A Conversation with Sarah Stiles
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Written by Kelly Wallace
Photography by Emma Pratte
January 30, 2017
Sarah Stiles does a lot of things. She sings, she dances, she acts, she crochets cozy hats and scarves in her spare time. And she’s picked up quite a few fans (and a Tony nomination) playing funny and fierce women on and off-Broadway. With a long list of projects lined up, she’s about to take over your TV screen too. Outside of her work, Sarah is a true believer in the radical and revolutionary power of love, empathy, and small acts of kindness, in a world where those beliefs couldn’t be more essential. I sat down with her to talk about life and art, and, most importantly, how we can start to move past fear and get to the hard work of building a world where everyone can be safe and smiling and free.
Kelly Wallace: Tell me a little about how you grew up, and why you were drawn to acting?
Sarah Stiles: I grew up in New Hampshire and I started doing theater in about 4th or 5th grade. Whenever we had school projects, I always found some way of making it a play. So my teacher pulled my mom aside at one point and told her to think about getting me involved in theater. I joined a theater camp and I fell deeply in love. I started doing community theater, semi-professional sort of non-equity stuff. It was definitely like a job though. Some of it was at Seacoast Repertory Theatre. I started doing that every summer starting when I was 11, until I left for New York, right out of school. I left school my senior year of high school, and I did get a diploma, but through a different school in the mail? I was fourth in my class but I dropped out my senior year and started working at that community theater in their office. And then I came straight to New York. So I didn’t go to college, I went to AMDA for a year and a half and then just started working. I’ve done a lot else to survive.
KW: And growing up in New Hampshire…it’s not really a diverse state.
SS: Not at all.
KW: Did you feel like you were exposed to art that was outside of your worldview?
SS: Yes, mostly because of my mom. She comes from a family of artists, fine artists, so we were going to the museums. We were going to Boston a lot. I was in a lot of road shows. Once I figured out I loved musicals, she started taking me. We watched great movies, we were well-read. We were brought up macrobiotic and we always had different food nights to try to experience different cultures as much as we could. There were a lot of influences. It was still a small town though.
KW: So when you came here, did you have total culture shock?
SS: For sure! I moved to the Upper West Side, somewhere around the 70s, and went to school. I don’t think I really left that area for the first six months. The subway terrified me – everything was crazy. I grew up in the woods where you had to drive to get to the nearest friend’s house. We were on a dirt road. Then to move here was…intense. But singing and dancing and acting…that was all the same. That was my grounding force.
KW: After you came here and started professionally acting…you’re in this position of constantly being judged. That’s kind of your career, in a way. It’s part of your job description. How do you stay sure of yourself when you’re in that position so often?
SS: I don’t…I think I struggle constantly with confidence. There’s just nothing in the world that I want to do more than this. When your drive is that strong and your love and passion for something is that strong, you’ll put up with a lot. You keep getting beaten down but you stick it out.
KW: They always say if you can do something else, do something else.
SS: Yeah. Isn’t that everything? The thing about being human is you have to figure out what you love and go for that. If you’re doing anything else besides that, whatever it may be, you’re not really happy.
KW: Theater is obviously your main focus, but you do other things too. You have your fashion line on the side, for example. Does having those other outlets inform your art across disciplines?
SS: Just being a well-rounded person makes you a better artist. I don’t necessarily consider myself a theater girl, I would say I’m an actor, whatever medium. I’m doing a lot more TV and that’s been really fun, and so different. Whatever I’m doing, I like to be creative. I love making things – tactile things like handiwork and crafts. I love cooking. I love creating things. It’s never a solo thing for me either; I really like working with people. That’s why being an actor is the greatest. There’s so many people involved in making this one piece. I love discovery. I want a million lives because there are so many things I want to do in the world. Being a student of life and acting and performing has been such an amazing way of being a student.
KW: You did Into the Woods in Central Park, playing Little Red. I was thinking about this when we set up the interview…when they did the movie, the scene between Red and the Wolf was so different. The way it was played in the park was much less G-Rated. What was your take on that scene when you played the role? Most people interpret it as a sort of sexual awakening…
SS: It is 100% that for me.
KW: Then in the movie, it was overtly not that at all.
SS: They couldn’t, really, when they decided to go with an actual child. I deeply loved that particular production. I think that will go down as one of my favorite experiences. I just love the show; I loved that take on her. It was something that we really discovered in the rehearsal process. They weren’t sold on what Red would look like. The drawing of her was very different than what my costume ended up being. We really came up with that based on what I was coming into the room wearing and my approach to her. The director would give certain suggestions on how to move and what her vibe was and how she’d stuff all this food in her mouth…and I just saw her as this scrappy, tough, tomboy. It wasn’t the easiest collaboration in rehearsals, but it wound up being so lovely by the time we opened.
KW: Little Red goes through one of the largest growth arcs in the entire story. She starts out so young and so naive, and at the end, she’s left with pretty much no one. She’s gone through this sexual awakening, she’s gone through this horrifying, traumatic experience…
SS: James Lapine came and talked to all of us about it before we opened. And he told me that everyone in the show, when they go into the woods, they’re going in with a lot of fear. Except Little Red, who goes in with absolutely no fear. By the end, she learns fear. She learns that there are bad things, that there are consequences, and that life can be a little scary. I always thought that was interesting. I thought about that a lot when I started the show every night. She’s just fearless. Then it’s just a matter of letting things affect you. The way it ended, the way he directed it, with the four of us [Jack, the Baker, Cinderella, and Little Red] coming out of the woods…it’s like the apocalypse. He said basically, I want to feel like you walk through, the fog clears, and you’re looking at war. Everything around you has been destroyed. It’s a battleground, and there’s no one left. That’s what it should feel like. I remember walking through it, and we were by ourselves at that point, and it was so easy to imagine it that way. Being out in the park, it was so great. It was musical war. I felt like we started every show tucked underneath the mulch in back and everyone is on the floor all curled up and as soon as the music starts, we’d just go.
KW: Did you meet the Central Park raccoon?
SS: The raccoon was obsessed with me. I had to hide during Amy’s song, “Moments in the Woods.” I had the baby and all the luggage. I was just sort of in the mulch on the ground behind her, behind a tree. The raccoon would constantly come at me in that moment. I had my little fake dagger and I would be like, back off.
KW: Little Red could take a raccoon.
SS: Yup, and then eat it, and make a coat. She’s not afraid.
KW: You end up playing a lot of children in your career. What’s different for you when you play someone who’s 10, versus playing an adult?
SS: The thing about playing kids is you have to remember this is the first time they’re ever experiencing what is happening. It’s the first time I’m hearing someone say something, the first time being presented with new situations, so everything is constantly fresh. Thinking in those terms really helps me. There’s no baggage attached. Every situation has this undertone of not knowing, not being sure what’s gonna happen, and then going from there. It’s the moment to moment that gets hard, because they’re so all about what’s right in front of them. It’s actually very liberating to play children, honestly. I’ve always really loved it. There’s a freeness about it and a bravery and excitement. Does that make sense?
KW: Yeah, absolutely.
SS: It’s like you’re on your toes and there’s a bubble above your head. That’s the best way I can describe it. Even in Hand to God, Jessica is like that. Even though she’s very grounded and earthy, she’s closer to being a teenager, and she’s very wise.
KW: She is his grounding force throughout the entire show.
SS: She is. She’s kind of like the audience, in a way. She’s very steady. But still, this is the first time any of this stuff has happened to her; she doesn’t have a lot of experience.
KW: To be fair, not many people have puppet sex experience.
SS: No, certainly not. I don’t know how much sex she’s had…you know, that’s interesting. I’m not sure if she’s a virgin or not. I wonder if she’s had sex. She’s definitely had puppet sex…but she knew a lot of moves. She knew what she was doing. She’s either watched a lot of porn or read a lot of books or…
KW: You also did the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and understudied three characters – Marcy, Logainne and Olive. What did it feel like to do Marcy? Did you ever go on?
SS: No. That was my first Broadway gig and I was with the company for just a few weeks. I hadn’t had put ins, I hadn’t even rehearsed Marcy yet. It was a Sunday night when both Celia [Keenan-Bolger] and Sarah [Saltzberg] were out and I ended up going on for Sarah at the matinee and Celia at night. That was my big debut. It was insane. After that, I started rehearsing Marcy, which was super hard. Kate Wetherhead had been doing it and they said she played it like a smart, preppy, Southern girl. Like a Type-A kind of cheerleader. I’m so glad I never went on though.
KW: That character just seems so overtly Asian-American, so many of the jokes rely on playing off that stereotype. Did you ever feel a little uncomfortable with that?
SS: Oh yeah. I mean, I did not want to go on for that role. I just knew I wasn’t going to do it right. I had no idea what take I would do. Now, I’d approach it differently and try to find another way into the role, but that was one of my first big jobs. I couldn’t quite figure it out. But Kate went on and she’s great, so I guess she figured it out. When I was, on our Mitch Mahoney cover was white. It was Andrew Kober, actually. He played it kind of like Vanilla Ice.
KW: That was one of the first shows I saw where someone had gay parents. It was very cool to see that just as a thing that you can have. Was that your first experience playing a non-nuclear family?
SS: I think it was. Except Little Orphan Annie, I guess. She doesn’t really have a family.
KW: She doesn’t really have anyone.
SS: I mean…she’s an orphan.
KW: Vanities was another show that was fascinating that is just about female friendship that don’t involve a man or a love triangle. It’s about those women, their relationships – that’s the story. A lot of the time a girl always has some kind of man she’s tangled up with onstage.
SS: That’s so true. I did do Steel Magnolias, which is all ladies.
KW: What was it like to build those very close relationships in the rehearsal process for Vanities?
SS: I did two major productions with different girls. It was always awesome. That show really lends to that. It’s three very different personalities and you’re doing super fun things and you’re out of town and you’re bonding. We all loved each other.
KW: And your character, Joanne, is really a departure from you, Sarah Stiles.
SS: Oh totally. She’s a disaster. I mean, I’m a disaster too, but in a different way. She’s very closed-minded. But the thing is, she’s got a huge heart, she’s just been brought up in such a way that she can’t even comprehend other ways of doing things. She’s trying so hard to be loved and be perfect and be accepted. That’s the path she thinks she has to go down in order to achieve that. I have a lot of love for Joanne, even though she says some really terrible things.
KW: You move here, no high school diploma, no college…in a business of where women get take advantage of quite a bit..did you ever feel vulnerable or worried about that?
SS: Not necessarily, but my path was more…I did more damage to myself than other people did to me, honestly. It took me a very long time to figure out who I was and connect with myself and be really proud of myself. As soon as I believed that I was deserving and interesting and capable, then things got a lot easier. That was the hardest part for me. I don’t think it was other people.
KW: In the time I’ve known you, you’ve always been such an outwardly loving and positive person. Someone recently told me that love isn’t just an emotion, it’s a conscious choice we make every day about how we interact with the world.
SS: I love that, that’s such a beautiful sentiment. I think I am positive person. I have darkness in me, you have to, you have to have both. I swing really far one way, but also in the other direction. I want people around me to feel good and to feel happy and feel loved, so I try to approach every situation that way. I do want that, I’ve always been that way. You have to make that choice. Authenticity is also really important to me though. I don’t want to bullshit anyone or be fake, but I think I’m able to look at someone and see something that is…like a jewel inside of them. That’s the part that I’m going to extract and focus on. That’s what I try to do. It’s not always as great for boyfriends along the way…that one part is so good, but the rest is so bad. That one thing is so shiny! That’s what life is about. That’s why I love theater so much, there’s that immediate thing that happens when you’re onstage and the audience is there and you’re connecting and you can just feel the energy coming back to you. That’s delicious to me. TV is not the same thing. Even though I really love some of the TV that I’ve done.
KW: It’s not that live, immediate response.
SS: It’s very different, there’s also a really wonderful intimacy on camera. When you’re in the scene with them, it feels so real and so close…
KW: Well, you’re not playing to the back of the house.
SS: Exactly. So there’s something incredible about that too, it feels unbelievably raw. I like both.
KW: Given your upbringing, when do you feel like you started to be aware of diversity and started being around more people who didn’t really look like you?
SS: I must’ve been older. There’s like no other race but white in New Hampshire. Like, super white. In my high school, I don’t think there were any people of color. Definitely not in my class. It wasn’t until I came to New York, really. But it wasn’t a shock of like…”Oh, there’s black people here!” It’s funny, I remember having the Guys and Dolls album as a kid and it was an all-black cast and I didn’t know the show, I didn’t know anything, but I grew up thinking it was just an all-black show. I had no idea. I just assumed that’s what it was.
KW: Do you think now, with a lot of these conversations we’re having about different kinds of privilege that people have or different ways that you present visually…does that make you think about the advantages and disadvantages you’ve had?
SS: I will say this, I will speak to just beauty in general, and the idea of…it’s very hard to be a woman, especially an older woman, in this business, where everything is filtered and social media is there…there’s such an emphasis on physical beauty. That’s hard, and once you go down that rabbit hole, it gets even harder.
KW: That’s part of your career, in a lot of ways…
SS: It is. I’ll be totally honest and I have no problem saying this…I’m 37, I play kids. On TV, I don’t look like I’m in my early 20s, but I’m also still not totally in my mid-30s, I’m in this in-between place and I absolutely started to get botox a couple years ago. I had to, I’ve got these teeny forehead and I’m crazy expressive, so I had a lot of creases. My manager and I talked about it, it was a very conscious decision. I went and got it done, I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. I come from this very hippie, natural background, but I also don’t think it’s a problem to do things like that. As long as you’re not doing it for other people and you’re doing it for yourself and you have self-love.
KW: You felt like it was really your decision and it was for you.
SS: Yes. I didn’t get it done until I knew totally who I was, and loved who I was. It has made a difference in my TV career, for sure. It’s hard. Where does it stop? I love actresses like Kate Winslet who is very open about being your own person and not doing things to yourself. In this day and age, most people do though. It’s a weird balance. As long as you really keep that core human inside you safe, happy, and feeling good…the outward stuff is easier.
SS: It is hard though. I just started wearing my hair curly again, I’d been straightening it for years, because I thought it made me more beautiful. I went back to my natural hair when I started dating this guy who I really frickin’ love. I came out of the shower once and hadn’t dried it and he was shocked, he asked what was going on with my hair. I told him that’s just how it is and he told me it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. So I tried wearing it that way again and I booked a huge job a week later with this crazy, curly hair that’s actually me. I’m really embracing it. Beauty and appearance…that’s the thing I think about more than anything else in terms of me feeling insecure. Do I think I lose jobs sometimes because I’m not pretty enough? Yeah. I still think it sometimes. It’s just a constant process.
KW: Who are some of your inspirations and heroes when you were growing up? Or even now?
SS: It’s weird maybe, but my sister is who I thought of. It’s such a small thing, but she’s an incredible woman. She’s five years younger than me,she has two babies, and she just got divorced from her husband, who is transitioning to be a woman. It was a very intense, crazy experience. The road to that and also the acceptance of it. Living with it, trying to be okay with it. She realized it just wasn’t what they wanted and what their life was. But watching her go through it with such positivity and strength has been deeply inspiring to me. On a grander scale…I’ve never necessarily been obsessed with some diva or celebrity, but it’s really my circle of friends and the people I meet along the way who inspire me. My best friend, Jess Chase, who is at MCC – I love how she lives her life. Watching her and how she’s grown in her career…I see all sides of her and it inspires me. Is that a bad answer?
KW: There’s no bad answer to that question!
SS: That’s really how is. It’s the people who taught me along the way.
KW: What role have you played that’s the closest to you? Real life Sarah Stiles.
SS: Oh gosh. I think every role has a piece of me in it. I think the raw core of me, the essence, is Little Red. If I had no boundaries and was just really able to do anything that I wanted, I think that would be her. I’m feisty like that. I’m also just curious and brave. She’s so brave, she throws herself into things. Logainne was for sure the worst pieces of me. Because of that, it was one of the hardest roles I had to play. When I say worst pieces, I mean the parts of me that I find the hardest to deal with. It’s her anxiety, her need to be loved and to be perfect, her competitiveness and her drive…there’s a lot of me in that. Those are parts that I’m not as comfortable letting out into the world. So playing her on the road like that almost broke me, for real. Jessica was a big turning point for me. I told the director and the writer this, but I said that I felt like I grew up so much through Jessica. She really taught me a lot. I’ve come to a place where I’m much more Jessica in my real life than I ever was before. The calm, the balance, the ability to see a situation and find a solution. And not needing to be validated, totally feeling validated on my own and by myself. I learned that from her and being in her shoes for a year. I cried so hard at closing. I was so worried that I was going to lose that part of myself. Every night, I got to remind myself to be that way. And so I was really nervous that I was going to leave her and fall off the rails. But I didn’t! She’s still in me!
KW: Tell me about the projects you have coming up and where people can look for you, I know you have a lot of exciting things in the works.
SS: Dude, yes! I can’t believe how much has happened. I’m going to be in I’m Dying Up Here on Showtime, which is debuting June 4th. I’m in one of those episodes, I’m in the trailer…without my clothes on. And then I just started shooting the third episode of Get Shorty with Epix. They picked up all 10 episodes…I play Gladys, who is Rick’s [Ray Romano] secretary. I’m doing the whole series and we’re in the middle of it in Albuquerque right now.. It’s been really fun so far. And then there’s the animated series, Sunny Day, for Nickelodeon. I play the mean girl, Lacy, in that and it’s coming out this summer.
KW: Talk about the night of the election, after the election, how did that go for you?
SS: This is so awful, but I went to sleep at like…9? It didn’t even occur to me that this would happen. I remember going to bed early. I don’t remember why, but I was asleep by 9. My phone started blowing up later and I started getting all these text messages from a girlfriend saying she couldn’t believe what was happening and didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I remember looking at it and thinking there’s no way, and then I woke up at something like 4 or 5AM and seeing a text from the same friend freaking out and I looked online and all of the headlines and I just…I thought it was a joke. I remember calling my mom at like 4:30AM and we both just cried. My sister called me first thing in the morning just sobbing. All of these powerful, amazing women in my life, men too, but especially the women in my life…people were just heartbroken by it. I got on a bus immediately that afternoon to go see my sister in New Hampshire so I could be with her because it was just so crazy. I watched Hillary’s speech on the bus and just sobbed.
KW: That speech was so much more dignified than I would ever have been able to be in that moment.
SS: It’s been one of the strangest things ever. It’s like a horrible movie.
KW: I’ve heard a few people say this but I agree…if you pitched this as a movie, they’d tell you it was unrealistic.
SS: I totally agree. It’s so strange and it’s caused such an upheaval. I have moments of a lot of fear about it, but at the end of the day that doesn’t do anyone any good. I was preaching to all my friends about it, about how we have to…it’s not about thinking positive. We are in charge of ourselves, our happiness, and the space immediately around us. We need to keep paying that forward and pushing out and stay committed to our happiness and faith. It sounds like a Pollyanna thing, but it does help. It gives comfort and peace of mind and small acts of kinds will lead to bigger acts of kindness. That’s so important right now. The fear and the hate is very loud and splashy and it’s intimidating.
KW: The opposition is very in your face right now.
SS: Absolutely. But kindness and truth and love always…ugh, I want to say trumps it but that phrase is sort of ruined now. But it does. It will prevail. I have complete faith in that. We have to keep loving and being authentic and believing that there is a reason for all of this. I don’t know what it is but…
KW: I hope you’re right. I keep thinking of something Cory Booker said this week, “The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve towards justice, we must bend it.”
SS: That’s a great way to put it. I read this amazing quote about the morning that it happened:
“There’s a concept in behavioral therapy known as an “extinction burst”—basically, when you’re trying to remove a behavior (let’s say in this case, xenophobia, misogyny/etc) often you will actually see an increase in that behavior before it dies. The old world order is SCREAMING right now. What I’m seeing tonight are the death throes of a system that cannot last. Whatever the outcome, remember that what happens at the federal level is not the end of the story. We can take charge in our communities and we can continue to move in the right direction. Let ‘em scream, the rest of us have work to do.” – Amanda Jennison-Sousa
It really gave me some peace to read that in the weeks leading after the election.
KW: Do you feel like as an artist and someone in this community, that there’s a role and a responsibility that we have now as people who are leaders or have an influence that not everyone else has?
SS: I think we all have a responsibility as humans. In one way, it’s all the same. But as a performer, you’re reaching more people. We have these built-in platforms where we get to speak to large groups of other humans. We do have a responsibility in the sense that we have a much bigger audience.
KW: What would you say to the people who follow you and who you can reach who are probably pretty scared or angry or freaked out right now?
SS: I say choose love, honestly. I think it’s really easy to get wrapped up in scary quotes and horrible Twitter things that he sends out…it’s very easy to get caught up in all of that. It’s so important to keep yourself healthy and happy and full of faith. It’s the only thing we have control over, to care for other people and be kind. And faith…just have faith that we’re not going to fall. The universe doesn’t want us to fail and get trampled. Now we know how important our own voices are and that we really need to find the things we believe in and fight for them. A lot of us just never realized this could happen, it didn’t occur to us to do more. I don’t think anyone can make that mistake again.
Sarah Stiles has been seen onstage as Annelle in Judith Ivey’s Steel Magnolias at the Alliance Theatre, Jessica in Hand to God (Tony and Lucille Lortel nominations), Little Red Riding Hood in Shakespeare in the Park’s Into the Woods. On Broadway: Muriel in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Muriel) Avenue Q (Kate/Lucy), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Off-Broadway/original cast recordings: Joanne in Vanities (Second Stage), Nazirah in The Road to Qatar (York Theatre). She also toured in the first national companies of Spelling Bee and Tommy Tune’s Dr. Doolittle. Sarah will be featured in Showtime’s upcoming I’m Dying Up Here, Epix’s Get Shorty, and Nickelodeon’s Sunny Day.