This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

25Apr/16

TWI-NY TALK: SOPHIA ANNE CARUSO

Actress, singer, and dancer Sophia Anne Caruso is taking New York City by storm

Actress, singer, and dancer Sophia Anne Caruso is taking New York City by storm (photo courtesy Sophia Anne Caruso)

Multidimensional actress Sophia Anne Caruso might be just fourteen years old, but she already displays the confidence and demeanor of a seasoned pro — which she essentially is, having acted professionally nonstop for the last five years. Born and raised in Spokane and now living with her parents in New Jersey, Caruso came to New York for a project when she was eleven and decided to stay. In her brief but busy career, she has played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, in a production directed by Patty Duke, who originated the role on Broadway in 1959; starred as Birgitta in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! opposite Carrie Underwood, Christian Borle, and Audra McDonald; appeared at the Kennedy Center with Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker, and Tiler Peck in the Susan Stroman-directed Little Dancer a musical about Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the ballerina who posed for his famous “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” painting; and played AnnaSophia Robb’s little sister in the Lifetime movie Jack of the Red Hearts.

Here in New York City, she earned a Lucille Lortel nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance as a young virtual reality fantasy figure for men in The Nether and a Lortel nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical and an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for Lazarus, playing the Girl in the New York Theatre Workshop world premiere by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove. Currently she is on Broadway in a show that cannot be named, as a surprise character not listed in the Playbill and which cannot be mentioned in reviews. Sophia also just teamed with opera singer, ballet dancer, photographer, and musician Kenneth Edwards on a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in the Elizabeth Street Garden. Homeschooled by her parents, Sophia likes ghost stories, has never been to a concert, and is hypercritical of herself, intent on mastering her craft. She is also charming, thoughtfully positive, and wise beyond her years; as she notes, “I was a morbid little child.” On a recent early weekday evening shortly before her call time, Sophia and I met in a Theater District hotel lounge and talked about vintage clothing, cast albums, stalkers, the freedom her parents give her, and how much she loves what she does.

twi-ny: You were born and raised in Spokane, Washington. Are you still partly based there?

Sophia Anne Caruso: My dad moved out here. He was still living in Spokane in our old house, but he finally sold it and moved here.

twi-ny: That must be great.

SAC: It’s a relief to have everyone together again. Long distance was hard for us, especially for me and my dad, because I’m a daddy’s girl.

twi-ny: What did you think of New York City when you first got here?

SAC: In Spokane, I got bored all the time, and it didn’t quite feel like home. But when I came here, I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t overwhelmed; it felt like home. Broadway, the theater area — the first show that I saw, when I was nine, was Billy Elliot, and I fell in love with theater. That’s when I knew, I want to move to New York and be on Broadway.

twi-ny: Around that time, in Seattle, you played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, directed by Patty Duke, who just passed away. What did you learn from her?

SAC: She gave me my very first real acting job; that’s when I fell in love with acting and I knew that I wanted to be an actress. Acting is my favorite thing to do, and she helped me realize that. She mentored me a little bit; at the time, I didn’t understand why she was sometimes harsh on me, but now, as an older me, I’m looking back, I’m thinking, that’s why. She taught me that I have to stay consistent, that when you’re doing a professional job, it’s to the centimeter. You have to be exact; it has to be perfect. She taught me that it’s not all fun and games, although a lot of it is. But it’s also my job.

twi-ny: Not to concentrate too much on death, but you were also in Lazarus, and while you were in the midst of the run, David Bowie died. What was that experience like?

SAC: I got to work with him directly; he came into rehearsals often, he gave me notes, we talked. I like to say that I knew him and that I collaborated with him, for sure. I was not aware of his illness; none of the cast was. His death came as a very big surprise to us, and the hard part, but also the good part, of the day after was that we were all together. We were recording our cast album, which was hard because our voices were in shock because of crying and the strain, but being there was bonding. Nothing would have been worse than staying home alone during that day, but we decided to do the cast album. We listened to the recording, and I think that there’s something so special about it.

Sophia Anne Caruso earned several award nominations for her role in LAZARUS opposite Michael C. Hall  (photo by Jan Versweyveld)

Sophia Anne Caruso earned several award nominations for her role in LAZARUS opposite Michael C. Hall (photo by Jan Versweyveld)

twi-ny: In the show you sing “No Plan” and “Life on Mars.”

SAC: It’s an honor to sing his music. I’ve always been inspired by his music, and I’ve always loved it. My mom owned vintage stores, and she always had funky seventies stuff. She was always playing Bowie.

twi-ny: Your parents are clearly bringing you up with a certain amount of freedom to develop your own identity.

SAC: Yes, my family is sort of exceptional. My mom is not religious; she’s very free, she likes to travel. My dad is on the more right-wing side, but he has given me freedom to choose what I want, who hasn’t ever pushed me to go towards religion or anything else. They’ve really let me become who I am, who I want to be. They have let me have a lot of freedom, with my choices and my style. Like, I love vintage fashion, and maybe I don’t choose the most attractive clothes or what they would consider appropriate, but it’s me, and it’s what I love, and they support me. It’s a hard business to get through, and they have been there through everything. Nothing is better than having parents like that.

twi-ny: Regarding your choices, your last three plays in New York City were The Nether, about virtual reality and child abuse; Lazarus, in which you play a very complicated character who is no mere child; and now you’re on Broadway in a heavy play that we cannot mention by name because you play a surprise character. What draws you to those roles? And why do your parents let you do them? A lot of parents would say, “Uh-uh, no way.”

SAC: I personally think blondes make the best victims, in my opinion. [laughs] I have sort of become the go-to girl for those things, so they come to me. I chose to do The Nether because I think it’s a very important topic. I didn’t just do it because it’s edgy. I love that it was edgy and that it was out there, but what was most important to me was getting that message out there. If you look around [referring to other people in the lounge], he’s on a computer, he’s on his phone. There was this revealing moment: I was on the train, underground, and nobody was on their phone. We came aboveground, got service, and everybody got their phone out, and I was, like, “Oh my God, what has this world come to?” And that is what made me leap at The Nether. I was, like, I gotta do this show now.

twi-ny: You also played a scary part on Celebrity Ghost Stories.

SAC: I loved doing that! I thought it was so fun. They put me in these sort of seventies clothes, and they had this old haunted house in this very old neighborhood, and that was really fun for me. I try not to let the work affect me; I don’t think it does. I have a certain anxiety about it. Like with The Nether, a question that I ask myself now is, Did that inspire people to act those things, or did that prevent things? And that’s something that scares me as I get older; I think I didn’t have that problem as much when I was younger.

(photo © Jenny Anderson)

Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso) experiences the dark side of humanity in THE NETHER (photo © Jenny Anderson)

twi-ny: Have there been incidents?

SAC: Yeah, I’ve had stalkers.

twi-ny: Pre-Nether or post?

SAC: Both. I’ve had stalkers after The Sound of Music Live!, because that was very big, and I had a couple of strange stalkers after The Nether, but I ignore it. I just don’t respond to anything creepy and delete it immediately.

twi-ny: Does it affect your decision in what plays to do?

SAC: No, it doesn’t. That’s something that comes with being an actor or somebody who’s in the public eye. People become obsessed with your image, not who you are.

twi-ny: Did it scare you when it first happened?

SAC: I was never a sheltered kid, so it absolutely scared me a little bit. Because sheltered kids, they don’t know what happens, they don’t understand how bad the world is, and I always knew those things; my parents have always informed me on things. I watched the news as a kid, and I was never stupid; I knew how serious stalkers could be. And I now have people who protect me from that.

twi-ny: How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut in a show where you’re not in the main Playbill and you’re not allowed to be mentioned in reviews?

SAC: Does it bug me?

twi-ny: Right. You can’t tell people what you’re doing.

SAC: It doesn’t bother me. I’m part of creating a great piece of art, and that’s all that really matters to me. And the fact that I get to go out on the stage and do something, that I’m in the theater. It’s just when I’m not in the theater that I’m miserable. When I’m not working, I’m miserable. But I’m honored to be working with fantastic actors. All that really matters to me is I’m part of telling an important story.

twi-ny: You posted a very interesting picture on Instagram recently in which you’re holding up a bunch of very adult plays that you were getting ready to read, including Equus, This Is Our Youth, and Killer Joe, and you even mentioned in the comments that Sarah Kane is your favorite playwright. Obviously, you’re drawn to this type of material.

SAC: Yes, I am drawn to it. People say that I have a dark sense of humor and I have deep thoughts, and I do, but I like to challenge my mind too. So Sarah Kane is something . . . At first, it takes me a minute to wrap my mind around it. When I finish reading the play, it’s one of those things where it makes me think as an actor. So I like to read those plays because I think it helps make me become a better actor. I don’t ever use them for auditions, but I do a couple of Sarah Kane monologues. . . . . For me, at least, I go to the theater to feel, not to be entertained all the time.

twi-ny: You did Little Dancer, about Degas, at the Kennedy Center. Did you become interested in his work at all, or is that separate?

SAC: When I was doing it, in the rehearsal room we always had prints of his pictures on the wall, and it really inspired the piece. There would be certain moments in the show where there would be a beat in the music and [director Susan Stroman] would say, “Hit the Degas pose.” So we would look at the dancers [in the paintings] and we would make that exact pose.

twi-ny: You’re fourteen, and you’ve already worked with Audra McDonald, Carrie Underwood, Michael C. Hall, Bernadette Peters, Famke Janssen, David Bowie, Susan Stroman, Ivo van Hove, Karen Ziemba, John Oliver, Anne Kauffman; that’s a pretty impressive list for anyone, but especially for a young teenager.

SAC: Age is just a number. I don’t really see myself as my age. I feel very special to have worked with them, but I think of them as equals; I don’t think of them as stars. I think of them as brilliant minds and things, but I don’t think much of it, to be frank, and I try not to make too much of it because then I psyche myself out and get all weird about it, and I get anxious when I’m around someone like that.

twi-ny: You can’t be a fan; you’re a colleague.

SAC: Yeah. That’s the thing that was hard for me with Michael Hall. I was such a fan, ’cause I watched his work on Dexter and Six Feet Under and I loved that stuff. I had so many questions to ask him, and I was ready to talk, because he inspires me as an actor, but I had to not picture him as Dexter anymore; I had to picture him as [his Lazarus character] Thomas Newton and Michael, my friend. I mean, that wasn’t really a struggle, but it was interesting to navigate through that.

twi-ny: What is it like working with van Hove?

SAC: One of my very favorite directors. He taught me this thing that I’ve used from then on, which was, the first day, you go in memorized. It’s so smart, too. Because then you can just focus on the acting and what you want to do. You don’t have to worry about holding a paper or looking down at your notes on the paper. That was one of my bad habits. [In the past] I would have all my notes on the paper and I would look at them. Between every scene I would be like, I have to remember this, I have to remember that. But on the first day of rehearsals [for Lazarus], I had my notes on all my papers, and Ivo goes, “You don’t need this,” and I never got my papers back.

twi-ny: He took them away from you?

SAC: Yeah. I got rid of the papers and he let my instincts fly and that was it.

twi-ny: What else is coming up?

SAC: I’m scheduled to do Runaways by Elizabeth Swados for Encores. I actually was looking through records today and I found this vinyl of the original cast album and I was like, “I need this!”