For Phillipa Soo, All Roads Lead Back To Theater

It’s been quite a decade for Phillipa Soo. In the 10 years since she graduated from The Juilliard School, Soo has emerged as a fixture of the New York theater scene, originating the roles of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in the megahit musical Hamilton and Natasha Rostova in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, as well as playing the title role in the Broadway production of Amélie.

But in recent years, the Chinese American actress has crossed over into film and television, playing a young lawyer-turned-Marine in the CBS military drama The Code, a hard-bitten sales rep with Purdue Pharma in the Hulu miniseries Dopesick, and the Chinese goddess of the moon in the Netflix animated film Over the Moon. And in the new metaphysical Apple TV+ thriller series Shining Girls, Soo plays Jin-Sook, an intelligent young researcher who works at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago—and who could be the next victim of an omnipresent serial killer.

Based on Lauren Beukes’s best-selling novel of the same name and executive produced by Silka Luisa and Leonardo DiCaprio, Shining Girls—which premieres today, followed by one new episode every Friday—follows Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss), a Chicago newspaper archivist whose journalistic ambitions were put on hold after surviving a traumatic attack. But when she discovers that another woman suffered a copycat assault, Kirby teams up with veteran reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to catch her assailant (Jamie Bell)—only to discover that her realities have begun to blur across multiple decades.

“I listened to [the original book] after I got the job,” Soo tells W in a recent Zoom interview from her home in Brooklyn. “At its core, [this story] is about trauma and these ‘shining girls’ having a chance to reclaim their lives.”

Below, Soo speaks about her fascination with the true crime genre, how the theater informs her work in TV and film (and vice versa), and her latest off-Broadway production, Suffs, in which she plays American suffragist Inez Milholland.

Shining Girls is a genre-bending take on the true crime genre. Along with the audience, the main characters are trying to make sense of what happened to these women. Are you a true crime junkie in real life?

I wouldn’t say that I am, but the minute one of my friends recommends something, or I’m watching something on TV, or my husband is watching something and I’m like, “What’s going on here?”—I really do love it. The stakes are so high, and there’s an element of mystery and ambiguity that I love. I love not knowing more than the characters [do] in the story.

In Shining Girls, I thought, What does the audience know? And what is important for them to see in this moment visually? Because ultimately, you want it to make sense. And at the same time, you want to go into a scene knowing as little as possible and still be able to play all of the stakes and to immerse yourself in that story.

What were some of your biggest takeaways from working with Elisabeth Moss and Jamie Bell?

Jamie Bell is just a fantastic actor. I’ve seen his work many times, and he’s just super captivating. Having worked with him on set, he’s got this beautiful way of navigating the material that feels playful, new, and fresh every time you’re doing a take. But at the same time, it’s grounded in the stakes of the story. And also, he’s terrifying and very scary as this character. [Laughs.] But not in real life!

I’ve been a fan of Elisabeth Moss’s for so long. I’m obsessed with Handmaid’s Tale. I just think that she is one of the best actors out there, and getting to work with her not only as a scene partner, but [also] as a director, [has] really been a master class in storytelling from so many different levels.

In recent years, you’ve become more involved in TV and film while keeping a foot firmly planted in Broadway and off-Broadway. Did you always know you wanted to make that transition, or did it just happen organically?

I just thought to myself one day, “I definitely want to try and pursue that.” And I found getting to do both has been informative of one another.

There’s an element to being on stage and being free to be your own editor in that moment with weeks of rehearsal leading up to it; it really is a treat to deeply invest yourself in that character, to get to do it multiple times a week and perfect it. Whereas when you’re working behind the camera, there’s a little bit more of a looseness to it—you don’t have as much time to rehearse. But I do think that requires a level of coming to the table ready to play and be free, and a level of collaboration. But ultimately, it’s all just rooted in truth, story, and character.

Let’s talk about your work in Suffs, a musical based on the women’s suffrage movement. What has been your favorite part of not only telling this important story but also returning to the theater amid the ongoing pandemic?

In this age of technology, there is an element of physical isolation: you’re engaging with the world, but you are, physically, mostly by yourself when you’re on your phone. And especially during the pandemic, it became very clear to me that people need each other. We need to be able to gather, we need to be able to look each other in the eye and have a conversation. I think anybody would say this: Zoom is awkward. [Laughs.] Theater is, in my opinion, an exercise in your empathy for humanity. You put yourself in a position where, yes, you’ll be entertained, but maybe you’ll be uncomfortable, or confused, or intrigued. The purpose of live theater is to give you the tools to deal with things that might be emotionally traumatic, or conversations that might be difficult to have. You’ve been sitting next to people experiencing a story together, and that, ultimately, can strengthen your own life interactions.

You’ve said in past interviews that you believe art can hold up a mirror to the rest of society. How would you say Suffs fits into the current socio-political climate in America, when new legislation is being introduced to restrict access to the very thing these women were fighting for with the 19th Amendment?

Something very important that our story shares is who these women were. We don’t know a lot about them. But I think the story that we’re telling is not only women getting the right to vote, but [also] what happens within a movement: how there’s failure, there’s success, there are differing opinions. Everyone might be trying to get the same thing, but there might be different groups of people who are trying different ways to get it, and that is exactly what we are going through today, in our political system.

The overriding thing that I hope people take away is, it was so difficult for women to get the right to vote. And let’s be clear: At that time, it was for white women. On a very basic level, I want people to be excited about their vote. There’s an ancestral, historical connection to what these women were going through every time I go to the ballot box.

How would you say the experience of making Hamilton has informed your current work? Do you still find yourself carrying a part of Eliza with you?

How can I not carry her with me? I certainly think there is a through line in terms of my desire to do work that engages with a community at large and is the beginning of larger conversations to have. My hope is that the work I do is a road map to different conversations and different ways of thinking that people take with them—and bring into their own practice of their life.

You’ve openly spoken about the lack of representation you saw growing up. What does it mean to be able to speak to different versions of your younger self through the audience members who might see themselves in your characters?

To be representative of a community at large feels like a huge pressure, but also a huge honor. Because growing up, I didn’t have a lot of Asian role models. It’s powerful when you get to see a story where you see yourself in that person—whether it’s because of how they look, or how they dress, or identify. The more we can have diverse stories in media and in art, that sets us up for one more chance of appealing to someone who might feel like they are the most isolated, different person on the planet. And yet, they have found some sort of connection to this society. So let’s get more of it!

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