Kelly O'Sullivan | Performer of the week

Kelly O'Sullivan and Nathan Hosner in Hesperia at Writers' Theatre

Kelly O'Sullivan and Nathan Hosner in Hesperia at Writers' Theatre Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Introduced to theater at six years old as a way of burning off excess energy, Kelly O’Sullivan has come a long way since appearing in Little Women as one of the kids with scarlet fever. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, and alum of Northwestern University and the School at Steppenwolf, O’Sullivan is currently appearing in Writers’ Theatre’s Hesperia as a porn star looking to escape her past. Her efforts are interrupted when her childhood sweetheart and monogamous porn partner arrives in the titular small Midwest town, looking for redemption of his own. The actor spoke with us about her own experiences living in the conservative South, how she internalized years of working in the porn industry, and the boon Xtube was in helping develop her character.

How did you and Nathan Hossner work to create the history between Claudia and Ian? It really felt like you two had known each other for 20 years.

Nathan and I, we had never met before the photo shoot for Hesperia, and then we actually talked to each other on the first day of rehearsal. He and I really talked a lot about the characters, along with [director] Stuart [Carden] and [writer] Randall [Colburn]. We went through and talked about back story and what it was like to grow up with each other, and we shared personal stories about people that we’ve known in our personal lives and we emailed music back and forth. And we also get along really well. Everyone in the cast is so nice and personable and we hang out a lot outside of rehearsal. So, it was effortful and kind of effortless at the same time.

Are you from a religious family? You grew up in Arkansas, I’m assuming it was pretty conservative down there.

Yeah, very. I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten to 8th grade, until I refused to go to Catholic school any longer. And then I went to public school. I kind of got the best of both worlds because my dad is Catholic but my mom is agnostic. And so every day I would come home and tell my mom what I learned in Catholic school and then she would slowly but surely poke holes in it and ask really wonderful, skeptical questions about religion. So I always had a good grasp on religion and maybe the flaws that come with it. But yes, Arkansas is very religious. It’s super Christian. It’s not necessarily Catholic, but it’s definitely Christian. So I grew up being surrounded. It was just a given that you would be Christian.

How did that help you get into the role?

It helped because I understand. I feel like I’m not that judgmental of Christians, because all of my dear friends in Arkansas are still Christians. I have friends in Arkansas who absolutely did not have sex before they got married. And I feel like because I know those people and love them, I was able to approach religion in a way that is not judgmental of that, that doesn’t just laugh at it or see it as being quaint and homey. It actually sees religion as a really wonderful way to be a part of something larger than yourself.

I liked that everyone ends up being very sympathetic. There’s not really any sort of villain.

Absolutely. I think Randall does such a good job of that and I think it’s so clear that he comes from a place of—he used to be Christian, he got saved and now he’s not religious anymore, and I think it’s very clear that he’s not judgmental of those people in his writing.

Without the porn angle, the show is basically about two childhood friends who become lovers, then struggle to fit in the world after they break apart. Did any of that resonate specifically with you?

Yeah, certainly. Everyone in the cast, we’d all sit around and have conversations about the reinvention of self that comes with any massive break-up or any cross-country move or any questioning of lifestyle in general. Like, what do you want to do with your life? So we all sat around and talked about that a lot. I’ve been through some long-term relationships that have ended. Where the people were enormously important to me, and then all of a sudden you make the decision not to have those people in your life that way. And you really do have to decide who you are without them. So that resonated certainly. And also, Claudia comes to religion. And in my life, I left religion. So that decision as well—that decision to have God a part of your life or not a part of your life really resonated.

How much research did you do into the porn industry for the role? Did you watch any?

I did. I went on Xtube and, I didn’t know this, but they have these filters that—you can put in “amateur porn” if you want to see people just doing it in their bedrooms. And then even further than that I put in “real couple amateur porn.” So I was trying to find people that really just have sex with their significant others on camera. And it was bizarre and so weird. But at the same time, I found one video of this young couple, they looked like they were in their early twenties having sex and it seemed like they were really in love. And that was super helpful for me in terms of seeing how that would be possible, to share something like that with the world and also maintain a kind of intimacy.

How did you internalize Claudia’s years in the porn industry and make that real for yourself?

In addition to watching porn, the thing that was really important to me and to Nathan that we talked about a lot was that in the beginning the porn was really just them having sex on camera. And so the beginning, it wasn’t really porn to them. And then we talked about how they probably had more and more people from the porn industry come into their lives and start to mandate the kind of porn they were putting out. We talked about how their relationship probably changed and how it didn’t. How it probably wasn’t so intimate. And then all of the drug use. So I really thought it was more of a descent into not being able to control your situation anymore. I thought a lot about the actual sex, but really I think it’s more of a spiral down into complete loss of control. And I think pretty much anyone can understand that. Pretty much anyone has had that in their lives. So that was helpful for me to think about, just in terms of all of a sudden you don’t know how you got to where you are, and all you know is that you can’t be in that anymore.

It’s not anywhere near porn, but have you ever found yourself in a position on stage where your personal beliefs might have conflicted with what your director wanted or what’s in the script? Or is that not really a problem for you?

It certainly wasn’t a problem in this production, because Randall and Stuart are so collaborative and any time we would hit any kind of a hiccup, we would just talk about it, talk about it, and then they would go away and address it. I have certainly been in situations where I felt at odds with a director or sometimes manipulated by a certain situation. But luckily, as I work more and more, I’m able to recognize when that’s happening and so I’m very quickly able to sort of guide the direction, the way that interaction goes. But in this production, absolutely not.

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