CS Interview: Phillipa Soo Talks Hamilton & Playing Leading Lady Eliza
The stages of Broadway remain quiet in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis that has seen the shutters come down on all shows since March 12, and it will stay that way through the end of the year according to The Broadway League. Even before the shut-down, though, seeing Hamilton was out of reach for many of its fans.
Early in 2020, before the quarantine that would define all that came after, the announcement that Disney had bought the film rights to distribute a live performance of Hamilton was huge news. Filmed in 2016 with the Original Broadway Cast, Hamilton fans no longer had to wonder when they’d get a chance to take in the show, albeit on the big screen: Disney confirmed an October 2020 release. Then the coronavirus hit and Disney adjusted its plans, announcing they would premiere Hamilton by bringing it into the homes of its Disney+ subscribers just in time for the July 4th weekend.
ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to speak Phillipa Soo, one of Hamilton’s leading ladies, who graduated from Julliard in 2012 and in that same year was cast as the lead in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Future Hamilton director Thomas Kail, and writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, took in a performance and asked Soo to take part in an early reading of their show.
Soo would go on to shepherd the role of Eliza, wife of the titular Alexander, all the way to Broadway. CS spoke to Soo, just a few weeks after she’d celebrated her birthday in quarantine by adopting a new puppy, about her time with Hamilton, and her thoughts on how it resonates in our current social and political climate.
ComingSoon.net: You were a part of Hamilton from the very beginning, from the first readings and all the way up through Broadway. What do you remember most about those early days?
Phillipa Soo: I remember constantly being surprised by like, the hair standing up on my arms, you know, all those moments. Because I started, and I only heard the second half of the show, because it was a reading of act two. So I didn’t have any idea what was happening in act one until the next reading that I did. And that was like, my mind was blown. I was just like, “what? ‘Helpless,’ ‘Satisfied,’” like, “this is incredible!” You know, and it just kept on adding from there. But I think the thread is that every single moment working on that show and hearing a new piece of music, or seeing a new person come in, it sort of clicked? Like it kept clicking, and the air would change in the room, and we would all sort of look at each other and be like: “whoa, okay. I can’t believe this.”
CS: Wow. That sounds incredibly intense. I have to wonder, what’s it like revisiting the show for you now? This film coming out while America is in the middle of another revolution, what some are calling the largest civil rights protest in history?
Soo: Yeah, I mean, I am so glad that we can have this film come out and have it be a part of the conversation into Black Lives Matter, and really examining what it means to be an American. And like the show, to see that it’s imperfect, that revolution is messy. And that shouldn’t deter us from going out into the streets, using our voice, using our ballot to create a country that we want to see.
CS: Eliza is such an emotional character in many ways that feels like she’s the audience’s surrogate emotionally. What’s your experience like inhabiting someone who goes through such profound emotional changes eight nights a week?
Soo: Well, it was not easy.
CS: I can’t imagine!
Soo: I mean, it’s not an easy task. Well, I’ll say this, it was easy in so many ways because the writing and the material is so profound, and I deeply connected to it on so many levels. So in terms of that old actor story of “being in the moment” and: “will the tears be there, will the emotion be there?” So often I didn’t really have to worry about that, because just looking at my cast, and listening to the words, and looking out into the audience and seeing all of the faces of the people who were coming to see it, I would just get emotional thinking about it.
Soo: So that fed me. That certainly fed me. But I think as a young actor, you don’t know how to prepare for something like that.
CS: Or how to re-emerge from the role?
Soo: More so to know how to maintain health and balance during things like that, because it’s so rare that an actor is asked to do the same thing, multiple nights in a row for like, two years. So I think I learned a lot about myself, as an actor and just sort of like, the mechanics of it and how to like, take care of myself.
CS: In many ways, Eliza’s journey reminds me of what a lot of Americans are going through right now. Do you see any common threads between her struggles and kind of what’s happening right now in the nation?
Soo: Certainly. I mean, here you have a mother who loses her child to a bullet. I think that certainly resonates with me. And I think that at the end of the day, what’s most important to remember is that these historical figures that we look at, when we see their stories, it’s important to remember that they were people, too? That their hardships are not just tales of a story long, long ago, that they were us, you know?
So I find that in moments now when I’m sort of looking at the world, I just try and remember that people have had hardships for centuries and centuries and centuries. And I feel quite lucky to be where I am. And I have to ask myself: what can I do based off of the hard work and fighting for change and fighting to have their stories told and their legacies maintained? Like what can I do to honor the people who have come before me by using my body, by using my voice? You know, how can I lift them up and honor them?
CS: It seems like Eliza’s legacy, I was reading a bit about her to refresh my memory, was the safety net she helped create for hundreds of orphan children, as well as documenting the work and legacy of her husband. And I wondered, did portraying her get you thinking about your own legacy and about how you’d want to be remembered?
Soo: Oh absolutely. I mean, I think as I was 25 and 26 at the time and thinking like, “what am I supposed to do?” This woman lived a full life, and helped so many people, and dedicated her life to uplifting voices that might not have been heard. So I don’t know, I just think like: “well, geez. Like, how can I try and even remotely do that?” But her story is so comforting because yes, we’re living in a moment where we “cannot throw away our shot.” Like we just, we can’t wait. We gotta go now. We gotta say the things we want to say. We gotta write the things we want to write. We need to connect with the people that we want to connect with.
And at the same time, there is time and we need to use it wisely. Even if that means like, waiting. Even if that means listening and patience; that there is a way to be constructive with your time. And I think that’s just for the individual person to know, like: “do I need to focus more on my output right now, or do I need to focus more on my input?” And that’s a question that we can continue to ask ourselves and continue to strive to move forward.
(Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage via Getty Images)