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To go by her recent spate of work, it would seem Rosemarie DeWitt has yet to meet a dysfunctional family she doesn’t like. The actress’ breakout film role was in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” as Rachel, whose nuptials are disrupted by her recovering alcoholic sister. In “The United States of Tara,” in its second season, she is the younger sister of Toni Collette’s dissociative identity-stricken woman. And in her latest project, an MCC Theater production of Beth Henley’s play “Family Week,” she is a mother trying to deal with her son’s death (and a host of other issues) at a fancy rehab center.
“I tend to be drawn to people who have flaws. I just find them so much more interesting to play,” says DeWitt, as she runs a finger thoughtfully through her auburn hair. “Also, it’s a great opportunity to step outside of the nice woman you feel like you need to be in your life.”
There’s plenty of bad behavior to be found in “Family Week,” which begins previews at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on April 9. DeWitt stars as Claire, a thirtysomething woman whose son was recently violently killed. Suffering from a plethora of ailments — from anorexia to abusive tendencies — she seeks recovery at an inpatient clinic in the desert, where she is visited during family week by her testy sister, skeptical mother and angry 13-year-old daughter. Needless to say, the genetic toxicity levels reach nuclear levels.
“I think some people could see this play as some sort of criticism of the way we treat mental illness and addiction and eating disorders and all those sorts of things,” says DeWitt. “And I don’t. I actually think it’s a very delicate balance between how we help and how much people can be helped. And the beautiful thing about the play is you can’t always help people, but you still try.”
Some of the themes in “Family Week” — loss of a child, substance abuse, sisterly vitriol — bear an uncanny resemblance to terrain covered in “Rachel Getting Married,” a point driven home by their shared director. Demme is making his stage debut with “Family Week,” after an Oscar-winning film career with hits like “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia.”
But Demme insists it was pure coincidence: He fell for Henley’s work when he first read it 12 years ago, and credits his 14-year-old daughter, Jo Jo, for igniting his latent theater passion. And the timbre of his relationship with DeWitt has only deepened.
“I loved working with him on the movie and I’m a fan of the movie itself, but I have to say it’s all Jonathan,” says DeWitt modestly.
Demme begs to differ.
“When Rosemarie clicks into a moment, it’s an exquisite moment in life. We’ll just be sitting around the table and then suddenly, with no warning, here comes this extraordinary burst,” he says. “She’s a tremendously powerful actress and it’s just such a thrill to be sitting across the table from her as this stuff is going on.”
DeWitt grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Marine Corps dad and former flight attendant mom (she has four older half-sisters). Though she did musicals and plays throughout high school, she was always wary of committing to a thespian career.
“I was afraid to say that’s what I wanted to do because maybe someone would say, ‘Oh, are you kidding? You have no talent. You should find a real job,’” she recalls.
She graduated from Hofstra University with a creative studies degree — “a make-your-own-sundae kind of major” — and went on to study at The Actor Center in New York while bartending on the side and putting on small theater productions with her friends. Off-Broadway she gained notice in John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” and Craig Lucas’ “Small Tragedy.”
Recently, DeWitt, 35, who married fellow actor Ron Livingston in November, has been making more forays into television with an extended guest appearance on “Mad Men” and her ongoing role in “The United States of Tara.”
“It’s a lot like life: You don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says of the television work. “A script shows up on your step on Wednesday and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m pregnant!’ or ‘I just killed somebody! I didn’t know that!’”
Next up, she’ll play Ben Affleck’s wife in “The Company of Men,” a film about corporate downsizing. The multimedium work is all a product of maturity, as she explains it.
“I think you turn 30 and say, ‘I can’t live on a theater salary.’ Because I remember being so snobby in my 20s, like, ‘I don’t want to do a pilot. Why would I want to do TV?’ All I wanted to do was theater,” says DeWitt. “And then, at some point, you’re like, ‘Well, I need health insurance.’”