Hearty Laugh: A Chat with Airline Highway's Julie White

Written by | Entertainment

Julie White broke through on the ’90s sitcom Grace Under Fire as flighty neighbor Nadine. Since then, she’s found a knack for making any role memorable, from her performance in Little Dog Laughed, which won her a Tony, to her roles in three of the Transformers movies, which didn’t win her Oscars.

She’s now in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Airline Highway, playing Broadway through June 14. Written by Lisa D’Amour (a Pulitzer finalist for Detroit) and directed by Joe Mantello, the play is about a family-of-circumstance living in a motel in New Orleans. White plays Tanya, a prostitute planning the funeral for the family’s (still-living) mother figure, Miss Ruby.

Her performance “handily surpasses her superb prior work in lighter comedies,” as described by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, and has now earned her a 2015 Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress. If you ever get the chance to talk to Julie White, do: Her laugh — which she uses liberally — is a thing you want to hear.

White spoke with Metrosource while Airline Highway was in previews.
Interview by Matt Gurry

METROSOURCE: I’ve been a fan of yours, actually, since the Nadine years—
JULIE WHITE: [laughs heartily]

—and I’ve been looking for an excuse to talk to you for a long time, so I’m glad to have it now.
Ha! Well you’re sweet, thank you. I’ve cut my hair off, so I look like Nadine again. Nadine as an old, drug-addicted hooker! [laughs]

I’ll be honest: The play is exhausting. It makes us ask these internal questions, and I don’t really want to know myself that well.
[laughs heartily] I know, Matt! It’s a lot, isn’t it?

It is, and it’s odd because it’s not really these huge hot-button issues like race or sexuality or Israel/Palestine. But by Act II, you realize it’s this tempest, though it’s all so internalized.
Yeah, and it’s not going to resolve, either. It’s an interesting piece. [Lisa D’Amour]’s presenting something different than what we conventionally think of as a play, I think. In some ways it feels like performance art, and you’re asked to watch something that happens panoramically.

Joe [Mantello] has staged it in such a way where you know where the focus is, but Lisa writes in this kind of exploded reality, so as an actor you’re filling in a lot of gaps that aren’t filled out for you.

I imagine, that if it’s draining for me to watch—
It’s exhausting! [laughs] Maybe the longer I do it, it will get easier, but at this point… And Tanya’s little journey? Man! It’s rough!

She shows up already 10 steps into the journey.
Yeah. She’s having a funeral for a woman who’s her mother figure, she gets that letter that one of her kids wants to find her; it’s a bad day for day for Tanya. And she makes it a long time without using.

And then there’s stuff I’m playing that you probably don’t see. Once that gutter pipe falls down, Tanya starts drinking. I have this one line, “Jesus, Francis, get me a beer!” Then I thought: Wait a minute, if she’s an addict, then once she starts drinking, that’s it. She does some shots, but then with Miss Ruby’s Oxy… She says, “They always find me when I need them.”

Oh, I was wondering what she was taking. So Tanya’s bogarting Miss Ruby’s painkillers?
No, she has that one line, but I think Tanya buys from that one guy in the room downstairs. He comes out at the very beginning of the play and asks, “Do you need anything?” And I’m like, “NO.”

Right! But it’s such a loaded “no.”
Yes, [laughs], she’s like, “God, yes of course I want some!” Then by the end of the play she ends up in that room, and there’s no telling what she used the rest of the night.

Is it tough playing drunk onstage? Because you have to be believable, but you also have to be, you know, watchable.
Yeah. I don’t know, Matt, the whole play is pretty hard. [laughs]

And it reads! At bows, you guys just look done. Like, “Thank. God. I get to just go home and watch Dancing with the Stars now.”
[laughs heartily] I know! And I just bought a house up in Westchester County, this lovely-lady house, all stone and stucco, and I was meeting with my landscaper on Monday and I noticed he kept looking at me funny, and I remembered I’ve dyed my hair this skanky-ass color, like, pink and orange. No wonder he’s looking at me crazy! So whenever I’m home, now, I just wear a hat.

When I first moved to New York out of college, I saw those old Circle Rep shows. Balm in Gilead, The Hot l Baltimore — they’re by Lanford Wilson — these big shows with so much going on. He would just sit in a coffee shop and write down what people said, and they felt like…life. So when the play came to me I thought, A., it’s Steppenwolf, which I just always thought was so cool, and B., it’s that kind of play, so let’s give it a try. We’re taking a big swing. And win, lose or draw, I’m glad I challenged myself in this way. Because I certainly don’t have to. But I thought, let’s try.

Julie White, with Carolyn Braver, by Joan Marcus

I was wondering about the Steppenwolf transfer. The show transferred with a lot of the Steppenwolf company in tact. Was it a challenge coming into a cast that had already gelled?
Yes. They were all so welcoming to me, but it was just a time thing. I had two weeks in the rehearsal room, and then we were in the theater. It was a lot to soak in in a short time.

Wow. Well, it’s so good to see you in a meaty role like Tanya. Because when we see you in a popcorn movie about, oh, I’m just pulling this from my ass, about fighting robots, you make it more fun—
[laughs extra heartily]

—but after Little Dog Laughed, a lot of the theater world was thinking, Damn, we need to watch this one, so it’s super rewarding to see you sink your teeth into a role like this.
Oh good, well that’s very sweet of you to say.

But don’t worry, I won’t be on stage in a booty shorts with a Big Gulp again anytime soon.

What do you mean “don’t worry”! I want to see your Miss Julie in booty shorts. Like, “I don’t care that we’re in 19th-century Sweden, my character wears booty shorts—”
“—booty shorts!” That’s right. Everything is better in booty shorts. [laughs]

Well, you know, I’m trying to give Tanya a sparkle and a light so that you root for her. She can’t just be a fucked-up crazy addict from the get-go. She’s also very maternal: She’s trying to take care of Krista; she loves Sissy Na Na. Intrinsically, New Orleans is that dirty, gritty place, but it’s also that very weirdly joyful place. So when the lights come up on Act II, and all of the sudden it’s that crazy, great party… It turns into something pretty fabulous for a moment.

Yeah, when I saw it last night, the quick lights-up got a huge audience response. Is that typical?
Oh good! I think it is kinda typical. Although, it’s so loud up there, man, that I can’t even hear you. But, good. Fabulous. There’s a lot of good stagecraft to it, and it’s only something that happens on stage. It’s an intrinsically theatrical moment.

Hey listen, Matt, I’m being called into rehearsal. I’m so sorry!

Well, thank you for these 15 minutes!
Thank you, my darling, and thank you for the press. If you can find some way to warn people what they’re seeing, if people want an intense theatrical experience, get over here because it’s certainly that.

Airline Highway runs through June 14 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Tickets are available here.

Last modified: March 13, 2018