10 Questions for Kelli O’Hara, the Tony-Nominated Star of Broadway’s The King and I

The King and I lead
Photo: Paul Kolnik

In honor of the 69th Annual Tony Awards, we’re taking a look at some of the shows that are spectacular this season. The Tony Awards, hosted by Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, airs Sunday, June 7, on CBS.

If you want to see some historical girl-power, Kelli O’Hara is serving it up eight times a week over at Lincoln Center. The five-time Tony Award nominee—who just earned her sixth nomination for this show!—stars in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I as the gutsy Anna Leonowens, a widowed British schoolteacher who moves with her young son to Siam in the late 19th century to teach the King of Siam (Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe) the ways of the west. She fights for what she believes in for herself and her family, and ultimately, the teacher becomes the student, and the King teaches her a few things about life in return.

The show is captivating and enthralling, especially with its earworm numbers like “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance?,” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” which is why it’s no surprise it earned a total of nine Tony Award nominations this year, including the coveted Best Revival of a Musical, as well as Best Costume Design of a Musical, Best Actor (for Watanabe) and Best Actress (for O’Hara).

Last week, we caught up with O’Hara, who told us the passion she displays for her character on stage is just as real as you see it. “I felt like this role was calling out to me,” she said over the phone before getting ready for an evening production. “I didn’t really know how much I would love it until we started working on it.”

What she found is that she really identified with its message: “Anytime in history—including the one we’re in right now—the idea of being able to work together, across many sorts of divisions, whether it be race or religion, is a big thing for me,” she said. “I love the idea that a man and woman, a Christian woman and a Buddhist man, a Siamese man and white woman can work together and can find ways to get ego or carefully-taught predisposed notions of things, and just move them away and work together. If you feel that when you watch it, then you start to change little by little. I know it’s a musical, and I know it’s fun and light, but if you want to, you can dig in and find the deeper meanings, and I think that’s probably the biggest one.”

She's inspiring, that's for sure. But we needed to "get to know" Ms. O’Hara just a little more. Scroll down to find out about her heavy costumes, thoughts on working with her co-stars, and how she manages to inspire the newbies on Broadway.

1. What inspired you to take this role? Had you seen the movie? I had never seen the movie. I watched bits of it after getting this role, but then I turned it off because I didn’t want something else in my head. Anna’s so strong, and I just couldn’t believe that this was written so long ago [in the 1950s]. So that’s really where my inspiration came from, just reading it and seeing how it affected me at this time in my life, and not something that I had in my head already.

2. What influences from your personal life influenced the role? I believed in this woman so much so that I could play her fully. She resonated with me at this age, and this business. I’ve been here for a while now. Here she was, totally stepping in to something that was incredibly scary and risky, but doing it for the sake of herself and her child. I have a daughter and son, and I have responsibility to bring them into this world and give them the best tools that I can so that they can go off and make similar decisions for what’s good. She represents that for me; she was trying to make change. Maybe its naïve, but she did it, she did make change, and I think that’s pretty incredible and it’s something I can really wrap my head around.

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Paul Kolnik

3. Your co-star is Oscar-nominee Ken Watanabe. How is it working with him? He’s amazing. He literally worked harder than I’ve ever seen anybody work in my life. Two hours before everybody arrives, he’s there doing exercises with his lips, his tongue, his body, learning this language which is very difficult when you speak Japanese, just to get your lips developed in the right way, and he does it everyday for hours. He completely succeeded. Plus, he’s so generous and so caring of the cast. We hit the jackpot with him.

4. In the musical, you really fight with the King to have your own house, rather than living in his castle. It was empowering, don’t you think? What I love about it is it represents strength for the right reasons. What you're passionate about should lead you to what you feel is right for yourself. For me it’s that I have two kids, and I want them to have the best that they possibly can. In this story, it’s that her husband died, and she was not going to be able to support herself or her child in this world where they were at the time. But the least she could do for her son was to give him a home. She thought "All I want to do is give him four walls and safety." That’s what I want to fight for; it’s more about what’s important in our hearts, and what’s valuable.

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Paul Kolnik

5. As for the cast, many of them are making their Broadway debuts. Did you do anything special for them? I will. When I did my Broadway debut [in Jekyll & Hyde], it was not a very positive experience. I dreamed about it for so much of my life, so I wanted to make it really special for others. So we will bring all the debuters on the stage the day of opening, and I read them a quote by Giorgio Strehler, an amazing man of the theater, which talks about theater as a family, whether broken or whole, definitely dysfunctional, definitely ups and down, but how we have each other, and how this is so important to us, and what we can build and create for people. We’ll talk about that with them, and how important it is to be here.

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Paul Kolnik

6. Do you mentor and teach the many newcomers? There’s nothing that I could teach them, because they’re all professionals. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been here long enough, and in a way, they teach me, because the more you do this, the more you get used to it. I’m not going to say jaded or bitter about it, because I’m still incredibly grateful every time I get to it, but the fact that this is their Broadway debut, they’re bringing such joy and such excitement to it, it’s actually the best possible show I could be in, as opposed to being in a show with a lot of vets.

7. The costumes are beautiful and overwhelmingly large. Do they help get you into character? I’m one of these people that always needed my costume kind of my final collaboration. In this decade, the way they dressed really told a story. On stage, I’m wearing a corset, which makes my back straight, which makes me feel more serious, more educated—I can’t explain it. When they put those big hoop skirts on me, the way it limited me movement-wise was one thing, and then the way I had to perform with the limitations became another thing, which was an amazing challenge to my psyche. It built such a full awareness of what she was up against. I know that sounds a little crazy, but it’s very true. The costume is all the way down to my shoes; I’m wearing pantaloons and very stocky teacher, thick-heeled shoes.

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Paul Kolnik

8. How long does it take you to get ready? I have to get ready pretty early. My wig takes about 45 minutes. Once the show starts, I never leave the stage area because the dresses can’t move, there’s no room, there’s no doorway! I actually have to stay on the platform itself. I have a dresser and we put the bustles on, and then we put another layer, a petticoat, another petticoat, then and the dress. They’re very heavy, they’re very constricting, and that makes for this character. The lavender dress alone weighs about 40 pounds.

9. But did you struggle with such massive costumes at all? It didn’t look like it. I think that that’s exactly the goal, and that’s part of what I’m playing. It’s stretching and reaching and succeeding through limitations, and it’s an amazing thing as a woman to play that, because it’s a physicalization of what’s mentally there.

10. What’s your favorite song in the musical? As cliché as it sounds, the song, “Getting to Know You” has made me learn something. Yes, it’s a sweet song and you’re dancing around with children, but it isn’t really about this woman from all the way across the world getting to know this other society. It’s really about her opening up her mind and actually getting to know the people, and the beautiful people that they were, and the responsibilities they had, and the reasons they made the choices that they did. If you think of it that way, it symbolizes a much greater purpose, and that’s why I love that song.

Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I is playing at the Lincoln Center Theatre. Find tickets at telecharge.com.

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