Claire Brownell :: Playing a Hitchcock blonde (amongst others) in ’The 39 Steps’

by Jenny Block

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday May 13, 2010

Raised in Montana, Claire Brownell did community theater as a little girl. Then she left acting for sports in about 6th or 7th grade and didn't return to it until college. She saw an audition notice for senior one acts. She figured, "No one knows me. If it's awful, it doesn't matter."

She didn't get the part that first time. But the next time she did. So, she changed her major, went to grad school in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater and then headed for New York City. She's now starring as the female lead - which is actually four roles - in the touring production of The 39 Steps. EDGE had the chance to catch up with Brownell by phone last week.

Show’s appeal

EDGE: Can you tell readers a little about "The 39 Steps"?

Brownell: It follows the plotline of the Alfred Hitchcock movie by the same name, which came out in 1935 It's a thriller. Basically, an upper class Englishman decides he's so bored he'll go to the theater. He meets this woman, a spy-kind of character, who asks to go home with him. She says she's being followed and that she has vital information that could save the country. Then she dies. He's on the run for the rest of the show until the mystery is solved. In the end, he saves the day because that's what a hero does. It's a fast paced comedy thriller. It zings along. It's witty. It just keeps moving since it's a chase the entire time.

There are four people playing 120 plus roles. It's like a whirlwind going on. On a dime people are doing quick changes. I'm lucky. I only play four characters and one of them doesn't speak. [She laughs.] I have four full costume changes.

EDGE: How do you approach a piece like this that has such a well-known film as its basis?

Brownell: I did a good chunk of prep before I went into the audition. You want director to know you understand the film and the characters and yet it's a departure from the film. I've always been a big fan of old movies. I watched them with my grandma. Hitchcock has a very specific style. One of the characters I play, Pamela is a cold, icy Hitchcock blonde. A Tippi Hedren or Madeleine Carroll. That character is more directly derived from that movie and the archetype. There are really funny moments but there has to be a real romance between them so she can't have a crazy mole on her face for one of her characters. [She laughs.] Story continues on following page.

Watch this montage from the Broadway production of The 39 Steps.

Show’s appeal

EDGE: Audiences seem to be really taken with the show. Why do you think that is?

Brownell: I think what is particularly interesting about The 39 Steps is that it's one of Hitchcock's earlier movies and many scenes and ideas come up from it in later movies. It's important itself. But it was also kind of a template for Hitchcock. It was like a refining process. In his later films, there's not so much chaff. Almost scene by scene, it's like the movie but seen through a comedic lens. You get to really see Hitchcock's film legacy. Our director Maria Aitken has taken real film moments and made them uniquely theatrical. She's so creative as a director. Every moment in the show has been orchestrated and you're always seeing something new in a surprising and delightful way.

EDGE: Are you just shocked and thrilled that this is what you get to do for a living?

Brownell: Every morning and every night before I go to bed. Acting in general is great...but this show in particular. I went to the closing of the Broadway run. It had been running for two and a half or three years, over 700 performances. I feel so blessed to be part of such an excellent community. It's like being in a pool full of genius.

I feel really, really lucky and sometimes I think I've got them fooled. It's one thing to have to have theater as a hobby but to have it as a profession is very rare I feel very fortunate.

EDGE: How did you come to get the part?

Brownell: I landed the role as understudy for the lead female in The 39 Steps on Broadway. I got on about thirty times. I spent the time auditioning and getting to know casting directors. I did some really fun projects. Nothing professional. Then I heard about the tour and I thought "I really want this job" and they came and offered it to me. I didn't even have to go through the audition process, which was so daunting the first time around because you have to play a lot of roles and you had to do a lot of pages.

EDGE: What's the biggest challenge you face in terms of performing this particular show?

Brownell: Well, I don't get confused anymore and rush on and use the wrong accent. But it's running in heels. The physical demands of this show are very high. I'd rather be doing that than sitting in a chair talking to someone on the stage. I don't know if you've ever been a waitress. But this show starts and we're at the curtain call as soon as I can breathe. There's always something coming next. It's like your shift goes so fast when it's busy. What keeps it afloat is working with the other actors. It's just fun.

EDGE: Who should come to see this show?

Brownell: It's a great family show actually. When we were in Seattle my whole family came to see the show from young nieces and nephews to my grandmother and they all loved it for different reasons. Grandma got a lot of the references. My parents like comedy. My niece and nephew just thought it was really funny. I love to see a row in an audience and it's kids and parents, and they all laugh at different items. But they all really love it.

The 39 Steps runs May 19 - 30, 2010 at The
Bank Of America Theater (formerly Lasalle Bank Theater), 18 West Monroe, Chicago, IL. For more information visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Watch this scene from the Broadway production of The 39 Steps.

Jenny Block is a Dallas based freelance writer and the author of "Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage" (Seal Press, June 2008). Block's work has appeared in Cosmopolitan (Germany), USA Today, American Way, BeE, bRILLIANT, the Dallas Morning News, D, Pointe, and Virginia Living, as well as on,, and You can also find her work in the books "It's a Girl" (Seal Press, March 2006, ed. Andrea J. Buchanan) and "One Big Happy Family" (Riverhead Press, February 2009, Rebecca Walker, ed.).