The Natural

By Lahr, John | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Natural


Lahr, John, The New Yorker


On September 21, 2009, three days after her twenty-fifth birthday, Nina Arianda, like most ambitious actresses just out of drama school, was making the rounds in New York, looking for work. In a large shoulder bag, she carried her C.V., which listed her graduate-school roles: Gwendolen in "The Importance of Being Earnest," Ana in "The Clean House," Maggie in "Hobson's Choice." The rest of her resume consisted mostly of pro-bono acting jobs. (There are some ninety-five professional shows in New York every year--and more than eight thousand actresses registered with Actors Equity; the math tells its own dismal story.) For a couple of months after getting her M.F.A. from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Arianda, who is trim, blond, and distinctly Slavic-looking, had taken a hostess job at the East Side French restaurant Orsay, which left her time during the day to hustle for parts. She had just auditioned for a show that was being staged in Baltimore. Now she was on her way to Pearl Studios, on Eighth Avenue, to try out for an Off Broadway production of a new play by David Ives, "Venus in Fur," the story of a fierce and funny psychosexual power struggle between an actress and her director. Arianda had fallen in love with the heroine of the play, Vanda, an aspiring actress, who--in a scenario familiar to Arianda--arrives at a rehearsal hall to audition for a part she has no chance of getting. In Vanda's case, it was a part in an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's classic about the erotic forms of hate, "Venus in Furs." "Am I too late? I'm too late, right? Fuck. Fuck!" Vanda says as she arrives onstage, hoping to read for the role of Vanda von Dunayev, an emancipated nineteenth-century Continental woman. The dramatic pitch of Vanda's opening line captured Arianda's imagination. "I'd never read something and been so enthralled by where a character could go," she told me recently. "The humor is what always gets me. The commitment she has to what she's doing or saying. There's no comment. She lives it."

The actress who plays Vanda is required to metamorphose from a twenty-first-century street-smart New Yorker into the nineteenth-century European cosmopolitan of the Sacher-Masoch play-within-the-play, and even have the emotional extravagance to suggest the goddess Aphrodite, who emerges as a sort of fabulous eleven-o'clock number. In other words, the creative team for "Venus in Fur" were looking for a cross between Barbara Harris and Zoe Caldwell. The combination of contemporary and classical performing styles demanded a flexibility that had escaped all the actresses, many of them well known, who auditioned during a frustrating six-month search. "We were at our wit's end," Ives recalled. "We had the equivalent of a cattle call."

For about ten days before the audition, Arianda had submerged herself in Vanda, a rigorous and intuitive exploration that was more visceral than intellectual. She thought, she said, about "how my back straightens out for Vanda, how my feet feel. I don't see her. I just feel her." Her awareness that she was extremely unlikely to get the job had a counterintuitive effect: she decided to let go and have fun with it. "I just didn't care," she said. "I didn't care about anyone's opinion." Arianda had been sent to the audition by the veteran casting director James Calleri, whose associates had seen her that February in her N.Y.U. production of "The Importance of Being Earnest." They had been so insistent that Calleri had e-mailed her the next day and asked her to come into the office. "We don't do that very often," he said. To Calleri's eye, Arianda "was just remarkable. She had a really, really strong point of view--confident, sexy, maybe a little insecure, which is like a great vulnerability. She doesn't look like all the other girls in the class." Arianda, whose parents were born to Ukrainian refugees in Germany after the Second World War, didn't talk like them, either. "I don't want to be the third Ukrainian hooker on the left," she told Calleri. …

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