My worst moment: ‘Snowpiercer’ star Alison Wright and the disastrous ‘Mr. Robot’ audition

  • Alison Wright of “Snowpiercer” appears onstage during the TNT segment of the 2020 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour. TNS

Chicago Tribune
Published: 6/12/2020 8:57:37 AM
Modified: 6/12/2020 8:57:24 AM

Emmy-nominated for her role on The Americans as Martha – or as fans dubbed her, “poor Martha,” who became the unwitting loved-up pawn of Matthew Rhys’s Soviet spy – British actor Alison Wright now stars in TNT’s Snowpiercer playing a character who is the polar opposite, personality-wise, of poor Martha.

“That’s the ideal thing, right? Every actor wants to bounce around to totally different parts,” said Wright.

The series is set in a dystopian future (and based on Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 sci-fi thriller of the same name) where survivors of an apocalypse are confined to a train that is forever chugging through a frozen wasteland, while inside everyone is segregated by class.

“I haven’t played somebody like her before and I liked her extreme Britishness, as I see it,” Wright said. “It’s a character that (showrunner) Graeme Manson created in the reimagining of Snowpiercer and he gave me just a few key phrases that got me really excited: That she was insecure, highly strung and very easily rattled. But she works in the hospitality department so she really shouldn’t be any of those things with that job! He also imagined her to be very funny – not intentional but she’s ridiculous.”

Wright’s list of credits also includes the Ryan Murphy series Feud: Bette and Joan and the Amazon series Sneaky Pete.

But it was an audition for the USA series Mr. Robot that came to mind when Wright was asked to share a worst moment in her career.

My worst moment

“It was 2016 and I got an audition for Mr. Robot and it was for Special Agent DiPierro. The role was eventually played – wonderfully – by the excellent Grace Gummer, who is a friend of mine.

“The audition was with Sam Esmail (the creator and showrunner) and the show’s producers, and it was one of those where I got the email less than 24 hours before the audition itself. So there wasn’t very much time to prepare and it was a five-page scene.

“She’s an FBI agent and the only information that I had about the character were the parentheticals on the page: That she had been up all night watching YouTube until 4 a.m., and then she was blaring hip-hop getting ready in the morning and slamming coffee and putting on makeup under the bags of her eyes. And then she’s in the deli pounding five-hour energy drinks, buying a ton more and taking them into work with her. And then she’s interviewing this guy, all the while eating this massive sandwich. And at the end of the scene it culminates with the guy saying, ‘Can you stop eating the bloody sandwich?’

“So she’s really high energy, really high octane – essentially really hungover and tired, no sleep, but jazzed up on all the energy drinks and coffee. So you take all of that information in with you and I wanted to show all of that.

“I was feeling pretty good about myself. The Americans was getting quite a bit of attention and Mr. Robot was such a hot show at the time, the first season had just aired and everyone was obsessed with it. So I was really excited to have this audition. I was really pumped.

“Just as I was about to walk in the door to the audition room, the casting director told me the character should have a saccharine, sweet voice. That’s what they wanted her to sound like. My hand was almost on the handle to open the door when she told me this and I was like, ‘What?’ because it didn’t vibe with anything I had prepared. It wasn’t how I saw the character and it wasn’t what I had planned. So I’m trying to deal with that as I go in: What the hell does that mean? How do I do that without having practiced it?

“I walk in and Sam was really pleased to see me and made me feel great going in the room. There’s an unspoken understanding that you don’t shake people’s hands when you walk into an audition room; they’re there all day and seeing 5,000 people, they don’t want to shake 5,000 hands, you know? But Sam was so keen to see me and he stood up and he made some sort of gesture and I misread it and I went in for the handshake. There were five other people in the room so we all ended up doing the handshake. So already I realized, ‘Not cool, you messed that up.’ The producer was not impressed.

“So I thought: Whatever, let’s go. Let’s start. So like I said, it’s this five-page scene and she’s eating, eating, eating. And I come from the theater and value what’s written on the page and want to honor that. Behavior is a way to show a character’s personality; it’s an opportunity to show all the things that you’re not saying. And I decided that I could do it with peanuts.

“So I go in, overly confident, and I put a whole handful of peanuts into my mouth and I realize I’m in trouble right away. I hadn’t taken any water in with me and of course my mouth is getting dryer and dryer. I was trying to chew and swallow and as soon as I started talking, I’m having to cough and clear my throat. And somebody stopped me right away and was like, ‘Do you need some water?’ And I was like (sputtering) and there was a pregnant pause. And then somebody had to go out of the room and get me a bottle of water.

“I’m mortified at this point. I’m trying to laugh. I have a drink of water and we start again. And before I know it, my hand is in my pocket again and I’m putting those peanuts in my mouth again a second time around. I don’t know what I thought was going to be different. And I could feel a laser focus on me and my throat caught immediately because I hadn’t recovered yet from the first choking. I remember a flash of Sam’s expression, which was like: You’ve got to be (flipping) joking me.

“And I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m choking again.’ And then another part of me is thinking, ‘Look at Sam Esmail looking at you, rolling his eyes.’ Another part of me is looking at the casting director and seeing the disappointment on her face. And I’m still eating and the voice inside of me is like, ‘Why can’t you stop eating? You’re a loser!’

“It’s a five page scene and I can’t get past the first page. I don’t remember how it ended – I blocked out the rest of it, but it didn’t go well. I could feel waves of disappointment coming from everyone in the room and, yeah, I didn’t get the part.

“It was (laughs) a great reminder that no matter how high you think you’re riding – you can be having a great time on one show and walk in thinking you’re going to impress these people – and you show up and you suck. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Being British, was trying to do an American accent part of the challenge?

“I quite like doing an American accent. But I think trying to find a breathier, sweeter sound in the moment, combined with the dusty peanuts in my throat, that was it. The American part I had, but changing the feeling behind it – I thought she was a little bit brash, a little bit harsh, talking fast, not sweet and breathy and airy. But what are you supposed to do when you’re given this piece of information when your hand is on the door handle? Obviously the answer is, you give it a go.

“It said that the whole basis of the scene was around her eating something and we’ve all seen that excellent video, if you haven’t you should, of Steve Carell auditioning for Anchorman where he’s eating a sandwich; he doesn’t actually have a sandwich, he’s miming it. I don’t know if I could mime eating, but I thought the eating had a lot to do with the scene, so I did it. And when I practiced it the night before with my cashews and Chardonnay, it went just fine!

The takeaway ...

“Sometimes you’re going to suck, and that’s OK. And sometimes you’re going to feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of people that you respect greatly, people that you hope will hire you.

“But it’s also an experience that keeps your feet on the ground and keeps your head from getting too big.

“But mostly, don’t eat peanuts on camera. And never dry roasted.

“I pray that Sam doesn’t remember. If I ever meet him again my plan was to deny it, but now that I’ve told this the story that won’t work!”

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