It’s hard to say which was more liberating for Anna Chlumsky, AB’02: the moment she left acting, or the moment she came back.
Anna Chlumsky, AB’02, was a second-year at the University of Chicago when she decided it was over.
Too old to continue with cute kid roles and too young to play adults, the star of the 1991 hit movie My Girl was in an awkward phase. She struggled through audition after audition until she finally reached a breaking point. Chlumsky remembers sitting in her car after an audition, feeling trapped by the roller coaster of hope and disappointment acting had become. As she stared at the script sitting in the passenger seat, she knew it was time to stop the ride: I don’t have to do this anymore, she realized.
After finishing school, Chlumsky moved to New York and worked in the publishing industry, graduating from Zagat fact-checker to editorial assistant for a fantasy and science-fiction imprint of HarperCollins. But she came to see that what might have been a dream job for someone else wasn’t hers. The desire to act again began to gnaw at her; she ached every time she saw a Broadway play.
She applied to the summer intensive program at New York’s Atlantic Acting School and was accepted. From her first day of classes, Chlumsky knew she was on the right path.
She didn’t have to act anymore. But she wanted to.
Those years of doubt are long behind Chlumsky now. Tonight the Emmy-nominated star of Veep will take the stage at the Longacre Theatre for the Broadway revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It with You. Between bites of Caesar salad and sips of tea at Pigalle, a French bistro near the theater, she pauses to do a series of vocal exercises that sound vaguely like a cat meowing. (“I want to protect the voice,” she says with mock seriousness. “My relationship with phlegm has gotten so detailed and complex.”)
Her present success—a critically acclaimed TV series, two Broadway shows, a part in the upcoming David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour—is something she hoped for but never counted on when she returned to acting.
Chlumsky had one important head start from her work as a child actor—she already had an agent. But apart from that perk, she was like many young actors trying to make it in New York: scared, hopeful, and without health insurance. She got by, she says, on faith and pinched pennies.
She had what she describes as “little encouragements” along the way: an unexpected callback, a part in the small independent film Blood Car. “It’s that kind of beginner’s luck thing,” Chlumsky says. “It’s that way that God tells you, ‘Yeah, you’re doing the right thing.’ And then gives you a long stretch of fear.”
Chlumsky’s little encouragements got bigger. She did more theater and got more callbacks. She played the role of Liz Lemler, Liz Lemon’s romantic nemesis, on an early episode of 30 Rock. She booked an episode of Law & Order, making her one of legions of New York actors to scrape together a few months’ rent thanks to the long-running crime show. (These are their stories.) She is diplomatic when discussing her appearances on Lifetime TV, as in the movie 12 Men of Christmas, which “paid the bills, and I’m grateful to them for that.”
Among her roles as an adult, Chlumsky is probably best known as the bedraggled, put-upon State Department staffer Liza Weld in the 2009 film In the Loop and as Amy Brookheimer, a political aide with a growing Machiavellian streak in Veep. Both parts were created by the Scottish screenwriter Armando Iannucci, whose tart satires suit Chlumsky to a T.
Part of the reason Chlumsky seems so at home in Iannucci’s work is that she is playing characters she might plausibly have become, had that disastrous Chicago audition really been the end of her acting career. At UChicago, Chlumsky abandoned her original plans to study biology after realizing organic chemistry wasn’t for her. When she took a course on the history of Northern Ireland, the subject matter clicked. “It was exciting,” she says. “It just invigorated me. I loved it.”
She majored in International Studies, writing her BA paper on the threat environment in the United States, Israel, and the USSR. Looking back, Chlumsky thinks her argument (nationalism rises as the threat environment rises) was probably tautological, but her adviser, John Mearsheimer, let her slide by with an A. For a time, she considered both grad school and a career at the State Department.
Mostly, though, Chlumsky enjoyed the life of a normal College student: taking classes, studying at the Reg, spending time with friends in Maclean House. She met her college sweetheart (now her husband), Shaun So, AB’03, at a party on the quad. He won her over with his moves on the dance floor. “He liked to dance! Which is so rare! I’m telling you, guys don’t believe me, but if you know how to dance, you can bag the winners.”
Normal student life was a welcome change of pace for Chlumsky, who had been working from the age of ten months, when she began modeling for print advertising. As a child actor, she carried a heavy burden. Her family counted on her income from acting, which got tricky as Chlumsky entered her teen years and gigs gradually got scarce. She became obsessed with the jobs she wasn’t booking.
“We had trouble paying the mortgage because I wasn’t booking stuff,” Chlumsky says. As a young teenager, casting directors passed her over, saying they needed someone thinner. Chlumsky couldn’t help but take it personally. “You’re a kid thinking, we can’t pay for things because I’m too fat?” she recalls, sounding almost indignant at the memory.
Chlumsky is at her most passionate when discussing the pitfalls of child acting, and she doesn’t mince words: “Don’t put your kids into professional acting,” she says. “I think it’s dangerous to monetize a child.”
Child actors succeed largely because they’re cute enough to induce “aw”s and pliable enough to take direction. But young children can’t yet deliver polished, deliberate acting performances in the way adults can. Their gifts are largely unconscious and effortless. “As a kid, you’re not working,” Chlumsky contends. In many ways, child actors are paid simply to be adorable. It’s a fleeting quality kids can’t control, and its loss can be devastating. It’s easy, Chlumsky says, for child actors to grow up and feel “worthless.”
Between her child acting years and her experiences working with children as an adult, Chlumsky has seen every variation of the fraught parent-child actor dynamic: grounded parents who protect their kids, competitive stage parents, parents who indulge their young celebrity’s every whim.
She gets frustrated by some parents’ tendencies to let bad behavior slide. “You don’t get to spoil your kid because he’s on TV,” Chlumsky says. Once kids become professionals, they can’t throw a tantrum and refuse to attend rehearsal. Looking back, “That’s part of what saved me,” she says. “My mom never let that shit go down.”
Chlumsky is now the mother of Penelope, a toddler. Don’t expect to see her daughter on screen anytime soon. “There’s plenty of school plays if she wants to do those, just as there are intramural sports,” Chlumsky says firmly.
Balancing a personal life alongside professional commitments is, of course, nothing new to Chlumsky, but she is quick to admit “it all changes once you have a kid.” Mondays, her day off from the relentless eight-show-a-week Broadway schedule, are “sacred.”
Chlumsky and So, who owns a government contracting business, tag team childcare responsibilities depending on her filming schedule. “If you’re looking for balance of roles” in childcare, she says, “you kind of have to think in terms of months, not in terms of days.”
The couple has endured far more serious challenges than the demands of a busy filming schedule: in 2004, So, an Army reservist, was deployed to Afghanistan. “If long-distance dating is a sport, deployment is the X Games,” Chlumsky wrote in an October 2014 essay for Glamour magazine.
She endured the yearlong separation by reading classic literature about the experience of women in wartime: The Trojan Women, Iphigenia in Aulis. Working on a needlepoint project, she thought of Penelope weaving her tapestry in the Odyssey (later Chlumsky and So took inspiration from the poem for the name of their daughter).
As challenging as the experience was, Chlumsky thinks it ultimately deepened their bond. “I learned I had the stuff to make it through tough times, and that kind of courage is indispensable,” she wrote. “Over that year, we allowed ourselves to cry, to fear, to get nervous or jealous. If we hadn’t been honest about our feelings, our foundation would have been a shaky mess. But overall, that deployment was all about steadiness, courage, candor, and focus.”
The fourth season of Veep began airing in April. Selina Meyer, the egomaniacal but perennially sidelined vice president played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has become president, but rest assured “she’s still crazy Selina,” Chlumsky says.
Chlumsky’s character, Amy Brookheimer, remains as power hungry as ever. “I am growing more empathetic to her. I never necessarily liked her. I would never think that I would want to get beers with her,” she says. In spite of their differences, Chlumsky and Amy share an intense, animated quality and both project a fierce determination to succeed. The character that later became Amy was named “Anna” in an earlier draft of Veep, but Chlumsky has no idea whether Iannucci wrote the part with her in mind. “I was just happy to be working with Arm again,” she says.
On the show she’s surrounded by a cast of comedy heavyweights—Arrested Development’s Tony Hale, Upright Citizens Brigade cofounder Matt Walsh, and of course Louis-Dreyfus—but Chlumsky says she never feels intimidated. More than anything, she’s felt impressed.
Occasionally Veep directors will allow the actors to try entire scenes in one take. “Really, the theater people love it,” she explains. The first time she and her castmates performed an uncut scene, Chlumsky remembers thinking, “Everyone is cookin’, we are all cookin’.”
After the third season of Veep wrapped, Chlumsky spent four days in Michigan filming The End of the Tour. The film, which will open in July, stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as journalist David Lipsky, who researched a profile of Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone in 1996 that was never finished but became the basis for his book Although of Course You End Up Being Yourself (Broadway Books, 2010). Chlumsky plays Lipsky’s girlfriend, Sarah. She desperately wanted to return home to her daughter after filming the season—an exhausting four months of work. Still, the chance to be a part of The End of the Tour was too good to pass up. “They’re offering me the chance to be in the same sentence as these guys,” she says.
Theater has been equally kind to Chlumsky this year: she opened the new play Living on Love in April, two months after making her Broadway debut in You Can’t Take It with You. In the Kaufman and Hart revival she performed what the New York Post called “the single best staircase descent of the year, stumbling down in horror while she lets out a cry that slowly devolves into an asthmatic wheeze.”
Film and theater each offer their own perks and challenges. Chlumsky says theater is “like going to the gym”—a chance to hone the craft through focused repetition. By contrast, film forces actors to make quick decisions and trust their instincts. “A lot of the time, what you would have a week to work on in a play, you have a second” to learn for a movie, she says.
Chlumsky had just nine rehearsals before starting You Can’t Take It with You. Thanks to the breakneck production schedule of Veep, which had just wrapped, she knew she could handle the challenge. There are few challenges that seem to faze her. She is about to appear onstage in a 1,000-seat theater, yet she appears entirely unperturbed as she sips on the last of her tea.
With just an hour until curtain, Chlumsky reaches in her purse for a tin of black currant glycerin lozenges (good for the voice, she says). Bundled up in her winter coat and hat, she looks, for a moment, like the child whose face was once so familiar. But as she heads out into the cold, there is no mistaking her confident stride: Anna Chlumsky is very much an actress, very much an adult, very much a woman in charge of her own destiny.
Susie Allen, AB’09, is a writer and comedian in Chicago.