Jane Krakowski: ‘I get parts in theatre that I wouldn’t get in TV and movies’
The camp-icon star of 30 Rock talks to Adam White about making comedy out of monsters, mixing poetry and twerking in Apple TV+’s Emily Dickinson drama, and her love of Cher
The morning I meet Jane Krakowski in Mayfair, she’s still buzzing from seeing Cher perform at the O2. It’s a match made in heaven. Krakowski, who is one of the stars of the new Apple TV+ series Dickinson, is still best known for her scene-stealing role in Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, the cult sitcom about the making of a late-night sketch show.
She played Jenna Maroney, an actor-from-hell caricature who often spontaneously burst into song, and dated her own drag impersonator. Hearing such a camp icon of absurdist comedy speak about Cher is a marvellous alignment of dazzle and sensation, like the Aurora Borealis or Starlight Express, which Krakowski somewhat inevitably once starred in. It’s Gay Christmas.
Krakowski is singing Cher’s praises to me. “Did you see her Broadway show?” she asks. “It’s such a guilty pleasure. But you realise what a resilient person Cher is, and how much she’s gone through. You get to know her and not the persona, and how her strength never let her fail, which I think is beautiful.”
She turns to her own larger-than-life persona. “Nothing flatters me more than when I get a YouTube video sent of a drag queen doing one of my Broadway numbers.” She says she can’t explain for certain why she’s been so embraced by the gay community, while glancing at her glitter-encrusted phone case with her initials scrawled across it. “I wonder if some of it is because I come from musical theatre?” she asks rhetorically, her voice full of careful enunciation and a slight British inflection.
Musical theatre could be it, but it could also be that Krakowski has one of the most queer-friendly CVs of today’s working actors. Before 30 Rock, she was the theatrical law-firm assistant Elaine Vassal on Ally McBeal, whose penchant for odd inventions included a bra for the face. Her films, too, have included the likes of Fatal Attraction (1987), the Liza Minnelli vehicle Stepping Out (1991), The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000) and one movie, Marci X (2003), in which she collaborated with Lisa Kudrow on a rap song about their love of purses. Gay is practically baked into her on-screen DNA.
Dickinson, Krakowski’s new Apple TV+ series, will do little to change that. A brilliantly revisionist take on poet Emily Dickinson, played with angst and pluck by True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, it fully embraces the speculated queerness of Emily herself, and casts Krakowski as her traditional, religious and conservative mother. If Jenna Maroney was an uber-sexualised cartoon who allegedly dated OJ Simpson and had a threesome with two of the Backstreet Boys, then Dickinson marks Krakowski at her most Anita Bryant (the Fifties singer and anti-gay rights activist). But she adds an unmistakably camp edge that is uniquely her own.
It also possesses a very different comic sensibility to the series with which Krakowski is best associated. After 30 Rock ended in 2013, Krakowski shot a pilot – a US remake of Sharon Horgan’s BBC Three sitcom Dead Boss. On the day it was announced that it hadn’t been picked up, she was emailed an offer to star in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey’s Netflix comedy about a naive young woman (Ellie Kemper) rescued from the bunker she had been trapped in for 15 years. “I just wrote ‘Yes’ in capital letters, three exclamation points, send,” Krakowski remembers. “Three days later I was filming my first scene.”
She played Jacqueline Voorhees, a surreally oblivious trophy wife confined to her penthouse apartment and unable to perform the most basic of tasks. It wasn’t a million miles away from Jenna. Krakowski says that she found her characters on both shows very different to play, but admits that they shared a similar “comic rhythm”. She says she adored the 14 years she spent in a “wonderful cocoon of comedy” created by Fey, but was eager to do something different.
“It was like a mission statement, even to my agents,” she explains, adding that she had mistakenly assumed Dickinson was a straightforward drama when she first read the script. “I was exposed to Emily Dickinson as a child because my mom was of that feminist studies generation. So she taught me her poems, and I opened the script and it originally started with one of her most famous poems, ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ And then all these characters started twerking, so I was like – this is amazing, I need to find out more.”
She’s surprised that the show has been entirely marketed as a comedy considering its darker elements, but is delighted that people still enjoy watching her in it, despite playing such a mean character. “When we show screenings of it, the audiences feel immediately comfortable to laugh,” she says. “And that is just a gift because you see me being quite harsh and stern to my child, and yet they still feel warm enough to laugh at it.” In fairness, this has usually been the case. From her earliest acting days, she says, “I would play things with absolute sincerity and people would find that funny, much to my surprise”.
Krakowski grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a chemical engineer and a theatre director. Their own interest in local theatre meant Krakowski was immersed in acting early on, attending plays and musicals with her older brother and rapidly falling in love with the stage. She would travel to Manhattan at every opportunity to attend auditions, and was a student at the Professional Children’s School, a performing arts school whose alumni has included Carrie Fisher, Christian Slater, Sarah Jessica Parker and the Culkin siblings, Macaulay, Kieran and Rory.
At the age of 15 she was cast in the cult comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation, and originated roles in musicals such as Grand Hotel and the aforementioned Starlight Express (she played the first Dinah) by the end of the Eighties. “I just got some early opportunities,” she remembers. “I think this business is about being ready when luck comes your way, because luck is a very large part of it. Especially to get to work for so long. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, so it’s been a long time.”
The stage, she says, has always provided her with a diverse range of roles that has never been truly replicated on-screen. Her credits have included Nine, Company, Damn Yankees! and, in a West End production with Ewan McGregor, Guys and Dolls. “They’re so different to who I play in television,” she says. “I feel like I have a whole separate career in the theatre and playing parts that I probably wouldn’t get in TV and movies, and I can’t really figure out why that is. I find it curious, though. I’ve played much more empathetic, sincere, sexy, vulnerable people in the theatre.” She ponders for a moment. “Maybe it’s being seen from far away,” she suggests, half-seriously. “The literal distance to the audience. Delusion is very helpful for the kinds of parts I could play.”
She says that it wasn’t until she met Tina Fey that she felt like she had found her niche on camera. “I look back and it chokes me up a little bit,” she says, genuinely getting slightly misty-eyed. “I was so lucky to get in with those people, and I think it’s really moulded my comic persona in the business. Which I don’t think was the same prior to getting 30 Rock.”
“I love making comedy out of monsters,” she continues. “I love the horrible things that my characters sometimes do and think, but I love it in a sense of raising it to a comic vision instead. I think one of the gifts that I learned from working with Tina and Alec Baldwin and all of the great comedians that were on that show, was not to be afraid to do basically anything on camera. It was a great gift, it was a great freedom, to be granted the confidence to do that. It’s not lost on me that Jenna’s most famous thing is [her hip-hop single] ‘Muffin Top’, where I’m sexually grabbing my fat.”
It’s clear that Jenna holds a special place in her heart. She asks whether 30 Rock was popular in the UK, having assumed its humour was possibly “too New York” to translate. It was never huge, I tell her, but absolutely a cult hit. “I heard it was on at like one in the morning or something, or not great time-slots,” she says. “They’re Jenna-worthy timeslots! She would totally be relegated to that.”
We return to Cher, and the idea of a celebrity persona and the fact that, when you think about it, no one really knows anything about Jane Krakowski outside of her work. “I guess I feel like people see shades or colours of me because they’re all in the characters that I play,” she suggests. “But I think there’s something good about people not knowing me well. I think it gives me the plusses of our business, and less of the downsides and the invasion into your personal life, in a way. You watch these great character actors that have very long careers and you’re like, ‘Oh I know that guy! “[No name, just] that guy! He’s in everything!’ And it’s an almost ideal situation, because they get so many parts and do so many things but you don’t actually know that guy.”
It’s a sentence that many of her vain, attention-seeking characters would never dream of saying. Somehow, though, Krakowski’s natural theatricality makes it incredibly camp all the same.
Dickinson is streaming on Apple TV+ now