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Normally, Julie White is a very fast talker. It’s a quality that has served the actress well in the modern American parts that tend to be her bread and butter, like her Tony-winning turn as a Machiavellian movie agent in “The Little Dog Laughed” or a romantically challenged woman in “Bad Dates.” But in her current New York Shakespeare debut in the Public Theater’s “Twelfth Night,” apparently slow and steady wins the race.
“They’re always giving me notes saying I have to slow down,” says White, between bites of a post-rehearsal egg salad sandwich. “But I like to talk fast — it’s like, keep up, right?”
As Maria in “Twelfth Night,” which opens this evening at the Delacorte Theater, White plays a mischievous servant to Audra McDonald’s Olivia, in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother. In a household cloaked (often literally) in black sadness, White’s Maria serves as an effervescent jolt, a task in which the actress clearly revels.
“I wanted to make her sort of like Tigger,” says White, who herself combines a limitless energy with the down-home charm of her native Texas. “She really wants to bust out from under those black aprons and veils. She is like the spirit of anarchy, which is fun to play.”
It is also a rather new experience, as White hasn’t performed Shakespeare in 15 years.
“I’m not used to a dead playwright,” she remarks drily.
But as Jay O. Sanders, who co-stars as White’s onstage love interest Sir Toby Belch, observes, she is a quick adapter, whether the obstacle is the Bard’s prose or the Delacorte’s open-air challenges.
“She sees what’s in front of her and deals with it and plays with it. She just befriends the whole audience every time she walks on,” he says.
Playwright Theresa Rebeck has collaborated with White countless times, including the upcoming “The Understudy” with the Roundabout Theatre Company this fall.
“I think she is the Alan Rickman of American stage actresses,” says Rebeck, who is also cowriting an HBO project “Women’s Studies” in which White would star. “I find it tremendously moving to watch her pick herself up. Unfortunately, that does mean I have to knock her down a lot. Half of my job description is: Make Julie White suffer.”
With her lean frame and head of wild curls, White has been cutting a spry figure across New York floorboards since her theatrical debut in Playwrights Horizons’ “Lucky Stiff.”
“I’ve probably done a play every year for the last 30 years,” says the actress, 48. “Sometimes two.”
An Austin native, White was born in San Diego where her Naval dentist father was then stationed. Though she spent her childhood performing made-up shows with her siblings and cousins (one memorable casting was as Tarzan’s dog), she first fell for acting in third grade when an ulcer kept her home from school watching musicals on TV.
“I saw three weeks worth of MGM musicals and was like, ‘Well, sign me up. How do I get to be one of these people?’” she recalls.
She started doing shows in high school and branching out to the Austin theater scene before moving to New York to attend Fordham.
White lives in Brooklyn (an avid golfer, she has a putting green on her roof). And though she has made forays into other arenas with a recurring role on ABC’s “Grace Under Fire” and as Shia LaBeouf’s mother in Michael Bay’s second “Transformers” film, out this week, theater — specifically new works — remains her preferred medium.
“I feel like I’m used more fully as an actor on stage. We’re out there, no one can cut your performance, no one can edit it,” she explains. “You feel like you have a job, like you’re actually doing something. A lot of times on a movie, you spend a great deal of time sitting around. And you just feel like, ‘Really? Did I work today?’”