When Marin Ireland graduated from drama school in 2000, she had to choose between two jobs: She could go to Vermont to play Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, or she could join the cast of the playwright Adam Rapp’s Nocturne at the American Repertory Theater. Bianca was Shakespeare, “what I thought my career would be,” Ireland says today. For Nocturne, on the other hand, “I was just told, ‘We don’t have the script. You may have lines; you may not. And you may also be nude the entire time you’re onstage.’ ” Naturally, she signed on.
“You’ve gotta go with the sparky thing,” Ireland says with a shrug, and that might as well be the motto for everything she has done since. (For the record: She was nude in Nocturne and didn’t speak at all.) Ireland, who’s in her mid-30s, is well known in the theater community as an actress who wholly animates her characters’ essences while always communicating a keen intelligence. Her 2009 Broadway debut in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty earned her a Tony nomination, and she won glowing reviews as a Polish immigrant in last year’s Off Broadway Ironbound — which was even more impressive given that she’d stepped into the role with just over a week of rehearsal after Gina Gershon departed the production. Yet she’s generally avoided the ingénue route, consistently leaving an impression in roles big (a homegrown terrorist on Homeland) and, more often, small but memorable (Lena Dunham’s passive-aggressive classmate on Girls; Chris Pine’s ex-wife in Hell or High Water). Now she’s enjoying a lead role opposite Giovanni Ribisi on Amazon’s dark comedy Sneaky Pete and starring in a one-woman play, Martín Zimmerman’s On the Exhale, at the Roundabout Underground.
“I never thought I would legit get asked to do it,” she says of the play, which she’d performed during its development. “I figured I was a placeholder — like, this is the perfect play to offer any super-famous person!” A year ago, she read before a live audience the play’s only role: a woman of undefined ethnicity, between the ages of 30 and 50, who relates a horrific experience with gun violence and its aftermath. “I remember feeling the audience, and I was excited but petrified,” Ireland recalls during a conversation at Café Orlin, near her East Village home. “It felt like a thriller: You have no idea where we’re heading as the play goes along. Where is she? Is she telling the truth?” Since then, learning Zimmerman’s script (which is written in verse and in the second person) has been “a demon parade,” Ireland says with a laugh. “It’s just you and all those voices. Having to run lines to a wall is so lonely and strange and disorienting.”
Ireland is fond of referencing a Charlie Kaufman screenwriting lecture “that’s exactly the way I think of being an artist. He’s like, ‘I agreed to do this because I don’t know how to do it. I wanted to give you the experience of seeing someone fumble.’ That’s such a touchstone for me, working on this play. I am not Elaine Stritch. I am not Carrie Fisher. I am not Judith Light — all of these people who have done wonderful one-person plays.”
She’s become “very small pen pals” with Kaufman after auditioning for a film of his in 2011 that was never made, and she did manage to corral Light at Amazon’s Golden Globes party for advice. “She was like, ‘I know exactly where you are. Have you recorded it and played it back to yourself every night?’ ‘I hate the sound of my voice, how can I do that?’ ‘You have to do it. It’s the only way.’ ‘I’m scared out of my mind!’ ‘Of course you are! I was never not scared.’ ” Light offered Ireland her number to text during said scary moments. “I haven’t done it yet,” Ireland says. “I feel like I’m saving that.”
Ireland read for Exhale during a break on Sneaky Pete while the show switched showrunners (the pilot was developed by CBS; co-creator David Shore was later replaced by Justified’s Graham Yost). She’s still in a bit of shock that, for the first time, she’s the female lead. Though she grew up in California, it felt far from Hollywood, in a small town she describes now as “farmland and a mental hospital.” She vividly recalls the early days of her acting career, “auditioning in these L.A. rooms full of models, thinking, I can’t compete with that, and not only that — but I don’t want to. I want to be the one having the adventures.” Sneaky Pete’s Julia “isn’t the perfect love interest. She’s weird and makes mistakes; she’s bad at her job. She’s having the adventures with the guy.” The show’s already been renewed for a second season, and the cast — including Bryan Cranston and Margo Martindale — is filled with quasi-recognizable, reliably solid character actors like Ireland herself. She admits she sometimes wonders whether, like longtime peers Pablo Schreiber and Michael Shannon, she will get a big breakthrough moment.
“You go, Oh, could that happen for me? Will it? You can’t make it happen,” Ireland says. “I try to look at people like Amy Ryan and Sarah Paulson and think, It’s okay that I’m not a 25-year-old skyrocketing to the cover of Vogue. The times when I can remember that Judith Light and I can feel like colleagues for a moment, that I can call Margo Martindale when I’m freaking out about a TV show, when Charlie Kaufman is writing to me — I sort of feel like that’s what I’ve always wanted.” Of course, there’s a good reason she’s working with this caliber of collaborators. As On the Exhale’s director, Leigh Silverman, says, “Marin understands how important it is to let an audience have the feelings. She isn’t interested in spoon-feeding emotions. She holds out her beating heart, and she dares you to look.”
On the Exhale opens in previews today.
*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.