Profile: Nina Arianda

The breakout newcomer makes her Broadway debut in Born Yesterday.

A STAR IS BORN YESTERDAY Arianda gets ready for an even bigger break. 

A STAR IS BORN YESTERDAY Arianda gets ready for an even bigger break.  Photograph: Joan Marcus

Last season when Nina Arianda made her Off Broadway debut in Venus in Fur, many critics (our own David Cote among them) hailed her as an up-and-coming star. Although that prediction might have seemed premature for a young woman with only a handful of professional credits and a newly minted M.F.A. in acting from NYU, Arianda wasn't playing an ordinary character. As an auditioning thespian named Vanda in David Ives's twisty two-hander, the performer embodied multiple types at once: flaky artist, domineering temptress, gawky wallflower and even a goddess in the flesh. In that one role, the rookie blindsided audiences with her remarkable range.

A little more than a year later, Arianda's formerly sparse rsum is filling up. The statuesque 26-year-old now has five movies under her belt (one directed by Woody Allen, who took a personal meeting with Arianda at the behest of his sister after she saw Venus). She's also making her Broadway debut in a revival of Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy Born Yesterday opposite Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard. This is the kind of whirlwind success that would thrill (or freak out) most neophytes, but Arianda—gorgeous and also goofy in person—has a surefire way to stay calm. "I just don't think about it," she says. "And I don't read anything about myself. I let my father do that. He's my stalker. He checks [my name] on the Internet every day. But I don't want to hear about any of it."

Others certainly do. The story of how she won the role of Vanda is nearly stage legend. Arianda read for the playwright and director, Walter Bobbie, and was cast that same day—no callback necessary. The same thing happened with Born Yesterday: She snagged the plum part of Billie, a not-so-dumb blond, after just one meeting. "It was surreal," the actor admits. "This kind of thing just doesn't happen. It's bananas. I still don't believe it! But I'm very grateful."

Doug Hughes, who's helming Born Yesterday, apparently had his eye on Arianda for quite a while. "I saw him at the second preview [of Venus in Fur], and I said, 'Doug, you're here hunting, aren't you?' " remembers Bobbie. Because of her immense talent (as well as her relative obscurity), Arianda seems like a smart choice for Billie, a tricky part. An unsophisticated showgirl caught in a love triangle between a politically corrupt lout (Belushi) and a no-nonsense journalist (Leonard), the role is closely associated with Judy Holliday, who originated the part on Broadway and went on to win an Oscar for her portrayal in the 1950 movie adaptation. Although other actresses have attempted the character—including Madeline Kahn on stage and Melanie Griffith on film—Holliday's iconic interpretation has endured.

Arianda—who hasn't seen the Holliday film and vowed not to until after the play closes—hopes to make her own mark. Although she's not modeling her performance on any particular person, she cites Dolly Parton and Cyndi Lauper as inspirations. She also says she sees a lot of Vanda in Billie. "They're both Olympic parts," she explains. "They're such layered characters. Billie's a lot of fun to play. I have a lot of respect for her type. She's got this beautiful, honest, open, wide-eyed quality. She's not afraid to be like, 'Yeah, I don't understand this.' It takes a bold person to say that."

That description also applies to Arianda. Bobbie, whom she affectionately calls her mentor, recalls being struck by her boldness from the moment he met her. "I thought, This girl could do light comedy or Medea!" he says. "I don't think Nina's ever been an ingenue. She's a young woman, but there's an old and wise soul in there. There's something so unique and finished about her."

Chalk that up to her two decades of training as a performer, in her native New Jersey and in Germany, where her family lived when she was a teen, as well as stints at prestigious programs like London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and NYC's HB Studio. Now all Arianda plans to do is focus on the work—and never again have a day job. "I was a hostess, I sold shoes, but I don't function well in jobs that don't have to do with what I love," she says. "I have cleaned bathrooms in theaters, I have sold wine in theaters, I have sold tickets, because I will do anything, anything, to stay in this world."

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