Denise Gough stars on Broadway in Angels in America.
Denise Gough stars on Broadway in Angels in America.
(© Tricia Baron)

"You have to feel good about your work," Denise Gough says, "but never believe your own hype."

In the National Theatre of London production of Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things, Gough played Emma, a struggling actor with severe drug and alcohol addiction issues. Nearly overnight, Gough herself went from struggling to get people to even return her phone calls to, as she charmingly puts it, "the talk of the f*cking town," with an Olivier Award in hand for her awe-inspiring performance.

It would seem easy to buy into your own hype when everyone calls you a "genius." But Gough, currently playing Harper in Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the Neil Simon Theatre, will never let herself forget that less than five years ago, she was on the cusp of quitting her profession.

Born in Ireland as the seventh of 11 children, Gough always wanted to be an actor. Actually, "I wanted to be lots of things," she remembers. "I went through a phase where I wanted to be a lawyer, where I wanted to be a doctor, but I only wanted to look like those things. I wanted to pretend to be them." She made her family call her Richard for two years because of her obsession with TV's MacGyver. "I didn't even want to be MacGyver," she notes. "I wanted to be Richard Dean Anderson."

She moved to London at 15, determined to become a stage actor, and eventually earned a scholarship to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. She landed a mix of stage roles and screen appearances, ranging from a TV miniseries about the Titanic to a production of The Duchess of Malfi at Shakespeare's Globe.

After that? "I just wasn't getting roles," she says with frankness. "I was auditioning all the time, going on tape for things, getting rejected, not even being rejected. You go to all this trouble to put your work out there, and they don't even say, 'Thank you, no.' They just disappear."

Denise Gough stars in People, Places & Things.
Denise Gough in People, Places & Things at St. Ann's Warehouse.
(© Teddy Wolff)

Then, in 2015, she auditioned for the role of Emma, the protagonist at rock bottom in People, Places & Things and something clicked within her. "I just knew how to play that part," she says. For her audition, she read a monologue from the show about how hard it is to be an unknown actor. "I remember I couldn't stop crying. Nobody had ever hit it like this and allowed us to say it onstage in front of people."

If she didn't get the part, she had a backup plan. "I decided that if I didn't get Emma, I would teach, and I was OK with that. I wasn't desperate or begging them for the part. I wasn't going to do that ever again. If it didn't go my way, I had a whole new life waiting for me, so either way, something big was about to change."

It only took two auditions, the second only to prove that the first wasn't a fluke. When they opened, the reviews were rapturous, and she and her sister read them all the next morning in a café. But Gough found that what the critics had to say meant less to her than the reaction from the audience. "A group of people from a recovery center came, and they connected to it so much that they were shouting. Our critics were the people we were representing, and they felt like we were telling the truth."

People, Places & Things transferred to the West End in 2016, and to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse last fall. In between, she landed the role of Harper, the Valium-addicted Mormon housewife in Marianne Elliott's National Theatre revival of Angels in America.

In terms of struggle, Emma and Harper might seem similar, but Gough is quick to point out the opposite. "There's a different energy. Harper has lots of feelings of abandonment and paranoia, but Emma…Nobody can f*ck with me when I'm playing Emma." For the Broadway run, Kushner has written Harper a new scene and, at Gough's request, re-added material that he cut for the National Theatre production because she needed it as a stepping stone in her performance.

Denise Gough and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in the Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
Denise Gough and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in the Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
(© Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

"Harper's journey is much clearer for me here than it was in London," Gough explains. "It's really clear that in New York, everyone knows who Harper is, and that gives her strength, because people get behind her immediately. She seems to have a bit more agency this time around, which is great. She feels more empowered."

Gough's reviews for both Angels and People were just as ecstatic in New York as they were in England, and she just received a second Olivier Award for playing Harper. It's lovely, she says, to be branded a "genius," but what she doesn't like is how she keeps finding herself compared to other people. "When a great male performance comes along," she notes, "it's just a great male performance. It's great that I was compared to Mark Rylance, but a woman's performance can never just be allowed to stand up on its own. The language is very subtle, because it can seem like such a compliment to be compared to Glenda Jackson, but why am I being compared to anyone?"

When you watch her take the stage, you realize there really is no comparison. Denise Gough in a class of her very own, and though she may not believe her own hype, she's proud of all she's done. Gough is hoping to springboard herself into future roles and productions that speak to the moment we're living in. "I don't want to do things because I'm expected to do them," she concludes. "The women who need playing will find me."

Denise Gough (center) with fellow Angels in America cast members James McArdle and Lee Pace.
Denise Gough (center) with fellow Angels in America cast members James McArdle and Lee Pace.
(© Tricia Baron)