Seated on the edge of a bed in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment, wearing nondescript jeans and a chunky gray cardigan, her brown boots kicked to the floor, Jennifer Damiano looks like your average, slightly self-conscious teenager. The actress casually kicks her feet with their unvarnished toenails, hugs her arms close to her and throws out phrases like “No way!” and “Shut up!” with colloquial ease. The only sign of rebellion is the tattoo “Ramble On” peeking out from her racer-back tank when she later removes her sweater.
But up until now, most audiences know Damiano for her troubled, sometimes angry adolescent roles as part of the Broadway ensemble of “Spring Awakening” and, more recently, her Tony Award-nominated performance in “Next to Normal.”
“I was, like, this token teen angst child of Broadway. It’s so funny. What is that? I don’t even know,” says Damiano. “But I loved it.”
Beginning Nov. 28, theatergoers will find a new version of Damiano to follow when previews begin — hopefully — for Julie Taymor’s long-awaited “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” in which the 19-year-old will star as the bubbly Mary Jane Watson, singing tunes composed by U2’s Bono and The Edge. (Costing a rumored $65 million, the production is poised to be one of the most expensive Broadway musicals ever staged.)
“I have a lot of different sides to me and I have just been encouraged to bring out that darker side in a lot of my past work. Here, I just sort of have to go in myself and take away that lighter part of me that does exist,” says Damiano as she twirls a curlicue of her recently dyed red hair (she will wear a wig in the show, but chose the new hue to help her get into character). “I think that what I’m finding is that I sort of live happily in that [darker] world, which is really tragic, but it is what it is. [Mary Jane] is the farthest I’ve had to stray from myself, which is a challenge but I’m so down for that.”
Beyond the actress’ own natural proclivities, being cast as the iconic, unrequited love interest of Peter Parker has proven to be a rather high-pressure gig.
“I’m used to it being original and no one having done it before and me just creating it. I didn’t want to buy the comic books or watch the movies because I didn’t want my version to be a combination of all these different versions of her played by other people or cartoons,” says Damiano. “There are so many people who are so in love with her, I don’t want to let any of those fans down.”
So, stressful? Yes, but Damiano seems up to the challenge, having been performing since age 9 when her “conservative” parents noticed her obvious singing talents. The White Plains, N.Y., native was soon appearing in productions of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Cinderella” and “Seussical” at the local Random Farms Kid’s Theater. Her first professional job was playing Josephina and Samantha in the American Girl revue show at the top of the American Girl Place store.
“I remember having a breakdown at one point with a friend feeling like it wasn’t necessarily my dream, but it became something I needed, something I found myself thriving on,” she recalls of her musical theater immersion. “I didn’t think it was my dream to be on Broadway, it just sort of became that and then it just became me wanting it more and more and more.”
That said, Damiano’s initial reaction to “Spider-Man” when she first saw posters for it earlier this year (the production has been delayed multiple times and originally had Evan Rachel Wood signed on as MJ) was comically off.
“It gave me anxiety because it was the most Hollywood Broadway could ever be. I never once linked myself to it and I was just sort of like, ‘Oh man, that’s just a big mess,’” she says wryly. “Then I got the audition for it and I was like, ‘I have to get this, I have to.’ Beforehand it gave me anxiety because it’s so big and it still does, but the fact that I’m part of it means that it has to be the good kind of anxiety.”