Tedra Millan traces her passion for acting all the way back to kindergarten, doing a 5-year-old’s version of a show.
“I remember the feeling of acting and feeling so free, and I just immediately fell in love with it,” she recalled.
Now, she’s followed that passion all the way to Broadway, where she performs as Daphne Stillington opposite Kevin Kline in Present Laughter, the play recently nominated for three 2017 Tony Awards.
It’s a script and a role with which she’s quite familiar.
When she was a junior at the University of Michigan — she studied theater there after graduating from Harriton High School — a professor asked her to be in a production of Present Laughter he was directing in upstate New York.
“So I ended up going and living in upstate New York doing this play, doing Present Laughter and playing the same part,” she said. “This was the first professional part that I ever played, so it’s crazy that I’m making my Broadway debut with it, because it was also my professional debut.”
The role of Kline’s Garry Essendine was also played a man named Kevin in that production.
“It’s beshert,” Millan said.
Before moving to Lower Merion in fourth grade, she grew up in Center City, mostly in her father’s store, Zipperhead, which many Philadelphians will fondly remember as the go-to spot on South Street for punk rock clothes and paraphernalia.
She took classes at the Actor’s Center and did plays while she was a camper at Independent Lake Camp.
She moved to New York after getting her BFA and, a few years later, went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for her master’s degree in classical theater. She moved back to New York and worked on Annie Baker’s The Flick as an understudy before joining The Wolves in 2016. That show follows nine members of a girls’ high school indoor soccer team.
“It was sort of an off-Broadway hit — one of those plays that all the magic is really just there at the perfect time with the perfect people,” she said.
The Wolves was nominated for a 2017 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble, which Millan said is pretty exciting.
Between the first run of The Wolves and an encore run at the Duke Theater, Millan sent in a tape to Present Laughter, which opened April 5 at the St. James Theatre.
“I ended up getting called in from the tape and then I had a callback with Kevin Kline, and then the rest is history,” she said. “The audition process was wild to read with [Kline] because he’s one of those actors that really just wants to play and, if you give him a little, he’ll give you so much, so it was really fun.
“Even in the audition room, we were rolling around and playing and he ended up on the floor at the end of the scene and I was standing up over him and it was just kind of magic from day one.”
Her character opens the show, which follows Kline’s character, a self-obsessed actor in the midst of a mid-life crisis, as Playbill describes. It’s a semi-autobiographical work by Noel Coward.
“I have this amazing moment [where] the curtain rises and I come out dressed in his pajamas and robe, just coming out the morning after — ultimate walk of shame — but I think that we’ve had this amazing night together and we’re going have a beautiful future together and then my dreams are crushed,” Millan explained. “And basically I spend my time in the play trying to fight my way back into his heart.”
And she does it with a “ridiculous” British accent reminiscent of The Crown, she laughed.
The arts were present in her home growing up, whether from her mother — a poet and professor, who also wrote a book about a Sudanese refugee she and her family (including Tedra Millan) helped reunite with his mother — or her father, and being around Zipperhead.
In a way, going to synagogue also provided an early introduction to the theater.
She grew up going to Kesher Israel, which had a special spot in her family’s history. When her paternal grandfather was in declining health, her father wasn’t too religious, but knew his father went to the synagogue when he was young.
“He went to the bars of the closed-down synagogue and said, ‘If there’s a God and if you let my dad survive this, I promise I’ll rebuild this synagogue,’” Millan said. “He ended up living for another five years, and [my dad] kept his word and he and his brother got the synagogue back on its feet. Now it’s this beautiful congregation, and my dad is the president of the synagogue and his brother was before him. And I was the first Bat Mitzvah there in 100 years.”
She likened religion itself to theater, as “you have your costumes and your stage and the lines that you say and the singing, so that’s theater in itself.”
To her, acting is storytelling, and she’s grateful for the stories she’s been able to tell thus far.
“I’ve learned to be open, I’d say, being open to the opportunities that come your way and the wonderful people you meet along the way and staying open to whatever happens and going with the flow,” she said.
“It’s been incredible working on this play,” she added. “Broadway is a whole new beast, and I feel very grateful to be where I am. It’s really just a dream come true.”
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