“Helen of Troy was a little scary. That was a dark house to live in for a while,” Caroline Neff says, laughing, of the role for which she picked up her first Jeff Award last month.
In Steep Theatre’s production of A Brief History of Helen of Troy last fall, Neff handed in a raw, compelling portrayal of a teenager reeling from the loss of her mother, so desperate to believe she’s attractive to men that she begins to confuse her self-destructive fantasies with reality. It was perhaps the apotheosis of a kind of role in which Neff specializes: Young women in dangerous emotional states pepper her résumé, from the title character’s angry daughter in Steep’s Harper Regan to the aching, lost lead in Griffin Theatre’s Port (both American premieres by British playwright Simon Stephens) to her recent turn at the Steppenwolf Garage, as a smart college freshman struggling to find her place in her working-class family in Lucy Thurber’s Where We’re Born.
These harrowing performances contrast with Neff’s own personality when we meet over coffee. With her blond mane draped over a black tank top and chunky jewelry, the 25-year-old actor is warm, forthcoming and seemingly carefree.
Helen’s director, Joanie Schultz, underlines Neff’s transformative capacity. “More so than any other actor I’ve worked with, there’s no me pulling that performance from her. There’s me helping her shape it, and me saying, ‘Actually, you have to cry less,’ ” says Schultz, who also taught Neff at Columbia College. “From first read to final performance, she had that breakdown every single time. She always felt it in a really authentic way, which kind of scares me for her,” Schultz adds with a laugh.
But Neff finds the intensity freeing. “Particularly in Helen of Troy, that was, like, eight hours a week of feeling sorry for myself. It’s a little cathartic. I feel like I release a lot of toxins when I do that,” Neff says. “A lot of my uncertainties, things I’m trying to correct, get to be focused in one place so intensely, and then it’s done and it’s gone and you have a beer.”
Neff returns to Stephens again this week, in Steep’s production of the playwright’s Pornography, an ensemble piece consisting of six intertwining stories in the week leading up to the 2005 London Underground bombing. “Pornography is a different show than [any] I’ve ever done, even though it’s Simon Stephens,” Neff says. “The song of Simon Stephens is there, the themes that are in all of his plays: the wanting to be somewhere else, the relationship that you feel with the place where you are and the place that you come from. But it’s very compartmentalized.”
Of her affinity for Stephens’s work, Neff says, “I think there’s a real sense of what it is to be lost as a human being, looking for where your home is. Home is this weird, ethereal place, right? We moved around a lot when I was a kid; there was never a house that was a home, never a city that was a home. It was just finding what that feeling is.”
Born in New Mexico, Neff grew up all over the Southwest following her dad’s job as a hospital administrator in the Catholic health system. “I went to three different elementary schools, three junior highs and three high schools,” she says. She started college in 2003 in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she worked at “a really bad improv-comedy club” with John Wilson, a Steep Theatre member at the time who’d temporarily returned to Texas on family business (he now works with Collaboraction).
“He suggested Chicago, and I looked up Columbia, and I moved and he introduced me to Steep. Very serendipitous,” says Neff, who graduated from Columbia in 2007 and joined Steep’s ensemble in 2008. It seems Chicago is her home for the foreseeable future. “I just want to work on things that challenge me and force me to learn and grow,” she says. “Chicago theater does that whether you want it to or not, and I’ll stay as long as it will have me.”
Pornography opens Thursday 28.