"The So-and-So Profiles" casts a spotlight on Deborah Puette, whom I had the pleasure of watching in five brilliant performances of the equally-brilliant “Caught”, an original play by David L. Ray that ran for ten months at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles.
1. When, where and how did you get hit by the acting bug?
I was living in Chicago. This was about 15 years ago. I had started off as a dancer, but knew that was never going to be the path. Too many injuries.
I discovered that people acted for a living in Chicago – unlike where I grew up. I stumbled into an immersive acting class with very little training. I didn’t learn Method acting or any particular school of thought, but I did learn that some people had the knack for acting. My teacher instilled in me the belief that I had that.
2. What was your first role – professional or otherwise?
It was the lead in “The Glory of Living” -- written by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Robin Stanton. I played a teenaged serial killer—it was based on the true story of the youngest woman ever sentenced to death in America. Robin saw something in me and man; she put me through the ringer. That was my lucky break and started both my and Rebecca’s careers.
3. Where does your focus lie – stage, film, TV or either?
My focus is on the work. I look at three things when I’m deciding whether or not to take a part – the material, the people involved and the money. Generally, having two of the three in place are enough for me to take the part. I just want to do work that is appealing to me with people who can teach me something– and make a living at it.
4. What is your dream role or type of role?
When I get older, Mary from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” In the right production of “Hamlet,” there’s still time for me to play Ophelia. I like the tragic gals. I’ve been cast in very diametrically opposed roles, but I like anyone who lives deeply and has layers.
5. Emmy, Oscar, Tony or Grammy?
6. What would you say in your acceptance speech?
I would dedicate it to every actor working in some basement space in Chicago where maybe five people show up or in Hollywood where some people will tell you that theatre doesn’t count.
It’s a tremendous task to believe in yourself and the power of theatre. Don’t quit, because what we do in those tiny, dark spaces matters.
7. Who would you thank in your acceptance speech?
I would thank my husband. I would thank my son, who works on my audition material with me. I would thank anyone who ever made it possible for me to go to an audition – servers who covered my shift, babysitters, etc.
I would also thank my acting teachers Steven Ivivch, Robin Stanton and Robin Larson. Robin Larson got me started out here in LA when she cast me in a play called “Tryst”. That changed a lot for me.
8. How do you approach a role?
It always starts with the text. I read a script and circle every word my character uses to describe herself and anything the other characters say about my character. Then I make a list of the attributes. I consider who’s saying it. Is it said directly to my character or to someone else? I also look at the behavior of my character. After that, I let my instincts guide me.
9. What role has been your favorite to play and why?
There are too many to list, but Lisa in the “The Glory of Living”, Adelaide in “Tryst”, Alma in “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” and Darlene in “Caught” to name a few. I also loved playing Alice the Waitress on The Office. I was only on that set for one day but I got to improvise and play with Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson. That was a blast.
10. Have you ever felt pigeonholed into a particular type of role? If so, how did you combat the typecasting?
I actually think typecasting is a good thing. When you’re starting out, what could be better than people having an opinion about what you do? I’m happy to be pigeonholed if that means people are thinking of me for roles.
Once you prove yourself, then branch out. Why fight it? I don’t mind as long as I’m working. The pigeonhole will eventually change because you change.
Actors are a brand. We are a product. People need to know how they can use us. Then they learn what else we can do. Part of the job is to educate people about that brand and who we are.
I’ve often been cast as the trailer trash whore. Now I get the more patrician women. I also get cast in a lot period pieces; people seem to like to see me play women from other eras I was previously getting dark, crazy and tragic parts all the time, but I’ve started to do more comedy recently. The common denominator is that all these women are smart.
11. What was your struggle in pursuing acting full time? What is your struggle now?
The first hurdle was being able to call myself an actor before having any actual credits. To embrace it. To own it.
The current struggle is: how do I set up my life so that I can balance the demands of work and family?
12. What kept you from giving up?
I love it too much. And I don’t want to give up. I could make different choices with my life, but I don’t want to. I have my moments when I’m not working and I get sad or frustrated, but I know now to just ride it out. And eventually, I come out of it.
We have to decide for ourselves what success means. I feel successful, so why would I quit? I feel very fortunate to have done the work I’ve done so far. I’m grateful.
13. How do you describe your style of acting?
Immersive, but not Method. When I’m preparing a character, I go deep. But I’m not an actor who feels like I have to live the part all the time. I try to leave work at work.
14. What has been the greatest experience of your acting career?
I won the Joseph Jefferson Citation for my performance in “The Glory of Living”. It blew me away. It’s the top accolade for Chicago theatre and that was my debut—I was an unproven entity when I got that part. The award was a quantifiable reaction to my work from people I respected. I felt like I had validated the director’s and writer’s trust and paid them back for taking a chance on me.
15. What has been the worst experience of your acting career?
During a play in Chicago, another actor had the notion that to play a troubled character, he needed to be trouble. It’s not necessary. And he brought that to the production. It was difficult to not let his process affect mine.
All you have to do is show up and do the job in a way that will get you hired again.
16. Who are your professional inspirations?
Vera Farmiga because she’s so talented and plays the kinds of roles I often get cast in. She also does more than act—she directs, Emma Thompson—she’s a gorgeous actress and she also writes and produces. Tennessee Williams—here’s a man who took the suffering in his own life and turned it into so many beautiful works of art. And he was not always successful! He has plays that have been roundly trounced. But he pressed on, he was prolific. I wish desperately that I could have met him.
Another playwright I admire, John Patrick Shanley, recently wrote a tribute of sorts to Williams that I stumbled upon. It makes me cry every time I read it.
I’d also say that people who inspire me change over time. I’m always looking to people who do what I want to do and who do it very well.
17. What do you draw upon to find your character?
In my real life, I do what the character would do to get a feel for her (as long as it’s legal!) I read a lot, especially if there is source material. I find whatever there is in the world to help me understand the character, and then I learn about it.
18. If a production was casting for a “Deborah Puette type”, what would they be looking for?
I’m self-conscious about that question.
I can tell you who I’ve been compared to, and it’s an eclectic list. There’s Emily Mortimer in “Lovely & Amazing”, Vera Farmiga, Katherine Hepburn, and Beth Grant. Eclectic, I told you.
After a performance of “Caught”, an audience member told me that watching me was like watching Melissa Leo, in the way that she seems to actually live a role as opposed to playing one. It blew me away that even one person who saw that show felt like that. It just blew me away.
Of course, it’s always helpful to remember that the people who didn’t like your performance rarely stay to say so! Helps you take the praise with a grain of salt.
I tend to play people who have deep, dark secrets. I don’t know why that is, but I like it.
19. What is your ultimate goal – if you haven’t already achieved it?
Broadway. And I want to be able to play roles in film like the ones I get to play in theatre – to have the same depth of role in film as I’ve been fortunate to play in theatre.
20. What’s next for Deborah Puette?
I’ll be shooting a role in a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz”. It’s called “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz. Sam Raimi directs. I have a good feeling about it.
I also have the rights to a very, very good play that I’ll act in, but the details around that aren’t set yet. Stay tuned.
Background: I recently met a guy who was in the process of transitioning from NY to LA. When asked what he was doing out here, he said that he was an actor.
A guy nearby responded, "so what restaurant do you work at?"
The actor took exception to that response, so I asked Deborah what she thought of such a response and how she would have reacted.
Ah. Yes. I’ve been in this situation myself, as you can imagine.
Here’s the thing: that guy who asked “what restaurant do you work at?” is at best a well-intentioned dope and at worst a person with his own bitterness or fear regarding aspiration. He was poking a stick at someone else’s aspiration. And that’s never nice. He was basically saying (insert condescending voice here) “how quaint to want that, but you know you can’t really have it.”
It’s actually mean and wrong-headed because a lot of actors work at restaurants while we’re working our way up. I did, and it’s not easy. It takes a level of commitment to your life as an actor to do a job that is not only not your passion, but is sometimes very, very hard. The fact that actors choose to make their acting lives possible by spending many hours doing something that’s hard is honorable to me.
All that said, any person, creative or otherwise, who hates what they do to pay the bills must really look at that and try to find/create something else to do. It can be very hard to live a happy life, let alone be creative, when you’re slogging away at a job you despise.
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