ABOVE: CRISTIN MILIOTI IN ONCE.
In Sleepwalk with Me, comedian Mike Birbiglia’s semi-autobiographical feature film debut, Cristin Milioti plays the winning and composed sister to Birbiglia’s prattish, lost-in-the-woods protagonist. It is a small, nuanced role that requires the actress to be at once aspirational and sympathetic to her brother’s failings—and one that Milioti handles with aplomb.
How else to describe someone with a résumé like Milioti’s? The New Jersey native, 27, scored a Tony nomination for Best Actress in 2012 (her musical, Once, took home a haul of eight, including the award for Best Musical), has guest-starred on a number of highly-acclaimed TV shows, and in 2013 will appear opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Marin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Milioti may very well be having the best year of her career—but as we found out when we sat down with the actress in her dressing room at Broadway’s Jacobs Theater, she’s still taking things one step at a time.
JEFF OLOIZIA: Let’s dive right in. Are you a sleepwalker?
CRISTIN MILIOTI: No.
OLOIZIA: Have you ever sleepwalked?
MILIOTI: No. [pauses] That was fun. [laughs] I wish I had a better answer for you. My cousin sleepwalked.
OLOIZIA: Yeah? Like, dangerously?
MILIOTI: Yeah, he fell down the stairs and he ended up in the garage once. But not as dangerously as Mike [Birbiglia]. I can’t pass a La Quinta Inn without thinking of it.
OLOIZIA: It’s interesting, because there’s really three narratives happening at once in the film: there’s the sleepwalking, there’s Mike’s relationship, and then there’s Mike’s struggle to make it as an entertainer in New York. Can you identify at all with that?
MILIOTI: Sort of. I moved here when I was 18 to go to school, and I dropped out after a year. But then this super old-timey agent—like the kind that’s in Sleepwalk With Me—had seen me in some black-box, super weird college show and started sending me out on auditions and I booked a job right away. It was a lot of luck right off the bat, to the point where I was like, “This is easy! And also, you can make a ton of money.” And then like a year into it I was like, “Oh, I see, that’s not true.” [laughs] But I’ve been very lucky I’ve never had to have another job.
OLOIZIA: Yeah, that’s nice. It really is kind of a full-time job just looking for work.
MILIOTI: It is. And I feel like they’re always paying you for the time you spend in audition rooms. Waiting for two hours, then being seen for five minutes and then they just give it to Lindsay Lohan anyway. [both laugh]
OLOIZIA: So were you looking for film work when you got this role? You did this before Once, right?
MILIOTI: Yes, right before. I knew that Once was coming, and I had a couple of months, and I did like three films back-to-back, real quick. I think they all happened in the same week. But Sleepwalk With Me was hands-down my favorite to work on. Oh, my God. It was amazing.
OLOIZIA: Why was that?
MILIOTI: It was the movie, it was Mike… I would never have known that he had never directed a feature film before. He and Seth Barrish, who co-directed it, were so loving and generous and kind. And even when shit was really hitting the fan, [Mike] was just so calm and collected. He was like, “All right everyone, it’s just going to be like another hour and a half. Anyone want some snacks?” They were under immense pressure, and it was just the loveliest working environment and it was a great group of people. There were a couple days there that it was Carol Kane, Loudon Wainwright, Ira Glass…. [laughs] All these awesome people who I’ve always really admired, and it was really cool that we were all hanging out in a house.
OLOIZIA: This was a pretty low-budget movie, too.
MILIOTI: I think it was made super low.
OLOIZIA: But it doesn’t look it.
MILIOTI: No, it looks so good. Our cinematographer is amazing.
OLOIZIA: Were there costs cut in places we can’t see in the film? Like, craft services were just macaroni and cheese, or…
MILIOTI: No, it was awesome. I don’t know how they did it. I think that’s why, like, when a movie’s great—I’ve never seen Once the movie, but that movie was made for like $100,000 and it grossed something like $120 million. And this movie, it probably seems like it’s high-budget because it’s so good. It’s just an undeniably awesome film.
OLOIZIA: And now you’re working on The Wolf of Wall Street?
MILIOTI: Yeah, I start that on Saturday. I play Leonardo DiCaprio’s first wife. I’m a hairdresser in Queens in the ’80s, and we’re newly married as he’s working his way up the chain. But yeah, that’s probably all I can say.
OLOIZIA: Were you approached about it, or was there an open audition?
MILIOTI: I auditioned. They called about two days before the Tonys, when we were doing press from nine to five and we were doing rehearsals at 8:00 a.m., and they were like, “Oh, by the way, can you come in tomorrow and audition with Leonardo DiCaprio?”
OLOIZIA: What a week.
MILIOTI: It was crazy. It was a really good week.
OLOIZIA: It’s amazing that the story of Once just keeps giving. The way that Glen [Hansard] and Marketa [Irglova] had some success before—but not to that extent—I think it’s probably been overwhelming for them, and I would guess it’s been the same for you guys.
MILIOTI: It’s beyond anything we ever could’ve imagined happening. We love it so much, and when you love something so much… it’s kind of like with Sleepwalk With Me. I finished that movie, and I was like, “That movie’s so awesome, I hope it does well.” But with this, we just never imagined. And [Glen and Marketa] really have been incredibly lovely and supportive and have said, you know, “Take this and run with it. It’s totally yours.” Which is hard, I imagine, when you had this thing happen to you.
OLOIZIA: Right. I know Glen had a little bit of hesitation going into it.
MILIOTI: Totally. He totally did. I’m excited to see the film.
OLOIZIA: I can’t believe you haven’t seen it.
MILIOTI: I’m the only one who hasn’t.
OLOIZIA: I would imagine it’s going to be very strange for you when you do.
MILIOTI: I think it will be. I don’t know when I’ll wait until, ’cause I’m out of this in February…
OLOIZIA: Do you feel like, now that the paint’s dried on your character a bit, it won’t matter if you watch it?
MILIOTI: I still don’t want to see it while we’re doing the show, just in case I watch it and I’m like, “I’m doing it wrong!” Which is impossible, because we’re two different people.
OLOIZIA: Right, and the two versions are different. Although, I can tell you from having watched both, [the play] is a very faithful adaptation of the film, with just sort of that extra Broadway cheese smeared on top of it.
MILIOTI: Yeah, people who’ve seen it have said that. But I don’t know, I’ll curl up with, like, a glass of wine and watch it. Or a bottle of wine. [laughs]
OLOIZIA: Where do you see your career going from here? Would you like to do more in film, or are you happy to stay on the stage?
MILIOTI: You know, there’s nothing like theater. It’s really amazing. But it does take up all of your time. I would like to get into more film, just because I find it super fascinating.
OLOIZIA: In what way?
MILIOTI: It’s so different from theater. Even just the chronological issue of doing everything out of order is fascinating. And in theater—you don’t really have control in either medium—but in theater, you’re at least driving your own ship.
OLOIZIA: It is interesting… you hear actors all the time say that somebody will tell them that their film was great and they’ll be like, “Oh! I haven’t seen it. I don’t even know.” In theater, I’d imagine most nights, even if you’re on stage most of the time and you can’t necessarily watch what’s going on in other scenes, you still have a sense during the show of how it’s going and if it’s any good.
MILIOTI: Yeah, and toward the end of the show, when you’ve been in it for nearly two hours and it gets really emotional, you’re like, “Well, I’ve started this journey.” But with film, it’s so disjointed, and I’m really fascinated by that. They’re both incredibly challenging, because you have to have this emotional stamina, but you also have to have crazy focus. Like, today… during the scene at the end where [Steve Kazee] and I are standing on the beach and it’s going be like the last time we see each other and he asks me to come to New York, we had seven cell phones go off.
MILIOTI: There’s no instruments playing; it’s just us. And you could have all the focus in the world, but it just felt like someone was like sucking the life out of us. You know? You’re standing about to say a line and it goes off. [mimes ringtone]
OLOIZIA: That’s rough.
MILIOTI: It was rough. We have probably one show a week where we don’t have cell phones. And listen—I want to preface this by saying that our audiences are amazing—but we’ve had shows where people will have full-on conversations about what’s happening. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Well, at least you’re enthusiastic!” And then the second part is like, “We’re five feet away, you must know that we can hear you.”
OLOIZIA: So is this what you thought it would be when you were younger? I’d imagine were you kind of a theater nerd in high school.
MILIOTI: No, I was always in bands. I mean, I did plays in high school and I really loved it, but I think singing was always what I loved most of all. I would say if I was any type of nerd, it was probably a band nerd. That’s why this project is so special. I always wanted to sing [and act], and this allows both.
SLEEPWALK WITH ME IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY; ONCE IS NOW PLAYING ON BROADWAY.