Louis Peitzman

I Went On A Fake Date For Theater And It Was Awkward As Hell

It’s hard to pinpoint the most awkward moment of my date with Emma. It might have been when she showed up late and alarmingly frazzled before immediately demanding a selfie in case I murdered her or we ended up married. Or maybe it was when she held my hand and asked me to pretend we’d already been dating for a couple years, then proceeded to ask me to recount our relationship milestones. I can’t remember the last time a question stumped me quite like a stranger asking, “Where did we first have sex?”

But when I look back on the hour we spent together on a breezy August night in Los Angeles, the moment that makes me cringe the most is when I felt suddenly compelled to kiss her. I didn’t, but I was so startled that the thought even crossed my mind. First of all, I’m gay enough to have never actually kissed a woman romantically. But more pressingly, Emma was an actor and our date wasn’t real. It was a one-on-one immersive theatrical experience called Red Flags. Whatever weird spark I was feeling was pure fiction.

I’m a big fan of immersive theater in theory, but I almost always regret it once some actor is forcing me to don a gladiator outfit or threatening to give me a rectal exam. (These are real things that happened earlier this year, but I digress.) Red Flags was an especially stressful prospect: an interactive show where I was the only audience member. I wouldn’t be able to opt out of participating, or even be confident that the actor would do all the heavy lifting. Plus, there would be no way to make a quick exit if things got weird — and things always get weird.

I was anxious all day leading up to my date with Emma, way more anxious than I’ve ever been about an actual date. (We can think about what that says about me, or we can move on!) We’d had limited contact up to that point: After booking the ticket, I got an email from Emma asking me to fill out “the rest of my dating profile,” which involved sharing my biggest disappointment alongside my favorite dessert. (The latter was a lot harder for me.) The day of, she texted me when and where to meet her, stressing that I should let her know as soon as I got there. “I’m OCD ha ha,” she wrote.

The online communication and the title Red Flags gave me some indication of how this was going to go, so I was prepared for a total disaster. My mind spiraled with all the ways dates can get awkward. I thought perhaps knowing the less-than-desirable outcome would be preferable to the uncertainty that comes with any real-life dating experience, but it wasn’t all that comforting. I have a hard enough time witnessing discomfort from a distance; cringe comedies make me want to hide. Here, I’d be an actual participant. In a panic, I came close to canceling.

I’m glad that I didn’t. I wouldn’t call my date with Emma good, but, despite her considerable baggage, I found that I sort of enjoyed her company. And the experience as a whole was illuminating in a way I hadn’t expected.

Emma and I met near a bar in Atwater Village, a cute and relatively low-key neighborhood. She asked if I wanted to get a drink or go for a walk instead. I opted for the latter — walking dates are underrated, as is walking in general in Los Angeles — and we strolled while getting to know each other. She wasn’t holding much back, but then, I’m an oversharer too. I’m also neurotic and Jewish and prone to talking too much about my mother, so none of the obvious “red flags” actually put me off much. I mean, I recognized them, but I tried to imagine how I’d proceed if Emma were a guy I was attracted to. I quickly decided that, against my better judgment, they wouldn’t have stopped me.

It was a bit tricky doing that kind of translation, but I felt like the experience would be most effective if I conceived of it as a real date, and I’m just too gay to do that with a woman. Sure, it took me out of things a bit, but that was always kind of inevitable. The problem I often have with immersive theater is that I can never really get out of my head. I’m not an actor, so I always worry that I’m not properly committing to whatever role I’ve been placed in. And just generally speaking, I tend to be overly insecure and self-conscious, so it’s hard for me to not constantly think, Am I fucking this up? That goes for real dates, too.

But none of that really mattered — and that’s what really impressed me about Red Flags. Because while I was very aware of myself and the fact that I was on a fake date, I also completely bought Emma as a character. That’s a credit to actor Lauren Flans and to writer-director Lauren Ludwig. Emma is a mess, but she’s a mess that I know. At my lowest, she’s a mess that I’ve been. The more she revealed about herself on our date, the more I felt compelled to be there for her. When her fear that everyone hates her kept cropping up — a nagging thought I know all too well — I just wanted to assure her that I didn’t. And yes, when she admitted that she worries she’s bad at kissing but no one will really tell her, I did want to kiss her. (I am a people pleaser; it’s in my nature to reassure.)

Red Flags is not so much about what Emma says as it is how you react — what do you consider to be red flags, and how do you react when you encounter them? Like so much of the best theater I’ve seen, Red Flags forced me to dig deep and be introspective in a way that was sometimes deeply uncomfortable. I came away from the play feeling like I’m agreeable to a fault, willing to give everyone too many chances out of a dangerous blend of compassion and guilt. Even when Emma revealed her darkest secret, the one that should send every sane person running for the hills, I gave her a hug and felt genuine concern when she abruptly bolted. I knew she wasn’t a real person; I just really wanted her to be OK!

I would never try to convince someone to attend Red Flags (and you might not even be able to because it’s currently sold out) — immersive theater is not for everyone, and the forced intimacy of a one-on-one show like this is especially confronting. But I’m glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone, because I do believe that theater should challenge you, whether that means forcing you to think more seriously about why you’re single or briefly making you question your sexuality. Sometimes it’s good to feel unsettled.

As I was walking away, I got a final text from Emma with the selfie she’d taken of us. I squirmed when I saw it; I look about as awkward as I’d felt. “I know we’re not getting married but here’s this picture anyway,” she texted. “Thanks again for a fun time.” I didn’t want to leave her text unanswered, so I replied, “You never know. Thanks, Emma.”

This Musical Is Replacing Its Lead With A Big Star, And People Are Conflicted

“This continues our show’s remarkable history of having great actors and singers see the show as audience members, only to tell us they are inspired to join the cast!” Kagan said in an interview with Broadway World on Wednesday. “Whenever possible we will accommodate them as we did here with Mandy and his Homeland TV schedule. Oak, who was scheduled to appear as Pierre for this period graciously agreed to make room for Mandy, and we sincerely hope that Oak will return to us in the fall or winter. He is a terrific Pierre.”

Inside The Scariest Show On Broadway


Julieta Cervantes

Olivia Wilde, Tom Sturridge, and the cast of 1984.

Most of the time, audience members leaving a play in the middle is a sign of failure. But the cast and creative team behind 1984 see their walkouts as a sign they’re doing something right.

It’s not that they want you to leave the show before it’s over; it’s that the play, which opened on Broadway’s Hudson Theatre in June, is a deliberately harrowing experience — they know not everyone can make it through all 101 minutes. If you’re squirming in your seat, or compelled to bolt for the nearest exit, 1984 has done its job. Like the rats that the play’s hero, Winston (Tom Sturridge), fears above all else, the production gets under your skin.

“It’s a totally justified response to leave,” Sturridge told BuzzFeed News from his costar Olivia Wilde’s dressing room backstage at the Hudson. “That is a totally logical and fair response to seeing something that deeply upsetting, and we condone it.”

In this production of 1984, everyman protagonist Winston is aged down from his usual middle-aged portrayal in adaptations of George Orwell’s classic novel. In the dystopian world of the play (and the book before it), Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to revise history to conform to the totalitarian Party’s version of events. When he meets and falls in love with Julia (Wilde), they join the Brotherhood and embark on a path of resistance against the Party and its mythic leader Big Brother.

The play, co-created and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, hews closely to the novel — not just in terms of plot, but with a style meant to reflect the experience of reading it. Icke and Macmillan have conceived of a thrilling, disorienting production in which the audience is forced to depend on a relentlessly unreliable narrator. This 1984 doesn’t shy away from the dark climax of the story, which sees Winston and Julia captured and brutally tortured. And while the production does hold back when it comes to the most graphic mutilation, it is, at times, an unbearably confronting experience, leading some audience members to flee.

“We did absolutely want to make the audience feel anxious in the way that the novel makes you feel anxious,” Icke said. “We always felt we would have failed catastrophically if the audience wasn’t unsettled in the same way as people who read the book for the first time. We really wanted the production, like any good thriller or horror movie, to engender in the audience real fear.”

When the actors hear and see the visceral reactions from the audience — even if, yes, at times, that means actual cries of alarm or people shuffling loudly in their seats — Wilde noted that means they’re paying close attention.

“Their energy totally dictates ours,” Sturridge said. “And this production in particular allows for a level of interaction that is different.”

Wilde smiled before adding, “Some of them get blood on them.”


Julieta Cervantes

Winston (Sturridge) in the midst of his torture, with Reed Birney as O’Brien.

It’s not just what’s onstage that makes 1984 such a distressing experience — it’s the real-world anxiety that audience members are bringing into the theater. The play unnerves because it speaks to our most pressing fears, even if the words themselves are decades old.

Projection particularly plays a major part in the heightened reactions to the play’s torture scene. It’s indeed ghastly, but carefully timed blackouts obscure the worst parts. The clever trick makes audiences feel like they’ve seen far more than they actually have, as some of 1984’s more frenzied reviews indicate. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote, “The interrogations that Winston undergoes in the play’s second half are graphic enough to verge on torture porn.” That’s a curious description for a play that’s less violent than some productions of King Lear, let alone a Saw movie.

“If this was all science fiction, we wouldn’t have an emotional response.”

“Almost everything is left up the audience’s imagination, which is a far more dangerous and terrifying realm than on the stage,” Sturridge said. “We’re not enacting things that I think are gratuitous. What’s gratuitous is the audience’s mind.”

It’s purposefully unpleasant to watch, of course, just as it’s difficult to read about in the novel. Including it in the play was essential in order to stay true to the source material. “The book has way more torture and way more explicit descriptions of violence than we portray in our show,” Macmillan said. “If we didn’t try and attempt to stage some of that, it would be our squeamishness about that imposing itself on Orwell’s story rather than trying to put Orwell’s story on stage.”

Macmillan explained that their reference points were not horror movies but rather real-world atrocities like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And that might be why some audience members are so disturbed by it: What they’re imagining when the lights go down isn’t just colored by the movies they’ve seen, but by the images of actual torture they’ve been exposed to over the years.

“The reason, unfortunately, that we can imagine so many of these horrible things is because we know that they’re happening in real life, right now, and that’s what we’re being faced with,” Wilde said. “If this was all science fiction, we wouldn’t have an emotional response to it.”


Julieta Cervantes

Winston (Sturridge) and Julia (Wilde) meet secretly with O’Brien (Birney).

This production, of course, is being performed under the Trump administration, and for many on the left, concerns about government censorship and the propagation of lies have reached a fever pitch. It’s no coincidence that in January, Orwell’s 1949 novel jumped to the top of best-seller lists.

“When Kellyanne Conway used the term ‘alternative facts,’ she seemed to be speaking out of the Party playbook in Oceania,” Macmillan said. “This is a term that you can use from the White House. Facts can have an alternative.”

There’s a direct line between the “alternative facts” of an inauguration crowd size and the Party’s declaration that when it says so, “2 + 2 = 5.” 1984 has remained relevant for nearly 70 years, through wildly different presidencies — but when audience members see their fears played out onstage, that can be a terrifying experience.

“There’s nothing that’s happening in the production that isn’t also happening in reality.”

“Every age sees itself reflected,” Wilde said, quoting a line from the play and its source material. “It is something that you could feel a connection to no matter what era you were in. I think now more intensely than ever we’re feeling that connection — certainly in this country, certainly me.”

But 1984 is not about Donald Trump, and this particular production originated years before the current administration was in the White House. When it premiered at England’s Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, Macmillan said it felt prescient then, too, thanks to Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks, and the NSA revelations. “It felt like we’d somehow tapped into a political and ideological zeitgeist,” he said.

That wasn’t intentional — it’s just that when it comes to 1984, he and Icke would wager, there’s always good timing. They could have staged this same production under an Obama presidency or a theoretical Hillary Clinton presidency, he said, without changing anything. “It’s the strength of Orwell’s novel that I think there’s probably never been a time since it was published in 1949 that you could read this book and not think, Oh my gosh, you’re speaking directly to me,” Macmillan said.

Because of that, Icke and Macmillan didn’t change the play to make their production more expressly about Trump. For one thing, they weren’t looking to make a political statement, but they also knew audiences would immediately make a connection to Trump’s America without any prodding. Unlike the Public’s controversial Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, which overtly linked the titular character with Trump, the creators of 1984 eschewed, as Macmillan cheekily suggested, depicting Big Brother “with a blonde wig and a long red tie.”


Julieta Cervantes

Party members engage in Two Minutes Hate.

Ultimately, the extreme response to this 1984 reflects the extreme climate it’s being presented in. As Wilde put it, “People are feeling a lot of intense emotions right now in this country, and a lot of rage, a lot of passion. And they’re looking to art to contextualize it.”

If 1984 is the scariest show on Broadway, that’s because, for many in the audience, the world is scarier than it’s ever been. And the lingering dread it instills in its viewers comes from the knowledge that leaving the theater — whether during the performance or after it’s over — won’t change that.

“There’s nothing that’s happening in the production that isn’t also happening in reality somewhere else in the world,” Macmillan said. “If [seeing this play] is the most shocking thing, if this is the most offensive thing that you’ve experienced that day, then you’re not really paying attention.”

Louis Peitzman is a senior entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Peitzman writes about and reports on theater, film, and television. Contact this reporter at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Contact Louis Peitzman at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

10 Movies That Wouldn't Exist Without George A. Romero

Romero’s 1968 classic essentially created the modern zombie, shifting the definition from Haitian mythology-influenced humans under a trance, to flesh-hungry ghouls who will tear you limb from limb.

But Night of the Living Dead wasn’t just groundbreaking for its depiction of the titular monsters: It also reflected Romero’s progressive values. He cast black actor Duane Jones as the lead, and infused the movie with the satire, dark comedy, and social commentary that would become trademarks of his films.

The Story Behind the “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” Video From “The Hamilton Mixtape”

There’s a line that gets repeated several times in “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” a track off The Hamilton Mixtape — “It’s America’s ghost writers, a credit is only borrowed” — and that stuck with Tomás Whitmore. On Wednesday, shortly after the video began trending, the director behind the “Immigrants” music video talked to BuzzFeed News about the story he wanted to tell with it and its political implications.

“Within the political climate and all the xenophobia that’s persisting within the conversation, it felt like a really unique opportunity to give a voice to the immigrant narrative, and to shine a spotlight on, as the song says, ‘America’s ghost writers’ — a lot of people that make this country great and that we don’t often get to see in mainstream media,” Whitmore said.

“Immigrants” is performed by K’naan, Snow tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente — all of whom appear in the video — and it samples “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The song was released in December on The Hamilton Mixtape, which featured covers and remixes of songs from the record-breaking musical. The titular lyric of “Immigrants” comes from a line that consistently gets applause during Hamilton, but the Mixtape version features other original lyrics.

When Whitmore was deciding how to translate the music into a video, he wanted to take “a bit of a metaphorical approach to the overall story,” he explained. The action takes place on a train, with the artists and background actors reflecting various immigrant communities. “Ultimately the migrant narrative is kind of the narrative of human history,” Whitmore said. “And so, to set the whole film on a train, this never-ending cycling around this globe in space, is what made the most sense in the end.”

Whitmore knows that a video like “Immigrants” will have serious political connotations, but that wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when he made it. “The main ambition is to strive for empathy and understanding of the migrant experience and what that entails … and how there’s a lot of pride in that as well, and strength in that journey and that story,” he said. “The idea is that it broadens the perspective of the issue beyond just what’s currently happening today.”

At the same time, Whitmore acknowledged that “ultimately it becomes one because politics is so involved in it.”

“Immigrants” opens with J.Period laying out the contentious issue of border security and noting, “It’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, ‘immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word.” The song was written during the 2016 presidential campaign, which was largely fueled by Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who produced the video, echoed the opening lines of the song. “‘Immigrant’ is becoming a bad word,” he wrote. “This helps reclaim it and put back in perspective that this is a land of immigrants. It should be celebrated.”

While the video takes a somewhat metaphorical approach to the immigrant story, Whitmore and his collaborators wanted to make sure to infuse it with a bit of reality as well. That’s why, over the credits, former Hamilton star Daveed Diggs is joined by a group of kids from Get Lit, an organization that promotes poetry and literacy for young people, many of whom Whitmore said “are either directly affected or have family members affected by immigration issues.”

“We wanted to use the end of the film as an opportunity,” he continued. After the train metaphor, Whitmore’s goal was “bringing it back to reality and shining a light on the next generation of kids and artists that are activists and using their voices to raise awareness. [That] was really important and special to us.”

Louis Peitzman is a senior entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Peitzman writes about and reports on theater, film, and television. Contact this reporter at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Contact Louis Peitzman at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

This All-Female “Julius Caesar” Is More About Blair Waldorf Than Donald Trump

NEW YORK — Because the most recent New York production of Julius Caesar was the Public Theater’s highly controversial Trump-inspired take, there’s at least some concern at New York’s Access Theater, where Pocket Universe’s all-female Julius Caesar is currently running. But no one has stormed the stage yet.

“That made me a little bit nervous,” Alyssa May Gold, who conceived of the production and stars as Brutus, told BuzzFeed News. “I thought, What would I do if someone came on stage during mine? I honestly don’t know, and I hope I don’t have to find out.”

Gold said she followed the backlash against the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar closely. “It was really exciting in the sense that I’m obsessed with this play,” she said. “I was very excited that people were now talking about it, and hopefully people are now gonna go read it.”

There is nothing even remotely Trumpian in Gold’s Julius Caesar, which reconceives the play as a teen drama set at an all-girls high school. And so far, there hasn’t been any pushback against it either (though it is not nearly as high-profile as the Public’s Central Park–housed production).

“If people are gonna do something [to stop the show], there’s not a whole lot you can do to preemptively prepare for that,” Gold said. She doesn’t think the theater needs to take any extra security measures, calling it an unnecessary expense. “We’re really looking at the social, emotional heart of the story, and not the political lens of it at all. Unless you’re really nervous that we’re somehow disrespecting the memory of Blair Waldorf, I’m not sure you could take direct offense or political concern with what we’re doing.”

Unless, Gold acknowledged, someone has a problem with an all-female production. Gold welcomes anyone with that outlook to attend. “I so badly want those people to come,” she said. “Come see it. Let us try to change your mind.”

Gold said that audience members who have seen both the Pocket Universe and Shakespeare in the Park productions have told her they felt like they’d seen two entirely different plays, despite the fact that both were using the same 400-year-old script. She thinks it will take another Julius Caesar production before the association with Trump and the backlash fade away. And while her take on the material isn’t politically provocative, she is confident that the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar won’t be the last time the play causes an uproar.

“The play will live on after this, and there will be some other production that will cause even more controversy, something totally different,” Gold said. “It keeps being controversial for so many different reasons, depending on who the leader is, depending on how the production is done. Sometimes it’s not as controversial, sometimes it’s actually a warning that is heeded or a call to action that people need. There’s so much in there. It’s a play about so many things and so many universal truths that we’ll keep contemplating.”

Louis Peitzman is a senior entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Peitzman writes about and reports on theater, film, and television. Contact this reporter at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Contact Louis Peitzman at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

“Dear Evan Hansen” Came Out On Top At The Tonys

Dear Evan Hansen won big at the 2017 Tonys with six awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor for Ben Platt, Best Featured Actress for Rachel Bay Jones, and Best Score for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

In terms of total awards, Hello, Dolly! came in second with four awards, including Best Actress for Bette Midler. On the play side, the awards were fairly evenly split: Oslo won Best Play and Best Featured Actor for Michael Aronov, but Indecent and The Little Foxes also picked up two awards each.

Unlike last year’s ceremony — where the unprecedented phenomenon that was Hamilton overshadowed the competition — the winners for this year’s Tonys were far more difficult to guess. Yes, there were some sure things: Platt and Midler were predicted months ago. But categories without clear frontrunners allowed for some well-earned suspense and made wins for Aronov and Indecent play director Rebecca Taichman all the more exciting.

Hamilton may have made the 2016 Tonys more predictable, but it also helped imbue the ceremony with a more racially diverse set of winners. All four musical acting awards last year — three from Hamilton and one from The Color Purplewent to black actors. But as Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “I think our incredibly, amazingly diverse Tonys season that just ended was a fluke.”

And indeed, this year’s crop of acting winners was decidedly whiter, although August Wilson’s Jitney picked up a Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

You can see the full list of Tony Award winners here.

Larisa Oleynik Is Here To Prove She's More Than Alex Mack


Ambe Williams

Larisa Oleynik and the cast of Baghdaddy.

To many children of the ’90s, Larisa Oleynik will always be associated with her starring role on Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack. The series, which centered on a teen girl who gains superpowers in a freak accident and wears a lot of era-appropriate hats, doesn’t veer far from Oleynik’s current aesthetic, most notable when she shows up for an interview in overalls and a red flannel.

“I walk around in cosplay of [Alex Mack],” she told BuzzFeed News while laughing. “I tell people this all the time. … I don’t know which one came first.”

It’s been nearly two decades since Oleynik left The Secret World of Alex Mack behind. Since the series ended, she’s had roles in film and TV, as well as theater, where she got her start as an 8-year-old in a San Francisco production of Les Misérables. And she’s now appearing in her first musical since then, Baghdaddy, a sharp, darkly funny look at the people whose mistakes and misinformation — both willful and otherwise — spurred the Iraq War.

“As someone who hadn’t done the show before and hadn’t done musical theater in a gazillion years, I should have been more prepared than I was,” Oleynik admitted. “I was not prepared at all.”


Ambe Williams

With Ethan Slater and Brennan Caldwell in Baghdaddy.

Oleynik first appeared in Baghdaddy in a 2015 production at the Actors Temple Theatre. But after completing that run and a year and a half off, she’s now fully aware of just how much effort she has to put into the show that’s running at St. Luke’s Theatre.

This is live theater, and a low-budget off-Broadway musical where no one can hide behind elaborate sets. “It’s a big, energetic commitment, and that’s actually what I love about the show,” Oleynik said. “All we have are each other, and we have to be locked in.”

In talking about her work, Oleynik frequently returns to the idea of community: It’s a word she uses often to describe the chosen families she’s found on film and TV sets, and onstage. It’s also a major driving force as she’s transitioned from child stardom to the more nebulous world of adult acting.

But Oleynik is also driven by the desire to take on challenging work and continue to prove her worth as an actor, acknowledging the stigma that follows former child stars, who are often regarded more as props than as professionals. She’s not resentful toward those who know her as Alex Mack — even when people who come to see Baghdaddy have expressed surprise that Oleynik is, in fact, a real actor — but she’s eager to show them what else she can do.

“I don’t take it personally,” she said. “Let me prove myself. … I’m constantly feeling that way, like, put me in. Put me in, Coach. Let me show you what I can do.”


Oleynik wasn’t sure she wanted to be a professional actor when she was doing Les Misérables. She was only 8, after all. But it was during the run when she met fellow child actor Rider Strong, who was playing Gavroche, and decided to follow his lead. She started working with the same agent and acting coach, and accompanying the Strong family on trips to Los Angeles to audition.

“At a certain point, I lost some anonymity, and that was a bummer.”

At first, it was just something to do, but eventually something clicked for Oleynik. “I remember being 10 years old and thinking, I want to be good at this,” she said. “It wasn’t about, I want to be on TV. It was more looking around at the other kids and being like, I’m not good at sports, I’m not really smart. I think I could be good at this, though.

Once she started putting in the effort, Oleynik began booking work; her first gig was a guest spot on a 1993 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The following year, she got her big break when she was cast on Alex Mack, after a short audition process she no longer remembers well. But while she was clear about the anxiety that goes into most pilot seasons, she felt an instant ease with this project: In playing Alex, she saw herself. Alex felt like a real 13-year-old trying to make sense of her life, with or without the ability to melt into a puddle or zap things with her fingers.


Hallmark Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection

As Alex on The Secret World of Alex Mack.

For those who weren’t raised by Nickelodeon, it’s difficult to convey what a smash The Secret World of Alex Mack was. It had the 8 p.m. lead-in on the Saturday night line-up SNICK, replacing the similarly iconic-to-millennials Clarissa Explains It All in 1994. SNICK was event television at the time, and the show’s success transformed Oleynik from “just an average kid” into a celebrity.

Oleynik maintains that she led as normal a life as possible, attending the same school she’d been going to since kindergarten. But her first time being recognized in public was a wake-up call. “I was like, This is weird. Is this my life now? And then it did become my life for a while,” she said. “At a certain point, I lost some anonymity, and that was a bummer.”

While Oleynik stayed grounded — with help from Nickelodeon, which she said wanted to let its young actors lead normal lives — she did have moments of discomfort with her new public persona. She was going through the rough early teen years that most of us would have rather spent hiding behind closed doors. Oleynik did enjoy some of the perks, she confessed, like Converse shoes sent to the cast. (“Is this what being a celebrity is?” she recalled wondering. “You get Converse?”) More importantly, she was glad to be a part of something that resonated with people.

As the show’s popularity rose, Oleynik continued to strive for normalcy. “We were pretty driven to do what we had been doing,” she said. “When things like that happen, they just kind of happen.”


Touchstone / REX / Shutterstock

With Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 10 Things I Hate About You.

The Secret World of Alex Mack could have gone on longer; it was Oleynik who decided to step away from the series in 1998 after four seasons. “Something was instilled in me very early on that you keep doing a thing as long as you want to do a thing,” she said. “Then I went back to high school and I was bored.”

But while she was ostensibly back in high school full-time, Oleynik was still acting as well. One of her most noteworthy jobs came around this time, when she played Bianca in 1999’s Taming of the Shrew-inspired 10 Things I Hate About You. But she also wanted to pursue higher education. While filming, she remembers applying to college alongside fellow 17-year-old costars Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Strangely enough, Oleynik ended up at Sarah Lawrence, the liberal arts college Stiles’ character Kat regards with reverence in 10 Things. At college, she almost fully moved on from acting, going on the occasional audition but focusing most of her energy into school. At the time, she doubted if she would ever return to her former career.

“I thought I probably wasn’t [going back to acting]. I didn’t study theater while I was there,” she said. “I just wrote a lot of really bad poetry.”

“I liked kind of starting over and having a little bit of a clean slate.”

Oleynik gushes about her time at Sarah Lawrence, saying she’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. But after graduating, she realized that her acting career wasn’t actually over. “What I thought was me wanting to leave the business was actually just me saying, no, I’m ready to be a different kind of actor,” she explained.

It wasn’t easy to step back into the acting world. For one thing, Oleynik had been mostly off the radar for a few years. For another, those who were familiar with her work knew her as a teen star, which meant she had to reintroduce herself as an adult actor. But that endeavor didn’t bother her — she appreciated that she was going out for smaller, more character-driven roles in movies and guest spots on TV shows.

“I liked kind of starting over and having a little bit of a clean slate,” she said. “And as soon as I got back on set, I was like, Oh, right, I love this.”

Most of what Oleynik has done since then has been lower-profile than her early work, but she’s managed to find roles that excite her. She did episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, Mike & Molly, and Without a Trace, and had recurring roles on Hawaii Five-O (where she got to die onscreen) and Mad Men (where she got to be married to Ken Cosgrove). She even returned to the world of teen television with an arc on Pretty Little Liars.

The way Oleynik sees it, acting is a relationship, and as long as she’s checking in with herself and making sure she still enjoys it, she’s glad to keep doing it. It helps that the hard-work aspect of being a character actor is something she treasures. When Baghdaddy came along, it was exactly the kind of endurance test she was looking for.

“I always find things that are challenging, but for me, roles like this come up about once every five years,” she said. “Whatever life this show has or doesn’t have, it is a reminder of the way that you want to feel in your work and the kinds of stuff you want to be seeking out. It’s always more fun when you’re challenging every part of yourself.”


Ambe Williams

Ethan Slater, Oleynik, and the cast of Baghdaddy.

That challenge included dancing. Oleynik admitted to being a bit taken aback when she first met Baghdaddy choreographer Misha Shields: This was going to be a real musical. And then, of course, there’s the singing — and rapping — as Oleynik’s CIA analyst Berry wrestles with her complicity in the Iraq War through song.

The show is largely lighthearted in its approach to recent history, but it’s not without somber moments. And the larger-than-life story is made all the more poignant and enraging by the fact that, as the actors remind the audience, it’s based on what really happened. Baghdaddy isn’t just challenging for the actors who perform it; it takes something out of the audience, too.


S. Granitz / WireImage

At Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards in 1998.

“At the end of the show, I get a chance to look around and feel like I’ve really, really shared in something with a whole new group of people, and it’s exciting and thrilling every time,” Oleynik said. “Most people leave with more of a sense of community and what’s possible with community, and being a little bit more vulnerable than you’re usually comfortable with.”

Doing the show has required Oleynik to step back into the public: She’s far more active on her Twitter account than she had been before the run, engaging in conversations with followers as she encourages people to come see a show that she believes is important.

To be fair, she hasn’t been totally MIA over the past decade — she’s just been more removed. But over the past few years, she’s picked up on the uptick in ’90s nostalgia that once again boosted her profile, as Alex Mack reruns returned to television and sunflower dresses popped up at Urban Outfitters. And even if she weren’t more actively involved in promoting Baghdaddy, she’d still be meeting people constantly. Oleynik said that she’s recognized at least once a day.

While some fans praise Alex Mack or 10 Things I Hate About You, there are also the people who don’t really know why they’re approaching Oleynik. They see her and feel compelled to say hi, because they’re sure — on some level — that they grew up together.

“People just constantly think they know me, but that we went to camp together,” she said, smiling warmly. “I take it as a huge compliment. Makes me feel cozy.”

We're Getting An Alanis Morissette Musical And Everything's Gonna Be Fine, Fine, Fine

Not to mention “Head Over Feet,” “All I Want,” “You Learn,” and many more emotionally raw anthems of angst that made then-21-year-old Morissette the youngest ever Album of the Year winner at the Grammys and propelled her to stardom. If you grew up in the ’90s, there’s a very good chance you scrawled these lyrics into a notebook at some point.