What happens in Vegas: An interview with Anastasia Phillips of the play The Optimists

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With the booze-fuelled, irreverent play The Optimists, rising star Anastasia Phillips gives notice she’s all grown up

Those Vancouverites who fell for Anastasia Phillips in her breakout title role in The Diary of Anne Frank are in for a bit of a shock. Since that award-winning Arts Club production in 2005, Phillips has been living in Toronto and acting in theatre, TV, and film productions across the country. But when she finally returns to the local scene for the Vegas-set The Optimists, tonight (February 8) through March 3 at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage, her character, Teenie, will be a far cry from the saintly girl she made her name with here.

“I’m wasted, I’m puking, and I pass out, and that’s where I stay through the second scene. Then everybody else gets more drunk and hostile and sexually charged, so I have to catch up again when I wake up,” Phillips says, taking a break in the Arts Club’s dressing room between rehearsals . She admits that Teenie, a screwed-up, semi-trashy blond who has travelled to Sin City for a quickie wedding to a much older gambling addict, will show Vancouver audiences a starkly different side of her. “I almost feel bad—like I should change my name or something,” she says with a smile, “because Anne Frank is like this pure heart, and it’s almost too irreverent to be doing this.”

Or it could just be that this new role in a wild adult comedy from hot Canadian playwright Morwyn Brebner (Little Mercy’s Last Murder) is notice that Phillips is all grown up. She has a kind of star quality, with looks that fall somewhere near Scarlett Johansson, and a similar ability to navigate the spectrum of serious drama to whacked-out comedy. That quality meant acting found her, not the other way around. She had enrolled in a general arts program at UBC when a professor encouraged her to move into acting. It was a smart decision: fresh out of that theatre school, her first pro acting stint was in Anne Frank, a part that won her instant critical acclaim and a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for outstanding female performance in a lead role. It catapulted her into work on everything from a gig in Equus at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre to a starring role in MVP, a new CBC series set to launch this fall. Other parts of her life brought her a new maturity during 2006, too, she says. “I moved into a condo. I had my first real long-term relationship. And I had my first experience with a family illness that brought everybody together. I guess it was a year of understanding what life is about.”

The chance to work again with Rachel Ditor, who directed her so successfully in Anne Frank, was one of the things that lured her back for The Optimists. So was Torontonian Brebner’s edgy script, which follows one crazy, booze-fuelled night in a cheesy Vegas hotel room as another couple (Scott Bellis and Jillian Fargey) arrive for Teenie’s nuptials to Chick (John Murphy). “Rachel gave it to me and I read it in Granville Island Market. The dialogue is so fast and it’s so ballsy and reckless and irreverent,” Phillips raves. “We don’t often see things so bluntly said.” Proving the marketing slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, characters end up getting away with everything but murder. But it wasn’t the heady allure of Nevada’s gambling capital that Phillips drew on for her role; in fact, she’s never set foot in the city—on purpose. “My dad is a shrink and has to deal with these gamblers all the time,” she says succinctly, explaining why casinos hold little appeal.

In some ways, Teenie’s life contrasts Phillips’s own content upbringing in the Etobicoke area of Toronto. “She grew up in foster homes and had a pretty fucked-up life,” the actor says. Still, there are aspects to grasp hold of: Teenie met middle-aged Chick in her soul-sucking job as a receptionist at a car dealership in Mississauga. It instantly reminded Phillips of her own brief stint working at a construction-railing manufacturer in the same suburban-Ontario wasteland. “It was a sleazy, sleazy atmosphere, with guys with slicked-back hair. I’d have to file all these papers while the guys pretended to be working,” Phillips says with animation. “So when I read this part, I thought of that: ”˜Oh my God, you just don’t get taken seriously at a place like that.’?”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to tackling the role has been exploring the meaning of the title—the way people can find hope even amid all the boozing, addiction, and insanity. Phillips’s character eventually emerges as one of the most optimistic of the play’s four central screwups. “Chick has a gambling, drinking, and eating problem, and for a man who has every addiction that could probably exist, to be in Vegas ups the stakes,” she says. “And Teenie is optimistic that he’ll change that. She is taking a leap of faith with him, to look forward to a better life. She believes in looking past people’s faults.”

It speaks to Phillips’s acting ability that she can root out the good in Teenie. “You have to have a certain amount of heart for any villain—a vulnerability, an idealism, and a forgiving quality,” she says, and then she suddenly comes to a conclusion that seems to surprise her: that Anne may not be so different from Teenie after all. “Anne would say, ”˜I still believe that people are good at heart.’ And it’s the same here: Teenie takes a man wrecked by addiction and says, ”˜I still believe in you.’”