My worst moment: Hope Davis and the enormous sweaty balls of sweater fuzz stuck to her underarms during an audition

·9 min read

There’s something Shakespearean about the character Hope Davis plays on the Showtime drama “Your Honor.” As the wife of a crime boss, “she’s a Lady Macbeth and she’s very frustrated with how her husband is executing things, so she gets her hands dirty,” said Davis. “It’s really delicious to play a character who just doesn’t have a lot of love in her heart. She’s an interesting one.”

Davis stars opposite Michael Stuhlbarg, who she has known for years. “When you play a spouse of someone, you have to go through all sorts of things together, and it’s amazing to be with someone who I feel so safe and comfortable with. But also, truly, I find Michael’s talent really inspiring. He’s just all in. So I feel very lucky to be partnered with him.”

Davis’ resume spans everything from Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” to the Shonda Rhimes legal drama “For the People” to HBO’s “In Treatment” and “Succession,” plus films including “About Schmidt” and “American Splendor.”

She’s also a veteran theater actor.

When asked about a worst moment, she said: “It’s an audition story and it’s a humdinger. Just talking about it, I get kind of sweaty.”

My worst moment …

“All auditions are lessons in humiliation because 99 times out of 100, you’re told no. You go in, you try to look pretty, you put on your best outfit, you do the work, you probably have to cry, you probably have to be extremely vulnerable in some way — and then they say ‘no thanks.’

“It’s always painful, it always hurts, you always have to pick yourself back up. And that never got easier for me. And I really struggled when I was young, wondering if I could keep going.

“And then I reached a point in my career in my mid-40s where I wasn’t really auditioning anymore, things were just coming to me, which was an incredible relief for many, many reasons.

“In 2009 I was doing a play called ‘God of Carnage’ on Broadway and it was a huge hit. It was James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, me and Marcia Gay Harden. It was the talk of the season and everyone and their brother was coming to see it. We all got Tony nominations. We were flying high. It was like a dream come true.

“At some point after the Tony nominations were announced, I got a call from a wonderful English director I had met before named Stephen Daldry. He had seen ‘God of Carnage’ and loved it.

“And he said, ‘Hope, I want to cast you in ‘Billy Elliot’ the musical — we’re coming to Broadway and I think you can be the dance teacher. Dahling, can you sing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I mean, um …’ and he said, ‘You can sing, can’t you? I can feel it.’ And I said, ‘I mean, I can sing. But I’m not a Broadway singer.’ And he said, ‘Well, listen, dahling — would you come in and sing for me and just give us a little taste of what you might be capable of?’

“To me, being the dance teacher in ‘Billy Elliot’ was very alluring and very exciting. But also very scary. I sang in high school; I was the lead in some musicals in high school. I’ve sung in some movies. But this was a jump for me.

“So I’m going to sing two songs: one was a ballad, and one was a big rousing number that ends on this note that I could hit if all the circumstances lined up behind me (laughs). I could hit the note, but it was a reach.

“I worked for a couple weeks on these songs. I sang them for my husband and my kids. And as we got closer to the day, I got more and more nervous. And I called Stephen and I said, ‘I’m not sure I can actually do this — I think I best not.’ And he said, ‘Dahling, please — just come. I really want you in this! And look, wear something you can move in, because I just want the choreographer to see if you can move.’

“I was a dancer when I was young and I’ve always thought I had some moves left in me. And I said, ‘Listen Stephen, what I don’t want to do is walk into an audition room and there’s 15 people lined up behind a table and I’m standing there singing in front of them. I’ve never done it before, please don’t make me do that.’ And he said, ‘No, dahling, it’ll just be me and the musical director — it’ll be easy.’

“So the day of the audition comes and I’m in a sleeveless leotard and some leggings and a fluffy black sweater that I think looks really chic. And I’ve got my hair up in a dance bun and I feel like I look the part of a dance teacher.

“I go up the stairs and there are dozens of people waiting to audition for ‘Billy Elliot.’ I thought it was a private meeting just to show him what I could do. No, I was one of dozens of people auditioning.

“I sat down and thought: What am I doing here? I should bolt. And then Stephen pops his head out and says, ‘Dahling, I’m so sorry, we’re running about 20 minutes behind. Go into the dance room next door, do some warm-ups and we’ll come get you.’

“And I thought: OK, maybe if I can get a minute to myself, I can do this. So I go into the dance room, it’s a wall of mirrors. And I thought: You’re here, just go for it. So I’m doing some kicks and some moves and some stretches and it felt really good. My heart was pounding and I was getting pretty sweaty — and then they came and got me for my singing audition.

“I walked into the room and there are two long tables with at least 15 or 20 people. Exactly what I told him I wasn’t capable of doing. There they all were, lined up.

“I thought I would be greeted warmly. I thought I would have a Tony-nominee welcome (laughs). But nothing. There was a grumpy-looking pianist sitting in the middle of the room and Stephen said, ‘All right, dahling, go right ahead.

“I marched toward the piano and my heart was slamming in my chest. And I thought, let me start with the ballad because I know I can hit those notes.

“I clung to the edge of the piano and I sang. And it went OK. I was pouring sweat by this point, which is something that I rarely do. But I was completely overcome with nerves. Then I had to do the second song with this big finish. And I thought: Can I just run out the door? No, get a hold of yourself.

“So I took off my sweater and walked out in front of the piano, to sort of give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle. And I was like, I’m gonna do some moves, too. So I sang my heart out and the big note was coming and I just threw my arms over my head and belted out this last note. And I hit it, more or less. It wasn’t glorious. But I hit it.

“And as the note ended, I realized that they were just staring at me. And they all looked kind of perplexed. And I’m thinking, oh my god, what just happened? And Stephen was chuckling a little bit, and he got up and said, ‘All right, dahling. Wonderful. Go back to the dance room and I’ll send the choreographer in and we’ll just do a few moves.”

“I said, ‘Oh, OK. Thank you so much everyone.’ They’re all looking down at their pads of paper, and I’m thinking: My god, what just happened?

“So I go into the dance room next door with all the mirrors. And I went to wipe my hair off my head, and as I put my arms up, I saw that I had enormous clumps of black sweater fuzz clustered under my armpits. Like, giant black balls of fuzz from my sweater that were all sweaty and stuck underneath my arms.

“I realized that they had all just seen me humiliate myself with a big finish of tennis ball size black sweater fuzz, wet and plastered under each arm. It was hideous.

“I turned scarlet red. A dance captain walks in. And he put me through a few cursory moves and he didn’t even look me in the eye. And then he said, ‘Thanks so much for coming,’ and I walked out.

“I didn’t get the job.”

When people in an audition room don’t say hello or have smiles on their faces, how does that affect the actor walking in?

“You’re one of a dozen people they have to see that day and they’re just waiting for the right person. And there isn’t time for every person to get up and greet you and make small talk. It’s exhausting, I’m sure, to sit behind that table, and it’s easier to just kind of keep to themselves.

“But the effect that it has on an actor — and it’s happened to me many times — for someone who’s not tough as nails? It makes it nearly impossible for me to do a good audition under those circumstances. It’s just hard to get past that feeling of not being welcomed in an excited way. It feels like they’re like: Whaddya got? Ya got it? And the answer was no (laughs), I don’t got it. Not only do I not got it, I’m a 45-year-old sweaty mess in a leotard.

“I think Stephen just wasn’t aware of how frightening that was for me. I think he thought I could do it — he was hoping I could do it.

“I remember I called my husband and we laughed our heads off. I mean, you want to cry. But then you think: Well, OK, this was never meant to be. But this is the life of an actor. You give your all and oftentimes it doesn’t work out (laughs).”

The takeaway …

“It’s really good to be humbled.

“But that night at ‘God of Carnage,’ I was so fired up because I was like, OK, I know how to do this — this I know how to do. This I can knock out of the park.”