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Grace Gummer and Kristjan Thor on ‘The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents’ and the Fine Art of Onstage Groping

He goes way back.

It may seem unsurprising that Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep and sister of Mamie, is taking to the New York stage less than a year after finishing college, but acting wasn't actually in her immediate post-graduation plans. Still, when her brother's friend, director Kristjan Thor — a future famous person, as predicted by New York Magazine — sent her a script for The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, she was intrigued by the lead character, Dora, a girl who after ten years on tranquilizers is taken off her medication and experiences the power of her sex drive. The play opens tonight at the Wild Project, and Vulture sat down with Gummer and Thor to discuss Dora's sexual awakening and the challenges of her changing character.

This is your New York debut. Were you looking for a provocative kind of play?
Gummer: No, I wasn’t even planning on being in a play. After graduating, I didn’t really want to. I did a lot of theater in college, but I was working in Rome doing costume design, and then my brother said Kris is doing this play. So I read it thinking I was going to design for it, and then when I was done reading it, I was like, Well…

Thor: And she immediately expressed interest in the part of Dora, so I auditioned her for that part. I auditioned a lot of Doras, like 40 to 50 Doras.

Dora’s on tranquilizers for like ten years before they take her off. Did you do research about medications to prepare for the role?
Gummer: I didn’t really do any research. I just sort of thought about it a lot. I actually had this episode in September when I was in L.A. I fainted and I hit my head really hard and I had to get an MRI. And I was in this MRI machine for about an hour and I thought about Dora, and I was like, This would be a normal, routine thing for her.

What was the biggest challenge for you about her?
Gummer: I think the biggest challenge for me was — I don’t want to be so simple in saying this, but — maintaining her weirdness. Because there is this progression from where she’s like a robot and then slowly she becomes this kind of science project and she’s manipulated by these people and she’s taken off the meds. This whole world opens up for her, so especially when falling in love with the Fine Gentleman, it was hard for me to not get so cuddly and lovey with him and maintain this sort of isolated distance from everybody else.

Thor: I remember we worked a lot, like "It’s actually turning too much into you, Grace." We had to sort of pull back from identifying because that’s what you do as an actress. It didn’t allow for as much of that as a lot of other roles would.

Once she goes off the meds and experiences sex, it becomes like an obsession. Why do you think that’s the thing she gravitates toward?
Gummer: I think since she went through puberty on these meds — I mean, when you’re becoming an adult, that’s the most important thing, coming into your sexuality and knowing your body and the desire for other people’s bodies. That’s the most ingrained natural human thing.

Thor: That’s the one thing that everybody around her wouldn’t want her to attach to because they want to keep her pure and their pet.

Was it hard to master all the different voices?
Thor: The answer to that is no. I made a CD, and she didn’t need it all. I sent the play to your brother and he clearly didn’t read it right away, and then I cast Grace in the interim and then he read it like a week later, and then he called me and was like, “Kris, Kris, Kris, you’re going to be so excited that you cast Grace. She’s incredible at imitating people.” I called her was like, “Are you really good at imitating people?” And she goes, “Well, yeah…”

Gummer: I’ve been told that I’m good at impersonating people.

Do you think Dora really loves the Fine Gentleman?
Gummer: I think she does fall in love with him, I do. And I think they have a strange love for each other. But they’re both like creepy, weird people so it can’t work.

Thor: The Fine Gentleman is written for an older actor. So we made a decision to cast him as younger because if he was a 50-, 60-year-old dirty man, I think one would never feel like true love was actually going blossom between these two people.

Some of the scenes are very uncomfortable, especially when you're being groped in the bedroom. What was it like in those first rehearsals?
Gummer: It helps that I like Max [Lodge] as a person, and I think he’s great so I was immediately comfortable with him. Because going into this play, I was pretty skeptical about, like, everything. [Laughter] It was a big thing for me. I didn’t know whether I was totally comfortable with everything, but as it went on and I understood why we were making certain decisions, it made more sense and I became more comfortable. And the physical aspects of it just really happened on their own later in rehearsals … Literally, when he touches my ass, we decided that a couple days before the show. [Laughs]

Photo: Thomas Hand Keefe