Megan Mullally still recalls a dark moment with Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma that illuminated one of her first and only acting lessons.
Then 12 years old, the future two-time Emmy winner and the other girl playing the younger two of Tevye's five daughters in “Fiddler on the Roof” were struggling to deliver their lines. So, longtime Lyric artistic director Lyle Dye used a memorable method to help the budding actresses.
“Lyle Dye had everybody in the whole cast except for us like line up and sit down against the wall. He put us right in the middle of the room and then he turned out all the lights. It was pitch dark. And he had us do our lines in the dark,” Mullally said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.
“I kind of connected the dots, like, ‘Oh, we're just saying … things that make sense, so let's just say them like you say them in real life.' It was my first and one of my only acting lessons, 'cause I never really studied acting.”
A four-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner for the hit TV series “Will & Grace,” Mullally, 55, is coming back to the city and stage where she grew up with a new project, a band with fellow actress and musician Stephanie Hunt enigmatically named Nancy and Beth. In Mullally's first Lyric Theatre engagement in a decade, she and her cohorts on Wednesday and Thursday will deliver performances jam-packed with jazzy roots-rock, bawdy humor and adult language.
“The first show sold out in 45 minutes, and I was so excited. So they added another show, and then that one sold out also,” Mullally said. “The feel of the band is pretty celebratory. People often say that they wanted to get up and dance — or they often do get up and dance.”
Fateful road trip
The former Oklahoma City Ballet soloist and Hunt were on a road trip from Hunt's hometown of Austin, Texas, where they were shooting the indie film “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” to Oklahoma City, where Mullally's mother lives, when they discovered their musical chemistry.
“She had her ukulele — which I now have learned to play, too — and she was gonna play this song and she said, ‘There's this one part that you have to sing harmony with me on.' … And so we did it — and then we just kind of had a little freakout deal over how well our voices sound together,” Mullally said.
“I think we like the same taste in music — which of course is key — and then we have a very weird simpatico where we just kind of feel the way that we've rephrased the lyrics. … That's just something that only happens rarely. Like I had that kind of affinity with Sean Hayes on ‘Will & Grace,' but that doesn't happen that often, where you're kind of almost like psychic twins.”
Their shows blend music and comedy, and they perform covers ranging from the pretty piano spiritual “In the Cool of the Day” to the sassy swinging tune “Jack, You're Dead” to “filthy raps” including a certain Riskay number that explicitly recommends women use their noses to sniff out their partner's suspected infidelity.
“When we rap, it's just gonna be funny anyway. I don't know, the criteria is very broad, like it's just kind of whatever we get a kick out of. … We actually have something called the Freakout List, and if it doesn't make it to the Freakout List, then we don't do it,” Mullally said.
Although the band has only together about a year and a half, Mullally, Hunt and their three backing musicians already have made their national TV debut on “Conan,” performed across the country and in Australia and recorded several songs for an album planned for fall release.
In addition to the band, the multitalented Casady High School graduate is continuing to work in movies and television. She and her husband, fellow comedic actor Nick Offerman, voice a couple of animated bears in the English-language version of the Oscar-nominated French/Belgium film “Ernest & Celestine.” The dubbed version screened last month at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where Mullally and Offerman hosted the awards ceremony.
“It's magical. It's an amazing animated movie,” she said. “It's the first movie I've been in that's even been close to being nominated for an Oscar. So I'm thrilled.”
Although she tries to take on sharply written material in whatever format she works, Mullally said she tends to say yes to projects that more cautious performers might turn down. But that willingness to take risks has led to some exciting opportunities, like her uproarious role as the aggressively unattractive chief of staff in the Emmy-winning satirical Adult Swim series “Children's Hospital,” which she said will film its sixth season over the summer.
“I think a lot of actors maybe who have been on a hit show and been lucky enough to get successful might say ‘no' more than I do. And maybe that's good, maybe that's smart. I don't know. But I like to work. I mean, part of it for me is that I was a struggling actor, could barely pay my rent, until I was almost 40,” she said.
“I don't know too many actresses … who would appear on camera with no makeup, a hunchback, a man's wig, giant horrible glasses with lenses like the Hubble telescope and walking on a walker. Like, I'm not sure that there are too many actresses of my age particularly who would be like ‘Oh, yeah, sure, I'll do that.'”