Nina Arianda on Nina Arianda
and Venus in Fur’s Vanda
By Ellis Nassour
There’s no stopping Nina Arianda. She’s making career moves from Off Bway to Bway to movies and TV. As the not-so-subtle Vanda in in Venus in Fur, David Ives’ play [first seen at CSC/Classic Stage Company early last year], directed by Walter Bobbie, now in previews and set to open November 8, she’s late for an important audition, the lead in a play based on Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous 1870 novella. As she arrives, lights flicker from downed power lines due to the storm.
Thomas, the writer/director, played on Bway by Hugh Dancy [Journey’s End, Off Bway in The Pride; numerous films including the current Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene; TV’s The Big C] is packing headshots, but Nina/Vanda stops him in his tracks. At first breathless, she lets the fur fly with a litany of excuses for being late. The power may be fading due to downed lines in the aftermath of the storm, but there’s no shortage of electricity onstage. However, her name not on the list. Thomas tells her to return another time. But, for Vanda, it’s now or never. She strips away her street clothes, revealing a sexy leather outfit, does vocal exercises and auditions whether he ready or not. From her Pandora’s bag, Vanda utilizes props and costumes, to convince Thomas the part’s hers.
Fireworks erupt in this comically tense and often erotic cat and mouse game with a sprinkling of S&M as Arianda’s not-so-mild-mannered Vanda transforms into a wanton beauty and vessel of sexual desire, wrapping Thomas around her little finger and just about everywhere else. Arianda, OCC nom’d for the original VIF, was Tony and DD-nom’d for her recent portrayal of Billie Dawn in the Born Yesterday revival. Now, thanks to the impact she made Off Bway and on Bway, she’s not only back on Bway but in demand for movies. Seen to advantage in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and all-too-briefly in Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, she’s appears next in Universal’s Tower Heist, opening November 4, starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. She recently made her TV dramatic debut in an epside of CBS’ The Good Wife.
The actress, now a seasoned 27, doesn’t describe herself as a beauty in the "drop dead" sense. In fact, she points out that Vanda’s beauty and sexiness come from her spontaneity and absolute confidence. "That translates to create an outer beauty," she says. "The most appealing thing, and what makes the role an actress’ dream, is her unpredictability." There are unsubtle subtleties and double-entendres at breakneck speed. Pay attention since Arianda’s Vanda switches frequently from Brooklynese to a German accent. "It does move," she laughs. "David’s written the play in such a way that it never becomes stale."
She states that the chemistry and trust between she and Dancy grows with each performance. "We feel very secure with each other, which allows us to really go for it. Vanda knows what she wants and what Thomas wants. As Vanda, I want to see how far I can push. A partner’s job is to make it difficult. We’ve made it into a game where we feed off each other.|
"There’s a lot of knockabout," she adds. ""It’s bruise central, with occasional war injuries but I have no idea how they happen because the role demands total focus.
" How much of Vanda is Nina Arianda? "Since I can’t escape myself, there’s a lot of me. However, onstage, parts of me are more amplified. Vanda’s the character I’ve waited to portray. I fell in love with her from the get-go and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ I read it with such passion and conviction that I got her. It was a good mindset when I auditioned.
"What’s interesting," she continues, "is that through exploring the character with [director] Walter [Bobbie], I’ve learned so much about myself. He’s so incredibly intuitive that there weren’t that many ‘Do this, do that,’s, but rather a push this way or that way.
Manhattan-born, she grew up in NJ in a Ukrainian family where she learned English watching Sesame Street. Arianda says she doesn’t think about her performance prior to going onstage. "You go out, the light hits you, you act, and suddenly it becomes real. Afterwards, I often wonder, ‘Where did it all come from?’
A recent graduate of NYU’s acting program, Arianda had been "struggling" since taking children’s theater classes at four. Her mother created fantasy worlds for her to explore characters, sometimes from opera and in costume. Except for a brief period where she wanted to be an opera conductor, acting’s been her goal.
Prior to VIF, she had small roles in Shakespeare and late in the run of Diane Paulus’ Off Off Bway The Donkey Show: A Midsummer Night’s Disco with survival jobs, such as a restaurant hostess, in between.
Arianda has long been a fan of Ives. "There always a jolt of surprise in his plays, but Venus in Fur impressed me in a different way. Things go along one way, then boom, they’re off in another direction. That makes it fascinating and helps us arrive at the various transitions in different ways."
She loves the fact that audiences are exiting arguing about what happens. "We attract people from different walks of life. Sometimes, they get heated. I love it when S&M couples discuss the show."
She sees a similarity with John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. "He’s another playwright I admire. What I loved so much about Doubt was that you left not knowing who to believe, Sister Aloysius or Father Flynn. I spent months thinking about it."
Mutual Amiration Society
Arianda says, "It was a genuine honor to work with Donna, and an even greater honor to get to know her. I look up to her not only as a performer but as a woman.
She’s so very fearless, compassionate and kind. I can only hope to attain even half of Donna’s presence and character in my work. I was so grateful for her words of encouragement and her support. It meant the world to me."
Murphy, who’ll be among the headliners at City Center’s reopening gala Tuesday, has been busy with family and doing film work. Upcoming is Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse , which was showcased at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. The two-time Tony and three-time DD winner plays opposite Justin Bartha, the scene-stealing Max in the 2010 revival of Lend Me a Tenor, Oscar winner, and two-time Tony and DD nom Christopher Walken, Tony nom and three-time DD nom Lee Wilkof, Aasif Mandvi [2002 Oklahoma! revival] and DD nom Tyler Maynard [On a Clear Day…].
Time magazine raved, "Best is Murphy, who may be a wallflower or a cougar or the love of a loser’s life. She sits at the side, then moves into the heart, of Solondz’s most waywardly endearing film, his gentlest triumph."
She also just filmed Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy, which stars Jeremy Renner Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz. Also featured are Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, Stacy Keach and Michael Berresse.
"I haven’t given up on theater," she states. "In fact, I’m reading a lot of scripts."