Beyond Vassar

That's Entertainment

By Larry Hertz

Dan Bucatinsky ’87 took home an Emmy for his role on the hit TV show Scandal last year. Sakina Jaffrey ’84 began her second season on House of Cards. Tanya Wright ’89 has a role on Orange Is the New Black. And Hope Davis ’86 has started her second season on HBO’s The Newsroom. She was joined this year by fellow alumnae/i Jon Tenney ’84 (longtime co-star of TNT ’s The Closer) and Grace Gummer ’08. VQ talked to these in-demand actors.

Dan Bucatinsky ’87

A multifaceted talent, Bucatinsky is known as much for his writing and producing as he is for his acting. He wrote and starred in the 2001 film All Over the Guy; he is a writer for and has appeared in the long-running hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy; and he helped develop and occasionally acts on the Emmy-nominated web-to-TV comedy Web Therapy with fellow Vassar alum Lisa Kudrow ’85. He also cocreated the Emmy-nominated, unscripted docuseries Who Do You Think You Are? with Kudrow. (Kudrow also has a recurring role on Scandal.)

He says it’s probably no surprise he designed his own major at Vassar. “I majored in American Culture, an ‘interdisciplinary major,’ which was a mixture of a bunch of things,” Bucatinsky says. “That’s always been a pattern of mine: When I have breakfast, I don’t just want eggs. I prefer a buffet, with eggs and bacon and toast and pancakes and sausages and biscuits and maybe some waffles. That’s just my personality. I took drama my freshman year and loved it, but my family convinced me not to be so myopic, and I’m glad I took advantage of Vassar’s flexible curriculum.”

After he graduated, Bucatinsky spent time in Europe, then moved to New York City, where he “did what every 22-year-old in Manhattan is doing: taking acting classes and working as a waiter.” He also did writing, including work for comedy sketch shows. In 1992, about a year after he moved to Los Angeles, he met screenwriter Don Roos, who has been his partner ever since. They have two children, eight-year-old Eliza and six-year-old Jonah.

Bucatinsky won an Emmy (Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series) last fall for his role on the hit ABC-TV series Scandal, in which he plays a gay man who is raising a child with his spouse—a television character that would have been inconceivable when he broke into the acting business 25 years ago. “I feel pretty lucky to be playing a role like this on a show as bold as it is,” he says. “I never set out to be a role model, but that’s been a happy by-product.”

Bucatinsky chronicles his early days as a father in a book he wrote shortly after Eliza was born called Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?: Confessions of a Gay Dad (Touchstone, 2012). “One of the recurrent themes is that there are more things that make all parents the same than there are that make us different,” he says.

Bucatinsky called his Emmy win “a real shocker,” saying he never even expected to be nominated. His competition for the award included Michael J. Fox, Harry Hamlin, Nathan Lane, Rupert Friend, and Robert Morse. “I didn’t really prepare a thank-you speech until the last minute because I didn’t think I had much of a chance,” he says. “I was really bowled over.”

Bucatinsky says he’s enjoying his third season of Scandal but plans to continue working on other projects, including Grey’s Anatomy and Web Therapy and developing a pilot loosely based on his book. “I’ll be doing what I’ve always done—putting a lot of balls in the air and seeing what will happen.”

Hope Davis ’86

Born in Tenafly, NJ, Davis was a childhood friend of actress Mira Sorvino, and the two wrote a couple of backyard plays together. Davis came to Vassar in 1982 with a love of acting and the theater but never considered majoring in drama or film.

Hope Davis with her Newsroom co-star Jeff Daniels.
Hope Davis with her Newsroom co-star Jeff Daniels.

“My mother was a school librarian who worked hard to put me through college, and she wanted me to do something other than acting,” she recalls.

She became interested in what was then a relatively new discipline at Vassar: cognitive science. “It was fascinating, and I definitely planned to go into this new field that I knew was going to be huge,” she says.

But Junior Year Abroad changed everything. She enrolled along with two Vassar friends in a six-month theater program in London. “We just immersed ourselves—we saw dozens of plays, and it was transformational,” Davis says.

After she graduated, Davis moved to Chicago and started a small theater company with two partners. “We were embarrassingly bad—we lasted about a year,” she says. “At one show, we had an audience of two: the parents of the person doing the lighting.”

She says her first big break came in 1992 when David Mamet saw her in a Chicago production of Speed-the-Plow, and her career soon blossomed with acclaimed performances in theater, television, and film. Nominated for a Tony Award, her role in the award-winning Broadway play, God of Carnage, with Jeff Daniels, led indirectly to her being cast in The Newsroom. But before joining The Newsroom cast, she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2010 BBC/HBO film The Special Relationship.

On The Newsroom, Davis plays Nina Howard, a gossip columnist and love interest of Daniels’s character, TV news anchorman Will McAvoy. In one of their first scenes together, Will makes a sarcastic remark about Nina’s line of work at a cocktail party, and she responds by tossing her drink in his face. “That’s something I always wanted to do in real life, and we got it on the first take,” she says.

Davis’s newest venture is a yet-to-be-aired series for Fox called Wayward Pines. It’s being shot in British Columbia, so Davis, who has two daughters, ages 7 and 10, with her husband, actor Jon Patrick Walker, “commutes” every week between Vancouver and her home in New York.

Davis says she is grateful for the broad range of characters she’s portrayed in film, on TV, and on the stage. And while she has no specific plans for her next project, she says, “I’d love it if the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson called.”

Sakina Jaffrey ’84

Over the past three decades, Jaffrey has carved out a successful—if under-the-radar—career on stage and in television and movies. But last year she landed one of her biggest roles to date—the tough, no-nonsense White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez on the hit Netflix series House of Cards.

The show, which launched its second season this winter, stars Kevin Spacey as a conniving, power-hungry politician. It was nominated for nine Emmys, including best drama series and best actor and actress nods for Spacey and Robin Wright (who won a Golden Globe for the role in January).

Jaffrey says playing Linda Vasquez is both challenging and fun. “Linda has her job not because of her feminine wiles but because she’s smart as a whip, has a sense of the big political picture, and is totally focused on protecting the president,” she says. “I’m a much more friendly, outgoing person than Linda. I usually do comedic or empathic roles, so this power role was something a little different.”

Jaffrey says she’s thoroughly enjoying her interaction with Spacey. “Kevin’s ridiculously smart and talented and hardworking. He’s also a delightful ham and clown.” she says. “But when the cameras start to roll, you could not find a more professional actor.”

A Chinese language and literature major at Vassar, Jaffrey took an introductory theater class and fondly remembers a set design class, but she never did any acting in college productions. “I felt like I shouldn’t waste my parents’ money studying to be an actor. But after I left college and considered the careers I could pursue, I realized I couldn’t pretend I wanted to do anything else but act.”

She began her career in New York City, taking acting lessons and going to auditions while supporting herself the way many young actors do: “I was a waitress—and a damned good one.”

Jaffrey took classes for about two years before auditioning for her first role, but once she joined the profession, she always seemed to have enough work. The pace was steady enough but she also had time to raise a son (now 18) and a daughter (now 15) with her husband, Francis Wilkinson, a journalist who covered Washington as a political correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1990s.

“That experience gave me a taste of the darker side of politics,” Jaffrey says, “and obviously House of Cards is even darker than that—but maybe not all that far from the truth.”

She says she hopes her experience will encourage veteran actors as well as those just starting out in the business.

“Maybe getting this job at my age will inspire older actors to keep on plugging,” Jaffrey says. “And just remember, if you’re in college and don’t know what you want to do with your life, that’s okay. I look back now and I realize a lot of what I learned at Vassar I applied to my career in ways I could never have anticipated.”

Jon Tenney ’84

Unlike most of his fellow TV alums, Tenney aspired to be an actor long before he enrolled at Vassar. “I knew I wanted to act since early on, after a school play in the third grade,” Tenney says. He considered going to an institution where he could concentrate solely on acting after high school, “but I decided to go the liberal arts route, and I’m really glad I did.”

Tenney considered several colleges but ultimately chose Vassar for both its small student–teacher ratio and its strong curriculum. He participated in departmental and nondepartmental theater productions as soon as he arrived at Vassar and also was a founding member of the Accidentals, Vassar’s first all-male a cappella singing group. He spent his summers as an apprentice and non-Equity actor at the Williamstown (MA) Theatre Festival.

“I knew what my passion was and threw myself into it,” he says. “But I also knew that to be a good actor you had to be well educated, to have a curious mind, and the degree I earned at Vassar was an important part of that.”

In addition to acting at Vassar, Tenney also did some directing. In 1984 he directed a student named Hope Davis in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, a play set in a diner at a New Mexico rest stop. “We transformed the Aula,” Tenney says. “Hope and I have seen each other off and on over the years and recently guest-starred together on The Newsroom. That was really fun.”

Tenney says he thoroughly enjoyed his eight years on The Closer as Fritz Howard, the FBI agent-husband of the main character, Brenda Leigh Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick. “That was a real blessing, an ideal situation. I was working six months a year and then had six months to do other things. It filmed in Los Angeles, so I could take my daughter (Emerson, born during his marriage to his first wife, Teri Hatcher) to school every day.”

Tenney has maintained close ties to Vassar since he graduated. He returned in the summer of 1986 to appear in an apprentice production at the Powerhouse Theater, and his ties to Powerhouse and New York Stage and Film became even stronger when he was reunited with an old friend, Leslie Urdang, a founder and directing producer of New York Stage and Film. They’ve been together since 2005 and were married in 2012.

“I come back nearly every summer with Leslie for The Powerhouse,” he says. “New work needs a venue for development, and there aren’t many places you can do that.”

As his career continues, Tenney says he has become increasingly grateful for his Vassar education. “I think I’m able to put things in context because of the literature I first read at Vassar,” he says. “Every time I go back there I think, ‘Wow, I should have taken even more advantage of what was offered.’ That hunger for knowledge never ends. Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance only favors the prepared mind,’ and that’s very true.”

Grace Gummer ’08

Gummer was heavily involved in student theater at Vassar but didn’t major in drama and had no specific plans to pursue acting as a career. Shortly after she arrived on campus, she joined the Woodshed Theater Ensemble, a small collaborative theater group “where everybody did a little bit of everything—building, designing, acting, and directing.”

Grace Gummer with fellow Newsroom actor John Gallagher Jr.
Grace Gummer with fellow Newsroom actor John Gallagher Jr.

Gummer, who is the daughter of Meryl Streep ’71, says: “I was interested in theater and drama but didn’t consider acting as a post-college pursuit per se. Life was simpler at Vassar. I just studied whatever I wanted and what I was interested in without the idea of it foreshadowing a career path.” Gummer adds, “I got my theater fix being in Woodshed.”

She double majored in art history and Italian, spending her junior year in Bologna.

During her time at Vassar, she spent a summer working for costume designer Ann Roth. When Roth learned Gummer was fluent in Italian, she suggested she go to work in a costume house in Rome called Tirelli Costumi, which made and housed costumes for films and opera houses around the world. “I spent a lot of time sewing with little old Italian ladies who didn’t speak any English, steaming hats, mending gowns, etc.,” she says.

But she missed home, Gummer says, so she came back from Italy and went to work as a design intern for New York fashion designer Zac Posen. Shortly after her return, a friend of hers asked if she’d help design costumes for an off-off-Broadway Swiss-German play he was directing in the East Village called The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents. “I read the play, and the first thing I thought was, ‘I want to be in this,’” Gummer says. “I auditioned, got a callback, and got the part, and that reignited a fire in me.

I was confident in knowing it was something I loved and wanted to pursue professionally.”

After filming 18 episodes of a series for TeenNick, which she says she used “as a platform to be able to launch myself forward,” she received a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. From there she played Hero in Much Ado About Nothing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles and John Lithgow’s step-daughter in David Auburn’s political drama The Columnist on Broadway, directed by Daniel Sullivan. She also appeared recently in the Noah Baumbach ’91 film Frances Ha (2012).

In her new role in The Newsroom, Gummer plays an embedded journalist covering Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. Simultaneously, she was filming the period drama The Homesman, with Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, which was shot on location in New Mexico.

“I play an insane, mute woman who’s lost her three children to diphtheria in the span of a week on the plains in mid-1800s,” she says. “The conditions in the high desert were brutal in the spring—torrential rain, harsh wind and snow, all at once. I’d spend a few weeks on a ranch there and then fly back to Los Angeles for a day or two for The Newsroom. It was surreal having to switch back and forth between those two characters, but it was an interesting and incredibly enlightening challenge going from one day inhabiting a young woman who’s lost all reason, hope, and ability to function in the world—alongside Tommy Lee Jones in 10-degree weather in a covered wagon—to the next day arguing Romney’s contradictions on a Greyhound bus through sunny Pasadena with Aaron Sorkin.”

When she read through the latest draft of her The Newsroom script, Gummer noticed Sorkin had written a joke about her character being a Vassar alum. She approached Sorkin and said, “‘I went to Vassar, you know.’ He looked surprised. It turned out he didn’t know.”

Tanya Wright ’89

Wright dabbled in acting shortly after she arrived at Vassar but didn’t immediately envision it as a career. She got her first big break in show business during her freshman year, landing a recurring part as Theo Huxtable’s high school girlfriend on The Cosby Show, but found she wasn’t all that enamored with being on TV.

“I got the part and did a few episodes, but I was uncomfortable in the spotlight, so I stopped,” Wright says. “I was always more comfortable behind the scenes, writing. I thought that was something I could do.”

She created her own multidisciplin-ary major at Vassar and landed a job at the New York Times after she graduated, “but it wasn’t the kind of writing I was interested in, and gradually I had this gnawing feeling I should be acting.”

Wright moved to Los Angeles on little more than an abiding faith that she’d somehow succeed. “I didn’t know anyone in the business, stayed on friends’ couches, and had about $200 when I got there,” she recalls. She also didn’t own a car, a huge liability in a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles.

After working at several part-time, non-show-business jobs, she got an agent who landed her a small role on the television drama Burke’s Law. “I was on screen for about two seconds and had two lines, but I worked really hard rehearsing those two lines,” she says.

Wright has since crafted a successful career in show business doing what she did best at Vassar—“a little bit of everything.” She has appeared on numerous critically acclaimed television shows and has written several plays and screenplays. She wrote, directed, and produced the movie Butterfly Rising, which was screened at numerous film festivals in 2011.

Her role as Kenya Jones, a deputy sheriff, in True Blood was enhanced after her portrayal in the first episode. “It was supposed to be just that one episode, but they kept expanding it, and I ended up doing five seasons,” Wright says. “I have lots of fun with Kenya and I can’t wait to see what the writers have in store for her.”

Her experience on True Blood led directly to her selection for the cast of Orange Is the New Black, where she plays Crystal, the wife of a transgender prison inmate.

“When I heard from my agent, the first thing he asked me was ‘Have you ever worked with Jodie Foster?’ I said no. Then he said, ‘Well, do you want to?’ I just paused and looked at him like, ‘What do you think?’ Jodie directed the first episode I did for Orange Is the New Black—it has been one of the most profound experiences of my career.”

Wright says the commercial success and critical acclaim of True Blood and Orange Is the New Black have opened doors for her. “It’s easier to get phone calls returned these days, and I’m getting into rooms for auditions I’ve not been in before,” she says.

“It’s been helpful in creating awareness for my other projects, including Hairiette of Harlem, an interactive series based on my relationship with my curly mop-head of hair. I’ve developed a hair product line, too,” she adds. (A portion of the proceeds of every bottle of the hair care products goes to charity.)

Fellow alum Nicole Wood ’12 is working with Wright on the Hairiette project. “She’s a terrific young woman and a super-talented actress,” Wright says. “I enjoy working with people from Vassar—I like to keep it ‘in the family’ whenever I can.”

Wright remains active in Vassar alumnae/i activities, including the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC), and credits her time at the college with helping her achieve success.

“Vassar really helped me find my voice, both as a writer and as an independent person in the world,” she says. “It was a place that encouraged me to create things if they didn’t already exist. At Vassar, I had a license to dream and transferred it over to my waking world.”

—Larry Hertz