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You wouldn’t know it from her bright-eyed appearance on a chilly Tuesday morning, but Lauren Ambrose has spent the better part of the last month weeping. Rivers of tears that streak her pale face with lines of running mascara. Every night she confronts mortality when her onstage husband in “Exit the King” learns he will die by the evening’s end.
“I’m crying for two and a half hours straight,” says Ambrose. “And then you leave the stage door and people are like, ‘Can we take your picture?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never looked worse.’ I need a lot of eye cream.”
In the play, a revival of Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist work on now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) learns he has only 90 minutes left to live. Decked out in mimelike makeup, pajamas and an orange wig, he grapples with physical and existential decay, all the while flanked by his deadpan first wife Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) and his young, highly excitable second wife Queen Marie (Ambrose).
“You’re given this extreme of emotion, so you not only have license but a necessity to go as far you can,” says Ambrose, who spends the play vacillating between hysterical laughing and sobbing, all the while navigating the stage in a velvet robe with a 12-foot-long train.
“Lauren is such a bold, daring and brave explorer,” says Rush, who helped adapt the text and starred in its 2007 Australian production. But even intrepid actors meet limits, as Ambrose found out when she had a particularly dangerous run-in with Rush’s crown. “One day in rehearsal, I tore out a whole chunk of her hair,” Rush recalls. “She yelped, and I said, ‘Well, that will teach you for acting in my cranium.’ ”
Burdensome costumes aside, “Exit the King” proved an intellectual challenge for Ambrose, who pored over the original French text armed with a bilingual dictionary.
“I’m a nerd. I like to get into the nitty gritty of all the words,” she says.
It’s all par for the course for Ambrose, who has been a working theater actress since she was 13. Growing up in New Haven, she discovered a passion for performing and spent her middle-school summers auditioning for Broadway plays. One of her earliest jobs was in Ned Eisenberg’s “Soulful Scream of a Chosen Son.” “It was all of these actors getting no money, and it was a walk-up theater and really cool,” recalls Ambrose, who at 31 continues to exude the youthful energy of a college drama major. “For me to be around people who were so passionate about their work, I was like, ‘Wow, what a great way to make your life.’”
Though most recognized for her five seasons on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” Ambrose has stomped her share of floorboards, as Juliet and Ophelia in Shakespeare in the Park productions and in Lincoln Center’s “Awake and Sing!” Later this year she will appear opposite Paul Giamatti in the darkly comic film “Cold Souls” and Paul Dano in Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
“I often find myself taking jobs because they scare me,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing only one kind of thing.”