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Celia Keenan-Bolger on Playing Scout Finch in Broadway's 'To Kill A Mockingbird'

By Jimmy Kontomanolis | April 19, 2019 | Culture People

To Kill A Mockingbird is arguably one of the greatest stories ever told in American literature. A tale of social injustice and inequality in the deep South, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel made household names out of characters like Atticus Finch. And now, for the first time, To Kill A Mockingbird makes its way to the Broadway stage with an adaptation by award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeff Daniels as Scout and Atticus Finch

In the play, Tony Award nominated actress Celia Keenan-Bolger plays the iconic role of Scout Finch, the story’s inquisitive narrator and protagonist. We chatted with Keenan-Bolger on bringing the classic story to the stage, the challenges of playing Scout, and how the message of To Kill A Mockingbird still resonates today.

What’s it like to play Scout Finch, one of the most iconic characters in American literature?
CELIA KEENAN-BOLGER: When we started, I obviously felt enormous responsibility and pressure, but I also felt like in a way my whole life had been leading up to getting to play this part. My parents were super involved in social justice, and were socialists, and dragged me to every protest and march in Detroit, MI. Then in 2008, I went to Pennsylvania and was a field organizer for Barack Obama. It always felt to me that the political side of my life, or the social justice side of my life, would always be separate from the other driving force of my life, which was the theater. So there’s something incredibly moving about being a part of this story that obviously has a lot to say about race in America. In a way it was certainly intimidating, but I also felt like I had the tools at my disposal to ask the questions and give this little person the dignity and the characterization that she deserved.

What has been the biggest challenge in playing this character?
CKB: I think making her my own, because Mary Badham’s performance is so incredible in that movie. When we started I was like, “I just want to be a version of who she is.” But as I went back and read the book, and then read some more about Harper Lee, I felt like because I was an adult, there was a way in which I could maybe give Harper Lee some voice in the piece. That’s the part that doesn’t really exist in the movie. I think that is something that I continue to make space for: the Harper Lee part of it and the Scout Finch part of it. Because I am a grown up, I get to do both.

How do you feel the play lives up to the novel and classic film?
CKB: I think it is a testament to what Harper Lee wrote. She wrote a book in the 60s looking back on the 30s, and here we are in 2019, looking back on the 60s looking back on the 30s, and it’s still as relevant and important as it’s ever been. There’s a whole part of the play where Atticus says, “I believe in being respectful,” and Calpurnia says, “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doing it.” And I’m not sure that that would have registered to me in the same way when Barack Obama was the President, because in my mind, we as a country were headed in such a wonderful direction and we had come so far. But of course, there was all of this racism and all of the issues we have to grapple with right now. Those existed when Barack Obama was President. I think the play is doing this amazing thing—as Calpurnia says, “They may be your friends and neighbors, but they’ve always been terrible to us.” And we as a country are reckoning with that very same thing right now.

WEB-TO-KILL-A-MOCKINGBIRD-Backstage-1-photo-by-Julieta-Cervantes.jpgCelia Keenan-Bolger, Jeff Daniels and Company

The story of injustice still really resonates, as you say, today. What do you want people to take away from the show?
CKB: Honestly, I just would love for there to be some really thoughtful conversation about where we’ve been and where we are. I don’t think the play tries to give answers necessarily about where we should be. But I think what’s been so moving about doing the play is that, outside of church, I’m not sure there are a lot of spaces for us to come together as a community and process big questions about the country. And so telling the story with 1,400 other people ends up being a very cathartic and moving experience, not just for the audience but for the actors as well. That’s not a coincidence. The experience of being around other people and then taking a cab home, or the subway home, and saying “What did you get from that? What was that like for you?” feels like a really good thing that theater can do.

Tony nominations will be announced soon and To Kill A Mockingbird is bound to be recognized. What would that mean to you to get that kind of recognition?
CKB: Of course, I always want a play or a musical I’m in to be recognized and get awards, and particularly for my peers, to acknowledge their great work. But I think right now, the more important work at hand is to reach audiences that don’t necessarily get to experience plays like this on Broadway. Like today, I’m about to go do a matinee for New York Public School kids who all paid $10. In my heart, I would like to say that that is as important as a bunch of Tony nominations. I don’t know if I can totally give over to that [laughs], but if we get Tony nominations and we get to reach audiences that don’t usually get to see plays like this, that’s the greatest version of how this goes.

It’s currently one of the hottest tickets on Broadway right now. What has been your proudest or most memorable moment so far?
CKB: There have been a lot—we just went to DC, where Nancy Pelosi hosted us. But honestly, Justice Sotomayor came early in the run, and I feel like there a lot of times, particularly in this political climate, where I felt embarrassed or questioned the decision to be an actor because it can feel self-serving. But she came back and talked to us, and the way she talked about the arts and the importance of what actors do and the stories that we tell, was so moving to me. So I’m going to believe that what we do is important and meaningful in this moment in history. That is something I will never forget.

Any other shows you’ve seen recently that you would recommend?
CKB: You know what show I recently saw and loved was The Prom, and maybe because it was so different from what I do every night. I also was obsessed with What the Constitution Means to Me. I think the fact that that play is on Broadway this season, it elevates the entire season. So for your entertainment, you can go to The Prom, and for a really wonderful night of American history, you can go to What the Constitution Means to Me.

When you’re not on stage, where can we find you in NYC?
CKB: I live in Union Square. I have a four-year-old, so we have to spend a good amount of time at Washington Square Park. And I really am into Gotan, this Israeli café that has a very good shakshouka and a very delicious coffee.

Photography by: Photography by Julieta Cervantes