The up-and-coming actress talks to Joey Moser about three very different roles that she tackled this season.
Kelli Berglund is having one hell of a year on television. I first took notice of her as Carly in Gregg Araki’s hilarious and bonkers Starz comedy, Now Apocalypse, but then she popped up as the younger version of Michelle Williams in FX’s Fosse/Verdon. A trained dancer, Berglund was thrilled to get a chance to tap into a role of such an icon. She also joined the fourth season of TNT’s Animal Kingdom in a recurring role opposite Finn Cole.
Even at a young age, Berglund is almost unrecognizable from role to role. The confidence she exudes as Carly on Apocalypse is gone as she explores the origins of one of Broadway’s most icons. When I spoke with Berglund, it was evident how excited she was to get to play Gwen Verdon, and she expressed her desire to do more film work towards the end of the conversation. With her extensive theatrical background, it should surprise no one how well Berglund is able to transform herself. She’s clearly one of our most exciting actresses working right now.
Awards Daily: You have a theater and dance background. What did Gwen Verdon mean to you before Fosse/Verdon?
Kelli Berglund: Oh my God. The excitement that I had for this project was insane. Dance absolutely has a special place in my heart. When you’re ten years old and you’re in dance class, you learn about Fosse and his style and why it’s so weird. Knowing that this show was going to have these incredible producers behind it…
I initially auditioned for Ann Reinking, and that wasn’t right for me. I didn’t really look the part. When I went in for it, I wasn’t sure if I was right for it. Later it came back around for when they were casting young Gwen Verdon, I was excited just because of what it meant to me. In the audition, I got to meet Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer. I’ve never auditioned in New York—I’ve only auditioned in LA. It was like it is in the movies. I thought, ‘This is so scary.’ I really, really wanted the role. I was so nervous and excited about it
AD: I didn’t even recognize you at first. I watched Fosse almost right after I binged through all of Now Apocalypse, and I only realized it was you when I saw your name pop up.
KB: Can you believe that that’s the same person? (laughs) With Now Apocalypse, I play this ultra-contemporary 25-year-old girl and then I go to the a dancer in the 1940’s. It was wild.
AD: Were you familiar with how Gwen Verdon became Gwen Verdon? Were you aware of all the horrible things that happened to her before she became who she is?
KB: All of that information—all the details about who she was and what she went through—is why I think they did the series. The spotlight was always on Bob Fosse, but I think Gwen was overshadowed a lot. I never read about Gwen Verdon growing up. She was true contributor to Fosse. There’s a bit of me as Gwen dancing at 16, and one of the things I was told was it was almost like a lot of the movies I was doing was a style that influence Fosse. It’s almost a question of did Gwen influence Fosse and his style is the way that it us. She brought that a lot to him. That was a very cool thing to think about. It’s such a crazy story and filming it was pretty wild. It was interesting getting into the day to day details of her backstory, because it is difficult to learn about and watch.
AD: Seeing how Michelle as Gwen being was able to command a room and get things done made me realize that she probably took her circumstances with both her husband and her family and infused passion for performing into her life.
KB: In one of the final scenes with young Gwen when she has her baby and she’s taking off. She’s not looking back and it’s a defiant moment where she’s looking beyond her circumstances. Her dad was an asshole, her family didn’t understand, and now she had this baby with this man who did horrible things to her. She’s going to focus on her career and be a dancer. I really applaud her.
AD: Those scenes where we see how her dad treats her are heartbreaking.
KB: She could’ve stayed and lived that life. I’m so happy she did what she did.
AD: I am too! What other type of research did you want to do before you started filming?
KB: I did a lot of research. Before I even know I had the role I got into a YouTube black hole of Gwen Verdon and watching her dance. Being a dancer, I could watch her for hours. And I did form the youngest I could find of her. I found pictures and videos of her dancing at age 15, and they are pretty hard to find. The Verdon/Fosse Legacy basically owns them. I watched the “Whose Got the Pain?” dance a million times. It’s so effortless. It’s hard because there isn’t a ton. When I found out I had the role, I dove even further into that. I spoke with some of the producers. Even the hair and makeup people had so many great photos of Fosse and Verdon up on the walls. I took a photo of it, but I was told that I wasn’t allowed to post it or share it anywhere. The internet can only get you so far, so we were lucky to have people like Fosse’s daughter helping us.
AD: I feel like the love of these two icons really comes through with the show. Watching it from the very beginning, you could tell that everyone was putting the utmost care into crafting Fosse/Verdon.
AD: I absolutely adore Now Apocalypse. It’s one of my favorite shows of the year.
KB: Aww thank you.
AD: I was at my day job when I saw that it wasn’t coming back for a second season, and I definitely screamed.
KB: If it makes you feel any better, we all had the same reaction.
AD: I’m hoping someone picks it up, or something else comes out of it, because it is a very unique show. What was it like working with Gregg Araki?
KB: It was unreal, honestly. That’s why it was such a bummer. We were all very surprised and shocked, because they had already written a good portion of the second season. My heart breaks for Gregg and Korey [Sciortino]. Gregg is one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with—he’s an icon. Going into it, I was intimidated because I have this cool character. This show was his baby. He had always done film and doing television is a lot of work. There is always a lot of network interference and the only way he would do it is if it was really his baby and that he could put 100% into it and that’s what he did. For that reason, I am do happy we did it and it affected the people we wanted to affect. The way he is as a person…he’s the sweetest, cuddliest baby that you want to put in your pocket. He’s sweet and kind to everyone on set. It truly trickled down to everyone—from the top down. I’ve never seen him get angry one—except for maybe when we were cancelled. He’s just so cool one of us. With every festival we went to or with all the press, it was just like hanging out with our friend. I hope I get to work with him again. We all do. He’s the sweetest soul.
AD: You have all these different young people with different sexualities and it’s so forward thinking in how it presents that. That’s why I think I personally responded to the show, because we don’t see a lot of that. Did you think that while it’s a zany comedy, were you conscious of how important Now Apocalypse could be to a lot of people?
KB: Yeah. The number one thing that we always received was ‘there’s nothing like this on television’ and that’s crazy since there’s never been more television ever in the world. There’s something new starting every single day, and the fact that we can stand out like that meant a lot to us. Reading the scripts and filming it, it felt so unique. And you never get the full concept until you’re watching it on actual TV. It has the Gregg Araki stamp on it, but also it’s just so unique. There are shows that deal with sexuality—and that conversation is moving forward about being open and honest. We aren’t afraid to be doing things like that. My whole thing is why aren’t we showing more things like this?
AD: Oh, I agree.
KB: What’s interesting is that Gregg Araki’s world is so fantastic and dreamy and over-the-top. That’s how he is and that’s what I love about the show. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. I don’ think anyone is tortured by their sexuality. We are all just humans dealing with life. We do make light of the relationships we have and with ourselves and exploring LA which the epitome of all of this. It’s almost being normalized in a sense—which it should be. It’s larger than life, and I think all of our characters are exaggerated versions of real people in life. But you’ll see Uly busting Carly’s balls, and we are both like, ‘I’m going to do my thing and you do your thing. You should sleep with a bunch of guys.’ That’s how life is and shining a light on that is important. And we are making humor out of it.
AD: And it goes beyond personal hang-ups. I think that’s what a lot of people, myself included, responded to.
AD: And the clothes you got to wear were awesome!
KB: Thank you! That really was a fun part.
AD: You joined the fourth season of Animal Kingdom.
KB: I did.
AD: What was it like jumping into a series that has already been so established?
KB: It was really fun. I didn’t know how many episodes I would be in or what I was really signing on for. It was exciting. My character contributed pretty heavily to a good storyline this season. I even talked with Finn Cole about this since I did the majority of my scenes with him. He plays Jay and his character never really puts up with anything except running the family business. We were wondering if the writers were positioning it for the audience to root for Jay and Olivia and he was now hung up on liking this girl. It was a fun experience taking it week to week and seeing where the story went. The cast and the crew were so kind and nice and welcomed me with open arms. It’s a really chill set. They are in their fourth season, so they know it like the back of their hand. I got really lucky with that. When I found out that I was going to be on the show, my boyfriend and I binged the whole show, and I kept forgetting that I was going to be on the show.
AD: It’s a very easy binge, I have to say.
KB: It definitely made a fan out of me. The jobs are so exciting and that characters are so established and have such strong story lines.
AD: What do you do now? Would you want to try to find something with more dance in it now that Fosse/Verdon has finished?
KB: I will always want to do a job with dancing. I will always say yes to that. I have not danced as much as I used to. I’m old! I recently did an audition where we had to send in 15 videos of us doing ballet variations. I went out and bought pointe shoes. It was a grueling, long bit of filming for it. Getting back into pointe work…I will always have the muscle memory, but the stamina is another thing to make me look like I don’t want to die? I want to push myself physically and get into a dance role like that. This year, I’ve done a lot of television, and all the television I have done is so different than the last job. I feel like I haven’t been stuck or stagnant. I’ve gotten to explore the history of Fosse/Verdon, the comedy with Now Apocalypse, and the intensity of Animal Kingdom.