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Evan Rachel Wood, Darren Criss on Stepping Into ‘Little Shop of Horrors’: “We’re Both These Little Theater ’90s Nerds”

It’s early afternoon on a Friday when Darren Criss and Evan Rachel Wood pick up the phone, just five days before they are set to debut as the new Seymour and Audrey in off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors.

Both are on their way to the Westside Theatre stage for their first top-to-bottom run-through, taking over the complicated but beloved characters based on Roger Corman’s 1960 horror comedy and deftly adapted for the stage by theater legends Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music).

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Now in the fifth year of the U.S. revival of the dark goings-on of a Skid Row flower shop, several notable names have left their mark on the show: Jonathan Groff, Jeremy Jordan, Conrad Ricamora, Corbin Bleu, Constance Wu, Maude Apatow, Tammy Blanchard and Lena Hall. But none quite like this, as an intentional leap together among friends.

As the interview begins, Wood — who is already at the theater — openly wonders whether she should take the elevator down to where she’ll soon meet co-star and friend Criss, before quickly interjecting that “you might lose me for two seconds.” Meanwhile, Criss declares he opted to skip the subway after realizing he was running behind, as he briefly turns on his Zoom camera to reveal himself in the back seat of a car.

Later, his voice will drop out for a few minutes, before reappearing, sounding winded. “I have my ear pods in, and so I just got out of the car talking to you guys, and you cut out,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Then I looked at the car driving away, so I just sprinted down the block to grab it.”

This frantic energy speaks to what you can find within this kind of scrappy, fast-paced, off-Broadway musical environment in the final days before curtains go up. As replacements, Criss and Wood will do so with less time to rehearse and no preview audiences on which to test their performances, but that doesn’t seem to faze either of them. Instead, with their easy and fun rapport, the duo celebrate the challenge of what it means to be passed this mantle for a three-month run, beginning Jan. 30.

On Tuesday, Wood will make her New York theater debut, a long-awaited moment for the actress who grew up with a father (Ira David Wood III) as an actor, playwright and theater director in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. With her early stage ambitions sidelined by a burgeoning film career — later including movie musicals like Frozen II and Across the Universe — the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated Wood will finally return to her performance roots, a year after news of her attachment to a possible Thelma & Louise musical adaptation for Broadway.

Little Shop of Horrors will also mark Criss’ first return to New York’s musical theater world since a multi-week replacement run in 2015 as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. On the phone, he’s adamant that, absent traditional musical theater training, he’s fooled the world into thinking he’s more than an “actor trying to act like he knows how to sing.” But with several EPs, a Christmas album, Billboard-charting work with StarKids Productions, and roles in musical-driven screen projects like Glee and Hazbin Hotel, it’s hard not to believe that the Emmy- and SAG Award-winning performer, like Wood, will be right at home.

Ahead of their debut, the duo spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about sharing the stage, the impact of Little Shop of Horrors across the stage and screen, their love of Ashman and Menken, and why these roles are personally resonant and remain culturally timely.

Darren, you said in a previous interview that you had been begging Evan to come do theater in New York for years. How did you make that happen now, and for you both together?

DARREN CRISS Let me just start by saying as much as I can before she can hear me. I’m in a regular habit of just exalting Evan for her talent. I’d done this before I even had the great privilege of getting to know and become friends with her. I’m always talking about how wonderfully talented she is and how I’ve always really loved her voice and her breadth of ability. When I meet people who are these wonderful triple threats that have a really strong theatrical background — people who can sing and don’t have as many opportunities as I wish they did — I get off on the idea of people who didn’t know that they could do this thing finally getting to see that they could do this thing.

Evan has done a lot of singing in her life. She’s literally a Disney princess for Frozen II and there’s obviously Across the Universe. But knowing that she has this really strong theatrical background, I’ve always been hell-bent on getting her on a stage. As a friend, she has popped up on many gigs with me in my personal life just for fun and parties I’ve thrown. She showed up for me on the Christmas album. She’s said yes to me far more times than I frankly deserve. So when this came around, a lot of my colleagues — a lot of my friends — have been Seymour, and who loves theater that doesn’t love Little Shop of Horrors?

It would be a really fun time for me, but the thing that would make it really, really special is if I had got the chance to do it with an Audrey that not only I thought really could bring something spectacular to the role, but on a personal level, this is off-Broadway. We’re all doing this scrappy theater thing in a basement together. If we’re going to live on top of each other, it might as well be someone I’m also personally very fond of and have a wonderful relationship with. So short story that’s way too long, I went to Evan and said “Hey, I have an idea. Would you be available to do this?” and thank my lucky stars, she said yes. I’m just a pig in shit, getting to do this with her. It’s an absolute joy.

Evan, what’s your response to that glowing review, but also, why did you want to make this show your off-Broadway New York theater debut?

EVAN RACHEL WOOD Funny enough, I have been so close to being on Broadway a handful of times and something has always come in the way of scheduling or something falls apart. It was actually my dream as a kid. I went back and read some old interviews of mine when I was around 12 or 13, and I completely had forgotten that my dream was to go live in New York, go to NYU, and do theater in New York. That was where my sights were set before my life sort of got derailed for a moment. So it’s always been in my sights. It’s gotten increasingly harder over the years to make it work, especially if you have kids, to be away from home for such long periods of time.

Usually, the theater commitments are an amount of time that I was just never able to do, and so the timing was perfect because I was thinking to myself, “God, I wish I could go to New York and do a play, but maybe not a six-month run. Maybe something around three months. A classic musical that’s going to be really fun.” Darren called me maybe a week later and said, “I’d love for you to come and do it with me,” and it was an instant yes. To piggyback on what Darren said, I feel very similarly about Darren and that whenever he’s asked me to do something, I just know it’s going to be great. I know it’s going to be fun and I fully believe in everything that he does and his talent. We’re both these little theater ’90s nerds that just hit it off in so many ways, and we collaborate well together. I just felt like we would like this project. It’s made so much sense for both of us that it was a no-brainer.

Evan Rachel Wood and Darren Criss starring in Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors
Darren Criss and Evan Rachel Wood

Little Shop of Horrors is one of those musicals that even people who aren’t big fans of musical theater and attend regularly are aware of, both in terms of story and music. Among the many adaptations of this, whether it was a professional or high school staging or even any of the movie versions, was there one that made you want to do this show?

CRISS I’ll say this. As hip of an aura as I’ve tried to give off, make no mistake, I think the biggest gateway to this property for everybody is hands down the movie. I was not seeing off-off-Broadway theater in the 1980s. I wasn’t there, and that’s why I love movie musicals so much. As much as I love going to the theater, being able to go to a Broadway show is a very specific and privileged situation tied to being in New York City. But whether it’s a liked or celebrated movie, it is still going to be the most accessible thing in perpetuity for everybody. So definitely the movie and those songs.

Before you can really understand the complexities of the thematic, Faustian elements and high dramaturgical elements of the story — and before you even get the comedy — you get the music. Especially when you’re really young and your parents are playing you things that you go, “OK, well, kids can get behind music.” It doesn’t take much to understand that the music from that show is beloved. I mean, this music and this show are like proto-Disney Renaissance. It’s like what got [Jeffrey] Katzenberg to ask Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to help them out. It was like, “We want to do some Disney musical fairy tales.” Now, because of the show, we have The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast.

I grew up in the ’90s, as me and Evan tend to relate upon a lot. With The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and these films that I loved so much, as I got older, I really wanted to know more about the people behind them. I became obsessed with, and I talk a lot about, Howard Ashman and how much of an influence he’s had on the musical theater genre ever since the popularity of those films. So I wanted to go back to the start of that, and that’s when I started to dive into Little Shop and discover how this was the sort of nexus — the genesis — of everything.

WOOD Yeah, same. I grew up watching the film and being so terrified by it, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I grew up doing theater. My father runs a theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, and so that was my childhood. I was always listening to show tunes, and as Darren said, the classic Disney albums, acting out plays in my living room and Little Mermaid was certainly one of them. Ellen Greene’s performance always stuck with me, and I am also a major Howard Ashman-Alan Menkin nerd for similar reasons as Darren. Those were all things that drew me to it.

I was really terrified about and still am terrified about being eaten by the plant because it was like a deep-seated childhood fear of mine that I had to conquer to do this show. It’s stuck with me since childhood. It’s not as bad as you would think. But it’s still pretty scary. Also just a fun fact, I was cast as Audrey in the seventh-grade school play, but I couldn’t do it because I was doing movies. (Laughs.) So I got pulled out of school, but I was almost Audrey in seventh grade.

CRISS You aged into it well. This is a much more appropriate time in your life being Audrey than in seventh grade, so it worked out great. (Laughs.) I just have to say, we both have our careers going on and different dragons that we’re chasing in our professional and personal lives that committing to a big Broadway production is a huge investment. What’s so wonderful about this is, the way the show is set up, we can kind of come in for just a little bit. It’s really high output but low stakes — and I don’t want to say that to be reductive of the production.

I mean that the show is beloved. There are people that know this show but have never seen it, and have heard of it and know the songs without ever even having tried to listen and know the songs. So it’s so culturally ubiquitous, that it’s a very, welcome accessible thing for all kinds of folks and that might cross-pollinate between me and Evan’s demographic of people who might be interested in us. Also, it’s been running for long enough that I feel protected. I’ve seen this production several times. Evan and I went just last night. It’s something that you don’t have to figure out.

One of the hardest parts about getting a show up on its feet is like, does it work? Do we want this song in? We got to do it with an audience and you really have to workshop stuff for a long time. Shows take years before they’ve reached mainstream Broadway, so the fact that all that legwork is taken out is a no-brainer for us. It’s just this really like warm snuggle from something that we really love.

You’re right in that this is not a traditional production experience for you, as you’re coming in after others, and you have less rehearsal time, no previews. What have the challenges or exciting elements of that been for you so far?

WOOD I don’t know about you, Darren, but I feel like one of the reasons why I said yes to doing this with you is because this is kind of where you and I thrive — in the fast-paced chaos. I need a challenge sometimes. I need that adrenaline and I need that fast pace, especially if I’m coming in to do theater. That’s where I grew up, and that’s what I’m used to. That’s where home is for me. So coming back into the theater, into the organized chaos of it all, feels right. My brain loves it and thrives off of it. When somebody says, “Oh, this is a really hard number to learn,” I think, “This is going to be my favorite number.” (Laughs.) I love figuring something out, and picking it apart piece by piece and putting it back together, then conquering it. There’s just such satisfaction that comes from doing that there, Darren, and I think it’s similar for you.

CRISS It is kind of a party trick some people are quick studies of, for better or for worse. I think this kind of pace suits us. I think it’s something that we wear pretty well, and I think we do that a lot in our own lives. But to do it together is pretty fun. I’ve thrown Evan into all kinds of things where she’ll just show up knowing a whole song last minute. That’s not too dissimilar, and it’s not like we’re learning new music. We know these songs.

In the theater world, you learn a track. It’s literally a track — there are little railroad tracks set around the stage because there’s no follow spots. The lights are where they are. You don’t have to do hours of tech rehearsal, figuring out where the lighting cues are. They’re there. It is our job to jump into a machine that is already very well-oiled and running. So in that regard, you’re kind of free from having to worry about that stuff. But you can just focus on your characterization and nuance within these very, specific directives. I’ve done a few put-ins. I think this is probably your first, Evan, for a show that’s already going. Correct me if I’m wrong.

WOOD I did learn, for the record, Baz Luhrmann in one night and performed it the next night.

CRISS Case and point. So yeah, doing a put-in — I’ve done it a few times for Broadway — it’s nice because then you can just focus on the little things that you really want to play with and not worry about these big macro things. What’s funny is that people always say, “Oh, I love Broadway music. I love Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors.” The word Broadway is often conflated with the music from narrative storytelling, whether it be from films or TV. This show was always an off-Broadway darling. It was only really on Broadway for a little bit in 2003. Beyond that, it’s the movie and this off-off-Broadway show, which started in the ’80s and ran for a pretty long time. Then in just so many regional and school productions. But it’s actually only been on Broadway for a minority of the time.

WOOD And that was intentional, right? It was really important to them to keep it off-Broadway because that was the spirit of the show. It was on Skid Row. It wasn’t supposed to be a big, huge, glitzy production.

CRISS It’s a famous show now, but if you’re in the ’80s, and you’ve got some big Broadway musicals happening uptown, you’re trying to tell your friends, “Yeah, I saw this thing downtown. You’ve got to come. It’s kind of this doo-wop that’s based off this Roger Corman B-movie. There’s a plant that’s a puppet but it’s hard to explain. You just got to come down and see it.” (Laughs.) Trying to contextualize that, it makes you realize this really is a weird thing, man. It’s a weird, off-the-beaten-path, outlying renegade show.

You’ve both done musicals in different mediums, which is, obviously, a different process. Was there anything you brought with you about doing it onscreen to your performances now?

WOOD It’s kind of the opposite for me. I’ve carried theater into my film work because I started in theater, so I learned how to do things fluidly and without stopping. There’s a lot of stop-and-start in TV and film, and sometimes that’s nice. But sometimes it’s frustrating, especially when you come from a theater background. There’s something so satisfying about telling the story from beginning to end and playing the entire arc of the character in one go. There’s just a certain energy and an aliveness that comes with that that you can’t have when you have the camera in the room and it’s constantly moving and starting and stopping and changing.

CRISS I would say the same thing. I don’t know if this math checks out, but I think I’ve spent in my collective hours working in any kind of performing art, more time in a theater than I have on a set. That might not be true, but in my mind, it feels that way. I constantly feel like I’m bringing what I know in the theater to film and television. I’d always prefer to be doing theater, but these days, listen, I’ll work anywhere, anyhow. As long as, hopefully, it’s positive, and additive to the world in some way. The theater, without getting on a total spiritual kick, it is a holy place. It’s an ancient art form. It is catharsis. It is sharing something with people in real time, before your very eyes.

It’s why, despite the fact that we have TV and film and every possible AR/VR medium to displace our reality, theater is still around. It’s why we go to church, why we go to temple, why we go to the mosque — so we can experience something that we collectively want to believe in. We’re strangers and we want to elevate ourselves to something that’s bigger than the sum of our parts. I realize I said I didn’t want to get into a whole spiritual thing with it, but there you go. That can only happen after the fact, months if not years, after you do it in a film set.

Evan Rachel Wood and Darren Criss starring in Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors
Evan Rachel Wood and Darren Criss

Evan and I are about to do our first put-in rehearsal, which is to say, we’re going to do the whole thing top to bottom, but there will be a key character missing, and that is the audience. The audience is one of the main characters of any show. And as much as you’d not want to break the fourth wall — that they’re not supposed to be there — of course, they’re there. Of course, that’s why we’re there — to have that kind of sacred communion with an audience giving you the privilege of their presence. You have a responsibility and a duty to make sure that you are sharing some kind of worthwhile experience with them. So getting to renew that experience every night, to me, is the most noble vocation that you can have as an artist.

WOOD I learned how to sing before I learned how to act because I wanted to do musical theater. So this is my favorite thing to do of all the mediums. Being able to marry the singing and the acting together. Always my first love.

CRISS I’m still learning how to do those two things, which is why Evan Rachel Wood is in this production — to teach me how to do those things. (Laughs.)

Part of why shows like Little Shop go on for so long — why they can get this many revivals or adaptations — is that there’s something timeless about the story and its characters. For you, what is most timeless about Seymour and Audrey? Amid all the other actors who have taken on these roles, what are you most connecting to?

WOOD From what I understand, everybody that’s come in to do the show brings their own energy and spin on it. Especially with Audrey — Ellen Greene, her performance is so iconic. The look, the voice, the songs. So stepping into that is figuring out how I pay homage to the parts of this character that people love and expect to see, but also bring my vibe and energy to it. That’s exciting to figure out what my Audrey looks like. For me, it’s also hard not to relate to her and her struggles because, unfortunately, those are very timeless — poverty, abuse, patriarchy. She’s sort of a victim of all of those things.

Not to get too real for a second, but I am a domestic violence survivor playing this character who is going through similar struggles, who has these similar feelings and dreams of getting out and going to a better place and getting far, far away from her past. They’re all very real things, but they’re in this setting of campiness and horror. What’s amazing about the show for me is that it is fun. It is campy. There are man-eating plants. But there’s such sincerity to it as well. Especially with Audrey, Seymour and their relationship. There are so many beautiful, real moments between the two of them. Themes of poverty and capitalism are still just so prevalent that that’s why it’s so timeless, because these things just are not going away.

CRISS I’m glad Evan mentioned her own experience and what that brings to the show. I think, for my money, pathos is a dish best served sweet. Comedy and fun are a wonderful support system for really heavy themes.

WOOD Exactly.

CRISS I think that I’m more likely to take something more seriously if it’s not shoved down my throat. This is a comedy and to me, there’s not a lick of fat on this thing from Howard Ashman, who was just such an extraordinary dramaturge. He took this really silly B-movie, and managed to hone in on the very ancient themes. You’re asking what makes Seymour so timeless. It’s a Faustian tale. This is the one of the oldest fables asking what is the price of greatness. What is a man willing to do, willing to give up, willing to trade to get what he wants?

WOOD He literally sells his soul.

CRISS Yeah, he sells his soul. The plant is Mephistopheles in this parable of Little Shop. But, of course, if you’re going go downtown and say, “I’m going to do a show. It’s like a Faust thing, and Mephistopheles shows up,” you can see people’s eyes glaze over. Well, how about it’s this guy, there’s music that is evocative of what was popular in the late ’50s, and the plant sings. It’s sci-fi, but it’s horror, but it’s fun, and it’s comedy. Now you have my attention, now I’m subscribing to the music. But by the end of it, I’m experiencing a classic, traditional, academic tale in a really fun way. When you said there have been millions of iterations of this show, my mind went to, there have been millions of iterations of this story. This is probably just one of the funnest ones I can think of.

There is ancientness to this tale. I’ve realized recently I’ve made a lot of my roles, especially in the Broadway world, about people who would do anything to accomplish greatness. To varying degrees of evil or good or compromise, people are always trying to figure out what it is they have to do, and what they have to give up. What line they would cross to get it. A lot of times people are kind of conflicted [watching Little Shop of Horrors] because you are rooting for this guy doing this thing, but he’s doing something terrible. Does that make you complicit? Are you a bad person for wanting this? All those things are the bread and butter of good old-fashioned drama.

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