Actress Tracee Chimo is currently starring as a Victorian pickpocket in the American Repertory Theater’s production of Fingersmith, playing at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through Jan. 8. Born and raised in Saugus, Chimo studied acting at Salem State College and moved to New York to pursue her career. In 2009, she appeared in Circle Mirror Transformation and followed it up with Bachelorette, but her breakthrough role was in the darkly comic play Bad Jews. On television, she has appeared on Orange Is the New Black and The Good Wife, and her film credits include Judd Apatow’s The Five-Year Engagement and Clint Eastwood’s Sully. She can now be seen in People of Earth, a TBS comedy about a support group for alien abductees that premiered in October. She lives in New York.
Jonathan Soroff: So are you a fingersmith?
Tracee Chimo: Am I a thief? No. I used to steal bubblegum when I was a kid. But I’m not a skilled pickpocket.
Did you study it for this role? I did. I studied a lot of the thieves in Victorian England, and they were primarily women, which I did not know. Isn’t that amazing? So many women. I think it was easier for them to get closer to wealthy guys.
What else did you pick up? Well, especially in the East End, they were very tomboyish, and I’m sort of a tomboy. I gravitated toward them. A lot of them dressed in men’s clothing, and they were small. They were sneaky and fast.
Are you a good liar? No. Not at all, and I’m an actress, so you’d think I would be, right? I’m a really bad liar in real life, but even acting doesn’t feel like lying to me.
Biggest lie on your acting resume? Oh, that is such a great question. In my early years, I used to say that I could do a Guatemalan accent, which was not true. But all actors puff up their resumes. Like if I did a reading with someone that had anything to do with anybody who had any kind of clout in the business, I would say I did the show.
Your favorite thing about Saugus? The Hilltop Steakhouse, which is no longer there. The orange dinosaur… Seriously, I loved growing up there. We were always in Boston, and it was only 15 minutes away by T.
Thing you miss most about Boston? I miss every single thing, all the time. I am constantly missing Boston. I have a real love relationship with this city. I come back as often as I possibly can. One of the reasons I wanted this job so badly was to be back here. The vibe here is a little more chill than New York City. It’s a little more relaxed. And I miss sports. I’m a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan. I started going to Bruins games when I was 3 with my dad.
Most Bostonian thing about you? My potty mouth. I swear like a truck driver.
People of Earth—do you believe in aliens? No, I’ve never really thought about them.
What drew you to that role? I was so interested in being in a comedy and in playing a girl who was in a bad marriage. Playing someone who’s going through something super-emotional and yet being part of a comedic show—it was interesting. As the show goes on and more episodes come out, you’ll see that the arc of Chelsea is quite big, on the scale of something that’s devastating, like being emotionally distanced from your partner or a marriage breaking up.
What do you think the play Bad Jews says about people? You know, everybody always asks me, or a lot of people think, that that play is about being Jewish. It’s not. It’s about being a part of a family. Everybody can relate to that. Everybody fights with their family. Especially when they’re devastated by something like a death.
Did you get a lot of flak for playing that role? I did. A lot of people had a problem with my character. I got heckled a lot. And the playwright, Josh Harmon, always said to me, “It’s because the character is female. I guarantee you if I had written her to be a male, people would just be like, ‘Wow, that’s a strong person.’ ” I got bothered coming out of the theater. That play made people really angry.
Biggest audition disaster story? Oh, God. So many! But the one that’s sticking out to me is when I auditioned for Bullets Over Broadway for Woody Allen. I honked in front of him. I don’t sing that much. I just stunk. It was awful. Susan Stroman, the big choreographer and director, had me sing “Happy Birthday,” because I’d bombed my audition so badly. They called me back a week later, and I said no.
Worst job you ever had while you were a struggling actor? I had a lot, because I didn’t work for the first seven or eight years that I was in New York. I was a dogwalker, which I loved. I was a bartender at a little bar in the East Village. It was called Jimmy’s No. 43, and I was there for about two years. First I was a waitress there, and then they moved me over to the bar, because I was a terrible waitress. I didn’t hate either of those jobs, or even when I was cutting keys at a hardware store. The only one I really hated was when I was a temp at an advertising firm, and the people were so horrific. I felt so small. The boss was sleeping with one of the women at the firm, and I would hear them having sex in his office. It was awful.
You’ve been praised repeatedly for your ability to completely disappear into a role. Do you come by that naturally? First of all, thank you. That’s incredibly flattering to hear. I don’t really have any interest in playing the same role twice, so maybe that’s where that comes into play. I try to choose things that will challenge me and push me out of whatever box I might be in.
How important are looks for an actor? I don’t think at all. I don’t think they should be. I actually moved out to LA in 2011. I was there for like eight months. And I was put through the ringer for what I looked like, and it just didn’t feel like acting. It’s such a different culture than the East Coast. I’d been in New York for over 11 years at that point, and nobody had ever talked to me about my hair, or how much makeup I wore, or clothes and shoes. That was everything, and my acting didn’t mean anything. What mattered to them was what I looked like. And I found that disgusting, and I got the hell outta there. I came screaming back to the East Coast.
Is there an actor whose career you’d like to emulate? Definitely Helena Bonham Carter. She always plays those offbeat, different kinds of characters. I really respond to that…
Except that she can sing. [Laughs.] I know! I’ve gotta work on that. I also love Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Marion Cotillard, Tilda Swinton.
Actor you’re dying to work with? Daniel Day-Lewis. I just worked with Tom Hanks, and that was amazing. That was on my list. I got to meet and work with Clint Eastwood, too. But Daniel Day-Lewis trumps everybody for me.
Is there a trick to memorizing lines? Once I know where my body is going, I find it’s easier to say the lines. Once I have the blocking and the stage business down, the lines just come. It’s a body thing, maybe because I was a dancer.
What do you think your single biggest asset is as an actor? I like to surprise the people that I’m working with on stage. I like to do things that are not conventional. For instance, this character in Fingersmith is unlike most female roles, and I like to make those characters as real as possible.
Any role you feel you were born to play? Harley Quinn in the Batman movies. [Laughs.] I love to play bad people. Maleficent is a big one. I loved her.
Role that was least like you? I did a revival of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and I played Chloe, who was married to a guy who was sleeping with her sister-in-law. I remember closing that play, and I left the building thinking, “I never got her right. I never actually played that role well, I don’t think.” I didn’t do her justice because I didn’t like her.
What, to you, defines good acting? I’d have to say being as natural and real as possible. I don’t like actors whom I can tell are acting.
Thoughts on theater critics? [The plastic fork with which she’s eating a salad snaps in two, and she breaks into hysterics.] That’s my answer. [Laughs.] It’s perfect. I actually don’t read reviews. I think they’re for producers and other people. I don’t think actors should read their reviews. You can’t let everyone grade your paper.
Location: Loeb Drama Center; Styling: Julie Paquette; Hair and Makeup: Victoria Millsap / Viselli Salon; Wardrobe: Dolce & Gabbana jacket and Givenchy camisole from Saks Fifth Avenue.