By Len Lear
Mattie Hawkinson is an acclaimed actress who has been in movies such as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), “The Gambler” (2014) and “Everybody’s Fine” (2009) alongside such stars as Jessica Lange, Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman, as well as countless stage plays and television shows. For example, she was in “Blackbird”, at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, Illinois, with “CSI” star William Petersen in the cast. So why would an actress with this pedigree currently be performing in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and John Ford’s “The Broken Heart” in our community (Mt. Airy) at Quintessence Theatre until April 23?
How did you wind up at Quintessence Theatre?
“I met the artistic director, Alex Burns, at Northwestern University when we were walking to class,” she explained last week. “We were both 18. Northwestern is academically rigorous, but the students also produce full seasons of original work. And Alex was one of those young directors producing his own work, which I was able to participate in.
“Then he directed me in a production of Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’ in Chicago, which was his professional foray into post-grad work and mine too. He cast me against type, which challenged me. We’ve worked together a number of times since then, both as director/actor and as co-writers. I can honestly say I’ve learned from every one of those experiences.
“I did a reading of ‘The Broken Heart’ around the time Quintessence was conceived eight years ago. And the part I read for then is the part I’m playing now, Penthea … Quintessence has also become very personal for me as I believe it serves a cultural function in the community; it brings people together. I’ve gotten to know the people in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, and I love our subscribers.
“I want Quintessence to continue to thrive … I also fell in love with my husband after getting to know him in QTG’s production of ‘Mourning Becomes Electra.’ His name is Josh Carpenter, and Quintessence is the closest thing we have to an artistic home, so we’re very fond of it.”
We asked other questions of the native of Bellingham, Washington, who requested that her age not be mentioned:
Did you always want to be an actress, even as a child?
“I was acting as a child so there was no ‘bug biting’ moment for me. I do not remember a time before I was doing plays. I probably did four or five shows a year growing up, mostly chorus parts in operas and musicals, but it gave me a great appreciation for the range and power of the female voice. I remember standing in the wings during ‘The Magic Flute’ and hearing the Queen of the Night do her famous aria when I was probably 11 years old. At that time, what she was doing seemed like a magic trick. It impressed upon me that I could do anything I wanted with my voice and my life. Actors are fearless creatures, and I quite liked that.”
Everyone knows that making a living in the theater is very difficult. What kind of “day jobs,” if any, have you had outside of theater to make ends meet?
“I’ve taught high school, mostly reading and writing in private and public schools. Teaching is another kind of performing, the kind that is 100% not about you. So that feels refreshing. Also, I love school. It’s a constant struggle to stay out of school.”
What have been your favorite roles?
“I do love playing Penthea in ‘The Broken Heart,’ in part because she contains contradictions; she’s both weak and strong at once. Her body is giving over to anorexia, but her mind is sharp … I describe the play as a play about two women who are being held back. This fall I had a good time playing Anna in ‘The City of Conversation’ in Chicago, which is a fresh political drama.”
How is acting in movies different from acting in the theater?
“I’ve been very theater-centric, but I have found it’s totally different. In the classical theatre we do at Quintessence, subtle approaches wouldn’t match the verse you’re speaking, so you have to make bolder, louder acting choices. On screen those kinds of choices would appear ridiculous. I adjust to whatever the director tells me to do and then enjoy the glorious spread of free food they have on a film set.”
You have been in movies with some big-named actors and actresses. Who was the most fun to work with?
“I haven’t ever had a bad time on set, but I did get to spend a very special day with Robert DeNiro shooting a Thanksgiving movie called ‘Everybody’s Fine.’ This was the first feature film I’d done, and it was about seven years ago. He was incredibly kind to me. I wasn’t nervous because my job was simple, but I was excited to be around him. He talked to me all day about theater, and he stood in for all my scenes when they turned the camera around on me, which I did not expect. It was a very lucky experience to have that much time with him.”
What are the most frustrating things about acting professionally?
“The lack of opportunity is hard, which is nothing novel. I’m happy Quintessence is doing ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ because it has five speaking roles for women, which is, I think, the most of any of Shakespeare’s plays. I do see a lot of all-female and gender-fluid productions happening now in Philly and nationally, which is great. I also find it frustrating if theaters don’t want to meet new actors, as I’m a big fan of open doors and open minds.”
What are the most rewarding things?
“Our student matinees at Quintessence are golden. Kids are very honest and fun loving with theater. When they’re not on their phones, they are the greatest audience.”
If you had to do it all over again, would you again pursue a career in the theater?
“Yes. There have been times when I’d have said no. But I was wrong. The answer is yes.”
What is the hardest thing you ever had to do?
“I’ve moved many times. From Washington to Chicago to New York to Los Angeles and back. All for work reasons. I’m so glad I made myself do that, as it remains a goal of mine to try to act in as many places as I can. But I didn’t have normal household items like chairs until recently. I definitely had to learn to detach from tangible things and stay focused, which can be hard.”
More information about the plays currently at Quintessence at 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org