Once, a stage musical adaptation of the 2006 movie starring Swell Season musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is the top-nominated show at the 66th annual Tony Awards, with nods for best musical, director, choreographer, actor and actress. The latter nomination is for lead actress Cristin Milioti, who plays the role of “The Girl,” Irglová’s part in the original film. Milioti, 27, is a revelation in the part, delivering punchlines with a delightful deadpan and singing the show’s hyper-romantic ballads with passion and intensity. (Stream her renditions of two of the show’s songs, “If You Want Me” and “The Hill,” above.)
Rolling Stone caught up with Milioti before the Tony Award nominations were announced to discuss the show, the advice she received from Irglová and her guest-starring role on a memorable episode of 30 Rock.
How did you get involved with the show? Were you a fan of the movie?
I don’t know the movie at all. I still haven’t seen it, actually.
That’s funny, because I went into the play not having seen the movie either, so I got the pure experience with the musical.
Oh, really? Have you seen it since?
Yeah, everyone else has seen it. It wasn’t a conscious decision. When I got the job I hadn’t seen it, so at that point I was like, “Well, I guess I’m not going to see it now.” I didn’t want to be influenced by it in any way since, you know, inherently it would be really different.
I auditioned for this back when it was going to be a reading. I auditioned for the Girl, but the part had already been cast before the audition had even been held so I ended up playing Réza, the Girl’s flat mate. We did the reading, and then a day or two later the director called and said that he wanted me to come in and audition for the Girl again for everyone, and he really pushed for me the entire time. I was deemed not a good enough piano player. I can’t sight read, and I’ve never taken piano lessons – I only know chords. I could play you a C chord and a G chord and kind of make it look like I kind of knew what I was doing, but that was about it. So they gave me ten days to learn two songs on the piano, and I did. I came in and I played “The Hill,” and I got it.
Do you have a history with music?
I play with some bands and I’ve always sung. It’s always been, I would say, my number one love, but I’ve never been trained in it.
Is this your first musical on Broadway, or in general?
Yeah, this is my first musical ever.
Wow, so you just went straight to the top basically. You’ve been in a lot of other productions. Did you have to convince them that you were up for a musical?
I think I fit in this musical and this musical fits me. I love just sitting at the piano and playing songs. I just so happened to really hit it off with this director and really responded to the material, but I don’t know…I guess I never thought of it in terms of, like, “Oh, this is a musical,” because it doesn’t feel like a musical, to me anyways.
You do the whole show, including the singing, with a Czech accent. How did you prepare for that?
I came up with my own thing when we did this workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was a student there who was from the Czech Republic, from Prague, and I got to hang out with him for an hour. That was so helpful. We had a dialect coach here, but I would say like 99 percent of the work I’ve done has all been like dialects and voices, so I love that stuff and I’m very lucky that it comes easily. It’s like writing a song or something, just learning the different kinds of melody.
Have you had any contact with Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova?
Oh yeah. They’ve been nothing but lovely and supportive. You know, Glen was involved with it even earlier then Markéta. I met her and I was so scared, but she was lovely and supportive, too. Her and I didn’t get to really talk until opening night. We just sat in a corner for a little bit and she was like, “You should keep a journal because you’re going to want to remember all of this…I wish I had kept a journal when all that stuff was happening to me, like when we got nominated for an Oscar.”
They’re both awesome, and I can only imagine how weird this must have been for them since this is so close to their hearts, given that they created this music and the movie totally changed their lives. But they’re totally of the mindset now that “It’s all yours, just take it.” You know, it’s so different from what they did that they’ve just given us their full blessing.
You were on 30 Rock last year, in a memorable episode in which your character was this blatantly sexy comedian who was hired as a writer on Liz Lemon’s show. That episode was in a lot of ways 30 Rock responding to criticism about the show, and criticism of other programs like The Daily Show. Did you have any idea going in that your character would be part of this meta commentary?
You know what, no. That’s my favorite TV show, 30 Rock, and it has been for years, and when I got the audition I read it and I was like, “Oh, I get what this is.” I studied all these interviews with Paris Hilton, especially on Letterman because he kind of doesn’t take her shit and she doesn’t take his, and she just kind of clings full-throttle to this persona and she won’t let it down. And I was like, “No one has a voice like that!” I went in and just thought that’s what it was, and the more I was involved in it I was like, “Oh, of course this is a bigger comment on things.” But they were never like, “Your character is based on so and so,” ever, so I was encouraged to create my own thing.
I think one of the funniest things about 30 Rock is that Liz Lemon is sort of like Buster Keaton – she’s always the fool, the joke is always on her. Yes, it could have been this huge comment on females in comedy and so on and so forth, but it ended up just being that she made a mistake and goes up on her soap box.
You were pretty done-up in an outfit and makeup on the show. Did people recognize you for it?
No. I don’t dress like that. I wear like the same thing every day, like a shirt and black jeans, and I wear glasses because I can’t see and my breasts are nowhere near that large. This happened to me a lot: I would be on the subway or be in the coffee shop or something, and someone would come up to me and ask me if we went to high school together or if they knew me, and that went on for a couple weeks after that episode aired. They could see something.