It takes more than good fortune to become a goddess. If you don’t think so, ask Nina Arianda, the 27-year-old actress whose performance in the new Broadway play “Venus in Fur” has evoked effusive praise from critics and theatergoers.
Arianda earned a plum role in the play after dazzling the “Venus’” playwright and director at a cattle-call audition that has already become the stuff of legend. The New York-born, New Jersey-raised performer was just a few months out of New York University’s graduate acting school when her agent sent her a copy of David Ives’ new play.
“I instantly fell in love with it,” Arianda recalled over tea at Sardi’s last week, “I was hooked to this woman from ‘go’ — and I was also very hungry and kind of dying to work.”
Ives is best known on Broadway for adapting the film “White Christmas” and Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” for the stage. In fact, “Venus in Fur” started as a period adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel “Venus in Furs,” which he then rewrote as the current piece, a contemporary two-character play about a surreal and sexy audition for, yes, a stage adaptation of “Venus in Furs.”
When Ives showed the original script to director Walter Bobbie, “He told me, ‘I don’t think this works.’” But he liked the update much more, as did the off-Broadway Classic Stage Company, which planned a production for January 2010.
But by the time Arianda was reading the script, Ives and Bobbie were at the end of six months of what the playwright calls “despair.” The role of Vanda was proving difficult to cast, since the character morphs seamlessly from struggling artist to Victorian sexpot to timeless femme fatale who just might be the goddess of love.
Many celebrity actresses wanted the part. “Names that would sell tickets,” Ives told me over the phone, “but none could go from vulgar to august.”
On Sept. 21, 2009, Arianda not only went from vulgar to august, “She made every hair in the room stand on end,” says Ives. “There was bedlam in the room when she left, everyone was clamoring for her agent’s number.”
Arianda says she was offered the part later that day. Bobbie says they called her before she had gotten on the subway. (Give it time and the story will probably be that she got a text before leaving the building.)
But these details of Arianda’s discovery are less important than the work that went into her big break. In the 10 days between receiving the script and the audition, Arianda prepared with a remarkable combination of intense effort and a defiance of the odds against her.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get the part, but I loved Vanda so much that I figured I have this audition coming up in about a week and a half, I can either get all crazy competitive about it or I can just say, ‘You have a couple more days with her’ and make the best of it.”
First, she learned every line and physically got comfortable with the role: “I read it to myself, read it out loud, then I asked a friend, ‘Would you mind getting in a room with me and just work with me a little?’ I want to feel it out loud and get the script out of my hands and kind of move with it.”
She prepared a costume. “The script says, ‘Vanda strips down to her bra and underwear’ … that was a problem for me, like how am I going to do this thing? I don’t want to seem like I’m a prude in the room, but I also don’t want to take attention away from what I’m saying…. So I went out to American Apparel and bought this sort of black leotard thing, and I got black opaque tights, which was suggestive enough, but I could still feel comfortable in the room without shocking anybody.”
Then came props. In the play, Vanda brings props — bondage gear and multiple period frocks among others — to the audition. “So I said, ‘Well, why not?’ And so I brought my big blue bag and filled it up with stuff…. Maybe that wouldn’t have been as smart in another audition, I don’t know if they hated props — I just couldn’t see the pace of the scenes working without … going to the bag and pulling things out.”
She also learned a different language — sort of. “The last part was in Greek at the time, and I was like, well, ‘I have an uncle who’s Greek’, and then it became a family affair, with family members going to Queens to get things transcribed for me. I had to memorize it phonetically.”
Why did Arianda work this hard for an audition she was convinced she had no chance of getting? “If I don’t feel, like, 100% ready for anything someone might ask of me, I don’t like that,” she says. “Maybe it’s a little type A, but I just can’t stand not being prepared like that.”
Bobbie calls it “one of the most confident auditions I’ve ever seen…. As a director, you want an actor to come in, solve the problem, and that’s what she did.” When the play opened off-Broadway, Arianda’s performance topped her audition — the New York Times raved, “Arianda is sensational as the slippery, multilayered Vanda.”
Soon she was being cast in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and alongside Jim Belushi in the Broadway revival of “Born Yesterday.” The Wall Street Journal advised audiences to “save your program. Your grandchildren will be impressed when you tell them that you saw Nina Arianda before she was famous.” She’s also appeared in a recent episode of “The Good Wife” and the current Universal comedy “Tower Heist.”
Until Dec. 18, she can be seen in “Venus” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. When asked how she hopes to follow up this success, Arianda says, “Definitely employment, first and foremost.” She laughs, “Honestly, I have no idea, Shakespeare? A little ‘Taming of the Shrew?’”
After thinking for a moment, she adds: “I would say, let’s sign a contract that in 40 years, 30 years, on paper: Martha, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ in blood — let’s do it, that’s what I want to do.”
Though Arianda deliberately avoided any commitments while preparing for this Broadway run of “Venus,” there no doubt is more film and television work ahead for her. Still, she says, “I know for a fact that I could never leave the theater, because I wouldn’t feel good, not only physically but certainly mentally. It’s something that I need to do. I don’t mean to sound corny or dramatic, but it’s very true for me.”
She can’t quite picture the end of “Venus in Fur.” “I think this has a life that’s longer than what our set date is,” she says. “Right now I don’t know what that’s going to look like. After the off-Broadway version, I wasn’t even close to being done with Vanda. I don’t think I ever will be done with figuring her out.”
There’s no official word about an extension or the run or a tour. Center Theatre Group’s Michael Ritchie says that he’s seen the play and that “it is certainly on a list of shows that we are considering.”
Is Nina Arianda up to taking Vanda on the road? “I don’t know if my feet will hold up,” she says with a laugh, “but sure. Why not? … Vanda’s all about ‘go big or go home.’”