Interview: Jesmille Darbouze on Her Role in ‘A Doll’s House’ on Broadway, Working Without Props and Why She Almost Stopped Acting

Jesmille Darbouze on enjoying her role in A Doll's House, her thoughts on why she almost stopped acting and her worst audition ever.

“I haven’t had the most linear career as an actor. I’ve been here in the city since 2006… For the first seven years, I didn’t even have an agent. I was booking work off of open calls.” – Jesmille Darbouze

Jesmille Darbouze was riding high starring in Broadway’s Kiss Me Kate and Betrayal. Then the pandemic hit, and the world stopped. Pregnant and worried about the future, she started taking classes to become a nurse… but then came an opportunity to audition for the revival of A Doll’s House on Broadway. She soon booked the role of Kristine and now she’s working alongside Jessica Chastain and Arian Moayed (Succession) 8 times a week.  Such is the life of an actor, right?

In addition to her work on Broadway, Darbouze is also a professor of Theatre Arts at Marymount Manhattan College, where she was busy grading papers before taking a break to talk with me. In this interview, Darbouze talks about how much she’s enjoying her role in the show, her thoughts on why she almost stopped acting and her worst audition ever. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video above or on our YouTube channel.

It’s Wednesday, so you’re in between shows right now?

Jesmille Darbouze: I am. The curtain just came down at 4:00, like 4:02. [laughter] So yes, I am in between shows.

What do you usually like to do in between shows?

Jesmille Darbouze: It depends. I’m a professor at Marymount Manhattan College as well. So usually, I’m meeting with students in between shows, either helping them or co-teaching the professional preparation course and I’m helping students with their showcase materials. So, I’ll do some coaching, or they’ll be student meetings. If I don’t have any of that, I’ll try to eat something and take a nap if I can.

A big steak dinner, I’m sure.

Jesmille Darbouze: Oh my God. No. I made the biggest mistake one day having this huge, like, pasta. I don’t know what I was thinking. And it was the biggest mistake because I was so full for the second show, and I was also so tired. I also have to be really careful about what I eat in between shows as well. And we have a shorter time span on Wednesdays. We have a 7:00 o’clock curtain on Wednesdays but on Saturdays we have a little bit of a longer break, which is nice. If I can sneak in a nap that would be great. If I can, when I can, but it’s tricky right now with my scheduling.

I would think it’s got to give you a huge amount of cred with your students like being in a show right now.

Jesmille Darbouze: Sure, of course. I think as a student, if you have a professor who’s in the field and also a practitioner as well, sometimes when actors transition into academia, they tend to only focus on that and don’t get the opportunity to continue pursuing the craft. So, I feel very fortunate to have transitioned into theater education, but still get to pursue the craft and do the thing, and also have students come see me which has been really wonderful and really exciting.

When you first auditioned for Kristine, was there anything that particularly grabbed you? Something like, “Oh, I have this hook now.”

Jesmille Darbouze: Absolutely. I could relate to her on so many levels. This is someone who has had to take care of her family, has worked, and for a woman at the time… she even has a line, “My whole life I’ve worked,” right? And she’s doing all these jobs, making ends meet and supporting herself. And that’s not very far from the experience I’ve had as an actress where I’ve probably logged in more hours in a day job serving tables than actually getting the opportunity to pursue the craft because it’s just so competitive and it is such a hard field. I’ve worked many, many different kinds of day jobs and that was definitely a hook for me.

There’s another line where she says, “These last three years have felt like one long workday.” And that really resonated with me. I have a family, I have younger children as well, and we’re here in New York City trying to live life as well as we can, but I also don’t come from generational wealth. So, with that comes multiple jobs, whether it’s teaching, whether it’s also managing at the restaurant or working or picking up shifts or, you know. So that was a very easy hook for me.

For the first 20 minutes of the show before even the show starts, you guys are on stage?

Jesmille Darbouze: Yeah. Every show.

When you first heard about that going into production, what did you think of it?

Jesmille Darbouze: Yeah. We’re on stage for the pre-show. It’s probably like maybe 10 minutes. It is not too long. I actually love it. I think it really connects us all as a cast and gets us really grounded for what we’re about to embark on. For the next almost two hours there’s no intermission. With the music that’s playing at the same time, I think it’s pitched so perfectly that, at least for me, what I take from it is just this opportunity to just really center ground myself, get in the world of the play and also just be connected with my castmates which is really important because a lot of the work that we did in the rehearsal room was based off of impulses and following each other’s impulses and just being connected as a cast.

Jamie [Lloyd, Director] always talked about all of us being on the grid together, and it’s really important for this because it’s Nora’s story, but all of us coming in and out, weaving in and out and we’re are on stage all at the same time.. So, I love it. I actually really like it. I’m a theater nerd. [laughter] I’m like, yes, put me on stage for an extra 10 minutes. [laughter] Absolutely.

And you guys have no real set or props. I love props. I always feel I need something. I don’t know if you’re like that, but again what was your thought process going into it?  

Jesmille Darbouze: Yeah. I was like, I accept the challenge. I also had experience working with this style and Jamie before. I understudied his production on Betrayal, so I understudied Zawe Ashton. And even in that production, there wasn’t really a set. There were chairs. We did have a couple of props, but we weren’t using tables and eating food. It was just very, very minimal.

So, when coming into rehearsal for this and seeing that there weren’t any props, I embraced the challenge because it sort of focuses… it forces you to rely on the text and trust the text, and sort of trust your choices as an actor and just the connection that’s happening between you and the other actors on stage, which I really love.

There’s some knitting that I’m doing. And of course, yeah, it’d be fun to have this knitting to hide behind, but then what happens when you don’t have it and it’s just you. So, I think it just provided such a wonderful acting challenge in surrendering to the circumstances and trusting that your personal connection, if you’re connected to the text and connected to the material, and connected to your fellow actor, that’s enough.

And it was very exciting, but also terrifying. There’s this a huge amount of trust and confidence and a level of willing to surrender to what it looks like without not having something to fall back on or like a safety net, that sometimes props and costumes and hats, and sets provide for you.

Yeah. I’m always on board with wearing a hat on stage.

Jesmille Darbouze: Oh, yes. Or a jacket or the fan, right? [laughter]

Yes! Something you can do as you’re walking on stage.

Jesmille Darbouze: Exactly. Something to put your hands in your pocket or fiddle with or button. But, no, we don’t have that.

You’ve been at this for a while. Do you still get the opening night jitters?

Jesmille Darbouze: Absolutely. Absolutely. I still get nervous. Not so much anymore. I do get a little nervous when I know people that I know are watching or in the audience. So, I’ve told all my friends and family not to tell me when they’re coming. [chuckle] Family is a little trickier because some are flying in, but other friends who are here and fellow actors, I go, “Just don’t tell me when you’re coming,” because I do get nervous and it kind of gets in my head a little bit. But definitely for opening night in the first two weeks, there’s always your heart racing. And once the train starts moving and you’re on that train, you got to go with it. You just got to jump on and go.

I read that during the pandemic, you just like quit acting and went to nursing school?

Jesmille Darbouze: Yes. I was very concerned with the state of the industry. I was also pregnant with my second. I also was feeling the need to serve people as well and I know we serve people in the arts, but I was also really drawn to the idea of serving in a different capacity and the health field was always an interest of mine.

So, I went back to school through community college and started taking my prerequisite courses to actually, to apply to a nursing school. I was getting all the classes that I needed to take to then apply and to get in. So, this time last year I was taking microbiology. And I was doing that while teaching a class, working at a restaurant three times a week. And actually, I’m almost done. I have only three more classes left, which, if had I not booked this, I would’ve been in statistics right now.

Are you going to get the degree?

Jesmille Darbouze: I think I will try. I only have three more classes. I can have that in my back pocket for safety, right? Because, like you know, as an actor, this field is very unpredictable and fickle and you can never plan out or see what your future will look like. And so you just kind of jump with a leap of faith and trust and hope that you’ll continue to work.

But there’s also the practical and realistic side that says, “okay, but I also have two children and they need to go to college one day.” [laughter] So then there’s that. I am cautiously optimistic [laughter] if that makes sense. It’s like I want to hold onto it just in case and it’s also something I’m really interested in. I wanted to specifically work in labor and delivery and working with mothers during such an incredible vulnerable time, in the maternal unit, so it’s something I’m still very interested in. But they last for 10 years, those courses, so I don’t have to make a decision.

Was it your intention to always come back to acting?

Jesmille Darbouze: My intention was that I was probably going to give myself another year or so, or two years in the business, and then I was just going to go to nursing school and be a nurse and leave the business.

Strangely enough, I haven’t had the most linear career as an actor. I’ve been here in the city since 2006. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, but I didn’t have an agent. For the first seven years, I didn’t even have an agent. I was booking work off of open calls. There were moments where I did two shows in a year, and then there were moments where I didn’t work for two years. The year I got pregnant with my daughter, I tested for a pilot, but I didn’t get it. And then I may have done two other things. And then after I had my daughter, I was like, “Okay, I’m ready,” and I didn’t work that entire first year.

And then in 2019, that’s when I booked Kiss Me, Kate and then Betrayal back-to-back. So it was feast or famine, right? It’s like now you go from not working to then two Broadway shows back-to-back. And then the pandemic came.

So, in my head I was like, “okay, I don’t know how much longer I can kind of continue the up and down.” And I keep saying I’m going to give myself to… I’m 38, so I was like, “okay, well maybe I’ll give myself to 40,” but that’s still very young, right? So, it’s just kind of a matter of, am I finding ways to be fulfilled outside of not working on a show or not? Like, how am I filling my well in other ways?

And I think that’s so important for actors to have because the work can be inconsistent. How do you keep yourself afloat and motivated and excited about the work and excited about what you’re doing in the in-between?

I know exactly what you’re saying.  

 Jesmille Darbouze: Yes. It’s all of us. And it’s like, yes, I’m doing this right now. This is a great opportunity. But then in June 11th, June 12th, it’s over. Right?

And of course, let’s hope that between now and then, maybe I do get the opportunity to be able to jump into something else. But because that hasn’t been the narrative for me in my career as much as I’m trying to like manifest it and also really stay hopeful, I’m also staying practical. It’s a balance and it’s just sort of where I am. I think maybe if I had had had this happen to me 10 years ago, I’d be speaking a completely different tune.

My last question is, what has been your worst audition ever?

Jesmille Darbouze: Oh boy. Oh my gosh. I had this audition for this TV show where the casting director… I came in, I was so excited. He was like, “Do you have any questions?” I didn’t. And the entire scene, he never looked at me. He didn’t look up at me once, just read through everything without even looking at me. And the lines are like, “Okay, great. Did you go to the store? Fantastic. What do you mean? Sure.” Like, he gave me nothing.

But what really hurt was that he didn’t acknowledge my presence in the room, didn’t even look up at me. And then when we were done, he just said, “Okay, thank you.” [laughter] That was it. And I felt like this big, this big.

I’ve had auditions for musicals where I’ve completely cracked a really bad note. And then you’re like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Can I go back and do that again?” And like, you take it again, and then you crack again. And then you go, “Sorry. Just do it one more time.” And then you just sort of push through and finish the song and everyone’s like, “Thank you. Thanks for coming in.” [laughter]

I’ve had musical auditions where I’ve forgotten the song midway. That is the worst, yeah.

Jesmille Darbouze: Oh my gosh. Good times, right? [laughter]

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