Five Burning Questions with Speech & Debate Star Sarah Steele
March 29th, 2017
by Josh Ferri
Sarah Steele wowed New York theatre audiences with memorable performances in Slowgirl, The Country House, Stephen Karam's off-Broadway dramedy Speech & Debate, and Karam's Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Tony Award-winning play The Humans. You've probably seen her on screen as Bernie in Spanglish, Marissa Gold on TV's The Good Wife and The Good Fight, and Hannah's cousin Rebecca on Girls. Steele reprises her role as overachieving theatre nerd, YouTube vlogger, and activist Diwata in Karam's film adaptation of Speech & Debate (which opens in NYC on April 7 and is available exclusively on iTunes on April 2) opposite Spring Awakening's Austin P. McKenzie & Liam James.
BroadwayBox caught up with Sarah to talk about bringing Diwata to screen, the experience on the Speech & Debate set, and the badass that is Diane Lockhart.
1. What was your first impression Stephen Karam?
I was doing a short film upstate and I got sent Speech & Debate and I LOVED it. I fell head over heels in love with it. They were basically asking me to audition for a reading of it because Stephen did not want someone playing Diwata who he hadn’t seen do it in a reading, but I was upstate. So, I made an audition tape and sent it in, and still Stephen felt he had to meet me in person before he gave me this part in the reading. I got this lovely girl who was doing props to drive me to New York and I met Stephen Karam and Jason Moore and Robyn Goodman at 10:30 PM when they were at a party at The Rainbow Room. They literally were in tuxes and gowns, and they left their party, and we used this little conference room, and we did this hilarious totally unconventional audition, then they went back to the party and I went back upstate. It was quite a magical meeting and it has been quite a magical collaborative relationship.
Wow! At what point did he bring you into The Humans?
He told me years ago when we were doing something at Ars Nova together that he was writing a thriller, and when he was writing it he had in mind me and Cassie Beck (who he didn’t even know, he had just seen her a few times!). I think it helped him to have a voice in mind—which I relate to as a writer. So, I knew a while before. Then I started to do workshops of it and eventually got it, which was great.
2. So having starred in the stage adaptation, what excited you the most when you finally saw the screen adaptation script for Speech & Debate?
It was really fun getting to see what they came up with in terms of what these characters’ worlds are. In the play, we were all stuck in this one classroom, now you meet everyone’s parents. For the play, I had created in my mind what Diwata’s home life was like, but of course Stephen has something else entirely in mind, so it was just fascinating how he saw these characters’ home lives. When you’re a teenager you’re so defined by what’s going on at home so it was very cool to dive into their worlds that way. It was almost like reading a prequel or sequel to a book I loved.
3. I love the idea of finding your tribe in Speech & Debate. How did you find your tribe in high school? Did Spanglish and being a child star make it harder or easier?
I had a kind of duel teenagerhood, in that way in that I was a totally, totally normal kid and Spanglish was really the first big job I got—the first time I was taken out of school and transplanted to LA. I had a tribe before I left, and I did that movie out there, and (because of my tribe and my family) I just missed being a kid and my friends. It was lonely. I actually just went back to high school afterwards, and the next thing I did was As You Like It at my high school. Because I decided to be very normal about it and just come right back and put my feet down in my life again, people were normal about it. I resumed my senior year and was right back to being where I was before I left. It was something I did, and now I’m back, and we’re going to move on.
4. Confession: I am a Good Wife fanatic. If you had to be defended in court by any character on The Good Wife or The Good Fight who would you choose?
I would have to say Diane, and I’m not just saying that because she’s the star of the spinoff. First of all, as an actress Christine is unbelievable. Being on this show with her, I am a total Lockhart-aholic. She is so incredible. One of the many things I like about her performance is that you can see her wheels turning and arguments are never exactly what you expect. She’s really a thinker. If Will Gardner is alive, I might do that just to have a lawyer crush—because I have a major crush on him—but unfortunately he’s no longer with us.
5. Let's do some Speech & Debate set senior superlatives.
Best Laugh: Definitely Austin.
Most Artistic: Liam James, a beautiful artist.
Class Comedian: Me. I'm sorry but that's the truth.
Most Dramatic: Dan Harris, the director.
Biggest Flirt: That was probably me too, to be honest.
Most Outgoing: Tom Rice, the producer.
Biggest Life of the Party: Roger Bart.
See Sarah Steele in 'Speech & Debate' beginning April 2 on iTunes or April 7 in select theatres.