D’Arcy Carden has always been a bit delusional. In fact, she credits it as the reason she is where she is today. The Emmy-nominated actor is currently making her Broadway debut in Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, playing now at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre through June 4. And even though she spent a decade in New York City auditioning to make it as a Broadway actor, it wasn’t until Carden pursued a new dream (away from the Big Apple) that led her back and fulfilling a childhood dream.
It is very clear to see that Carden (a sparkling comedy actor known for television work in The Good Place, Barry and A League of Their Own) is loving being back in New York City. Her theatre kid-self is front and center because while her show is dark for the next couple of days (Playbill spoke to Carden while The Thanksgiving Play was still in previews)—she is eagerly trying to see as many shows as she can. Two shows today and maybe another show tomorrow if she can get tickets.
Carden attributes her lifelong love for the theatre to her family, who took her to shows all around Northern California. “I had the luck of my parents taking [me] to all the children’s shows and musicals that were playing in the Bay Area.” One of her first theatrical experiences was seeing Annie at the age of “six or seven” and being completely transported. “Miss Hannigan was completely real to me.” So real, in fact, that after the show, while backstage with her father, “for some reason I had the audacity to go up to [the actress playing Miss Hannigan] and I smacked her butt. To be, like, a playful little orphan girl.” Carden said the woman took the exchange well (as well as you can take being spanked by a child). That day and the whole experience really changed her. She wanted to be an actress.
Carden began taking acting classes and at age nine, she was cast in her first lead role as Lucy in a production of, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. “But not the one you’re thinking of,” exclaims Carden. “The one written by my third-grade teacher.” It was this role (and the many that came after) that fueled her passion. “Throughout my childhood and into [my] teens, I decided I was going to major in theatre,” she laughs. “It’s funny to even say ‘decided’ because I feel like I didn’t decide. I feel like it was just like a fact.”
A fact that never faltered, it was only solidified when she would visit New York City on her family’s annual trips to see Broadway shows. Her first Broadway show? How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullally. She remembers it so well because Mullally’s performance opened her eyes to what was possible as a performer. “Inspired is almost too small of a word. I’d never seen this before. So funny. So pretty. Timing like science! She just really blew me away.”
That inspiration stayed with her, even as she went off to college. Carden left California and attended Southern Oregon University where she pursued a BFA in acting. She remembered on one of her first days in class, her professor walked up to a blackboard and began writing statistics explaining how unlikely success would be, and how financially difficult it was in New York to pursue an acting career. “It was such a dream killer, but also a reality check. It was good and it probably cut the class in half,” Carden recalls. But even when confronted with the information, Carden remained unfazed. “It didn’t deter me. In fact, with this, like, delusional part of my brain, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be one of those [successes]. I can do that.’”
It would be easy to think of Carden’s younger self as too self-confident, even for her own good, but Carden says she knew then how ludicrous it was to purse acting. “Deciding you want to be an actor is insane. You have to be a little, tiny bit, delusional. That was the only part of my life where I allowed myself that,” she explains, “If I start doubting it or really trying to rationalize it, it almost disappeared. I have to just know in my deepest heart and soul: this is what I’m supposed to be doing and the only thing that I absolutely love doing on this earth.”
It would be that love that would help keep Carden’s determination throughout college. As much as she loved to perform, she quickly admits that she was not the “star” actor in school: “I was the only person my freshman year that didn’t get cast in a play.” While many in Carden’s situation would start to second guess themselves, she found another route. She explains that she used the disappointment as “a challenge to better myself, to take it more seriously.” And better herself she did. By senior year, she was being cast in lead roles.
After college, Carden went straight to New York City to pursue her acting career in theatre, where she lived in “a teeny tiny apartment with, like, five people in it, in Washington Heights, and auditioning and temping and babysitting.” However, Carden reveals that the fantasy of being a New York actor dissipated.
After pounding the pavement for a couple of years, auditioning anywhere she could, Carden was not getting work. “I was getting nothing. Like, nothing!” she says with a deadpan expression. As a kid on her visits to New York, “I really smugly felt like this is where I’m supposed to be.” But now as an adult, was she in the wrong place? Did she not fit what Broadway was looking for? Doubt began to creep into Carden’s psyche. Even seeing Broadway shows, something that once inspired and comforted her, only made her question herself more. “I had big realizations about what I’m capable of,” she says. She recounts one show, during a tap number where the entire company was on stage. “I’m seeing the person in the furthest back and [they’re] tap dancing away and I can’t see their face, they’re blocked. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t even do that.’” The realization left her shaken.
However, as fate would have it, a new love entered Carden’s universe: improv. From the invitation of a friend, Carden went to a show at the comedy improv theatre, the Upright Citizens Brigade. And it changed everything. “I sat in the front row, and it blew my mind.” Upright Citizens Brigade (also known as UCB), the renowned comedy theatre and school, was founded in the late 90’s by comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The theatre and its classes completely changed Carden’s career trajectory. “I signed up for classes the next day and then that became my full focus,” she says smiling. “I found my people. It was like we spoke the same language.”
Carden says it was those people, that community, that became her chosen comedy family. They were kindred spirits. “A lot of us were character actors that were like, a little too young to be finding any sort of success. We all played 50-year-olds, but we were 20.” After finishing UCB’s classes, she made her way through different groups at the theatre: a weekend comedy team, the popular ASSSSCAT improv show, the UCB touring company, and more.
But as time went by, Carden started to feel stuck. Her friends were advancing in their careers, some joined the cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Her close friends Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer were writing and starring in their own show, Broad City, on Comedy Central. Meanwhile, Carden still had a day job working as a nanny for Bill Hader’s (of SNL) two eldest daughters. “And then to work all night as an improv actor for free, I loved it, but that can only last so long.” Carden and her husband Jason (who was feeling the same way at his job) realized they needed to make a big life move: in 2013, they moved to Los Angeles.
Looking back at it now, Carden laughs at how horrible the first few years were, back on the West Coast. “I’m like, ‘I’m miserable. I’m lonely. I made the wrong decision. I miss New York so bad!’” But in her mid-30s, things finally began to fall into place for her. Carden was cast as Janet, the omniscient artificial intelligent being on NBC’s The Good Place, where she received an Emmy nomination. She landed memorable roles on screen in Barry, Veep, Bombshell, and most recently the Amazon series adaptation of the film A League of Their Own.
Because of her television success, Carden’s love of theatre and Broadway was “definitely being put it in the back seat and I could possibly be saying goodbye to it.” But like anyone with a dream…it never truly goes away. “I just knew at some point, I had to do [theatre] again,” she says. “There’s a lot of things that are great about [screen acting]. But as far as being artistically fulfilled, it’s really hard to feel fulfilled when you’re acting for two minutes at a time,” she explains, before adding, “Man, the idea of doing a month-long rehearsal process with The Good Place cast would have been incredible.” What Carden missed and long for was rehearsing with a cast, and acting through a full character arc from beginning to end.
As her notoriety began to rise, Carden asked her team for opportunities and a chance to see her childhood dream fulfilled. And much to her surprise, they were encouraging. “They were thrilled and sending me plays and setting up meetings with directors.” And then, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play came into her inbox. Not only would this be a chance to return to New York and make her Broadway debut, but it would be with a new play, a comedy (her forte), and it would be the playwright’s, Larissa FastHorse, Broadway debut as well. “It just fit perfectly,” she says, visibly excited.
The play, a satirical comedy about four “well-meaning white people” attempting to create a politically correct and non-problematic pageant centered around the colonizing holiday, Thanksgiving. Carden plays Alicia (pronounced uh-lee-see-uh), an actress from LA who is hired to come to a small town to help bring some “authenticity” to the show. “She’s not the smartest person in the world. She’s very simple,” remarks Carden.
One may even say that Alicia is a bit…delusional. She reveals that she has different headshots for roles of varying ethnicities, which is what caused the other characters to initially think she’s Native American. “She’s not a hero. She’s not a villain,” Carden says. “It’s a little bit outside of my wheelhouse. But that’s good.” Because while comedy is very much a part of her wheelhouse, tackling the show’s more difficult subject matter of white fragility and performative wokeness has been a scary for Carden. “There’s things that these characters, and Alicia, say that make you go, ‘no, no, no,’” she explains. “And then there’s going to be some things that make you go, ‘Uh oh, I see myself there a little bit.’ Which I think is good and hard.”
But the one thing Carden is thankful for is the show’s playwright. “[Larissa] is in the rehearsal room every day…She’s super collaborative and open. And if you have an idea, she wants to hear it.”
Carden believes that she’s not only a different actor after working on The Thanksgiving Play, but a different person. “it’s been eye opening and life changing and brain expanding. It is saying so much. And it is such a smart play, and it is a million layers deep. But it’s also just really fucking funny!” Carden suddenly stops and with impeccable comedic timing, she looks from side to side and asks in a hushed tone, “Wait, can I say ‘fucking’ to Playbill? OK well, it’s gosh-darn funny.”
As Carden is finishing her time with Playbill, she gives some advice for her younger self, and perhaps anyone who’s a late bloomer. “There’s no one’s timeline but your own. It’s so easy for us to compare ourselves to everybody around us,” she says, as she looks down and alludes to her phone. “And it’s probably a million times worse with social media.” But, as she leans back in her chair and looks out the window at the New York City skyline, she says “If you can remember that you’re doing this because you love it, and you have to love it. Otherwise, don’t do it,” as she turns her head back quickly. “Because there are so many easier things, so many more jobs that will not keep your mom up at night.”
Carden may have considered herself delusional for being so passionate about her dreams, but it’s what took her to New York, out west to Los Angeles, and now back to New York. And now, as she takes a selfie in front of the Playbill logo wall in the office lobby, Carden knows that her path to Broadway was the only one for her. Because it was in that journey that she found her people, and that kept her going through the uncertainty, she says: “When I had come to terms that Broadway maybe wasn’t going to happen for me, or maybe TV and movies weren’t going to happen for me. I also was like, ‘But I’m in this great community of hilarious comedy actors where I get to perform on stage. I’m good with that. I am so fulfilled with that.’ I loved that. Go. Find that.”