“All you need for theater is two planks and a passion”—one version of a saying attributed to Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (who actually said something a little less pithy). Planks can be gotten anywhere. For passion, you need actors.
Given the cooperation of the Fates, this will be an occasional feature, exploring the life and work of actors by means of a standard set of questions. My current subject was suggested to me by previous respondent Jeff Still, whose answers can be found here.
Lusia Strus was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Ukrainian parents and now lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. The play in which she’s currently performing happens to be set in Chicago, and she skillfully renders the sound of that city in her vocal work, which evokes not the broad South Side tones of the stereotype but something a little more north- and west- side. You can find her on Twitter.
What’s your current role?
I’m playing Bette in the world premiere of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, by Laura Eason, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It’s a co-production with Women’s Project Theater. I’m loving it.
A movie I did, Cotton, written and directed by Marty Madden, is doing very well in film festivals right now. It’s won five or more awards so far. I’ve been nominated for best actress in this year’s St. Tropez International Film Festival—it takes place on the Côte d’Azur in May—which is nice. I play a tent-revival preacher named Maggie Mae Welles.
In May, Wayward Pines, written by Chad Hodge and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, premieres on Fox. You never see me, but you hear me through the first season. It’s one of the best pilots I ever read.
What sparked your interest in acting?
I was always a bit of a pretender. And from a very young age I understood I could make people laugh. I was offered a talent scholarship at Illinois State University, and that’s when I realized I wanted to and could do this and nothing was going to stop me.
What actors, past or present, do you most admire?
Oh boy. So many. Mark Rylance, of course. The first time I saw him was in Boeing-Boeing, and I leaned over to my friend and former theater-history professor, Dr. Al Goldfarb, and whispered, “Oh my God. He’s a true clown.” For the rest of the performance I felt nervous he would fall off the edge. He rode it all the way through.
Linda Lavin was a new discovery for me in The Lyons. I’d never seen her before onstage, and she’s as big and subtle as real life. Dianne Wiest in most everything; Bullets over Broadway was super. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream may be one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Mo’Nique in Precious. I have a talent crush on John Malkovich. I have a talent crush on Rondi Reed. And there’s a woman you may not have heard of yet, Jen Engstrom. She’s a Chicago actress. She’s inspired. I feel like I’m tripping on acid every time I watch her. She rides the edge, like Rylance.
Whose work have you seen recently that you admired?
John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I was enraptured.
Where did you train?
I went to Illinois State University and majored in theater. I had the best teachers you could hope for. It was the end of an era. I got the last few years of the same teachers who taught the first members of Steppenwolf when they went to I.S.U. In L.A., I learned a lot about film work from Lesly Kahn. She’s very good. And then of course Chicago was a training ground and continues to be. I think I’m still training. I don’t think that will end.
Who has most influenced your work?
Well, my teachers. Jean Scharfenberg, Patrick O’Gara, Cal Pritner, John Sipes, Al Goldfarb. They all influenced me a great deal. They helped set a standard for me. Playwrights have influenced me: Christopher Durang, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Shakespeare, and John Guare. In college, when I first discovered Guare and Durang, I got so excited—they set me askew, knocked me off-center, and I liked it. I feel comfortable there.
Have you made any memorable mistakes?
Oh dear. Yes. Many many many mistakes. The most valuable one to mention, I think, is waiting. I’ve made the mistake of waiting. For what? I don’t know. But I’ve spent too much time waiting.
How do you maintain your instrument?
I’m not very disciplined in that way. I have always been pretty physical. Recently, I’ve recommitted myself to working out. That’s as much wanting to wear my summer dresses as it is artistic integrity, though. And I make consistent efforts to improve my spiritual condition. That’s my real instrument as an actor.
Do you ever use a coach?
I have—Glenn Haines. He’s in L.A. now, which upsets me because he’s not here. But he’s top-notch.
Is acting your only work?
Right now, yes. I haven’t had a “job” job in several years, but I’m also aware that I may need to do something again. The problem is I’m fairly unemployable in everything else.
What are you good at?
I’m good with a sword. I’m good at being empathic. I’m a pretty good friend. I’m good at finding the funny. I’m good at coaching actors. I’m good at organizing my friends’ closets. I think I’m a good writer (when I can get myself to do it).
What do you wish you could do?
Oh God. I wish I could sing. I’m working with Jeb Brown and Margo Siebert and Dan Abeles right now [in Laura Eason’s play at Rattlestick]. They all sing. Jeb and Dan play instruments. They sing in that way that makes you feel stuff inside. I wish I could do that.
I also wish I were better at the business aspect of this career. Maybe more ambitious? I’m polarized by it in others. I’m at once envious of it and repelled by it. But I still wish I were better at it.
I wish I could just stop procrastinating. I’m the worst. I should have done this interview two weeks ago, for example.
What role or roles would you most like to play?
I want to play Titania [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream] again. And Tamora [in Titus Andronicus]. Those two. I need to do those two. There are many, many others, but if I could do new work, originate roles—I’m good with that, too.
If you weren’t an actor, what might you be doing instead?
Probably stripping at a D-list club somewhere in Nevada.
Do you have a favorite book, play, film, or TV show about actors?
Waiting for Guffman and For Your Consideration, of course. Also Slings & Arrows. The 1987 movie Anna is so so good. And sad.
Do you have any good actor jokes?
Q: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: I’ll do it myself if I can put a nice pink gel on it.
(I just made that up right now.)