When Nina Grollman takes on a new character, she doesn’t revert to a set methodology, follow steps she learned in school. Instead, she thinks about how she can project someone else’s truth into the minds of her audience.
Although the Nina Grollman with whom she spends most of her time is temporarily erased on stage, a message in invisible ink, Grollman needs her just the same. Only by establishing what she has in common with a new character can Grollman inhabit them.
A feedback loop emerges. The more she learns about herself, the more she learns about her characters, and the more those characters allow her to see who she really is. The space between fiction and reality becomes a new form of truth.
Playing Scout in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway made Grollman rediscover her childhood self, a kid in overalls and oversized t-shirts and cargo shorts who didn’t mind being asked if they were a boy or a girl.
“I keep thinking about it lately, about how fucking free I was gender-wise as a kid,” Grollman says, perched over a stone chess board in Bushwick’s Irving Square Park; she’s with Green, an angular, steel-gray dog from Thailand she adopted with her girlfriend. (Grollman uses she/her and they/them pronouns.) “I just so didn’t care about shit. I want to get back to that so badly. Somehow it feels so much more complicated now, even though we live in a world where we acknowledge that gender and sexuality is a spectrum, it still comes with so much baggage. I just want to get back to that kid self who didn’t know any better.”
Preparing for the role also made Grollman realize how much she had in common with the iconic novel’s author, Harper Lee. “She was closeted, that’s for sure,” Grollman says after excavating the author’s life. Lee reportedly wrote in 2009, after dodging the question for years, that she was “not even remotely gay.” But regardless of her sexuality, Lee, just like Grollman, certainly experienced the world as a tomboy, an identity that becomes less palatable to others with age.
For Grollman, indifference to comments about her appearance expired around the time flair jeans became fashionable. She was in middle school and tired of people offering to give her makeovers. “I was like, why?” Grollman says, running her fingers through hair cropped close for Scout, now flecked with a fiery red. “I remember being hyperemotional about it, and being really confused, but knowing that something about me was wrong and I needed to change it because clearly everyone was telling me I needed to look different.”
So Grollman made the concerted decision to wear the clothes other people seemed so invested in seeing on their body. “I was like, I better be a girl, I guess I gotta do this, it’s about time. Otherwise the attention will always be on me.”
In Mockingbird, Scout is pressured to wear a petticoat, an Add-A-Pearl necklace, a pink sash; to play with tea sets and miniature stoves instead of boys. When she tries to please her aunt by attending a ladies missionary circle, she compromises by wearing overalls, plus a dress. Even though the reader has come to know Scout as head-strong, an individualist who dresses to run, Scout is self-conscious in front of the ladies whose world, she realizes, will soon become her own.
Yet Scout is still Scout at that point, not yet compelled to become Jean Louise. And that precious moment, a moment in between, is the one Grollman yearns to recapture for themself. Using a fictionalized character and its author, Grollman triangulates to recast the person they spent years trying to erase.
Before she decided to conform to gender expectations, at least for a little while, Grollman made another concerted decision early in her life: for theater, she would present as an extrovert. Not for the first time, her mother had signed her up for an activity against her will. At least she was done with ice skating.
Unlike the team sports she’d left behind, theater was a tribal experience that didn’t make her want to escape. Grollman introduced herself to strangers because she knew it would be worth it. “Being part of something bigger than yourself feels really good,” Grollman says, though when she’s working on more individual creative pursuits, like her music, she still craves solitude. “I go through phases all the time. I go through extroverted phases and I go through introverted phases where I just don’t want to see people at all.”
Grollman’s mother was the first person to realize her child’s dramatic potential when they appeared on stage for an elementary school production of The Magic Schoolbus. Although Grollman plays down the episode as parental overenthusiasm over one line – Look, a whale! – videos of Grollman performing as a child, still available on YouTube, suggest their mother might just be perceptive. A video from 2010 shows young Grollman singing a piece from Tony-winner Jason Robert Brown’s musical 13, alongside Brown himself, who accompanies them on piano. Grollman’s braces are a sobering reminder that they’re still in high school.
Then there’s Grollman’s award-winning performances as part of her high school’s Speech and Debate team. I think I understand what she means by Speech and Debate until she mentions that she once played a dinosaur. “Everyone bullies her, and in the end, at prom, she kills everybody.”
Unlike traditional theater, Speech and Debate allowed Grollman to inhabit a range of characters, all in one performance that she would prepare based on a book or a play. “I got to just play everybody, which is always what I wanted. Play the girls and the boys,” she says, though she still had to wear a skirt and heels. “I always wanted to wear pants but I was told that’s ‘trashy and looks bad.’”
As part of the genre, performers “pop” into different characters as the narrative progresses. In Tammy: A Coming of Age Story About a Girl Who is Part T-Rex, Grollman popped among Tammy the dinosaur and a cast of high schoolers. She most enjoyed making “dyno noises,” high-pitched screeches of teenage T-rex frustration. Characters that demand accents and affectations are Grollman’s favorite.
If given the opportunity, Grollman imagines that their mother, who encouraged their stage presence, might have been a performer herself. When Grollman was little, she and her mother tried out for a community theater production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory together. “She got cast and I didn’t.” Her role was the mother of Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous Germanic boy who is the first to discover a golden ticket, but also the first to disappear, sucked into a chocolate river. “She made it into the most sad, dramatic performance I’ve ever seen,” Grollman says, bringing her to tears in the audience. “She was fully mourning the loss of the child. There was no comedic intent to it. Just complete, straight drama.”
But Grollman’s mother performs in a different capacity: as a German professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo, where Grollman grew up, the only American region in which German is the second most popular language. German and Scandinavian immigrants, including Grollman’s mother, abound.
Although Grollman would later seek out New York for a more diverse community, growing up in Fargo meant long, cold winters that called for a coping mechanism. “We’d either die of frost bite or we’d fucking be creative,” Grollman says, recalling that she often made music using a shitty microphone her father gave her for Christmas, along with a program called Audacity that allowed her to create vocal loops. She also played guitar and ukulele, uploaded videos on YouTube, and performed in local coffee shops.
They started with a lot of covers: In the Jungle and New Soul and Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Their own music came later, around middle school, when they recall writing lyrics that were “angsty,” but not much else. “I don’t really revisit it that often,” they say, but suspect that part of what motivated their songwriting was their queerness.
Yet they didn’t know what it meant to be queer at the time. Their only clues were unsolicited feedback about their clothing and a few people at their church who gave thempause, including a “very butchy lesbian” who shared some of their fashion choices. “I assumed her husband was just somewhere around.”
Growing up queer in Fargo didn’t make Grollman feel discriminated against so much as unaccounted for, like a troubling extra piece to a machine that’s already been built. “I just did my best to fit in and try to like boys, and it never really worked out,” Grollman says, smiling like she couldn’t be happier it hadn’t.
Coming out at seventeen was joyful. Grollman recalls a series of events she assumes I’m familiar with as a queer woman: outsized excitement about a new female friendship that quickly reveals itself as infatuation, then thrilling confusion when the feeling is reciprocated.
“I didn’t come up against any kind of disapproval from the people who mattered,” she says. “I was just talking about this with friends last night. That last summer before college was pure bliss. I was freshly out, I had a girlfriend, I was going to Juilliard, I was on top of the world, so carefree. I want the wisdom I have now but the levity I had then.”
The next time Grollman adjusted her identity was upon request. It came from the Juilliard School, the arts conservatory that also formed Viola Davis and Sara Ramirez and Jessica Chastain. After auditioning in Chicago and being called back as a finalist for that year’s eighteen-person class, Grollman found out she could move to New York.
Juilliard follows a pedagogic mantra so common among performing arts schools that it’s become a cliché: “we’ll tear you down to build you back up again.” Grollman says it in a valley girl accent, a voice they regularly pop into when discussing the theater scene at Juilliard, like they’re back on stage for Speech and Debate. Yet as hollow as the phrase sounds, Grollman says it causes real damage.
“They kind of make you be a robot,” Grollman says, noting that all students follow the same, rigorous classical training regardless of their personal proclivities as actors. Individual quirks are filled with Shakespeare and Chekhov. “I feel like a lot of my personality was stripped away from me, and I had to regain it.”
Each quarter, students are subject to reviews. “You meet with every teacher and they basically tell you everything they think is wrong with you,” Grollman says. “And that went on for four years.” Reviews weren’t just about performance in the classroom; they routinely included perceived personality flaws.
A common critique Grollman faced was that she wasn’t sexy or feminine enough. “I had to fit this mold, I had to be castable as Sexy Straight Girl 2,” Grollman recalls. “Sure, to some extent that’s fun, but why does that have to be my entire identity?” When given the agency to choose her own characters, Grollman has very different priorities: “old ladies, funny ladies, funny things.” As part of her audition for Juilliard, she performed a monologue as a Boston townie in her mid-fifties. “I didn’t pick anything age appropriate. I just wanted to play old crazy ladies.”
Yet at the time, Grollman internalized the criticism. They were intent on being a diligent student, on pleasing those who had admitted them to a school they had never expected to attend. Part of the problem was that they were too young to realize that drama instructors are not gods despite the cultish following they often command. Most of their classmates were significantly older, perhaps more equipped to separate constructive criticism from comments that went too far, threatening to leave them shells instead of artists.
Grollman also hadn’t spent much time in New York before moving there for school. A city commonly imagined as teeming with kindred artistic spirits, they discovered, can be surprisingly lonely if you attend class until ten at night most days and are one of the few queer people in your program.
But after two years of striving to satisfy the whims of her instructors, Grollman had an epiphany. “I kind of realized oh, you guys are adults, very fallible people with your own insecurities,” she recalls. “Insecurities that you’re projecting onto me, actually. What do I do now?”
Grollman left Juilliard valuing its focus on discipline but knowing that she would need to relearn her personality. Acting is like looking into a mirror and realizing that the reflection, though inverted, is at once the same person you’ve always known and a total stranger. It can’t be done without keeping track of who you are.
After years of playing other people, Grollman figured they would try playing a new version of themself, a character whose lines would be their own. Brainstorming ideas with their girlfriend, Tess, led Grollman to the only name that felt right: Softee. Their pop star alter ego.
Although she had been singing and writing music since she was a child, Grollman needed time to reflect on herself post-Juilliard, to reassemble the skin she’d been forced to shed, before she could fully launch her career as a musician. “I didn’t know what was real to me,” she remembers feeling after graduation.
For a while, Grollman didn’t think they’d be able to make it as a professional musician on their own. A fantasy of someone seeking them out, of enunciating their talent, if it existed, kept them from casting a fantasy of their own.
But then she decided that she would fully invest herself in producing, in finding the right beat, in finding the right synth, in finding the right sound, in tracking the vocals that she could feed to the right software. The right friends followed, a community that helped her release her first EP, Oh No, and book her first show. A glowing review in Rolling Stone came just a year and a half later.
Softee’s brand of pop lays bare the loneliness of queer identity but is also compulsively danceable. Her songs cope with pain through ethereal laughter. In Oh No, Softee wonders what would happen if she kissed someone, though the kiss never happens. Set in the eighties, the music video shows Softee getting ready for prom with a gaggle of female friends who later eye each other as their heads rest on the shoulders of boys, also busy eyeing each other. Their bodies are safely assigned according to gender, but their minds are elsewhere.
Another fantasy drives the narrative behind Rebecca, a track on Softee’s latest album, Keep On, for which they taught themself how to mix. Inspired by a workplace infatuation, Softee imagines herself working at a diner, trying to interpret the lingering presence of her cagey manager. “As women//I expected//us to behave//When we didn’t//I was your puppet//I dug my own grave.” They also just wanted to write a song with a name in it.
“I think queerness is gonna be in the DNA of everything I do,” Grollman says. “I think there’s such an opportunity for drama, for heightened stakes, for fantasy, and for all those elements combined.” She’s drawn to the eighties for similar reasons, to the haze of disco smoke and ruffles and wide lapels and bold colors that read as surprisingly queer to the modern eye. Like King Princess in 1950, Softee reappropriates an era often represented through traditional gender roles to expose the queerness that’s lived within it, if often left unspoken.
She also brings new meaning to the term “popular” in pop music. Although still wedded to popular tradition, including Grollman’s longtime idol, Robyn, Softee makes room for queerness within that mold. Her more contemporary influences include Rina Sawayama and Charli XCX.
“I think pop music is the most direct shot to the nervous system you can get. It reaches the pleasure centers the quickest,” Grollman says. “When that can be subversive and can be exploring subject matter that isn’t always explored in Top 40 pop, that’s the most exciting thing ever.”
Queerness isn’t the only subversive theme in Softee’s music. Loneliness, at least in such bare terms, throttles you in their songs until you realize that by virtue of singing about it, they’ve turned it into its own kind of pleasure; a shared secret. Crush, another song on their recent album, sets out the conflicting nature of solemnity best, one that rings especially true during pandemic isolation. “Tonight I have some time to finally sit on my own//Can I even tolerate myself when I’m alone?”
When I ask Grollman if they prefer playing characters who resemble them over those who don’t, they say there’s no way to tell ahead of time. Each character type involves different challenges.
In their Broadway debut as Margie in The Iceman Cometh, Grollman played a 1920s sex worker. Yet biographical distance allowed them to latch onto the core attributes she imagined they might share. “I made her kind of brash and gay and the life of the party,” Grollman says, a heightened version of herself who also felt true to Margie.
Playing someone like Scout, or even Softee, whom she describes as a more confident, sexier version of herself, can be more fulfilling, but at a cost. “It’s the best, but also the worst,” she says. “You’re more vulnerable, more exposed. When criticism comes, it hurts more.”
Yet regardless of the character they play, Grollman remains focused on the collective narrative to inform their acting. They reached a breakthrough in their interpretation of Scout after reading Atticus Finch: The Biography, an account of Lee’s fraught relationship to her own father; one that mirrored Atticus and Scout’s. “We think of the relationship as so pure and perfect, and it’s not,” Grollman says, a reality that becomes most stark in Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, when Scout comes home as an adult and discovers that the Atticus who once vehemently defended an innocent black man now attends KKK meetings.
That disillusionment defined Grollman’s approach to a key monologue toward the end of the play in which she reflects on her father. “It’s not all just brimming with optimism,” she says. “We have to keep fighting here. Just because he did this one thing doesn’t mean he’s a perfect man. The fight continues.” She also recognizes that although the play seeks to destabilize Atticus’ place in American culture as a white savior figure, it could have gone further. “I want to know more about Calpurnia, I want to know more about the Black community in the story, rather than just the white kids living in it,” she says. “At the end of the day, the whole story is still a white perspective on everything.”
The need to keep fighting has a special cadence when we meet, a week before the presidential election. Grollman is worried. She’s worried about a second term and she’s worried about the vaccine and she’s worried about when she’ll be able to perform again, as Softee or as herself or as someone totally different, someone she’ll reinvent.
Their dog, Green, has been barking intermittently as we talk. Mostly at other dogs, but occasionally at the clatter of skateboards or at the many people who approach him, one of the few remaining forms of stranger interaction during the pandemic. A little girl asks if she can pet him, and Grollman apologizes, says he isn’t friendly. “But he has golden eyes,” the little girl says, “it’s a miracle, he has God eyes,” as if that were enough to save us all. “He does have golden eyes,” Grollman beams. And for a moment, it is.