When the opportunity arose to interview actress-turned-interviewer Ilana Levine, I jumped at the chance.
The first reason was that I had just started listening to her fantastic podcast “Little Known Facts,” where she talks to megawatt stars and character actors alike, including Patti LuPone, Ben Platt, Cynthia Nixon and Brian D’Arcy James. “All of these people have voices that have meant so much to me over the years, as soundtracks in my own life,” she says of her long list of interviews, “not just do I get to talk to people who have mastered what they do in the most inspirational way but the selfish part is that I get to say thank you because all of these people have unknowingly got me through so many things in my life.”
Here comes my own selfish part. Long before podcasts were even around, I knew of Ilana Levine as Lucy in the 2000 revival of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I saw the show on Broadway when I was ten, after obsessively listening to the cast album, and instantly knew I wanted to play Charlie Brown. Months later, I got some friends together and we put on the show at a local library. It was the first real musical I’d ever done and really cemented the love and commitment to theater that I still have 17 years later. Since “Little Known Facts” is all about sharing artists’ origin stories, I knew I had to bring up how influential that show was (and ignore the internalized pleas of my undergraduate journalism professors to stay impartial, dammit).
After a brief episode of fanboying, which she was incredibly gracious about, Ilana and I had a fascinating telephone conversation about her interview style, favorite “Charlie Brown” memories and how a simple haircut changed her life forever. Here are the highlights:
Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be a performer?
I am from New Jersey originally. I did not always want to be in the performing arts although I always loved being an audience member. Anytime there was anything to celebrate, my family went to the theater. The idea that I would ever do it myself didn't cross my mind, I was just a super-fan. But then I graduated high school very young and did a gap year. When I came back from visiting Europe and Israel, I went to get a haircut back in my hometown. There was a guy cutting my hair who had a Samuel French play at his station and I had never seen what a working script looked like.
Rather than picking up Teen Vogue or whatever, I started reading from this play. He was like, "this is kind of crazy but at my acting studio you can audit classes for free Wednesday nights. Do you want to come with me?" And I did. I walked into that room with him and it changed my life. I had no idea I'd been missing the religion that is called theater and I didn't know I'd been in the wrong community my whole life until I got into that room. I ended up going to Fordham University at Lincoln Center. They had an incredible performing arts program and all these amazing actors suddenly became my community.
How did the podcast come about?
I love listening to podcasts. I love that kind of intimate storytelling. A friend of mine approached me very randomly with an opportunity to do one. I think in part because he has found me as a friend to be a very inquisitive person and a deeply committed listener. I realized that the way I prepare for a role is to interview the character you're going to play until you know enough about them that you can let all that research go. It turned out that my way of working as an actor and my instinct and curiosity were just a great fit for the interview process. Coincidentally, I bumped into my friend John Slattery, whom I’ve known him a long time, and I told him about this idea. He's like, "I'll come in."
So, he was my first guest and a willing guinea pig. It was incredibly fun. That’s the great joy of doing what I've done for such a long time. I have these incredible relationships with my artistic community, many of whom have gone on to not just be beautiful, talented artists but very well-known. It's been a glorious thing week after week to bring into the podcast space people I love and get to share them with many, many others in the way I know them, as opposed to the kind of public persona that is often created by the business.
How would you describe “Little Known Facts?”
It's the most inclusive, intimate, personal conversation that is meant to share these artists in an uncensored, unpackaged way. The very real struggles, the very real triumphs and the very real emotions that accompany their day-to-day lives. Highlighting the reality that there's no such thing as an overnight success.
They have all done their work and honed their crafts, so that when the magic bullet breaks through and becomes popular, which we have no control over, they are ready. All of these artists have done a million plays or movies or shows until the "Mad Men" happened or the "Dear Evan Hansen" happened. I really want this to be a unique listening experience where none of my guests are retreading old stories they've told before.
Since I have a history with “Charlie Brown,” I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about that show. Looking back on that experience, which launched so many careers from Kristen Chenoweth to Andrew Lippa, what stands out in your memory?
I had never done a musical before. I loved going to them but I was not someone who was a trained singer. When the opportunity came along to read for it, I think I said no five times. I eventually went in and won the part. I would say the most remarkable part of that show, aside from loving every song and having grown up loving Peanuts so much, was that every one of the actors in that show were my biggest fans and biggest teachers. They taught me how to be in a musical while they were busy figuring out their own part. I remember so many nights looking offstage and seeing Anthony Rapp, who I had been obsessed with just the year before in "Rent,” in the wings watching and laughing and cheering me on. Kristen [Chenoweth] would warm me up every night. I didn’t know how to warm up. All of them saw something in me that I didn't even know I had. I could just cry at their beauty and generosity.
We also had this incredibly dynamic stage door experience, where you really got to feel the impact of both adults and kids seeing themselves on stage in all these different characters. There was someone for everyone. I really feel like that show should happen again. Now more than ever, we need this idea of really finding love and respect and empathy and magic in small moments. So, personally, those friendships and those stories remain with me forever. But I really feel like the message of that show is inside me deeply and I got to be a part of that. That's a gift that I will never know really how to say thank you for properly.
What advice do you have for young people trying to make a career in theater?
You don't need anyone else to let you be a creative person. The beauty of being an artist is that you can do it in some form every day. When I first got out of school, we just started a theater company because we wanted to. And there is no one who can stop you from doing what you love to do. Don't listen to anybody else. Just keep looking straight ahead at your own path.
Ilana Levine is an actress and podcast host whose show “Little Known Facts” is available on iTunes and LittleKnownFactsPodcast.com. She has starred on Broadway in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “The Last Night Of Ballyhoo” and “Jake’s Women.” TV and film credits include “Failure To Launch,” “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Damages” and the famous “Contest” episode of “Seinfeld.” Ilana will next be hosting live interview events at BroadwayCon (Broadwaycon.com) and the W Hotel.
You can listen to "Little Known Facts" podcast on the OnStage Blog Channel