The superficial similarities between the character of Brooke in the current Broadway revival of the comedy Noises Off and Ivy in the former NBC drama Smash are obvious: They’re high-energy blonde stage actors with a drive to thrive in the theater. And yes, Brooke is stilted and awkward while Ivy is a genuine talent, but they share an overwhelming need for applause.
For Megan Hilty, the actor behind these women, the true correlation between the characters is the genuine sympathy she feels for each. She relates to their interior lives, the insecurity and relentless ambition she also experiences as an actor. Whether played for laughs or pathos, Brooke and Ivy never stop trying — sometimes to their own detriment.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Hilty denied any predilection toward playing actors on stage and screen. “I just do what people let me do,” she said with a laugh. “To say that I’m drawn to [these roles] implies that I’ve somehow chosen these jobs.”
Maybe she doesn’t choose her roles, but Hilty definitely feels for them. Brooke is one of several actors in Noises Off, a play about putting on a play in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong; as more backstage antics affect the onstage performance of a fictional British sex comedy, Noises Off itself becomes its own kind of farcical British sex comedy. And through it all, Brooke maintains her composure, stubbornly continuing with the script even as all the other actors begin to ad-lib. Onstage at the American Airlines Theatre, Hilty’s character gets laughs for her flat line readings and inability to improvise. Upstairs at the theater, insider her spacious dressing room, Hilty admits sharing that same anxiety of hitting her every mark.
“It would be very tempting to play her as dumb, but then you have to think, That’s not playable,” she said about Brooke. “This is probably her first [speaking role]. To me, that means that she wants to be considered a real actress, and she’s gonna try really, really, really hard.”
Hilty understands the struggle to be taken seriously. As she’s moved between TV and theater — on top of shifting from musicals to her first straight play on Broadway — she has repeatedly felt the need to prove herself to those who doubt her acting abilities. Even taking on Noises Off, Hilty has encountered skeptical audience members.
“I had somebody in one of those talkbacks pull me aside, and they thought they were giving me a compliment. They were like, ‘Wow, what a range. We thought you were just a musical theater person, but it looks like you can really act,’” she recalled. “What do you think we’re doing in musicals? I don’t understand that mentality.”
Whether or not it makes sense to Hilty, she conceded that those underhanded compliments can affect her composure. To her credit, she taps into that insecurity in her portrayal of Brooke, imbuing her with more complexity than she’s generally allowed, even through her most embarrassing moments. The same goes for her performance as Smash’s Ivy — an actor who had spent years in the ensemble and worried about her ability to break out.
“I’ve certainly tried to prove myself a lot, so I know what that pressure is,” Hilty said. “Any time you’re trying something new you want people to feel like you belong there. And Brooke’s a stripper cocktail waitress [onstage] with real actors, and so she just doesn’t want to mess it up.”
Hilty made her Broadway debut in 2005 as Glinda in Wicked, the third actor to take on the part after Kristin Chenoweth and her replacement Jennifer Laura Thompson. She followed that up by playing Doralee in 9 to 5: The Musical, which debuted in Los Angeles in 2008 and moved to Broadway in 2009. At the same time, Hilty was trying her hand at TV acting, including guest spots on The Closer (2007), Ugly Betty (2007), and Desperate Housewives (2009).
It’s not uncommon for actors to move between mediums, and Hilty enjoyed the distinct challenges of theater and TV. But she also encountered a particular stigma against Broadway actors when she first made a transition into television.
“Everybody tries to make us feel like musical theater actors are so big,” she said, referring to the stereotype of the diva who can’t stop projecting. “They’re afraid we’re gonna do jazz hands.”
To compensate for the idea that theater actors can’t reign in their performances for television, Hilty ended up holding herself back during auditions, which may have limited her prospects. “If I got in front of a camera for an audition, I wouldn’t do anything, because I thought, Oh my god, if I just raise my eyebrow or something, it’s gonna look huge,” she continued. “They were like, ‘Wow, she’s stiff as a board,’ just because I was so afraid of being too musical theater.”
Though that perception — that people from a Broadway background are too loud — has diminished, it still exists, Hilty acknowledged. However, she’s in a more favorable position now than she was in the last decade. In 2012, Hilty booked Smash, which dramatically changed the direction of her career. As her name became more recognizable, she moved on to a starring role on the short-lived sitcom Sean Saves the World. Today, she’s back to her first love — Broadway — in Noises Off, and also filmed a recurring role on Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which is currently airing.
Regardless of the professional success she’s found, she can’t escape personal insecurity entirely — nor would she want to. Brooke may be a largely ridiculous presence in the farce that is Noises Off, but she still has to be likable, Hilty noted: It’s a delicate balance to preserve the very real fears and anxieties in creating characters while delivering an uninhibited performance.
To play Brooke, for example, Hilty had to find the confidence to prance around in a little pink teddy onstage, something she never dreamed of doing before Noises Off.
“I have a giant tattoo on my back … when I got it, I was like, Oh, I’ll never have to cover this up because no one’s gonna want to see me with my clothes off anyway. This was so far off my radar,” she said. “I have to be just really comfortable in my skin, no matter where I am. Because otherwise it’s not gonna be funny. If I am insecure about it at all, then people are gonna be focusing on that and [be] worried about that.”
The reviews for Noises Off have been largely positive, including a rave from the New York Times: Charles Isherwood praised Hilty’s “lusciously silly performance,” and said that Brooke was one of the show’s two “richest roles.”
Hilty has also experienced the opposite response for other projects. During Smash, for instance, reviews were not so kind. While even the show’s biggest critics generally appreciated Hilty’s performance, the overall commentary was unfavorable, and it was frequently derided for its campiness and tonal inconsistency. She had to step away from social media entirely to avoid all the negativity, much of which was coming from people within the theater community.
“I saw my friends talking badly about it, and it didn’t make any sense to me. We’re supposed to be part of this community that’s supposed to support each other. We’re supposed to be like family. I read some of the most hateful, awful things,” she said. “It hurt to read all of that stuff, and to know all of these people. It was really disappointing.”
It’s always a mix of highs and lows, said Hilty, who mentioned she is also regularly approached by fans who tell her that Smash made them fall in love with musical theater. How people respond to her work is largely outside of her control. While she continues to channel the insecurities she has felt into her performances, she also recognizes the importance of moving past the anxiety.
That’s how she approached Smash, and the reality of her first starring role on television: Those nerves that helped her embody Ivy ultimately had to be pushed aside.
“You feel it and then you have to let it go, because there’s nothing you can do about it. The only thing that you have control over is what you’re doing on set,” Hilty said. “Whether people like it or not is completely out of your hands.”