Fans may see Alison Wright and think “Poor Martha” — a phrase that’s become pretty much an internet meme thanks to the cult popularity of her role on FX’s “The Americans” — but they’d never say “Poor Alison.” Not now, at least, when her career is firing on all cylinders.
Besides playing one of the most beloved characters on “The Americans” — dowdy secretary Martha Hanson, who unwittingly marries a KGB spy and is hustled off to Moscow, it seems — she can also be seen in “Feud,” as girl Friday Pauline Jameson in FX’s critically acclaimed miniseries about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Now she’s making her Broadway debut in Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” a Molotov cocktail of a play inspired by the plight of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and which on April 10 earned Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize.
The critically hailed play, now running at Studio 54, is freakishly timely, written well before the national election and renewed attention cast on the Rust Belt. Wright plays Jessie, one of three middle-aged women struggling as jobs evaporate and a violent crime upends their lives, and friendship.
A native of Northeastern England, Wright, 40, also had a recurring role on Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete.”
You have to play drunk a lot onstage in “Sweat.”
Which is funny. The play is surprisingly funny, in fact. But how do you keep your energy up when “passed out” for long stretches?
I like to imagine Jessie as the kind of drunk that thinks she’s just resting her eyes. She’s listening to everything, chiming in here and there. My mom and dad do it all the time. I mean, we’re talking one or two sherries here, and I’ll bust them, because they don’t drink at all. [She imitates her mother’s accent.] “Oh, no, no, I’m awake, I’m just resting me eyes.” That’s Jessie. The reality is her marriage of more than 20 years has recently ended, and her husband just remarried. She gets through it by trying to cap all the feelings . . . taking the cap off the bottle instead.
How’d you research the role?
As a struggling actor in New York, I’ve worked in bars and restaurants for more than a decade. I‘ve seen plenty of Jessies stumbling through the night. And I researched Reading and what happened. There’s footage all over YouTube about the poverty, and people living in the woods, in tents. It’s a shantytown. It’s extraordinary what happened in this place that’s only 2 1⁄2 hours from Manhattan.
It seems far off, but that’s no farther from the city than Montauk.
I grew up in England in the ’80s when the coal mines closed. It’s the same story.
What surprises you about Jessie?
Something interesting for me is the femininity of this woman. You see how these women look at work, dressed in their Carhartt jackets and factory clothes. Where does someone’s sexuality lie when they have to be dressed like that all day? I’ve gone back and forth on how butch I wanted her to be — and when she’d be feminine. I just want to tip my hat a little to the majority of women out there . . . the real women who aren’t trying to be models — who are about more than being somebody’s sexual object. I wanted to honor those women. They’re the backbone of America.
Speaking of strong women, “Feud” stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, two powerhouses, in a show about how much power women may, or may not, actually have.
“Feud” and “Sweat” are both unnervingly timely. We were shooting “Feud” and slap-bang in the middle came the election. A good healthy majority of us thought we’d have a female president now. The reality is . . . look, we haven’t actually come that far in terms of opportunities for women. So, yeah, it feels remarkably timely. With “Sweat,” too, it feels like we’re telling the story of what’s happening outside right now.
One last thing — I hear you’re asked constantly about what’s become of Martha on “The Americans.”
So I’m not even going to bother.
Not going to ask if we’ll see more of her this season.
Won’t bug you.
Or ask if she’s alive in Moscow.
Oh, she’s alive . . . we’ve finally seen a glimpse of her, but that’s it. The other day at the stage door I had an old guy who was really angry with me because I wasn’t telling him if I’d be back again. He figured he’d seen Martha once, so now I could tell him the rest of the plot. He was really quite taken aback that that wasn’t going to happen.
Yes. Well, “poor Martha,” as they say.
Indeed, poor Martha. It’s great for Alison, though.