NEW YORK — Alison Wright is having her moment, every day a birthday cake. She has blown up at age 40, geriatric for most actresses, and it’s all the more delicious for having taken nearly two decades and an eternity of tending tables.
She never even played a corpse on “Law and Order,” the television port of entry for New York stage actors. The first time she landed a pilot — the first time she was ever on a series set — was as poor, frumpy, unwitting, two-timed yet unsinkable Martha Hanson on FX’s acclaimed “The Americans.”
Now, she’s starring on Broadway, playing a factory worker seeking solace in the bottle in Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize and earned three Tony nominations on Tuesday, including one for best play.
“Pretty amazing for my Broadway debut to take me to the Tonys,” she says, sipping a sauvignon blanc at a favorite Upper West Side boîte that she’s too busy now to frequent. The Washington Post’s Peter Marks called her performance “terrific.” Of the Tony nominations, Wright says, “It is a privilege to share Lynn’s story of hard-working Americans and the debilitating struggles they face.”
Wright herself is British by birth, from Sunderland in northeast England, near the Scottish border. Yet she works as an American actress, rarely hired to use her natural accent. “I’m a citizen” of the United States, she says. “I’ve paid my dues.”
She’s scored a trio of roles on quality television series, playing sharp Pauline Jameson on FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” devious Marjorie on Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete” and, most notably, Martha on “The Americans,” now in its fifth and penultimate season.
Oh, Martha, Martha, Martha.
In Tuesday’s episode, we found poor Martha living in exile in the U.S.S.R., her sham marriage to Clark Westerfeld — Clark being one of the more stolid, less fortunately wigged aliases of Soviet agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) — over. In Moscow, Martha leads a seemingly solitary, colorless existence. Her world is profoundly greige. An onion-smothered potato serves as sustenance when she’s visited by mendacious Gabriel (Frank Langella), the architect of her desolation.
“I believe Gabriel has come to her out of warmth and a little loneliness and a little guilt, and he’s trying to reconnect with her,” Wright says. “She’s had time to think about things, and she’s not ready to believe a word that comes out of his mouth. We’d want to slap her if she did.”
Gabriel is “the last person she wants to see. We don’t have an idea of her everyday life and how she’s coping. That’s interesting to me. I could say more,” Wright says. “I could, but I won’t,” and she erupts in a full-throated laugh.
Fans came to adore Martha. “Alison is constantly surprising you with her wisdom, her sense of humor, her overwhelming dignity,” observe executive producers and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who comment as a team in an email. “Her dedication helped transform the character into the complicated woman audiences came to love.”
That success would take so long to come to Wright was predicted by early colleagues.
“As a young actress, everyone thought I would come into my own when I was much older,” she says. “I think probably it was because they thought I wasn’t beautiful.”
Rare is the actress who utters such statements, let alone to a stranger armed with pad and pen.
She says this as a matter of consensus, though to gaze at Wright, looking glam in borrowed clothes from Zero + Maria Cornejo, is to consider the observation — to borrow a Briticism — rubbish.
Her eyebrows arch toward the heavens, resembling those of a Hollywood screen legend. “I’ve had these since I was 2,” she says. Possibly, she’s the lone “Feud” cast member who didn’t require hours of facial landscaping.
“I never thought I’d be in film and television,” says Wright, who always longed to be on the American stage. “I didn’t think that people who looked like me could be on TV.”
She had to wait for the medium to mature before she could land work.
In person, Wright is smarter, smaller, younger, funnier and lovelier than Martha, who, in the pilot script, is described as “very plain.” Wright is the un-Martha.
“The hair and makeup makes me look pretty atrocious,” she says of the Reagan-era clothes. “Better to surprise people in person rather than to be a disappointment.”
Martha was always destined to last longer than most of the prey of murderous agents Philip and Elizabeth. (Rhys is Welsh. Whenever the two actors broke and reverted to their natural accents, the crew labeled it “British porn.”) Says Wright: “It’s nice how deeply Martha has touched so many people, and they can be sympathetic to her plight. Unlike the two leads, she is a good person. She doesn’t deserve all that.”
Wright was slow to realize how key a role Martha and the show would play in her career. “I don’t think it was until the third season of ‘The Americans’ that I began to think I might really be on to a winner,” she says.
Then, the call, the stuff of a New York waitress’s dreams. “It was a straight offer to play this role in Ryan Murphy’s new show,” she says of landing a part in “The Feud.”
Straight offer, as in no audition, hon, the part’s all yours.
That’s Ryan Murphy, as in the prolific television producer and show creator, patron saint and committed employer of venerable actresses.
The message: “Would I be available that afternoon for him to explain what he wanted me to do?”
What Murphy wanted Wright to do was play Pauline Jameson, a composite character, assistant to “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” director Robert Aldrich, played by Alfred Molina. Murphy described her “as whip smart, cool as a cucumber, and she could hold her own against Bette and Joan. He wanted her to have sort of an Eve Arden feel,” Wright says.
The actress “embodies the qualities of the really great character actors of the past,” said “Feud” executive producer and co-showrunner Tim Minear via email. “She appears on the stage or a screen a complete, fully realized creature.”
Graham Yost, an executive producer of “The Americans” and an executive producer and showrunner on “Sneaky Pete,” says that “of all the heart-rending scenes in the run of ‘The Americans,’ seeing poor Martha spirited off to the Soviet Union ranks for me as the most affecting.” He cast Wright in “Sneaky Pete,” about a con man hiding from violent gangsters, because “I wanted to see her play someone who gets revenge,” he says. “And I wanted to hear her lovely northern English accent.”
Wright is the only child of an accountant father and a mother who did social work with the elderly. Her dramatic tendencies were first noted at age 4. An aunt said to Wright’s mother, “She’s either going to be on the stage or on the streets.”
By grade school, Wright was performing in musical pantomimes, a British tradition. She took classes in musical theater, tap dancing and ice skating, her mother working two jobs to pay for it all. Wright read Stanislavsky and saw the direction her acting would take.
“I wanted to get to the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and learn the Method, which was not available in England,” she says.
“For many people, British acting is taught from all the outside things that a person does. In the Method, you use your own pain and trauma. I’ve got plenty of that,” she says, declining to elaborate. “And I thought this Method thing might work out for me.”
She moved to New York to study. “Ended up living in New Jersey. How stupid is that?” She waited tables. She moved to Queens. She waited more tables at no-frills burger joints, never at swank destinations. “I prefer to be run-of-the-mill,” she says. “I worked in Hell’s Kitchen and met everyone from Broadway. I saw the sun come up many mornings on Ninth Avenue with a lot of people.”
She kept acting. “I worked steadily in small things only friends came to see and random people, like many hard-working New York actors paying their dues,” Wright says. “I worked in smaller theater companies that were not able to produce much work and independent films that nobody ever sees, including me.”
Fun, and yet her income was a pittance, she was the poorest of all her friends, and health insurance was long a luxury.
All that has changed. “I have health insurance — for now,” she says. She lives in Harlem in a nice apartment with her maltipoo, Luigi. She’s committed to another season of “Sneaky Pete.” She is scheduled to be in “Sweat” through September — if ticket sales stay strong.
And she may appear on the last season of “The Americans.”
Or, then again, she may not. She won’t say. She can’t say. Don’t ask her.
“One day, I’ll be rich enough and cool enough to live in Brooklyn,” she muses. “This is just the beginning for me. I feel like my life just started.”
But for the moment, she’s a 40-year-old Broadway actress in a Tony-nominated play who still rides the subway to work.