Phillipa Soo talks to Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki about her “thrilling” Emmy nomination, capturing her Hamilton performance for television, and the enduring power of Eliza’s legacy.
July’s Emmy nominations put Hamilton “back in the narrative”—a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize, 11 Tony Awards, and now 11 nominations from the Television Academy for the beloved musical’s filmed adaptation. Hamilton‘s smash success has transcended Broadway and is among the biggest cultural phenomena of this century, and as the line between film, television, and now live theater continues to blur—a great performance remains a great performance. To that end, it was such a delight to see Hamilton‘s First Lady, Phillipa Soo, earn her first Emmy nomination for her role as Eliza Hamilton.
It’s Soo’s pure and rich voice that first gets your attention. It’s the unbridled vulnerability that she brings to her Eliza that completely captures it— the result, a stirring and passionate performance. The opportunity to watch Soo’s Eliza on television, up close and in a new light, finally allows us to understand and fully appreciate the nuances of her work. Behold the power of Phillipa Soo.
Awards Daily: First things first, congratulations on your first Emmy nomination!
Phillipa Soo: Thank you! I was very pleasantly surprised. I have to admit; it was not really on my radar. I was in the middle of a Zoom event, and I was getting a bunch of texts on my phone. So, I was wondering what was happening and I was just completely shocked and surprised. I was so thrilled for my cast and for all the creators to have another excellent opportunity to celebrate this incredible piece of art and celebrate the show I got to be a part of.
AD: The beauty of theatre is that the performances are very fluid and can change from day to day. As you were coming to the end of your Broadway run, getting ready to film Hamilton over the course of those three nights, knowing that this would be your opportunity to immortalize this character and your performance—how did you want to capture Eliza?
PS: It was sort of made very easy because we’d already been doing the show for a couple of years at that point. I just thought, ‘I’m just going to go in and do what I’ve been doing with the added knowledge that it’s going to be really special at the end of the day.’ I was incredibly trusting of our director, Thomas Kail. We shot the show a couple of times, and then we would go in, and we’d have the opportunity to get some shots on stage when there wasn’t an audience there. I just really trusted him. I knew that he would pick the best version of what he knew the story could be and the best version of what I had to offer within that. So I was just really excited to let it fly and just honestly celebrate and revel in the fact that we got to capture this wonderful thing we’ve created.
You know, it’s not very often when you work on a play that you can have a product at the end of the day, something you can hold in your hand, so to speak, and say, ‘Look what I made.’ Thinking about [that], well, I can’t believe that this will be watched by people someday. At that point, we had no idea when it was going to come out.
I really wanted it to be about being present and celebrating my castmates’ work and really just enjoying the fact that I was there at that moment.
AD: And Thomas Kail’s direction is very intimate; there are a lot of nuances that he’s able to capture with his closeups. Is that something that you prepared for? How did you embrace having this performance captured on a new medium?
PS: It helped that we had rehearsed it so many times before having to shoot it. But, I was very aware the camera was much closer than what an audience member would be able to see. I was aware of the frame we were working within and knew that there were certain ways to tell a story on camera that might be picked up more than if you’re on stage. Thomas and I talked about some of it. And ultimately, the gift of the show is the writing and the truth within the writing and the truth within the performances and the moments that we got to explore. Everything was so grounded that it was very easy to still live within the truth, even though the frame was slightly different. It still felt like a very easy exploration.
I was just excited that people got to see different parts of the show that I got to see being onstage. And I was also thrilled that I got to see parts of the show that I’d never seen before because I was on stage or backstage. It was really cool to see that.
AD: I have to ask you about ‘Burn.’ It’s one of the highlights of Hamilton for me. How did you build the arc of that performance, going from being very wounded to this raging anger?
PS: You know, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, this is a very vulnerable moment. I’m alone on stage. I don’t have anybody else to play off of right now. And it’s just me and the lantern and some letters and the bench.’ But within that vulnerability, I’ve found that it was a really wonderful place to exist in that song, especially since the character is also feeling very vulnerable, very exposed in that moment. Not to make it into a pun, but it was a very slow burn, in terms of the character’s journey and navigating her way through the time that she was living. But ultimately, I really wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, there was a sense of ownership over the moment, that yes, she’s destroying these letters from Alexander, but she wants to have ownership over her life and her legacy. I wanted that feeling to be conveyed.
AD: I have to ask, were you using real fire on stage?
PS: Yes, there was real fire on stage every night. The wonderful props team had a candle. And there was lots of fireproofing and fire safety that had been implemented. They would light my little candle in that lantern and I would walk out. There were extra matches in there in case the candle went out for whatever reason, but we did really light a letter on fire every night. And then the rest of the letters we sort of were able to sneak them into a secret compartment. So we weren’t burning multiple letters on stage and having to control a fire.
But we rehearsed it a lot when we were in the tech process. I think my dress was fireproofed, if I’m remembering that correctly. So really it was about making sure that everything was safe. You know, for me, it was just so cool because oftentimes things like fire and water, you’re having to improvise and imagine that stuff on stage, but to actually have the fire was just so awesome. And it really fed me every night to have this very beautiful and small flicker of a candle being this raging fire, just sort of felt like the emotional journey was also what was happening within Eliza as well. So to have that to inspire me and really feed me in that moment was really good.
AD: “The Schuyler Sisters” is another favorite of mine. Those harmonies are incredible! What can you tell me about working with Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones on that number?
PS: I mean, it was magic the first time the three of us got to sing together. it was like a dream come true. It was so easy. Those two women were such an important part of my journey with that show.
Just as an actor, as a cast, as the character of Eliza, but [also] just for me personally, we really just connected so deeply and there was definitely an actual sisterhood that was formed through that. And so when it came to singing, it was like butter. It was just so easy and effortless and fun at the end of the day. Getting to sing together was so fun. I think there are parts of that you can see during Schuyler sisters, like at the end, and that laughter that you see, that’s real, that’s us truly enjoying and reveling in each other. It was–it was a joy to perform every night with those two ladies.
AD: So much of Hamilton focuses on legacy. As you move on to other projects, how will you carry Eliza with you? Do you find that your experience on Hamilton is informing your other performances?
PS: Well, gosh, it was such a huge part of my personal life and artistic life, and my career. Of course, it will always influence and live in me, in many ways and shapes and forms.
I feel like there is part of Eliza that I will carry with me. And there are times when it comes out, when I think, ‘Oh man, it’s definitely because of getting to play Eliza that I have a new perspective on this and that.’ But also I know that there will be things that will happen in the future that I don’t know about yet.
And, you know, I’ll be reminded of the fact that I got to play this incredible woman, especially getting to play a character that was a real person. I think there’s this deep connection, this sort of ancestral connection that I got to have with her, just to get to step into her shoes.
I was just so honored and humbled and in awe. Getting to see her life’s work and her legacy and her resilience influences me. You know, I’m in it for the long haul. I know that this is a long road— this career, this life as an artist and I’m excited to see what’s next.
AD: And lastly, if you could pick a historical character that you could create a play about, who would it be? Do you have anybody that you’re secretly obsessed with, that you would like to dig into and make your own version of Hamilton?
PS: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, gosh, just off the top of my head there were so many women throughout the history and the making of America that I feel like we should highlight— so many women of color. I had the great joy of getting to help develop a show, written by Shaina Taub, before the pandemic that’s about women’s suffrage movement.
And, you know, there’s a lot of great stories that are emerging as we’re coming out of a time of not having any theater. So, I’m super excited to see what that’s going to be.
Phillipa Soo is Emmy-nominated in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie category for her work in Hamilton. The musical is available to stream via Disney+.