“I want to play dress-up for the rest of my life.” For Sarah Stiles, playing dress-up has most recently come in the form of Netflix’s NASCAR-themed The Crew, where Stiles plays Beth Paige, the spirited office manager of Bobby Spencer Racing. Production of The Crew intersected the pandemic, being shut down halfway through its run before resuming several months later. Returning to production, Stiles and her colleagues were required to quarantine in a hotel in the parking lot of a Long Island mall, find themselves self-isolating in their dressing rooms when away from the cameras.
But in a year that can only be described by Stiles as a ‘nutball’, the Tony-nominated actor still managed to see through the release of her five-track debut EP, You Can Ukelele With Me, released on Broadway Records last summer. And if this pink cotton candy release amid one of the world’s greatest public health crises is anything to go by, then hope is all around us – we just have to look that little bit harder.
We should really begin by addressing the elephant in the room: how have you been during lockdown? How have you been keeping yourself busy?
Oh, I’m okay. I have dark days, I’ll be honest. But I feel very lucky to be healthy and to have a great support system and a few projects here and there that have kept my ‘art heart’ alive and beating.
What are you most looking forward to as we tentatively dip our toes in a post-pandemic world?
Hugging! Singing super loud — like spit-flying-from-my-mouth loud — on stages in beautiful old theatres! The hustle. Seriously, having just enough time to fit things in, running from one gig to another with seconds to spare. I miss being exhausted from the hustle.
You Can Ukulele With Me is such a playful, story-led five-track EP, touching on themes like friendship, community, loneliness and romance. What does finishing an EP look and feel like during COVID-19? Has the progress of the pandemic made you rethink how you view the themes within the EP?
We recorded the EP just weeks before lockdown, and it was this beautiful experience recording it. We were at Harlem Parlour, which is in a townhouse in Hamilton Heights; our team was small and mighty, and we spent the weekend recording in our bare feet, snacking on Goldfish crackers and feeling so silly and happy and zen about the whole thing. We were making a cute summer ukulele album! Then lockdown happened, and suddenly we were mixing these pink cotton candy cloud songs in the midst of such stress and scary times. It was definitely weird at first, and my listening brain had to really shift. But it did, and I soon started feeling drawn to the themes of the EP in a totally different way. I mean the last song, “Waiting for the Light”, felt completely on point for the moment. Every time I’d listen to a mix of that song I would picture all of us NYer’s leaning out our windows cheering and banging pots and pans for the essential workers at 7 PM. It was a dark time, but so much light and hope came from it and a sense of community, and I think the EP has a lot of those same themes.
You Can Ukulele With Me is bursting at the brim with a whole range of musical styles. Who are some of your musical idols? Any favourites from when you were growing up in New Hampshire?
When my parents were controlling the radio it was 70s folk and then lots of new age, like Enya and Kitaro. My first cassette tapes were Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, whose music I choreographed solo dance routines to, which I then executed at snack time in elementary school. My first CDs were 4 Non Blondes (“What’s Going OONNNN!”) and Spin Doctors, and then any and every Broadway musical I could get my hands on. I was obsessed with Tori Amos and Les Miserables. My taste was all very theatrically-driven. I liked story and angst. I don’t feel that way today. My Alexa is always being asked to play classic Jazz and “play breakfast music”. Now, I like music that makes me wiggle and giggle, and my album for sure inspires a bit of that.
What was your “lightbulb moment” growing up that made you want to pursue theatre?
I went to a theatre summer camp following my 5th grade year, learned how to do a time step and belt a very strong D, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I had always “performed” on my own — at dinner parties, on the playground making up songs and stories and acting them out, usually for no one but me. When I found out you could learn skills and that there were techniques and the, well, ‘art’ involved in the process, it blew my mind. I wanted to learn everything I could. It became my favourite subject, and I’m still dedicated to being the best student I can be today.
Your Broadway appearances feature roles bursting with character and with such a zest for life. Is it easy for you to slip in and out of these roles? How do you get in the mood, so to speak?
I like to play big and loud and confident and opinionated roles, because in real life, I don’t do that or am that so much. I have a lot of fear of not being good enough or not being liked. I’m an extravagant people-pleaser, and so it gets in the way of how I act sometimes — in real life, that is. I like to play characters that explode in all the ways and in every direction. It’s very cathartic. So it’s easy to slip into ‘cause I am jonesing for it already. I can be naughty or mean or too much or out of control and, sometimes, those very things make me even more lovable on stage.
You’ve also done some incredible voice work, such as your portrayal of Steven Universe’s beloved antagonist Spinel. How strange, if at all, was it for you to transition from theatre to voice acting? What does voice acting allow you to do that theatre does not?
Not strange at all. I think theatre actors make great animation voice actors ‘cause we’re used to playing big spaces. What’s bigger than the void of a sound studio with no visuals to help tell your story? You have the animation, which is visual of course, but you are not in control of that. You have to be very specific and deliberate and convey the entire story through your voice. That’s your responsibility. The cool thing is that the range of characters you could potentially play opens way up. I can’t play six years old on stage, but I can in a cartoon. I got to be an action star in the Steven Universe Movie. I was recording insane fight sequences that I would never have been cast in for film or stage. That’s the really fun part about voice acting. The possibilities are endless! Well, almost endless [laughs].
You can most recently be found on our screens in Netflix’s NASCAR-themed comedy series, The Crew, where you play Beth. What was your experience with NASCAR before joining the series, and what did you have to learn to prepare?
I knew nothing at all and didn’t prepare at all. LOL! I mean, I could lie and say otherwise, but that is the truth. However, I learned a lot about the sport as we filmed and continue to learn more because NASCAR has really taken us in as family and brought us into the fold, so to speak. It’s a complicated and intricate sport that takes major skill and guts. I love watching the races and seeing our friends out there — ee had a number of amazing drivers guest star throughout the season. Also, NASCAR is a producer on The Crew, and every single script is vetted by them so everything we say and do is legit. It makes it fun for fans and it feels good to know we are being authentic.
The workplace comedy explores dynamics we’ve all experienced in the office, but do we need to understand NASCAR to appreciate it? Why do you think the show will appeal to the non-NASCAR fans among us?
You really don’t need to know a thing about NASCAR to love our show. It’s a workplace comedy. It’s about the people who work there and how they manage day-to-day issues at work. The characters are so funny and weird, and so are the relationships between them. Our “workplace” supports this awesome sport that has crazy, high intensity races constantly, so there is always story there and high stakes.
What was the most memorable experience working on season one of The Crew?
Well, being shut down halfway through because of a pandemic and then picking it up months later with all the safety protocols and restrictions in place was very memorable. Ah! What a nutball year. When we came back, we were quarantining in a hotel in the parking lot of a mall in Long Island. Driving ourselves individually to work, where we were tested and kept isolated in our dressing rooms when we weren’t filming and then driving back and having drinks by the fire pit six feet apart every night after making sure to hand sanitize our lawn chairs and double mask on the walk to and from our rooms. Honestly though, we were all so damn grateful to finish this show up, and at the end of the day, the experience brought us even closer, which I think is reflected in the show. The chemistry was there from day one, but it only got tighter the scarier the world got.
What’s been your favourite part about playing Beth?
I love Beth. I love her spunk and passion. She loves her friends, her team, her PEZ dispenser collection… all of it, ferociously. The show runner Jeff Lowell gave me so much room to play. The first time you see Beth, she is trying to break up a fight in this very calm and centred way, and one sentence from Kevin has her whirling around and attacking her driver in this aggressive and totally uninhibited way. It gave me permission to be all the things and have all the emotions. I never felt like anything was off limits with her emotionally. She wears it all on her sleeve. And at the end of the day, she enjoys her life, and playing someone like that is so delicious.
Let’s look to the future. Have the previous 12 months — a period that’s obviously been really difficult for creatives like yourself who rely so much on live events and working with people — made you think about your career differently? Made you want to revisit things, try something you’ve never done before?
I will say living in a small two-bedroom in NYC with a husband, two step kids and a dog has made me want a house real bad, with a garden to grow things in and land to run around on! I don’t know that it’s made me want something different in my career or even think about it differently. I just miss it! I love working. I love it all. Film, theatre, TV, animation… As long as I get to be in someone else’s shoes and try to find their humanity and explore the eccentricities of that character, I’m happy. I want to play dress-up for the rest of my life. I want to scavenger hunt and dig. Every time I develop a new character, I learn something about myself. Maybe that’s why I do it. It’s my never ending therapy session! I will say this: I will never take another job for granted again. I don’t really think I ever did that to begin with, but now more than ever I can see those jobs are precious and need to be honoured.
Finally, as the world slowly — hopefully — reopens, what are some of the things that are most important to you right now?
Family, health, joy. Space and time and touch and connection. Letting go of fear and breathing in trust in the universe.
The Crew is currently streaming on Netflix.
photography. Mark Veltman
fashion. Eliza Yerry
production. Anthony Pedraza
talent. Sarah Stiles
hair. Marco Santini @ Tracey Mattingly
make up. Evy Drew @ Exclusive Artists using Tom Ford Beauty
words. Matthew Berks