Big Picture: We live for the pathos, Gracepoint actor says

After spending five months falling apart emotionally while shooting her scenes as a grief-stricken mother in Gracepoint here, no wonder Virginia Kull was in such a playful mood when it was over.

“You’ve never heard of me!” the Austin, Texas, native jokes with a look of mock disapproval when I confessed to having missed seeing her in Horton Foote’s off-Broadway trilogy The Orphans Home Cycle while in New York. The marathon theatre piece is one of many productions she’s received plaudits for, albeit without attracting the huge audiences TV can deliver.

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“I’ve never heard of me!” she adds emphatically, explaining even her screen appearances can be hard to find. Highlights include her roles as Nan Britton, Ohio senator Warren G. Harding’s mistress in Boardwalk Empire; Maggie Kester in The Following; and guest appearances in The Good Wife and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

This seems destined to change for the New York-based actor Gracepoint executive producer John Goldwyn described as “our secret weapon” before filming began.

“Oh, really, he told you that? Awww,” said Kull, who once dreamed of becoming a neurologist. “That makes me feel so good.”

Critics have praised Kull for her shattering performance as Beth Solano, the small-town California mother whose son’s murder sets the plot in motion.

“If you’ve ever seen Virginia Kull act, it kind of puts you in your place,” adds Gracepoint co-star Kendrick Sampson (The Vampire Diaries).

Kull is playing the role originated by Jodie Whittaker in Broadchurch, the British mystery series that inspired the Fox remake.

The actor said she was as nervous about meeting Michael Pena, who plays her husband, local plumber Mark Solano, as she was about doing her first scene with David Tennant. It’s when his humourless homicide investigator Det. Emmett Carver and resentful partner Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn) tell the couple the corpse found on Gracepoint’s North Beach was their son Danny.

“We have to play husband and wife so there has to be that intimacy, so I wanted it to feel real and comfortable,” said Kull, whose real-life husband, fellow Texan actor-filmmaker Ryan Young, flew up to visit.

“Michael immediately put me at ease. He’s so much more knowledgeable about this than me.”

Although Kull loves Broadchurch, admitting “I binge-watched it” the night before her Gracepoint audition, she didn’t want to imitate Whittaker.

She said she was grateful director James Strong, who also helmed Broadchurch, was on the same page.

“I never once felt he was making me do what Jody had done,” she recalled. “I really felt he helped me explore and discover her instead of fitting us into a specific mould.”

The onetime “science nerd” recalls being so moved by a high school production of Our Town it inspired her to study theatre at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

She later took advice from Rosemary Harris when the Tony Award-winning actor advised her to play her dream roles, even if it meant working outside of New York. It led to Kull’s first professional job at age 23, playing Nora in North Carolina State Company’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

“That was thrilling,” recalled Kull, whose film-loving father introduced her to the late American playwright Horton Foote, who she later befriended.

“I remember watching To Kill a Mockingbird and my dad pointing out, ‘See that guy playing Boo Radley? That’s Bobby Duvall, the guy from Tender Mercies,” she said.

“That’s his first film.”

After seeing Geraldine Page deliver “the most extraordinary screen performance I’ve ever seen” as Carrie Watts in A Trip to Bountiful . Kull now aspires to play that elderly Texan.

“I’ve just got to wait 40 years,” said Kull, who played teenage accuser Mayella Ewell opposite Matthew Modine in a 2009 stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird in Hartford, Connecticut

“Horton came to see it and three days later he passed away, just shy of his 93rd birthday,” said Kull. “I remember my dad crying. I felt like my grandfather had passed away.”

Foote was an extraordinary human being — “so generous, talented and kind, but also very, very honest,” said Kull, who also played Gerald McRaney’s trophy wife in Foote’s Dividing the Estate, an off-Broadway production.

Her theatrical foundation paved the way for a career that has seen her graduate from guest-starring screen roles to a lead role in a major network series.

“I coveted this role in a neurotic way,” Kull admits, crediting producer Dan Futterman for being “so generous and gracious” during the audition process.

“That’s what we do as actors. Let me play Medea and hold my murdered children in my arms. That’s what we live for, to get down to the nitty gritty and the pathos. I want to be able to roar and rage and scream and cry, which I don’t get to do much in my real life. Sure it’s scary and challenging and hard, but it’s also a rush.”

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