Halley Feiffer's Indie Success on Stage and Screen
By CARLA PISARRO | July 7, 2008
Actress Halley Feiffer left her audition for the Second Stage Theatre's revival of Richard Nelson's play "Some Americans Abroad," currently in previews and opening July 24, convinced she had blown it. "I said to the director, 'I don't really know how to do this [monologue], I chose to do it this way,'" she said.
Joan Marcus / ©2006, Joan Marcus
But director Gordon Edelstein remembers it differently. "We almost called her before she walked to the elevator," he said. "I think I wrote a note on my pad to Rich Nelson saying: 'We've found her.'"
Ms. Feiffer may harbor the occupational insecurities familiar to any young actress, but the otherwise ebullient 23-year-old has drama in her blood: Her father is the renowned cartoonist and dramatist Jules Feiffer. And with an intriguing set of off-Broadway plays (Second Stage's "subUrbia" and "Election Day") and independent films ("The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding") to her credit, Ms. Feiffer has already proved herself unusually deft with both humor and pathos.
"Some Americans Abroad," which Mr. Edelstein described as "a comedy of bad manners," draws on her dexterity. The play displays the fraught dynamics among a group of college English professors, including Tom Cavanagh's insecure department chair and Anthony Rapp's guileless assistant professor, as they lead a student trip to London. Mr. Cavanagh's Anglophile envies Ms. Feiffer's Joanne, a former pupil, her life as an expatriate. But Joanne, all bubbly earnestness on the surface, struggles to mask the fact that, as Ms. Feiffer says, "[her] life in England is very lonely and somewhat pathetic."
Though Ms. Feiffer's role is secondary, it's also "pivotal," Mr. Edelstein said. "[Joanne] has a particular rhythm and self-consciousness that are extremely hard to direct," he said. "All the other parts in the play, you can kind of find them — this one, you either have it or you don't."
Ms. Feiffer, who graduated from Wesleyan University last year, had it. She first discovered her affinity for teasing out nuances at age 12, playing the lead in a theater camp production of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." "It was endlessly engaging," she said. "I was working harder than I'd ever worked at anything."
Mr. Feiffer, initially wary of his daughter's desire to act, was quickly converted. "She always had the right temperament," he said. "She knew the ups and downs were part of the process. It took me years in my career to get the attitude she had at the beginning."
In 2005, Ms. Feiffer landed a breakout role in Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," in which she played the openhearted girlfriend of Jesse Eisenberg's pretentious protagonist. A year passed after her auditions while the production secured financing, but the actress instinctively took to her character. "I felt like I wasn't acting," she said of her tryout. "It was easy because it was so well-written I didn't need to think about it."
Mr. Baumbach would cast Ms. Feiffer again, this time as a flirtatious babysitter, in his 2007 film "Margot at the Wedding." "Halley has a surprising candidness as an actor," Mr. Baumbach said in an e-mail message. "She's totally without affect and whatever she's playing, it feels very close to the bone."
Ms. Feiffer also writes plays and was a winner of the 2004 Young Playwrights Festival. But finding time for writing is getting challenging as her acting gathers momentum.
Ms. Feiffer will next team up with "Napoleon Dynamite" director Jared Hess for the comedy "Gentlemen Broncos." The actress relished that film's recent shoot: "I said to [co-star] Michael Angarano: 'I feel like we're part of this kooky, hilarious religion,' because we all believed in the movie so much."