By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Jessica Keenan Wynn was enjoying a career-building run on Broadway depicting legendary pop songwriter Cynthia Weil in the production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” when she was cast in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” the sequel to the hit 2008 movie musical.
Thankfully she had a clause in her contract that allowed her to take time off from the popular stage show to go to London—and then Croatia—to film the big-budget Hollywood musical.
Born in Los Angeles into an acting dynasty—Wynn is a descendant of film and stage icon Ed Wynn, silent film star Frank Keenan and 1930’s and ‘40s film actor Keenan Wynn—Wynn was destined for a career in show business. She made her debut as an infant in an episode of “The Golden Girls.” As an adult, she has appeared on the TV series “Billions,” “The Mysteries of Laura” and had a guest spot on “The Knick.” The tall, titian-haired actress has mostly gravitated toward the stage, having appeared as the iconic Heather Chandler in an off-Broadway musical production of “Heathers.”
In the “Mamma Mia!” sequel, she plays Tanya, the younger version of Christine Baranski’s character, who is besties with Rosie (played by Alexa Davies) and Donna (played by Lily James). Donna’s wanderlust leads her to a scenic Greek island after college graduation where she meets and has whirlwind romances with three handsome young men in quick succession. Her friends dutifully show up when Donna needs them most. They sing and dance as The Dynamos in the local café. With a bobbed ‘do and a colorful, late ‘70s wardrobe, Wynn delivers a spot-on performance as Tanya that recalls Baranski’s sassy, saucy persona. No stranger to musicals, Wynn was excited to sing “Mamma Mia” and other ABBA songs in the film and for the soundtrack.
The “Mamma Mia!” sequel is also a prequel. It presents more ABBA tunes (some deep cuts from the 1970s) along with the original A-list cast together, among them Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julie Walters and, of course, Baranski. It also introduces new cast members including Jeremy Irvine, Andy Garcia, Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner and the legendary singer/actress Cher.
While promoting the film in London, the in-demand actress spoke by phone just days after taking her final bow on “Carole King,” where she returned earlier this year after wrapping “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
Q: You must be incredibly versatile because you were working on “Carole King” and then you got this call to come out and do “Mamma Mia 2.” So, you step out for several weeks and then come back to finish the run. What a year you’re having!
Wynn: Oh gosh, can I quote you on that? Can I put that in my bio? Yeah, it’s been the best. It’s difficult to articulate. I feel like finally things are perhaps starting to pay off—the blood, sweat and tears. Starting in a 99-seat theater, getting paid $2 to do a show and having my musical theater kind-of really transition me into a sequel of this size. My wildest dreams are coming true.
Q: How did the the “Mamma Mia!” sequel come your way? What about it appealed to you? Was there any hesitation at all to do it?
Wynn: When the audition came through, I immediately thought, “I’m perfect for this.” I know that sounds a bit narcissistic, but I have been idolizing and admiring Christine (Baranski) for her entire career, especially since I’ve been an actor, and so when this came through I was like, “This is a role that I can play and this is a woman that I not necessarily emulate but that I can try to infuse in my characters.” I thought if I didn’t book this, I should leave show business and find a kale farm in Denver. My life felt like that. The first two auditions, I walked out of the room going, “Oh gosh, that was great!” And somehow, I kept getting called back. Then, the final audition, Ol Parker was there, our director and Nina Gold, our casting director. There were tons of people, our producer, Gary Goetzman. And I sang and danced and then left the room. It took them a few weeks to get back to me but I got the call, “You’re coming to London and Croatia. You have to leave in a week.” I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’ll do anything you want.”
Q: Once you got there, did you record the music first?
Wynn: It was a combination of dancing and the music, because we obviously had to know what we were singing as we were recording the numbers. We had five weeks of rehearsal that were mixed in with some music rehearsals and some dance rehearsals and, luckily, who doesn’t already know “Mamma Mia?” It was a joy to finally sing that and singing it at a grand piano with (ABBA co-founder) Benny Andersson was also just kind-of an unreal treat. But new songs came out like “When I Kissed the Teacher” and “I Wonder.” “I Wonder” is cut from the final film, but it will probably be on the DVD extras. It was so exciting to learn these new songs. They were not new ABBA songs, but new to our ears. But trying to go to sleep at night was not fun because I had “When I Kissed the Teacher” on repeat in my head.
Q: How did you, Lily James and Alexa Davies form this bond, because you’re supposed to be these friends that have just graduated from college together? Did it take very long for you guys to get to know each other and become friends?
Wynn: Would you hate me if I gave you a really uninteresting answer and said, “No, it was effortless.” Honestly, it was sensational. The blood, sweat and tears of learning the choreographed numbers in massive platform boots really tends to bind people together. It was like, “You lean on me, I’ll lean on you and we’ll get through this together.” That’s what The Dynamos represent and that’s what we found and we created in the rehearsal process. Then, luckily enough, that was translated onto the screen when we started production.
Q: Speaking of platform boots, you have some amazing outfits in this. What were your favorites? What was your least favorite aspect of your wardrobe?
Wynn: I was already a massive fan of Michele Clapton, our costume designer. She designed for “Game of Thrones.” The woman knows a woman’s body. Walking into that room, I was like, “Tanya is sex and these clothes are going to be tight and revealing. What am I going to do? Do I have to have green juice every day? What’s my life going to be like?” But when I walked in at the first fitting, I was so thrilled and felt so confident. Honestly, I started to find young Tanya through the costumes. My favorite one is when we’re at Oxford, right after we sing “When I Kissed the Teacher,” whine Donna wants to make new memories and we’re talking about what we’re going to do after we graduate. It’s a little purple jacket and I’m wearing a purple halter top underneath this waist-high full-length skirt and the highest-heeled boots I’ve ever worn in my life. I had these brown, vintage platform boots that Michele had found to use as kind-of inspiration for the “When I Kissed the Teacher” (number). They actually ended up fitting me because I have the smallest feet in the world. And that is where I found Tanya. She had the confidence to wear these feisty, tall boots.
Q: How tall were you in the boots?
Wynn: Let’s say maybe 5’10”. I saw the world from a whole new height. (She laughs.)
Q: Most of your scenes, of course, are with Lily and Alexa, but you have this incredible encore with the entire cast together singing and dancing at the end. What was that like? You’ve got Pierce Brosnan over here, Meryl Streep over there and then there’s Cher.
Wynn: I blacked out! (She laughs.) I finally realized what happened when I saw the film. That moment was really the culmination of our entire production. We spent five weeks in Croatia with the “legacy” cast—that’s what we called them—having us all together on stage with spandex and sparkly aspects, being able to almost dance in celebration with our older counterparts was my favorite part of the entire film. Christine was so welcoming and so professional. She wanted to rehearse the number. I would just see her in the corner, just fixing the way even her finger flicked. Her attention to detail I definitely stole that from her that day and now I’m using that every day. It was an utter pleasure to dance by her side and that picture of us together is already framed in my apartment as proof.
Q: Did you watch the first “Mamma Mia!” to kind-of get her mannerisms and voice inflections?
Wynn: Oh yeah, absolutely. I watched the movie a few times. Actually, Alexa and I, on set, we wanted to get into character before they started shooting so we would say our favorite line form the film as our character. Mine, for a good minute, was “Donna Sheridan, you shady lady,” so I could kind-of capture her sass. And then I loved to watch (Baranski in) “The Birdcage” and “Cybill.” I watched how she held her martini, because just the way she held it was like her own character. That was the best research, going back and trying on bits and pieces of Christine.
Q: You said you wrapped the show and took your final bow. When was that?
Wynn: Last Sunday—a week ago. I took my final bow and then I got on a plane Wednesday for the press junket and the premiere, so I don’t think I’ve processed a lot of it yet.
Q: Is it too soon to ask you what you’re doing next?
Wynn: I know exactly what I’m doing next. I’m going to make dinner at 8 on Friday night. I’m going to a bougie brunch at 2 on a Sunday. (She laughs.) I’m so looking forward to taking a breath and living a little bit. I love work, though, and I never say no; I say yes to everything. Maybe two weeks from now you can ask me again and I’ll be panicking, but I’m really excited to let everything sink in.
Q: What do you hope audiences get from watching this movie?
Wynn: A part of me does have a feeling that this movie, if anything, is going to make people walk out with a smile on their face. That’s exactly what we need right now.
Q: Do you still live in L.A. or do you now call New York home?
Wynn: For casting directors, I’m bicoastal, or should I say “tri-coastal?” I have so many friends in London now, but I do live in New York. My family still lives in L.A., so that’s kind-of a second home.