Jade Wheeler and Edward Gero
By Darlene Donloe
The Originalist, a play written by John Strand and directed by Molly Smith, takes an up-close-and-personal look at the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. It takes place in and around Washington, D.C., during the 2012-2013 term of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It doesn’t exactly sound like a production that will have audiences flocking to buy tickets. After all Scalia, who died February 13, 2016, wasn’t exactly thought to be a warm and fuzzy figure. In fact, he was arguably considered one of the most combative and polarizing jurists in history. That being said, the play, currently running at the Pasadena Playhouse through May 7, 2017, is not only a popular show, it’s doing exactly what it’s meant to do – not change anyone’s opinion of the man, his views or ideas, but rather to make people think and then think again. Who knew Scalia had a wicked sense of humor? He was actually funny.
When a bright, liberal law school graduate named Cat embarks on a nerve-wracking clerkship with Scalia, she discovers him to be both an infuriating sparring partner and an unexpected mentor.
The three-person play, which premiered at the Arena Stage, The Mead Center for American Theater, Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2015, stars four-time Helen Hayes Award recipient Edward Gero as Scalia, Brett Mack as Brad and Jade Wheeler as Cat, his liberal law clerk.
Wheeler, an army brat whose father was in the military, calls Washington, D.C. home although she grew up with her two older sisters and half-brother “kind of all over.”
A thespian that honed her craft from coast to coast, Wheeler went to George Mason University in Virginia. She trained twice at acting workshops in France at Ferme de Trielle, in Spain at The Actors Space and in Ireland at The Gaiety School of Acting. She also trained at several acting workshops in D.C.
I recently caught up with the feisty, amiable Wheeler to discuss her role in the play and how her involvement has or hasn’t changed her opinion of the now deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
DD: Describe The Originalist.
JW: I like to basically say it’s a political drama that is, sort of investigating civil discourse and how we all have, sort of, taken sides. It feels like the good guys against the bad guys. Everyone thinks they are the good guys.
DD: You played Cat before. How has the character evolved since you first played her at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Florida?
JW: I played Cat at the Asolo. It was my first time with the character and the piece. There, I was still sort of feeling her out. Sometimes you put on a new garment and you say, “How do I feel in this?” You eventually become comfortable and you’re really in there. It’s like a glove. At Asolo, because I was new to the role, I was still thinking a lot about it and becoming aware. This time it feels lived in. Now we get to go deeper into the character and process the relationship. Not to say it was on the surface at Asolo. It’s just that now the words are really in my body and mind. We’ve lived and we’re all in different places now. Even the audience hears something different. When we first started the show on Inauguration Day 2017 – it was tense in the country. Now we’ve been living with the administration for a few months. Things have shifted. We’ve lived and breathed it a bit more. Jan. 20, 2017, we opened at Asolo. Audiences were holding their breath. Imagine after the women’s march and after Neil Gorsuch was voted in (as the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States) – all of the political and social events that have been happening, the audience is bringing those experiences into the theater, even though the play takes place in 2012-2013. This show is very interesting.
DD: Tell me about your character, Cat, and why you wanted to play her.
JW: So, Cat is the clerk in the play. She acknowledges that she and Scalia are more alike then she had thought earlier on – in their personalities and even in superficial ways. Both of their fathers were professors of literature. They both went to Harvard. She is tough as nails. She loves a good argument. She loves law. She loves to study and know that what she is saying is right. She is willing to learn. She’s a nice, juicy character. She’s someone any actor would love to play. She’s passionate and does everything 100%. She has her flaws like anyone else. She’s not afraid to admit that. She’s proud and humble. She shows a brave face, but she knows how to check in and say this is what I need in order to grow and become a better person. That’s what’s really beautiful about her. That’s her fighting spirit.
DD: How did you prepare for this show?
JW: When I found out I booked the role, immediately I started going through the script and highlighting names for the different court justices and for the presidents as well. In this play, I wanted to know a lot more about them so I could have a valid opinion so that when a name is brought up, I have an opinion and feeling about it. I also highlighted court cases. Cat has very strong feelings about them. That was the dramaturgical portion. I’m always thinking what is her history and background and relationship to these other people. I think about what the playwright has given me and what it is that I already know?
DD: What do you think about Scalia now that you’ve lived with the character?
JW: To be honest, I’ve never been hugely political. I’ve been pretty objective. I’m not going to say he was my favorite. I never had strong negative feelings about him either. I’ve taken things with a grain of salt. I’ve always been a bit of a devil’s advocate. I learned about his personal side – the stuff you don’t see. I learned about his sense of humor and the relationship he had with his colleagues.
DD: Do you and your character agree philosophically?
JW: As actors we always have something with our characters. The starting point is to find a commonality. Find a truth. That’s the way that we can perform something and breathe life into our characters. Cat and I both want a pure freedom for everyone. Some saw Scalia as Mr. Far Right!
DD: In an early scene, Cat tells the justice: “You are probably the most polarizing figure in American civic life.” Do you feel the same way?
JW: Maybe. In 2012, I think Scalia was the hot button topic. People loved him or hated him.
DD: Why should audiences come see this show?
JW: I think the audiences should see the show because I’m the one that thinks people should see everything. I like to see everything, especially if I know nothing about it. I try to see as much as possible to constantly challenge myself and keep an open mind. Some audiences after the show say they didn’t think they would come see a show about Scalia. They say they are surprisingly pleased because they didn’t think they would enjoy watching something about him. They came in one way and left another. We’re not out to change your opinion. The show is setting out to say something about the conversation. Audiences need to see the show because we all need to grow and expand.
DD: What do you like about Cat and what don’t you like about Cat?
JW: I love Cat. She’s amazing. She’s like a superhero. It makes me wish that Jade was a bit more like her at her age.
DD: How do you prepare to go onstage? Any rituals?
JW: It depends on the show. With some shows it’s a vocal warm up or stretching. With a historic character I would make sure I’m walking as that person and getting in their voice. With Cat, she’s very grounded and put together. I have to make sure my (hair) bun is tight and that I’m grounded. Her voice is a bit more commanding than mine. I get into her vocal range. I like to write in her notepad. I write notes on the legal pad. The rituals are the writing and some shake out.
DD: What do you mean by shake out?
JW: I literally just shake. Get some oxygen to your blood. I do it to get out of Jade’s body and into Cat’s.
DD: What are you most proud of in your career and why?
JW: I think that answer changes often. Right now I’m most proud of doing a show that is so important and relevant. I’m really proud of this project. It’s making an impact on people. I’m happy to be working as an actor.
DD: Why did you want to be an actress?
JW: I actually wanted to be a paleontologist. I love dinosaurs. I thought I’d be excavating bones. Then, my father was in the military. We traveled a lot. When we came back to the states my mother put us in a drama camp one summer. At that point I didn’t want to do paleontology anymore. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I decided to major in theater. I graduated from George Mason University where I majored in theater and minored in French. I graduated and didn’t know what I was going to do.
DD: What is the one thing you have to do – in order to consider yourself successful in this biz?
JW: That again is something where the answer changes often. Not having to work part time in restaurants and bars. I have a bucket list of theaters I want to work with. I want to do important, meaningful work. That’s all I can really ask for. Traveling for my art has always been important to me. It’s huge. It forces us to constantly reevaluate ourselves. It’s a constant learning thing. My dream is to perform in France, in French. That’s my next level of pure success. There isn’t just one definition for success.
DD: What’s next for you after this show?
JW: We close here May 7, then we're going to Washington, D.C. and then Chicago. After that, I go directly to Miami to perform at the GableStage. I’m doing The Legend of Georgia McBride. It’s here at the Geffen right now. Then I go back to D.C. and pick up with this show.
DD: It sounds like you’re very busy.
JW: I’m never busy enough.
The Originalist, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, California; 8 p.m., Tues. – Fri.; 4 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m., Sunday. (There will be one Sunday evening performance at 7 p.m. on April 30); $25 – $80; For information: PasadenaPlayhouse.org, 626-356-7529.