had you come to Mockingbird through the movie or the book?
Keenan-Bolger: The book first. My mom read me the chapter book before I was able to read a chapter book. She read it to me, and then we watched the movie, and the movie ended up…I remember we watched Separate but Equal with Sidney Poitier after that. It was a launch pad for a bigger conversation about race in our house, and I watched the movie a number of times after that, and then read the book again in school.
Tell me something you’ve learned from the people you’ve been working with on Mockingbird.
Keenan-Bolger: Watching a writer like Aaron Sorkin. That very first reading we did in 2017, I basically was like, it’s ready. It’s perfect. It needs no more. But he probably did 40 drafts after that first meeting. To watch a great writer rewrite and continue to chip away at a piece to make it as good as it possibly can be is something I will always remember.
And I worked with Bart [director Sher] two other times, and I think my sort of go-to as an actor is always to be sort of low maintenance, don’t ask too many questions, make it easy on everyone, try to figure things out for yourself, and then if you ever need help or find yourself kind of stuck, when the time comes, if you ask for help, you’ll get it because you haven’t taken up too much space in the room. But I think on this one, probably because I had worked with Bart before, I went in so much more I would even say combative. I felt like I wasn’t going to let any moment pass that I didn’t understand what I was doing or why it was there. Bart is so intelligent and so imaginative and emotionally adept, he was able, even if he didn’t have an answer, he could at least present me with other questions. I think Bart created a room that really supported that, that every person making the piece had some ownership. Even other people who weren’t in the scenes could weigh in and say, you know, “I thought about this as the scene was happening,” and Bart would still have complete control of the room. That sort of dynamic was incredibly helpful for making a very big and complicated piece. I think going forward, I probably am going to be what I would deem a little more difficult, because it ended up serving me. Now I never get to a place in this play where I feel like we didn’t figure it out or that I wish I knew what I was doing here, and that has almost always happened before.
Can you give an example of that, when you spoke up about something that you didn’t quite get?
Keenan-Bolger: The entire beginning of the play. We start with [Scout, Gem and Dill asking] the question, Did Bob Ewell fall on his knife? I did not understand why we were starting the play that way. I felt like, I don’t know if I really care about that question, and I don’t know why an audience cares about that question. And where are we in time? Who are we in time? Am I a kid? Am I a grownup? We tried it so many different ways. We would start it on just being a total adult in 2019, then we would do it as eight-year-olds in 1934. We did so many different iterations of the beginning, and it honestly wasn’t until we had an audience in front of us that I understood exactly what Aaron was doing, that there are these expectations of how this story is going to be told – there’s going to be a beautiful porch and this old oak tree – and instead he has three kids, one of them holding a newspaper, in what looks like an abandoned warehouse asking questions about “the truth.” I think it was sort of this destabilizing force to say [to the audience], “We’re going to tell this story differently,” and it was like, oh, of course Aaron Sorkin understood this all along. It just took me a little bit longer to catch up.
As an audience member, I immediately let go of any notion that I had to know exactly where and when they were in that scene, and figured it was a way for the play to just welcome us into this discussion about Mockingbird. If I asked you, what year are you playing in that scene, would you be able to say?
Keenan-Bolger: No. I would not have an answer for you, and I think that was what was so hard. As an actor it’s my job to know where and when we are. When you’re early in the process, “That’s not important’ didn’t feel like a satisfying answer, but of course now I understand it’s exactly what you just said, that we’re beginning this discussion with 1,400 other people, and so it’s not so important where or when it’s all happening. We’re teaching you how to watch this play in the first five minutes.