Getting typecast as the underappreciated sister has derailed the career of many a promising actress. But New Jersey’s Rosemarie DeWitt, star of director Jonathan Demme’s feature film Rachel Getting Married and Showtime’s United States of Tara, has embraced that often awkward role in all its complexity.
“Sometimes you have to take the best friend or the sister and breathe new life into it,” says DeWitt speaking from the New Orleans set of Earthbound, a romantic comedy in which she plays the best friend of a cancer patient played by Kate Hudson. “They’ve kind of become stock characters, and hopefully we can find more interesting things to say with them.”
DeWitt has done that and more. Her nuanced performance as Rachel, the sister of a recovering addict (played by Anne Hathaway, another Jersey girl), inspired Demme to give the film a more ensemble slant, with DeWitt as the title character. Similarly, the producers of United States of Tara expanded DeWitt’s role from a one-episode guest shot to a recurring part on the Emmy-winning cable dramedy.
The 35-year-old actress is the youngest of eight half-brothers and sisters—her parents grew up together in North Bergen and made their first communion together, but didn’t marry until after her dad’s first marriage broke up. As a child DeWitt lived in Hanover Township and attended Whippany Park High School. When she wasn’t rehearsing for her senior-year production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, she camped out under a gravity-defying Jersey Girl hairdo that required a can of hair spray a week and drove the back roads of Central Jersey. She studied drama at Hofstra and, after college, supported herself with a variety of odd jobs while auditioning for parts. “I think it takes a long time to think of yourself as an actor instead of a bartender,” she admits.
Although her television and movie career took her to Southern California, DeWitt still relishes Garden State pleasures. She misses the change of seasons, especially the chance to take a few midwinter runs on the local sledding hill. “And I like just kind of driving with no destination in mind like I did in high school,” she says. “My dad lives in Bedminster, and when I visit him one of the first things I’ll do is borrow his car and drive Route 24 and those roads that lead to Lambertville.”
On screen, DeWitt exhibits a sunny charm tempered by an undercurrent of pugnaciousness that occasionally bubbles to the surface. It comes naturally; DeWitt is the granddaughter of heavyweight champion James J. Braddock. “My dad boxed in the Golden Gloves, so he idolized my grandpa,” she says.
“So growing up it was hearing stories from my dad more than my mom.” It was not lost on her. When Ron Howard turned Braddock’s story into the feature film Cinderella Man in 2005, he extended DeWitt what she calls a courtesy audition. The director, she has said, was “surprised” to find that she had real acting chops and promptly cast her in a meaty supporting role as a neighbor of the Braddocks, her first major big-screen appearance.
Before that break, DeWitt had honed her craft in Off-Broadway theater. She starred in Chekhov’s Three Sisters and won a 2004 Obie Award for her performance in Small Tragedy at Playwright’s Horizon. She returned to the New York stage this spring in Beth Henley’s Family Week, which marked Demme’s debut as a theatrical director. Her grounding on the stage has helped DeWitt make solid career choices. “The thing that excites me most is a well-written script,” she says. “Coming out of the theater, I have so much respect for the writer, because if the material isn’t good, you don’t have a chance.”
DeWitt’s first starring role in television came in the Fox drama Standoff in 2006. The show was short-lived, but it offered an opportunity of a different kind: DeWitt met her husband, actor Ron Livingston, on the set. “You think you’re taking a job for one reason—I’m playing a hostage negotiator—and it ends up changing the direction of your life,” she says with a laugh. “You didn’t see it coming.” The couple eloped last fall.
DeWitt’s emergence as a front-runner for edgy supporting parts began in 2007 with a recurring role in the AMC sleeper cable hit, Mad Men. Attentive fans will remember that DeWitt, as Bohemian artist Midge Daniels, played the series’s very first love scene with hunky Jon Hamm. DeWitt hopes Midge will resurface somewhere in Mad Men’s ongoing plot line. “I’m hoping to get to wear that crazy long hair and glitter and go-go boots,” she says. “Who knows?”
On United States of Tara, which is entering its second season, DeWitt plays Charmaine, the sister of the title character. Written by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Tara chronicles the life of an otherwise normal mother of two teens who has dissociative identity disorder—formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Tara goes off her meds, and a pack of alternative personalities—“alters”—emerge at random. They range from T, a sex-crazed teenager; to perfect homemaker Alice; to Buck, a gun-toting male Vietnam veteran. Toni Collette, who won an Emmy for her performance, pulls off this high-wire act with an ease reminiscent of a young Robin Williams.
“Toni is super cool,” says DeWitt. She likens acting together “to playing tennis—because she’s so alive in every moment.” As Collette’s needy little sister Charmaine, DeWitt functions as the show’s Greek chorus, sometimes playing devil’s advocate—wondering aloud whether her sister’s condition is real—and at other times simply reminding the audience just how weird this family is. In season one, Charmaine faced her own crises—from an operation to repair botched breast implants to a gut-wrenching choice between two boyfriends.
The return of Tara marks the first time DeWitt is getting to do a second season of a series, and she relishes the opportunity. “In season two, we took Charmaine to whole new realms, put her in new predicaments, and we get to see new vibes of her personality,” she says. “It really started to sing.”
DeWitt’s TV success has led to a series of feature-film roles, including the long-delayed and still unscheduled Margaret; the planned 2011 release Fairhaven; and this fall’s The Company Men, an indie feature directed by ER producer John Wells in which DeWitt plays the wife of a man (Ben Affleck) who loses his job—and his identity—in the recession. Still, DeWitt isn’t overly anxious to move past television. She signed on for a third season of United States of Tara and is eager to continue exploring the intricacies of Charmaine, a character who, in another TV era, would likely have been overlooked.
“I don’t want to get on the bandwagon of, ‘There’s not a lot of great parts for Hollywood actresses’” she says. “Because there are. On TV, there are so many great parts for women at the moment.” DeWitt is playing one for all it’s worth.
Allen St. John, who lives in Montclair, is the author of The Billion Dollar Game.