From ‘Billions’ to Broadway: How Acting ‘Saved’ Corey Stoll

“House of Cards” and Marvel star Corey Stoll, nominated for a Tony Award for “Appropriate,” reveals how acting saved his life—and how he soaks up Sarah Paulson’s punishment.Updated May 18, 2024 3:51AM EDT / Published May 17, 2024 11:29PM EDT Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/GettyAs the chit-chatting, bicycling, late spring afternoon life of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park swirled around us, Corey

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“House of Cards” and Marvel star Corey Stoll, nominated for a Tony Award for “Appropriate,” reveals how acting saved his life—and how he soaks up Sarah Paulson’s punishment.

Tim Teeman

Photo illustration of Corey Stoll on a marble paper background

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

As the chit-chatting, bicycling, late spring afternoon life of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park swirled around us, Corey Stoll spoke excitedly about the need to be reminded multiple times a day of his own mortality.

“My favorite app is called WeCroak,” the actor said, smiling wide, holding up his cellphone. “Five times a day it sends you an alert that says, ‘Don’t forget, you’re going to die.’ It’s the best thing. Inevitably, it pings while I’m in the middle of some petty nonsense in my head. Then I get this alert, and it’s like, ‘Oh yep, it really doesn’t matter.’”

Mortality isn’t just pinging at Stoll on his phone, The big D, the passing of time, the gritty truths of hidden history and what really matters and what does not, also form the pulsating bedrock of Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ acclaimed 2013 play about a white family discovering some horrifically racist dirty laundry in its past.

Now a hit Broadway revival (Belasco Theatre, to June 23), the play, directed with crackling vigor by Lila Neugebauer, stars Stoll and Sarah Paulson as warring brother and sister Bo and Toni. The play—full of gasp-inducing on-stage conflict and comedy, as sibling dysfunction meets ignorance and hypocrisy head-on—has received eight Tony Award nominations, including for Paulson and Stoll, both first-time nominees (she in the lead actress in a play category, he for a featured actor in a play). Bo’s standout stage moment comes in a roof-raising meltdown, which shows him to be far from the placid, liberal-minded family peacemaker we had thought.

“That rant of his is very ugly,” Stoll said. “He’s really sharing his basest, pettiest, most resentful side of himself, but it also triggers a sense of recognition in the audience. Even in this incredibly petty moment, that’s really beautiful.”

The character of Bo, Stoll recently told The View, was modeled on “the dads outside Taylor Swift concerts waiting for their daughters, telegraphing they’re still men.”

In an early preview, one man applauded after the rant. “That was problematic,” Stoll said, smiling. “The whole audience turned against him. I thought, ‘Is this what we have in store for us? Audiences attacking each other?’ That has not happened, thank God. But that is also part of what I love about Branden’s writing. He makes you identify with the characters. I think there are more people desiring to applaud at that moment than it is socially acceptable to do—a response to someone saying something they are not supposed to say.”

“It’s really nice,” Stoll—star of House of Cards, Billions, and the Marvel universe—said of the Tony nomination. “When I accepted the role, I read it and thought, ‘This is not a Tony-nominated role.’ It felt the least flashy of all the roles. On the page, I didn’t realize how incredible the moment of my big speech would be. There’s a good chance, for the rest of my career, I will never have a laugh as explosive and sustained as that. It really is such a gift to ride that kind of energy.”

“I’ve seen all the performers in my category, and they’re all so good in their own ways,” Stoll added. “We all deserve the Tony. I can’t know how much I want it until it’s over. I’m determined to enjoy this moment now because it is an honor. It’s a moment in my career to take stock a little bit, and see that I have been welcomed into this world.”

The nomination has been a really lovely moment to think back on my life since I was 11 or 12 when I first started to act, and what a life-saving gift it has been for me.

Stoll is “aware of the arbitrariness, capriciousness, and absurdity of awards, because who wins is such a subjective thing. I’ve been in this business long enough to see so many very worthy performances that haven’t been honored, and performances that have frankly been not so great that have been honored. It’s subjective.

“The nomination has been a really lovely moment to think back on my life since I was 11 or 12 when I first started to act, and what a life-saving gift it has been for me, and the great teachers who encouraged me. Over the last few days, I have felt an incredible sense of gratitude for my elders in theater. This is a mode of expression started around the fire in some cave somewhere that has persisted through all these different traditions. It took care and cultivation to develop this art and to keep it alive. During the pandemic, we went through a period where we were denied it, and forced to stay away from the theater. Theater is an incredible gift.”

“I used to lose my voice every week”

While Stoll may have some “blind spots,” they are different from Bo’s, Stoll said. “I’m more self-aware politically and socially savvy than he is. As an artist, I’m more practiced in honoring and paying attention to my feelings.

“When I read the script, I struggled to love this guy. I really judged his blindness to the horror of what was in his family’s past—and then his willingness to make money from it. It was Lila, who unlike many directors has an incredible ability to empathize and identify with each character, who would go through each line and say, ‘He’s right in this moment.’ The act of forcing myself into Bo’s shoes has made me love this guy. I’m so grateful to be able to play him.”

Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing shows “how vain, petty, and greedy these people are—but just when the audience feels superior to them, he’ll have a character say or do something which forces the audience to reckon with their humanity,” said Stoll. “The audience is always off-balance in that way. If they feel superior to the characters, the audience is missing out on what the play has to offer.”

Corey Stoll as Bo in 'Appropriate' on Broadway

Corey Stoll as Bo in Appropriate on Broadway.

Joan Marcus

Stoll said he knew Appropriate was a “great play” when he read it, and wanted to work with Neugebauer and Paulson. He had not seen one of Jenkins’ plays, then saw The Comeuppance, about a group of friends from high school who reunite twenty years after graduation in a Maryland suburb. “I saw how Branden’s use of language lived out loud, and that he had such a singular, confident, intelligent voice. His characters explore really complex and ineffable things. It was also the first piece of art I encountered since the pandemic that dealt with what happened during the pandemic.”

Initially, performing Appropriate was severely energy-sapping. “It’s gotten better,” Stoll said. “I used to lose my voice every week. I’d start off Tuesday OK, a little raspy. By Thursday I would be struggling. In those first weeks, I felt pretty scattered every night. It felt like spending three hours being attacked from all sides. It’s different now. I don’t feel as if I am giving any less in the moment, especially in the real peaks of the play at the end. But I don’t feel as if I’m under attack now. No matter what your mind knows—that this is all make-believe—the body still registers those attacks.”

After a friend noticed how hunched he seemed, Stoll made a point to do gym exercises to open his body up. Working opposite Paulson is “really fun,” he emphasized. “When you have a good, trusting dynamic at the beginning—you know you’re all working towards the same goal, trying to tell the story together—you don’t take it personally. The commitment she gives to that performance, and to attacking me, is a sign of respect for a fellow performer. It feeds everything else. If she pulled back, she wouldn’t be a good partner.”

At the time it felt like sleep paralysis—a nightmare where you are being attacked or chased but can’t run.

It wasn’t easy for Stoll to shrug Bo off during the first run of Appropriate at the Hayes Theater before its move to the Belasco. “I was honestly dreading to do the second run because it felt like such a punishing cost. I just felt beaten up. I asked myself, ‘Why would I want to live in this character?’ Bo spends a lot of time as a recipient of other characters’ arias, and in that first run of the play, I felt I needed to be acting rather than listening.

“At the time it felt like sleep paralysis—a nightmare where you are being attacked or chased but can’t run. So often Bo is in the middle of a fight but does not have the words to defend himself. Now, I have learned to still be present—I don’t tune out—but I have a lot more confidence in just my presence and the power the audience imbues me with.”

The cast could tell from the first previews that audiences were connecting to the play—and even though it felt to the creative team that it was a period piece from 2013 about racism and hypocrisy-streaked white privilege, audiences feel it very much set in the present day, which, said Stoll, was “sad and sobering.”

While his own family emigrated to America after emancipation, Stoll said, “If you go back far enough, it may not be the particular crime the play shows, but there will be a crime, and I have a part in the inheritance of whatever came of that crime.”

“I was a depressed kid. Acting was life-saving”

Stoll, now 48, grew up on the Upper West Side of New York in a non-observant Jewish household. “My father and grandmother would take me to plays at a very young age,” he said. His mother Judith was a lawyer, his father Stephen, an English teacher who co-founded the Beacon School, took Stoll to off-Broadway theater: “I remember going to the Public with him, seeing it stripped down to its studs. It was so exciting to see people putting on a show for theater.”

His grandmother took him to Broadway shows. Stoll recalls seeing a production of The Comedy of Errors, and whereas he had felt “totally alienated” from Shakespeare, something about this production felt intelligible and accessible.

Another memorable production was the original production of August Wilson’s Fences, with the “colossus” of James Earl Jones, and Courtney B. Vance, “who was bringing his whole self as a young man to the stage. That really blew me away—to offer something so strong in an adult setting like that. That really struck, and inspired, me.”

At home, there were many books and an expectation that Stoll and his brother would talk and debate politics and other topics at the dinner table. “Friends would come over and see us arguing and think we were fighting or something. But all the arguments were in good faith. Culturally, it was very Jewish!”

The acting bug seriously bit in fifth grade, when Stoll joined a program run by the Metropolitan Opera, in which the company would go into local schools and build a musical from conception to performance. A teacher encouraged Stoll to act—“I didn’t think of myself as a performative kid, I guess she did.” At his audition, Stoll recalled improvising “somebody dying of thirst in the desert. It was the hammiest, most drawn-out death scene, and it got big laughs. I was hooked from that moment. Making people laugh is a drug, it really is. I couldn’t be a stand-up comedian, but I’m lucky enough—with writing that supports me—to embody that.”

Acting was something I was good at, and provided a place where all of me was accepted—a way to turn the ugliest parts of myself into something of beauty.

His tone of voice makes it sound as if acting has been life-saving, or life-enhancing at the very least.

“I think it was life-saving,” Stoll replied. “I was a depressed kid. I had friends, but I still felt a real sense of alienation. Acting was something I was good at, and provided a place where all of me was accepted—a way to turn the ugliest parts of myself into something of beauty. It continues to be like that. Acting opened up my ability to express myself, and provided something to pour myself into.”

Asked what the source of alienation and depression he suffered from as a kid came from, Stoll said: “I really don’t know, and I’ve done a lot of therapy.” He laughed, then paused. “The story I’ve always known was that I was super-happy until the fifth or sixth grade, then I became very heavy. I was always a big kid, but I started getting progressively heavier and heavier until I was well above 300 pounds in high school. I was depressed, and eating was a self-soothing thing. I didn’t have any sports. I went on diets, Weight Watchers. It was rough. Today, there is more of an understanding of obesity as a symptom of so many other things going on in society. But at the time it was my view, and a more general view, that it was a character fault.

“I was identified with being an actor from a young age, even though at that stage I had no interest in being a child actor or professionally doing it. As I was thinking about leaving high school to attend an arts high school, I think the thing that motivated me to lose all that weight, the decisive thing, was a sense that I didn’t just want to play parts that a body that big would limit me to. It was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life, and if this is the instrument I have, I am going to be limiting what I can play.’” (Stoll studied drama at Long Lake Camp for the Arts, and is a drama graduate of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.)

Stoll took “great pride” in losing weight and transforming his body. “It was really dumb. Every night I would ride an exercise bike for as hard and long as I could—and I went hungry. But I had the metabolism of a 17-year-old. It’s not the way I would recommend doing it now.”

“I’m a dilettante. A lot of actors are”

After graduating from Oberlin College, Stoll became an intern in the casting office at New York Theatre Workshop—but acting was really the only choice for him, having “no other discernible skills,” he said, smiling. “I’m a dilettante. A lot of actors are. From role to role, you get to be an astronaut or cowboy, and you don’t really have to learn how to do those things, but just observe them and throw yourself into it.

“Being an actor is so full of humiliations, rejections, and even when you get a job it’s still so hard, feeling exposed to the critics. But I can’t think of any other job that allows such a broad, free expression of range and emotions. Tonight, I’ll go into the theater, scream and shout louder than I ever have in my life, break down crying, get into vicious arguments, then have a moment when I think I’m about to become a millionaire—that’s such a gift.”

Stoll made his Broadway debut in 2003 in a revival of Henry IV at Lincoln Center, the following year scooping a Drama Desk Award nomination for his role in Intimate Apparel, opposite Viola Davis. He appeared on Broadway again in Old Acquaintances (2007) and a revival of A View From the Bridge (2010).

Stoll may look (and some of his roles) may be very “alpha,” but he doesn’t feel like that kind of man. “In real life I don’t think I have a very strong sense of presence. So often I come on set, and the assistant director will be saying, ‘Where is Corey?,’ and I’ll be standing right next to them. I’m not the kind of actor who steps on to set and announces himself. I tend to sidle in, and turn it on when the camera is rolling.”

The first time he played an “alpha” character “in a very public way” was as Hemingway in Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, Stoll said. “I had to be coaxed into really taking that space, but once I sort of realized what an opportunity it was—to be, between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ you are the most confident man in the history of the world, and treat it as a game. It was incredibly liberating.

“I think actors can sort of get bound up in ‘What does it mean about me to play this role?’ I’ve felt the same, having played a number of bad guys in a row. Sure, you can question that, but in the end, it’s make believe and everybody is villainous deep down in some ways and everybody is heroic deep down. We all have all of that. There are certain parts of my appearance which allow me to use various ways people project onto me as a tool.”

Corey Stoll in 'Billions'

Corey Stoll in Billions.

Showtime

For Stoll, there is “no more fun” role than Iago in Othello, which he played in 2018 in a brilliant Shakespeare in the Park production. “Shakespeare gives him this connection to the audience, which implicates the audience and makes Iago 10 times smarter than anyone else on stage.” As Michael Prince in Billions, Stoll’s character switched from antagonist to protagonist and back to antagonist. “There was a little bit of whiplash with that role,” Stoll said, “There’s a tendency to do that with all my characters. If an audience thinks my character is all good or all bad, I definitely think I have failed. I like exploring the edges of the character. With Bo, there is one moment of incredible tenderness and also a moment of rageful childishness.”

He played Junior Soprano in The Sopranos movie prequel The Many Saints of Newark. While thrilled to get the part and work with the drama’s creator David Chase, “to be trusted with that character was a unique and difficult challenge—to be recognizable as the same character that Dominic (Chianese, from the original TV show) had created, but not do a caricature.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling that I was the only person in the world who could play a role. I called my manager and said, ‘We can’t let go of this.’

In the Marvel Universe, Stoll portrayed Darren Cross/Yellowjacket/M.O.D.O.K (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing), in Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. “Both those movies were so much fun to do. My character in the first one is a sort of amalgam of different characters—it wasn’t like taking on a beloved character. It was a very fluid, un-precious way to work. The way it was shot, even though it was a $200 million movie, it felt like doing a workshop for a new play in a non-profit theater.”

Corey Stoll in 'House of Cards'

Corey Stoll in House of Cards.

Netflix

Stoll’s Golden-Globe nominated role as Congressman Peter Russo in House of Cards sounds the closest to his heart. “It was a part I actually knew from the page,” Stoll said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling that I was the only person in the world who could play a role. I called my manager and said, ‘We can’t let go of this.’ There was something about the combination of easygoing, tender guy who is a people pleaser. There was a dark underbelly to him too, a selfishness and cruelty. I felt that this was a guy who is a little part of me, and part of me I put into him too.”

One of the most frustrating things about my career is having to prove over and over again that I can be funny. I really love finding the absurd and goofy.

In Lena Dunham’s Girls, playing Dill Harcourt, the alpha daddy-boyfriend of Elijah (Andrew Rannells), Stoll had “so much fun. One of the most frustrating things about my career is having to prove over and over again that I can be funny. I really love finding the absurd and goofy.”

Stoll doesn’t prefer stage over screen, or vice versa. “With theater you get a sense of control and power you don’t get in film. You have the power, moment to moment, to change something—although you may get a note from the stage manager if you do. With film and TV, I feel like my job is to supply the raw ingredients to the editor to create my performance. With theater, I am creating my own performance every night.”

Corey Stoll in 'Girls'

Corey Stoll in Girls.

HBO

At 48, with 50 approaching on a near horizon, aging doesn’t bother Stoll professionally. “I feel very lucky. I’ve been playing people in my fifties since I was 12. It wasn’t until my thirties that my age started to line up with my hairline and voice. It was frustrating when I was young. I never got to play Romeo, but I also feel there are a lot of very interesting fun roles ahead of me.”

While noting that he may be “too long in the tooth to play” the role, one of his dream roles is Hamlet. “It’s encyclopedic. Every color is in that role, all of humanity. But it is also a role that people have the greatest expectations and most opinions about. Every single line you say, everyone in the audience has a strong opinion about how it should be said. There are so many roles in Chekhov I would love to do, and I’m a little old for it but I would like to play Stanley” (Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire). Prediction: Should this ever materialize, it will drive Stoll’s not-inconsiderable gay fan base right over the edge.

Performing in Appropriate, Stoll said it was “intoxicating” to have an audience agog. “It is both a sense of power and a sense of fellowship,” Stoll said, adding that performing Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park can be “a difficult space to manage in lots of ways if you’re trying to do soliloquies, with sirens, joggers, helicopters, and other distractions. But, if you’re able to pause mid-soliloquy, and get silence in that setting there’s so much power there—it’s an extraordinary and unique feeling.”

Stoll laughed. “But the helicopters! I always think, ‘Here we have a beautiful, free piece of culture for the people of New York City, and here is the 0.0001 percent of the very rich flying over us ruining it for everybody.’”

“I can’t take my Tony nomination to the grave”

Stoll’s mother died a year and a half ago. “The reality, the fact of my death, is much realer than it’s ever been. It feels like I’m mid-career, but I can’t take my Tony nomination to the grave with me. It’s about taking a moment to enjoy what I do in every moment, a moment to be in the present for a second. As one gets older, that becomes all the more important. As you have less future, the present moment becomes more and more important. I was aware my mother’s death was coming, and aware of what I was going to be losing, and aware of what I had. I did a lot of work with my therapist. Also, I was very lucky that while my mother was dying I wasn’t working.”

I was confronted with how much my happiness and sense of purpose were determined by my career. I think the pandemic forced me to be present with the time outside of my career

Therapy has helped Stoll hone “a sense of tolerance for oneself and patience. Within life and developing your character you come to these forks in the road where you can make the obvious choice, or just pause for a second and play, and try something that surprises yourself. I think therapy can be a forum where you can open yourself up to possibilities of being playful and reacting in habitual ways.”

Stoll says his relationships with his wife, actor Nadia Bowers, and their son were radically changed, improved even, by the pandemic and most recently the enforced time away from work due to the Hollywood writers’ strike. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I was confronted with how much my happiness and sense of purpose were determined by my career. It was always about the next job. I think the pandemic forced me to be present with my time outside of my career, and I discovered meditation during that time too.”

Stoll “never felt happier not working. I’m not sure if it was my age, my mother passing, or the experience of the pandemic. The work I have done on myself has really borne fruit, I think. It has reset my priorities in terms of what actually brings me joy in my life.” In that spirit, there is nothing on Stoll’s docket after Appropriate ends its run; he intends to take a break with his family.

He has never pursued fame for fame’s sake, he insisted. “It offers opportunities to work, and to work at a level that I want to work at. But that thing of every job having to be bigger and more exciting and more prestigious than the last isn’t for me because you’ll never be satisfied. Another nice thing about doing a play is that you always have to show up. It can focus you into the present moment, to tell the story one moment at a time, entering into this flow state with an audience of strangers. There’s something profoundly spiritual about that.”

Stoll is ambitious, he said, “but I don’t have a plan, attempting to be in “a state where reach meets grasp, where I might just be able to accomplish something.”

Corey Stoll in 'Othello,' with Chukwudi Iwuji, who played Othello

Corey Stoll, left, in Othello, with Chukwudi Iwuji, who played Othello

Joan Marcus

Stoll said he had gleaned much from the online Bounded in a Nutshell masterclasses that Chukwudi Iwuji, who played Othello opposite his Iago in 2018, hosted during the pandemic. The title comes from Hamlet’s quote in Act 2, Scene 2 of that play: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

“That’s such a Zen phrase, right there,” Stoll said, as Prospect Park life carried on passing us by. “You can find the present moment anywhere. You don’t need a stimulus. Life in every moment offers so much, it just takes skill and patience to allow it in.” Amen to that—if only Bo and the rest of the squalling Lafayette family in Appropriate held such wisdom.

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