Athena Magazine

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Emerging NYC artists series: Actor Meggie Cansler February 24, 2009

Meggie Cansler

Meggie Cansler

By Amanda Shank

I met Meggie Cansler when I was fifteen years old. I was a sophomore in high school, she was a junior, and we ended up sitting next to each other on the first day of a writer’s workshop class. She told me she liked my shirt, I told her I liked her journal (it was large and blue—I still remember) and we quickly became best friends.

Even then, Meggie knew that her true passion was in performing arts and she single-mindedly set out to get herself from a childhood in suburban Kansas City to an adult life in New York City and on Broadway. I’ve met few people who are more talented, more driven or more hopeful than Meggie. After high school, she attended the reputable Cincinnati Conservatory of Music on a partial scholarship. Shortly after graduating from CCM, Meggie landed her first Broadway gig alongside Kristin Chenoweth in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of The Apple Tree. Meggie recently moved back to New York after nearly a year and half on the national tour of Wicked, where she understudied (and frequently performed) the role of Galinda.

Meggie is the first in my reoccurring interview series about young, emerging artists in New York. We sat down for sushi a few days ago to discuss The Artist’s Way, magical realism, X-Men and, of course, the ins and outs of the theater world.

Who: Meggie Cansler, Actress/Singer
Where: Hamachi Sushi, E. 20th Street, NYC
When: Thursday, February 19, 2009

AMANDA SHANK: So, how was your audition today?
MEGGIE CANSLER: Today was good. It felt really good. Coming off tour it feels, you know, a little robotic but it gets a little easier. I was going to sing an entirely different song but I woke up today and was like, “I don’t want to, I’m not feeling it.” So I sang “Gorgeous” from The Apple Tree.
AS: Oh!
MC: Yeah … a chest grab will always get ‘em.
AS: (laughs)
MC: And after—it was a very warm room, which is always nice. I walked in knowing the assistant director, which I didn’t expect, who had worked at the MUNY. And Rob, who I worked with at the MUNY and through Apple Tree, who has always been a big supporter of mine and I really just appreciate that. And then Warren Carlyle, who was the director of A Tale of Two Cities.
AS: Right.
MC: So, I get done and thank them and Rob is like, “Can I have something higher? Something higher than a high C?” And I was like “Oh!” So I sang the end of “Should I Be Sweet.” And I felt like me, I felt like myself. Sometimes in an audition that’s really difficult. For me, anyway.
AS: Absolutely.
MC: Because you come in and you’re so, “Hi! I’m an actor and I’ve got personality and I want you to cast me!” And that’s been a big thing of Artist’s Way.
AS: Discovering your true self.
MC: Yep, exactly.
AS: Bringing yourself.
MC: Bring yourself into the room and …
AS: And into yourself.
MC: Into yourself.
AS: Exactly.
MC: And finding material that is yourself. For so long, especially on the road, in a tour like Wicked and in a role like Galinda, I had to be—I felt I like had to be short and squeaky.
AS: Really?
MC: Yeah. And I’m not short and squeaky. It was very cookie-cutter in what I could do. And then we came under new management and they gave me permission to find nuances in myself and then it became me, you know? Quirky, stupid Galinda, you know? The gawky Carol Burnett-esque thing that I am rather than …
AS: Right. It’s interesting too because it sounds like- well, when I think of you it’s like how you were typecast in high school. The glamorous ingénue.
MC: Right.
AS: And it’s funny that that’s not …
MC: That’s not how I feel in the real world. It’s not what I am. I’ve never, ever for one day felt like a beautiful ingénue. Ever. I’ve always felt the quirky aspect and known my quirky aspects and so, you know, especially after college, that idea of myself just seems like a ghost. So, anyway … yes, I felt like myself today, which I usually don’t. I felt, you know, kooky and fun and like I didn’t have to try too hard.
AS: Yeah.
MC: And we have the callbacks for the dance on Monday.
AS: Are you feeling more comfortable with your dancing now?
MC: (laughs) I hate dancing! I hate physical activity in general. I don’t run on the treadmill, I don’t do any of that shit. Kickboxing is the only thing I like. With dancing, it’s never been a passion. I like to tap. That’s it. But I don’t get off on the movement.
AS: It’s not an expression for you.
MC: No, not at all. You know, there are limits to …
AS: (taking a bite of sushi) That’s spicy! Oo!
MC: (laughing) Did you get some spicy yellowtail and scallion?
AS: Whew, god, that is spicy. Wow!
MC: Spicy!
AS: (takes a drink of water) So what classes are you taking right now?
MC: I have film class on Monday night. It’s a four-week deal, for three hours a week. And basically I’m the only person in the class that hasn’t already been on camera which is terrifying, yet I’m good with it because it means I can grow. Learn from people. We have a lot of smart people in the class and I’m always really impressed by everyone. But I made it a point to myself, coming back, to do what I should have done when I graduated—balls to the wall, that’s why you’re here, challenge yourself, don’t live a day without risk. Which, taking risks is very hard for me. I’m very regimented. I don’t know how to take risks in day-to-day life. And when I said that to my friend Brian on tour he was like, “well, you’re leaving tour!”
AS: I was going to say, I feel like it’s less that you don’t know how to take risks and more that they’re just-
MC: Right, but to me that’s not a risk, it’s something that …
AS: But that’s the difference.
MC: Like going away to college and doing a conservatory instead of a university-
AS: But there’s so many people that that would be a risk.
MC: I don’t know …
AS: Absolutely.
MC: But I’ve always had, like, an inner voice or … universal guidance. I’ve always made it, not a risk for me, but just something that I was going to do and was supposed to do.
AS: Right.
MC: Therefore, it seems like pussy-footing to call it risk.
AS: Well, but what, for you, is a risk?
MC: (pauses) Material that makes me uncomfortable. Like, an incredibly dramatic scene last week in film class. I just thought, “I am going to look like an asshole. But, I don’t care! I don’t know them. And she [the teacher] said to do something challenging. And everybody got up and they were doing, like, their challenge was to be Ivy in those action film, Superman things … you know what I’m talking about? The superhero movies?
AS: Oh, X-Men.
MC: Yes! That was their challenge or …
AS: (laughing) How would you even do that?
MC: Or, you know, to do the reverse of a role from last week. Being Vicky instead of Cristina. So I was thinking, “Oh, f—, I did it wrong.” But I just thought, “I don’t care. I don’t care!” But, of course, I did care because I went last.
AS: (laughs) “I don’t care, I don’t care. I do care.”
MC: (laughs) I do care! Because I went last, too. I was waiting like a nerd. And, then I did it and the teacher was so glad I did it because, for the class.
AS: What did you do?
MC: 21 Grams.
AS: Oh, wow.
MC: Have you seen it?
AS: (laughs) No.
MC: It’s really good. You need to see it. So heavy, so good. But, basically … it’s all splotched together in a really amazing way. Nothing makes real sense until the end. Basically the scene that I did is her [Naomi Watts] husband and her two little girls have been killed in a hit-and-run accident. They know who it is. She has been having sex with this man, and he tells her that he has the heart, her husband’s heart from the operation, transplant, and he kind of freaks her out. But anyway, they know who this guy is and she basically has a breakdown about the fact that they’re gone and this f—– is walking the streets, they have to kill him. “You owe it to my husband, you have his f—— heart. You’re f—— me, you’re in his house.” And she yells. I don’t yell! I’m not confrontational. I don’t raise my voice (in mock Bambi voice) above a gentle whisper.
AS: (laughs)
MC: So, I was like, alright, here goes nothing. And I didn’t do it the way Naomi Watts did it. I didn’t go crazy because in an audition room that would probably scare people. But it was good feedback from the class. And the first time I did it I wasn’t really controlling my emotions and then the second time it was tamer but I still felt like it wasn’t right and then the third time, you know, it was the best.
AS: A happy medium.
MC: Yeah. Because, you know, the whole thing is if you cry, your audience cries. But it was good. I just picked up the DVD.
AS: So what was your preparation?
MC: (Pauses) With something like that, it’s written so strongly that it really doesn’t take much.
AS: But you did watch the movie?
MC: I watched the movie.
AS: So how did you watch it and then forget about it?
MC: Because that’s the only way you can. I’m not Naomi Watts. I am me, so I’m not going to imitate her because that would be dreadful. It has to be organic so I watched it to know what I was speaking about. And I had to watch it to find the scene, actually. And then I just put it away and memorized it. And, really, it was just about saying it out loud. The teacher had recommended doing a subtext for it. And I did that on my own as an internal subtext and then when we got to class, she had us say it out loud with somebody else and then you found a little more nitty-gritty. But what I try to do is just memorize it to myself and then when I get there, just … be. So, it’s not a lot of deep breaths or thinking about something else to get me there. It was too strong of a scene to have those things.
AS: To take yourself out of it.
MC: Yeah.
AS: Is that the only class you’re doing?
MC: I’ll be starting a vocal coaching class, which is basically an acting class through song. This man is amazing. I audited the class just to watch him again. I’ve seen him do work in college and then I started to watch him again. He’s so good at what he does. The group that he has is all Broadway working actors and he told me that I was his only new student that he was taking on.
AS: Wow.
MC: I was like, “I am so thrilled and honored to be here.” He’s great. So I can’t wait to get that thirty minutes. It really inspired me to get my book together and get new music. When I moved back in and unpacked all my shit, I found all my music. Which I’ve got stacks of music that is really terrific but I’ve never hit yet. And some songs that were in the class that I want to sing so it got me jumpstarted.
AS: Now, what do you feel like you gain out of these classes? Do you feel like you’re introduced to new material or is it just a new way of looking at things?
MC: My main purpose in the vocal coaching class is the fact that I’m really tired of being mediocre in my auditions. And bringing myself and finding the correct songs to sing. And, through someone else’s eyes, you find that out. And they really become your eyes for you. Because as much as I can sit here and say, I know my type—quirky. I’m, you know, fun and the best friend. It’s so dicey. You never know your type.
AS: Do you see yourself as the best friend?
MC: Yeah.
AS: I think that’s so funny because that’s not really what …
MC: No, I know, and then everybody sends me …
AS: That’s not how I see you at all.
MC: I know. When I asked everybody for my film class what type they saw me as, they’re giving me Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Adams.
AS: Right.
MC: So, yeah, it’s hard. Like I said, that’s why I want somebody else to boss me around for a while. And in class, that happens. I have to do a film scene next week on something that I’m incredibly marketable for … my type. That’s harder than picking a challenge! I have no idea what to do. I need to do something funny because, on a day-to-day basis, I’m laughing all the time.
AS: Right. Absolutely.
MC: It’s so weird. Which, I’ll ask you.
AS: Ask me what I see you as?
MC: No, I’ll ask you if you have any idea for scenes that I should be doing.
AS: That’s hard.
MC: I know! Especially put on the spot.
AS: Well, and it’s hard because I don’t think of you in a film … like, I don’t think of you through the medium of film. I think of you on stage.
MC: My agent is really set on a sitcom for me.
AS: I could see it.
MC: Like Becky Newton in Ugly Betty.
AS: You would be so good in that.
MC: Or 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski. That’s what I can do really well, but how do you find things for that?
AS: It’s true.
MC: So, I’m doing a class for that. I’m taking vocal coaching. Acknowledging myself. Because that’s what he does. He really makes you pinpoint the songs and what they are. Stop “schmacting” and really get in touch with it and it’s lovely.
AS: That’s great.
MC: Also, what I’ve missed out on is being inspired by other people’s work. So being around that day-in, day-out … (pause). Or, one day a week …
AS: (laughing) One day …
MC: (mocking herself) “Day in, day … one day a week.”
AS: On tour, did you feel like …
MC: A robot?
AS: (laughing) Well, then you answered my question. Because I was going to say, I could see it either being like you would feel really in shape because you were doing so much every day. Or totally the opposite, like you would just check out mentally.
MC: I mean, after the initial creative process where you learn your track and then you start going on so much… I mean, yes, every day is still a learning experience …. (pauses). I’m a New York girl. Every day, since I was thirteen years old, my heart has wanted to be here. It sounds so lame but it is what it is. It’s my city. And coming back here I felt that same way- I’m inspired. I’m driven. I’m path-oriented. Which, on the road, it was like, “I guess I’ll sleep until 2:00 ‘cause it don’t matter.”
AS: There’s nothing else to do!
MC: Right!
AS: So what is your overall goal for being back in New York? If you could pick one thing to accomplish in the next month or two, what would it be?
MC: The next month or two?
AS: Yeah.
MC: Well …
AS: Or the next six months. Or the next year. What’s your thing? (laughing) Your objective, if you will.
MC: In the grandiose terms, working towards a role. I want to do a role. I’m staring to hear my own voice again and that was something I’d gone away from for so long. Being on tour, being in the ensemble. Like, when the opportunity for South Pacific came up. It’s the ensemble … but it would pay bills. Let me take my classes. Let me be here for these workshops and things that are happening. But do I go back to an ensemble where I’m not even an understudy? I want to work myself up to being a leading lady. I’d love to do a couple TV spots and see…
AS: If it fits.
MC: If it fits, because I don’t know if it does. It might.
AS: I could see it.
MC: I’m not fulfilled by it. And I know that, quite honestly.
AS: Because you’re in love with the stage.
MC: Yeah, I am. And there are a lot of people that just want to be famous ..
AS: That’s the thing … I don’t think you’re in love with acting, I think you’re in love with the stage. You’re in love with performing on stage.
MC: But I’m also … you know, I was very fulfilled by the role of Galinda in terms of the journey she got to go on. I was very fulfilled with getting to use my voice all the time. So I’m going to do everything I can to put myself out there for whatever I can and let the universe decide.
AS: Yeah.
MC: (laughing) “Delicious ambiguity.”
AS: (laughing) Wait, what is that from? What quote is that?
MC: It’s a whole paragraph ..
AS: No, I know … what quote is that?
MC: It’s in the front of my journal from two years ago.
AS: I know. It’s wonderful.
MC: It’s really my favorite because that’s what this is. That’s what life is about. Not knowing but knowing you’re still going to be a part of it.
AS: How do you do that, though? I don’t think I could ever relax. I mean, as a writer it can really be the same thing, but …
MC: (laughing) I don’t have a choice. That’s an actor’s, you know …
AS: I know.
MC: I’m never happy doing the exact same thing. I always like change, so that helps. Well, actually, that’s terrible to say because I was just saying that I’m a routine person.
AS: (laughs) Uh oh.
MC: Well, it’s not that it’s never comfortable, but I know it’s my job to get myself on stage. I know I’m not going to be happy in the ensemble of Wicked every night, going on tour for three years  …
AS: Right, right.
MC: In the same way that if I had the role of Galinda, I wouldn’t be happy doing it for two years straight. I like—artistically—change. In my personal life, I like routine.
AS: (laughing) There you go. Alright, give me five words that describe you.
MC: Oh! We’re finishing on that? That’s weird, because I just had to do this-
AS: -For Artist’s Way.
MC: And I just had to do it for my film class, too.
AS: Well, do your words. As you see yourself.
MC: (thinking) Now what if there are two words that go together?
AS: A hyphenated word? What do you mean two words that go together?
MC: Because a phrase that I found recently, magical realism, describes me perfectly.
AS: (laughing)
MC: Doesn’t it? Knowing me? I live in a very realistic world where I am in love with the magical aspects of life—fate, destiny, kismet, Disney f—— princesses.
AS: You’ve read Garcia-Marquez, right?
MC: Love Sonnets?
AS: 100 Years of Solitude?
MC: Oh, yes. I thought you were talking about Neruda for a minute.
AS: That’s so funny because it’s such a literary term, and I’ve never thought of it as applied to a person, but it’s so true for you.
MC: I looked at it and I was like, yeah. I live in a fantasy land that is very real and not stupid … like, I don’t think of myself sitting there as a princess.
AS: Exactly.
MC: But it does. It fits me.
AS: It does!
MC: And that’s actually all five.
AS: (laughing) Fair enough.