At 41, Celia Keenan-Bolger has played her fair share of characters younger than herself onstage in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Glass Menagerie, and Saved, but now she’s playing one that’s closer to her heart. With Aaron Sorkin’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Keenan-Bolger has earned her fourth Tony nomination, for playing Scout Finch. Harper Lee’s book was a crucial part of Keenan-Bolger’s upbringing with politically active parents in Detroit, though the play adopts a fresh perspective on the source material. Starring in the play has made Keenan-Bolger examine some of her own political beliefs, as well as reckon with the assumptions of Broadway audiences. In the midst of Tony season, Vulture caught up with her to discuss her history with Mockingbird, whether kids believe her performance as a kid, and how she thinks she’ll teach the novel to her son.
I’ve heard you say that your parents used To Kill a Mockingbird as a teaching tool for you when you were a kid. What did that entail?
They would say, “You have to understand what it is to walk around in somebody else’s skin,” having empathy for other people. Then there were a lot of conversations. My mom was a direct, strong woman. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird with her and her weeping and thinking, Why did this have such an impact on her? There were strong moral principles in our house that were about standing up for what was right and being kind to others, you know, which is not so different from most other families. But they were also super-involved in Detroit politics. I went to a lot of marches and protests and labor meetings and walked a lot of picket lines. In addition to talking the talk, they walked the walk.
Did you think that your politically focused upbringing would be separate from what you did as an actor?
I’ve experienced so many pieces of art that I felt were powerful and important for the cultural moment we were living in, so it’s not that I didn’t know it couldn’t exist, I didn’t think that I was ever necessarily going to get to be a part of it. Because I don’t think of myself as a creator; I’m such an interpreter. I don’t have big ideas about something to “make,” I have ideas about what I want to be a part of and what I want to bring into the world. I have to wait for Aaron Sorkin to come along and give me the themes that are resonant.
Initially, the production wasn’t sure if they were going to cast kids, and you and Will Pullen came in for a first reading as a temporary thing. What was your initial reaction to Aaron Sorkin’s version?
That first reading, I remember there was a line after we find out that Tom Robinson’s dead that Calpurnia says, “Why did prison guards have to shoot a one-armed man climbing a fence five times?” I burst into tears. The way that he was able to take something that’s completely happened in the novel but that felt so relevant to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and all these young men who have been gunned down, it felt like he was onto something. Aaron was willing to investigate his privilege and understood that as a white person adapting this book there are places that he needed to make sure that he was giving voice to characters who maybe hadn’t had it in the last two adaptations. I felt that, from the very beginning, he was the right person to bring this story to the stage.
Did that make you investigate your own privilege, as a white person playing a character in this story about racism?
During the Obama presidency, I believed in my bones — and I still do, to a degree — that our country had taken a big turn and that we were heading in the right direction. But now, in this presidency, all of the attention on the race dynamics in our country, on the sexual assaults and harassment — those things still existed during the Obama administration. But because of my place in the world, I didn’t have to experience them in the same way. In this play, Atticus Finch keeps saying, “These are good people, I know these people, you have to give Macomb time, progress is slow, but we are on our way,” that there is something about this play where I was like, “That was me.” I was not awake — or I knew that they existed but I didn’t need to care as much as I do now.
I’m interested, then, in what it feels like to perform a play like this for Broadway audiences, which tend to be disproportionately liberal, wealthy, and white.
I’ve been so moved at the difference between a normal evening at our show, which has been pretty much every night a wealthy white audience, and the student matinees. In a wonderful way, the play is a sort of call to arms to white affluent liberals who think that by reading what they read and giving money, that’s enough. Aaron is really trying to say, “Yes, we have a responsibility. All rise.”
Then, for the school groups, it’s a completely different message because they’re like, “We know all this is wrong.” They’re not surprised, but there is usually a pretty visceral reaction when they find out that Tom has been killed that I’m always very emotional about. They also always seem to have a big response at the Boo Radley reveal, whereas the adults know that’s coming.
Speaking of school groups coming — since you’re playing a kid, what’s the reaction like from actual kids? Do they generally believe you?
My favorite is that they’re like, “Scout! Scout!” They call me by the character’s name. A little girl yesterday was like, “Girl, I get so tired watching you, I was trying to watch the play but I was exhausted because you moved around a lot!” I was like, “I appreciate that you noticed that!”
This season, To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for nine Tonys, but not for Best Play, and I saw you posting on Instagram about how you’d wished everyone involved in the show had been recognized.
What makes me so proud of this season is I can’t remember a season that had better plays as part of it. There are people like Heidi Schreck and Taylor Mac and Lucas Hnath as representative playwrights on Broadway, and there are so many extraordinary performances. Even though I’ve been nominated four times, with this group of people being represented on Broadway, to be nominated [this time] feels like a crazy honor. That helped in the navigating of, “I want everybody to be recognized.” Because it’s one thing to be a big hit in a season when the season is sort of thin, but it’s another thing to be recognized with nine nominations in a season that is chock-full of incredible actors and incredible playwrights. If I have to look at it as a glass half-full, then it’s more than half-full.
To Kill a Mockingbird was important to you as a kid. Being a parent now, has acting in this show changed the way you think about teaching politics?
I certainly drag my son to all of the protests. He’s been to both Women’s Marches, and I’m doing what was modeling for me. Because my parents made sure that we were in the streets, that’s why I feel this obligation to try to continue their work of social justice. I also want him to be exposed to great art in the way that my parents took me to the theater and the symphony.
Your son’s not quite at the age to read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, but have you thought about how you would teach it to him?
I would be interested in what he would say, what his takeaways were. I hope that they would be different than what my takeaways were when I was in the eighth grade, because of how we’ve evolved as a culture. But I do think these notions of empathy and action are at the center of what I would try to instill in him. We can understand why people are the way that they are, but we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our neighbors to do the right thing and to stand up for people who have less than what we have.
This interview has been edited and condensed.