‘Spelling Bee’ Queen Celia Keenan-Bolger on Playing Pregnant in ‘Saved,’ the Musical

Photo: Joan Marcus

As Olive in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Celia Keenan-Bolger not only charmed audiences with her rendition of "My Friend, the Dictionary" but picked up a Tony nomination. Now, following a performance as the pregnant Mary in Juno (the Encores! production, not the Ellen Page movie), she's starring in Off Broadway's Saved as … well, a pregnant girl named Mary. In this musical adaptation of the 2004 Christian-satire movie, which opens tonight at Playwrights Horizons, Keenan-Bolger steps into Jena Malone's role as a high schooler seeking redemption for her gay boyfriend. She spoke with Vulture about playing a teen at 30, her own high-school experience, and the challenges of starring in Juno (the other one).

Have you seen the movie version of Saved!?
I watched it for the first time about a year ago, when they said they would be interested in me doing the play. And I haven’t actually seen it since — I thought about revisiting it when we were in rehearsals, but then I just got too nervous. Because I remember thinking Jena Malone was so good, and I was like, "You know, it won’t be useful. It will get in my head, and I’ll probably end up doing an imitation of her."

It seems like some of the characters have softened up compared to their versions in the film. Do you think Mary is different at all?
Whenever you have characters singing, all of a sudden you’re getting an interior that you would never get in a movie because essentially the songs are an expression of an emotion that you wouldn’t capture in a lens. I also feel like in New York City to make a musical about Christians that are crazy is kind of easy. Your audience is so built into that; people are happy to get on that train. Something that drew me to the project was that they were trying to put everyone in a fair light.

What was your own high-school experience like?
I went to public school in Detroit so I was one of like two white kids in my entire high school. It was a performing-arts school so it was much more out there than a normal high-school experience. But because I was a minority, I was always a little on the outside. I remember getting to college, and being like, "Whoa, there are a lot of white people here."

And now you’re 30. What’s it like to play an adolescent?
It’s interesting, I think when I first started doing the show, I was so self-conscious about it and so interested in making people believe that there was some plausibility in me being in high school, and by the fourth preview I totally abandoned that. I think high school is such a crazy time because so much is happening around you, so much is changing, and you’re filled with questions, whether you’re religious or not. I’ve just tried to focus on that part of it as opposed to playing the age.

As we were watching the show, we kept thinking about Juno — the movie, not the musical you were just in. It's also a high-school student who gets pregnant after her first time. Was there any discussion of that?
Well, we started working on this before Juno came out. But what I started thinking was, Why is this? Why are pieces of art being made about this? There is this sort of surge. And I suppose you could just say it’s just coincidence, but I would like to think it’s a little bit deeper than that. At one point the writers had a line, when I had the sonogram, which was like, "What’s with the sea monkey? Are you, like, having a sea monkey?" And someone was like, "No, you can’t say that line — that line’s in Juno." And we were like, "Oh my God."

And in the other Juno, you just played a pregnant Mary. Was that a coincidence?
[Laughs.] I have no idea what that’s about. And in a musical called Juno, where everyone was constantly asking me, "They made that into a musical already?"
—Lori Fradkin