Nina Grollman had some big shoes to fill when she succeeded Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Tony-winning performance as the next Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. Luckily, she’s practiced at it. Grollman played The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s Olive Ostrovsky in high school as well as Molly in Peter and the Starcatcher—both roles originated by Keenan-Bolger. “I’ve been a fan forever and the fact that I’m stepping into her beautifully crafted shoes now is pretty surreal,” says Grollman.
But the fact that both actors have Olive and Scout in their blood may not be such a coincidence. “There’s definitely a sort of weakness and a yearning for love and connection that threads those two characters together. You want to give them both a hug,” she continues. “They’re such lovable little creatures trying to find their way in the world, [though] Scout puts up a tougher exterior.”
Still, Grollman attacks the part fresh with the all-new cast that began performances together November 5. “My main discovery is excavating more and more about Harper Lee and her connection to this character and how that informs my performance,” says Grollman. As she digs into Scout, the daughter of the white attorney defending an innocent black man in 1936 Alabama, Grollman considers the author of the original character as the real-life basis for that character.
And as Grollman learns more about Lee, she marries the child who grew up in Alabama and the woman who moved to New York City, unearthing fodder for her dual roles as Mockingbird’s narrator and female protagonist. “I’ve been reading Go Set a Watchmen, from a 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch point of view,” she says. “[Reconciling] the eight-year-old lens, which is putting Atticus on a pedestal, and then later in Go Set a Watchmen he comes off that pedestal and he’s a human being with flaws. Aaron’s script married these two versions of Atticus in a very tactful way.”
But Grollman also relates to Lee, and, therefore, Scout on a unique level. “We’re both very gender nonconforming kids,” Grollman says. “She’s constantly confronted with these questions of her gender and how she’s not quite fitting into the mold, and she’s always wearing overalls. But the lovely thing is: she never really questions herself.
“That’s where I really identified with her,” Grollman continues, “because growing up I would always dress as a boy and I’d get a lot of questions from other kids and sometimes adults too, just being like, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ and depending on the day I’d answer ‘boy’ or I’d answer ‘girl.’ It depended on my mood, but I never deeply questioned that. I just sort of did it because it felt right. It wasn’t something I was deeply investigating in myself at the time. It was just something I did, and I see that in Scout, too.”
Scout’s gender fluidity isn’t a plot point or a point of contention, it’s merely a filter. “Scout’s queerness is not explicitly brought up or talked about, but lives in my performance because it can’t help but live there,” she adds. Through that lens, Grollman inhabits Scout in an original way—a young girl comfortable with herself, a girl being in a world that tells her she is wrong while propagating outright injustice in the courtroom and on the front porch. How does she, a queer youngster, reconcile the people who say her “tomboy-ish” ways are wrong but lynching a black man is right?
She may not grapple with her gender identity, but Scout certainly wrestles with the type of person she wants to be—and her queerness (whether named or not) impacts that. And Grollman’s own experiences influence a calibrated performance that leans on questions.
“I want people to see that she doesn’t have all the answers about who her father was and how to deal with racial injustice,” says Grollman. “That’s really the question that the piece poses to the audience.”