Stephanie Kurtzuba is an actress with over 36 credits to her name and an extensive background across stage, TV, and film. You’ve seen her memorable performances in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and alongside Jamie Foxx in 2014’s Annie. Recently, I met with Stephanie on the set of Mayflower, an independent production from writer/director and Milledgeville native Chris Danuser. The story follows a blue-collar man suddenly thrust back into the role of fatherhood when his granddaughter comes to live with him after her soldier-father is killed in an overseas act of terrorism. The grief-stricken grandfather then finds himself contemplating retribution on a local Mosque. Stephanie took some time to sit down and talk about this and other big projects she has been involved with recently– including Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated new film The Irishman.
RT- Mayflower seems like a real indy, grass-roots kind of project. How did you come to be involved with it?
SK- It was sort of kismet. [Writer/Director] Chris [Danuser] and his wife Trenesa, believe it or not, live a stone’s throw from me in New Jersey. I knew them from the neighborhood and that they were an awesome couple and knew that Chris was in the arts. But [we’d] never really had a deep conversation about it until he won a local Film Festival screenplay prize. I congratulated him when I saw him and he said, “Oh, would you like to read it?” I said, “sure”, and it was unbelievable. It was such an incredible world that he created. It’s such an important message that he was telling, that I told him from the jump, I said, “If you do this, I’m yours. If you need my help in any way, shape, or form. I would love to be involved.” And then he just continued to work at it and develop it. It went through a couple of rewrites, he started securing his team, and he came to me and said, “Would you really do this?” I said, “I meant it with every fiber of my being! I want to be a part of this!”
I bet you didn’t imagine that would lead to shooting five days in Milledgeville, GA at the dusk of summer?
You know, I couldn’t. There were a couple of times that we were sort of ready to go, where he was locked and loaded– and then things would shift or people’s availability was changing. I just had a big film premiere, and he called me and said, “Can you do this day?” and I said, “The night before, I need to be in New York– but you get me down to Atlanta the next day and I will be there.” And that’s what happened. On Friday night, I was walking the red carpet– and Saturday, I was on a plane.
I saw that. You were at the premiere for The Irishman, literally walking the red carpet with some of Hollywood’s A-List, and the next day you’re in Milledgeville. That’s kind of the beauty of the job, right?
You know the red carpet and stuff like that are awesome, but they’re not the job. I mean, they’re the trappings around the job– and they’re super fun and exciting. But this is the work and this is the reason I do it and to be able to come and do a project like this… I would imagine that my agents were probably a little like, “You’re going where to do what?” But I was like, “You’ve got to read the script. This movie is important. It has something to say about things that a lot of bigger commercial movies don’t necessarily explore, and I think that it’s really important to put art like that out into the world.” So I was excited to be asked to be a part of it honestly.
What’s the message you would like people to take away from this when they watch it?
I think the message of redemption and grace is what really moved me when I read the script. What I hope people take away from it is that our propensity as humans to be consumed by our own fear and anger, especially in the days that we’re living in, is very tempting. And I think that if people can remember to stop, take a breath, and allow room in your heart for something else, maybe that will be the grace that lets the world survive.
You’re playing a character named Tammy. Tell me a little bit about your process in bringing her to life.
Well, first and foremost, so much of what I needed was already on the page. Because Chris is such a talented writer. He created such a specific world. It was kind of amazing to walk into location today and be like, “This is exactly what I was imagining!” I think that’s a testament to him and the atmosphere that he was able to put onto the page. But for my own process, you know, I always like to approach characters from a heroic point of view.
I think it’s really easy to judge people– and therefore, also to judge characters even on a page or in a book or in a film. As an actor, that’s not your job. In fact, your job is the opposite, which is to withhold judgment, and to find the humanity. So I just sort of looked at… What is she doing in this little story that we’re telling and what does she need? What’s the most important thing to her in this moment as it relates to the story? And then I just tried to lean into that, and I extrapolated some ideas about what her life might be. I think she’s probably a really good person who was left with limited choices and made the best that she could based on her own knowledge of the world and how it operates. And you know, she’s aspirational. For Tammy, she’s aspirational.
Aside from this project, you are having yourself a big year
(Laughs) I’m having a good moment.
First, you worked on a film called Bad Education, reuniting with Hugh Jackman– who you had previously worked with on stage.
I had. Yeah, he’s an exceptionally lovely man. In fact, I hadn’t seen him in upwards of 15 years. And then we started the film. And I thought, “There’s no way… You know this man is a SUPERSTAR. He’s not going to remember who the heck I am!” And he came up to me, and of course, I was a blonde back then, and now I’m a redhead. So he came up to me said, “Hi, I’m Hugh.” And I said, Hi, “I’m Stephanie.” And he went, “KURTZUBA!” And he threw his arms around me! I mean, talk about feeling good. When Wolverine remembers your name. Yeah, that’s cool.
So what is your role in that film?
I play a sort of tiger mom. I have a couple of great scenes with Hugh and believe it or not with my actual biological son, who is not an actor, but ended up with a part in the film by the stroke of genius of the casting directors who know me from my Scorsese work. They said, “We’re having trouble casting this kid. Do you think either of your kids might want to audition because they’re age-appropriate?” And I’ll be damned if my son didn’t say, “Okay, I’ll try.” And of course, he was great, because he has no interest in doing it– so he doesn’t care as opposed to me who’s always trying to get it right. And I had this amazing experience with him on set. It was like a time capsule in our life and relationship because we shot it last November, it just debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, and was bought by HBO. So it’s gonna be on TV soon. But my kid doesn’t look the same. He looks completely different in less than a year.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Irishman, your second Martin Scorsese movie. You’re playing Irene Sheeran who is the wife of Robert De Niro’s title character of Frank Sheeran? How did it feel finding out you landed that role?
I mean, I sobbed. I cried. The way that it went down was so surreal, and then just being on set for off and on over six months with these… I mean, they’re not just great actors, they’re literally the greatest actors of their generation and the greatest director of certainly my generation– if not a generation before me. Every day, I jokingly refer to it as “graduate school”. You know, I just sat there and I took every opportunity, as my grandfather once told me, to shut up and listen. And I learned a lot.
It really is a big deal, I mean they talked (actor) Joe Pesci out of retirement to be part of this film
They really did. They would not stop bothering him for upwards of 10 years. And he finally relented, and I’m so pleased. I hate to say it out loud but– knock on wood– I think he’s going to be a very happy man during award season, I think it’s going to be very fruitful.
This is a potentially game-changing film in that it’s debuting on Netflix instead of a mass release in theaters. How do you see this changing the landscape of the way films are released?
I feel like the earth is shifting under our feet daily in this industry. And I think that you can be of two minds. You either are fighting to say, “NO! Theatrical releases need to be seen on the big screen!” Or you can say, “Listen, everyone’s watching on small screens, we’ve got to put the movie where people will watch it.” I personally make a point in my own life as I’m aging to stay flexible. And I feel like if this is where the industry is heading, and I know my children watch everything on their computers… They do watch TV occasionally but it’s YouTube and it’s snippets of things and it’s downloadable episodes– and if that’s what the future is, I say get on board. I think Netflix has done a beautiful job with this film, and I know it was a big gamble for them. It was a huge budget. But they wanted the prestige of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time for their network. And I think the gamble is going to pay off beautifully for them. Yeah. So proud to be a part of it.
Your first time working for Mr. Scorsese was on The Wolf of Wall Street playing a single mom working amidst this den of narcissistic male stockbrokers and being able to go toe to toe with the best of them. How did you originally got involved?
‘Wolf ‘was super traditional. I got an audition. I went in and I auditioned and then I got called back. I went in and auditioned again. And then apparently a whole bunch of the folks who were hired for that film, went and met with Marty and had to go through this whole other third audition which, thereby the grace of God go I, I didn’t get. I just got hired. So the first time I met Mr. Scorsese was on set which was kind of amazing because my first day was a huge scene with lots and lots of people around the pool, and Leo was there. I mean, I was just like, “Where am I?” I got stung by a yellow jacket because we were all holding glasses of fake champagne. So with all the sugar, they were just swarming,
I’m allergic. So, of course, it stings me and I’m like, “Excuse me, can I see the medic, I’m allergic.” So they gave me Benadryl and everything was fine. But next thing I know I’m standing there and all of a sudden. Martin Scorsese’s beside me and goes, “So I hear you got stung.” It was such a surreal moment. All of a sudden, he was standing by me. I’d never met him before, but he knew who I was because he hired me from my tape. I made some joke about it didn’t bother me because I was “classically trained.” I was just being a smart alec– and he thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. So he started giggling and then the two of us, for whatever reason, every time I was on set, we just had these amazing conversations. He’s the most personable, kind, and just funny man, and that was my incredible introduction into his extremely special world.
And those were long days. There were definitely times I’m like, “Well, I’m really tired. It’s been many, many hours…” But we had so much fun! So horribly inappropriate, in that when you watch the film, I kept thinking to myself, “There’s no way this is going to make it,” and “We can’t be doing this!” We throw another human being onto a dartboard! He’s a human being! What were we doing? And I thought, “This will never…” And then, sure enough, it was on screen. And I thought, “This is depraved!” But that was the point, right? You wanted to show the extremity of the behavior of these kinds of people.
You’ve worked with some amazing directors– Scorsese, Stephen Dalton, and Same Mendes to name a few. Who would you like to work with? Or what would you like to work on in the future?
Oh, man, what a question! I would love to work with (Director) David O. Russell. Oh, there’s so many.
You know, I have a couple of dreams– nd this is probably because I’m the mother of two young boys– [but] it is my dream to someday be in a Star Wars film, and I someday want to also be in a Marvel film. I mean, I don’t care who I am. I can be the limousine driver who just opens the door and closes it for you-know-superhero. Is that a lame goal? My kids haven’t gotten to see most of the films I’ve done other than Annie. And to take your kids to the theater and see their little faces light up? My son turned to the people next to us said, “That’s my mom,” and I started crying.
So you’ve worked on stage and both the big and small screens. Do you have a favorite?
I do. I would definitely say that stage was my first love, and the screen is my current love. Doesn’t mean I won’t go back, but I am deeply in love with the art of filmmaking right now. And I’ll tell you my favorite thing in the world to do is stuff that I did that feels authentic to me. Meaning things that ride that line between comedy and tragedy. I’m a real big fan of being able to escape the line of like, “Am I supposed to be laughing right now? That really moved me.” Or “That was really funny. But should I be laughing?” That’s my favorite. Because I find that to be the truest to my own personal life experience. It really is sometimes a comedy and five seconds later a tragedy, and I just find that to be so authentic to my personal experience that that’s my favorite thing to do on screen.
And you’ve directed as well. Would you like to do more of that?
I would love to. I have so much to learn. That’s why, again, I say I like to shut up and listen and learn a lot. You know, old dog new tricks.