HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Washington, D.C., audiences are used to seeing actress Rachel Zampelli vamping it up on stage.
But it was her turn as a different kind of femme fatal that has led to the Harpers Ferry-based actress her first Helen Hayes Award nomination.
Zampelli was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Resident Musical for her turn as real-life neofeminist and would-be Andy Warhol attempted murderer Valerie Solanas in the musical production of "Pop!" at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The winners of the Helen Hayes Awards will be announced Monday night in Washington.
"She's a sad story, I think," Zampelli said about the real Solanas during a telephone interview from her Harpers Ferry home. "She was ridiculously brilliant and had this kind of fire to change the world."
Before infamously shooting Warhol, Solanas had written a manifesto called Society for Cutting Up Men, or SCUM, in which she theorized that the male population can be wiped out and the world could survive with a female society.
Although Zampelli said she found the manifesto to be "amazing and could happen," she also said that Solanas was "insane" and "not OK mentally."
It's this balance of someone who was considered both mentally brilliant and mentally insane that drew Zampelli to the role. It also helped that Valerie was unlike any other character she had played before.
"For 'Pop!' it was particularly nice to be recognized for something (that is) very against the type I've been (cast)," Zampelli said, noting that she's usually the "sexy" character.
As Valerie, Zampelli was covered from head to toe and donned a short, brown wig. She said she's thankful for director Keith Alan Baker for seeing past the characters she previously played.
"It was nice to be recognized for something transformative like that," she said.
With the stage Valerie, Zampelli said when she took on the role she wanted to make sure that Valerie wasn't turned into a caricature.
"I think if you're playing someone who lived, especially a real person, I can't think of many cases where that's OK," she said, " ... I don't think it honors them and I don't think it tells a story, either."
Zampelli said she was excited that Baker didn't distort who Solanas was.
"I was able to play her as honestly as I possibly can. And it was great," she said.
The real Solanas moved to Washington, D.C., as a child and later graduated from the University of Maryland-College Park. She met Warhol in 1967, wanting him to produce her play. She had a turbulent, almost stalker-like relationship with the artist until she shot him in 1968.
Zampelli said she didn't know much about her character before taking on the play. She knew about the SCUM Manifesto thanks to a Christmas gift.
"I had been given this gift one Christmas from some cousins of mine and there were all these pieces of literature from American history — and they were strange ones — and the SCUM Manifesto was one of them," Zampelli said. "And I remember reading it and thinking, 'Oh my god, who wrote this?' And it turned out it was her. That's the most I knew about her."
Zampelli said she enjoyed her turn as Valerie in "Pop!" The story follows after Warhol's shooting and has members of The Factory as detectives trying to figure out whodunnit.
"The plot is not your classic plot that makes complete sense all of the time. Andy Warhol would have probably been proud of it," she said with a laugh.
She said she and the cast, which are up for Outstanding Ensemble, had a blast staging "Pop!"
"It was crazy and everybody just kind of dove in and tried to make sense of what we could, and tried to make sense of what we couldn't by trying not to make sense of it," Zampelli said. "I don't know if that makes sense." She laughed. "It was crazy and it was a lot of fun."
This isn't Zampelli's first association with the Helen Hayes Awards. She was in two other productions, "Reefer Madness: The Musical," that earned an Outstanding Resident Musical Award, and "Jerry Springer the Opera" that earned an Outstanding Ensemble nomination.
But with "Pop!" this is her first time at her own single nomination. The Prince George's County, Md., native said she is planning to attend Monday evening's ceremony with a small group of family. With her will be husband Mercer Jackson, her dad and stepmom, her mom and stepdad and her brother and his fiancée.
"You only get your first nomination once," she said. "They have always, always been my biggest fans. You couldn't ask for more supportive parents."
Zampelli was at home with her husband Mercer when she learned about her nomination.
She was at her dining room table with Mercer when they were finishing up dinner.
"I got a text from a good friend who was at the announcement ceremony. And I looked at the text — I love this because it shows how sweet my husband is — and I looked up and said, 'Mercer.' He was like, 'Yeah.' I said, 'I've been nominated for a Helen Hayes.' And just as calmly as we were eating, he looked up and said 'Of course you did.' Then the sweetest thing he did was that he asked for which play."
Zampelli finished a turn as Callie in "Stop Kiss" at No Rules Theatre Company, and is currently starring as Witch in Signature Theatre's production of "Brother Russia."
She said she is looking forward to the ceremony, having already prepared a speech by writing down people's names and bullet points she wants to say if her name gets called.
"I think people try to be humble about (being nominated), I think there are people who aren't but I'm not friends with any of them." She laughed. "I think that in this business we're all replaceable and it's good to be recognized."
About the awards
The Helen Hayes Awards recognize and celebrate artistic achievement for the Washington, D.C., theater community. The award is named after the late Helen Hayes, an American actress who was known as the First Lady of Theater. A Washington, D.C., native, Hayes worked as an actor from age 5 to 85. She died in 1993 at age 92. She is also part of the exclusive club of actors who have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
This year's awards will be Monday, April 23, at the Warner Theater in Northwest Washington, D.C. Actor Kevin Spacey will receive the Helen Hayes Tribute Award during the evening ceremony.
"Pop!" received seven Helen Hayes Award nominations.
- Outstanding Resident Musical
- Outstanding Director, Resident Musical: Keith Alan Baker, Jennifer Harris and Hunter Styles
- Outstanding Ensemble
- Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Musical: Tom Story
- Outstanding Musical Direction, Resident Production: Christopher Youstra
- Outstanding Supporting Actor, Resident Musical: Matthew Delorenzo
- Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Musical: Rachel Zampelli