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Building Character: Katie Finneran How Katie Finneran developed her Tony-nominated performance in "Promises, Promises"

By ASHLEY VAN BUREN

Welcome to Building Character, TDF STAGES´ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.

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Two scenes. That’s all the time Katie Finneran has to make Sean Hayes’ Chuck Baxter fall in love (or at least in lust) with her character Marge MacDougall, the boozy, brassy brunette who stumbles into Chuck’s arms (and ultimately his apartment) during the second act of Promises, Promises. Coupled with a part that, as written by Neil Simon, is open to a wide variety of character interpretations, those time constraints make for quite a few acting challenges.

“The part is so broadly written,” says Finneran, who this week received a Tony Award nomination for her performance. “She could be [played] as a dumb blonde or a really smooth woman.

So how does she build a character without relying on written description or falling into a drunken stereotype of a wounded woman?  She plays against type and looks to her co-stars (and Sally Kellerman) for inspiration.

Finneran and co-star Kristin Chenoweth (who plays Fran Kubelick, Chuck’s co-worker and love interest) spent a great deal of rehearsal time talking about their characters. “I wanted to be the complete antithesis of Kristin’s Fran,” Finneran says. “I figured these were the two women that influenced Chuck’s life.” As a result, she focused on the physical attributes of her character, playing the extreme opposite of Chenoweth’s blonde-haired, pastel-wearing office worker. “I wanted Marge to have dark hair and wear dark colors, so when Bruce Pask [Promises costume designer] brought in the maroon dress and the black gloves, I knew that’s what I wanted” she explains.

The already-statuesque actress added a pair of heels, further emphasizing the physical differences between Marge and Fran. But the character doesn’t stop at the surface: Finneran also changed the timbre of her voice, giving Marge a deeper, heavier inflection. “I was watching a movie where Sally Kellerman played the love interest and she just had this great voice,” she says, “and I started doing it and that was it.”

Finneran credits Rob Ashford’s direction and choreography with adding another layer to Marge, saying, “Rob is an amazing collaborator. He really knows how to choreograph funny. There’s this one part in the show where Sean lifts my leg, and keeps lifting it up, and I start to go ‘ow, ow, ow’ and Rob came up with it. The first night I did that, it got a huge laugh. There’s also so much back and forth with Marge of love and not love and sexy and not sexy, and he really helped me temper that.”

Finneran also relies on Hayes to help her strike the right comedic balance. “Sean is safe and generous as a comedic partner,” she says. “He has no problem setting me up for laughs and vice versa.”

During a majority of Finneran’s time on stage, her character is inebriated, but the actress dismisses the idea that playing drunk is challenging. “I never even thought about it, really,” she says. “The only things I keep in mind are how your body becomes relaxed, and it’s a little harder to find the words you want. Your mind is a little dull. Even when you’re trying to impress someone by saying the right thing, you don’t. The first word you say isn’t the right one, so you try again, and that word is even more off. Then, you try a third time and, at that point, you don’t even care what word comes out of your mouth.”

Asked if she’s given any thought to where Marge ends up after leaving Chuck Baxter’s apartment, Finneran pauses briefly and gives an embarrassed laugh before revealing Marge’s fate: “It’s kind of a secret, but I think she goes home and lives with a relative, which is probably why she has to go to Chuck’s apartment in the first place. She’s obviously trying to be someone she’s not. She definitely stumbles home at night.”

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Ashley Van Buren is a writer and film production freelancer. She has contributed writing to The Huffington Post, Women & Hollywood, Supernanny, The Rachael Ray Show and several other outfits. If you read quickly, you can catch her name in the credits of seven feature films. She blogs (sporadically) at thebrow.org

(Photo by Joan Marcus)