Holly Twyford's den is a mess. Books are everywhere, from a Shakespeare lexicon to Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander. Videos are piled on top of the TV. But hanging on the wall is a neatly spaced row of 20 hats–an Austrian mountaineer's cap, a seal-skin derby, a Boston conductor's hat, a hat from the Crimean War era.
"I love history, and these have it," she says. "They tell stories."
So do actors. Acting, she says, "is like telling any story: If you feel it, great, but the audience has got to feel it."
The thirtysomething Twyford–she won't divulge her exact age "because casting directors care"–has become one of the city's most critically praised and consistently employed actors.
Today she has the day off from rehearsing two plays. Melissa Arctic–an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale set in modern-day Minnesota–closes February 29 at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She'll then have the lead in Caryl Churchill's surreal war drama, Far Away, opening March 31 at Studio Theatre.
She's padding around her rowhouse near U Street in a fleece pullover and a baseball cap, pulling a battered Prussian spike helmet from an old gingham hatbox.
"I don't want replicas," she says. "I want the real thing."
Tw yford will hug you the first time you meet. She's the kind of girl who orders a regular Coke and a pizza covered in prosciutto. The only time she betrays any nervousness is when she talks about preparing for a role.
"I usually start by panicking," she says. And then? "Self-deprecation and frustration."
She's played most of Shakespeare's women at the Folger–from her Helen Hayes Award-winning Juliet to Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. She's also played one of Shakespeare's men: Hamlet. And she takes on contemporary characters. As part of Lee Blessing's one-woman show, Chesapeake, she played a dog.
Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer, who directed Twyford in Twentieth Century, says, "A lot of actors turn on the machine and go. Holly's always trying to make the show better. She doesn't just stick her toe in the water–she dives off the cliff."
When Twyford played Evelyn, the manipulative art student in The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's biting study of modern relationships, audience members shouted "bitch" at her.
One day a hardware store cashier kept staring at her. He'd just seen her as Evelyn. "You seem so nice," he said. "I can't believe it."
La st year, Twyford's schedule was so booked that she turned down an audition for NBC's The West Wing. Her stage roles included a raving heiress in Twentieth Century and a woman worried about her missing sister in the 9/11-centered play Recent Tragic Events. When the 2003 Helen Hayes Awards rolled around, she ran against herself in the lead-actress category. She won for The Shape of Things.
But back-to-back work isn't enough to pay the bills. She's still paying off a renovation of the house she shares with her partner of 12 years, Saskia Mooney, an environmental consultant, and their two cats, Duncan and Phillip.
"You can't make a living as a theater actor here," Twyford says. "Period. Can't be done."
Like many other local actors, she fattens her income by appearing in training videos–sometimes called "industrials." They pay well and require less energy than stage work. She's played FBI and IRS agents, a fire warden, and a Justice Department attorney.
There also have been TV roles: a victim in an America's Most Wanted reenactment, a friend of a victim on Homicide.
In one TV commercial, she's in a gray suit and a tight up-do, shouting like a cheerleader for NutriSystem diets.
Watching a tape of herself in a college production of Steel Magnolias as Clairee–the role played by Olympia Dukakis in the movie–makes her cringe: "God, it's just all wrong!"
Th e Great Falls native grew up going to the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage with her mother, Suzanne Twyford, a visual artist; her father, Bob, is a mechanical engineer. But it didn't occur to her to try acting until her senior year at McLean's Madeira School.
"I thought auditioning for colleges would be an easy way into them," she says.
She headed for Boston University's acting program, and something clicked: "I thought, 'This feels right.' "
The program funnels aspiring actors to New York agents. Only some make it–it's standard practice to weed out students after two years. Twyford got cut.
She then joined the university's less-prestigious theatrical-arts program. Her new major meant fewer plum roles and no New York showcase but more behind-the-scenes experience.
When she moved back to Washington, her first job was in Arena Stage's wig department. There she met actors like Tammy Grimes and Jennifer Mendenhall and found her way into a Consenting Adults production of Her Aching Heart, a two-person show that let her play five characters. The performance led to her first Helen Hayes nomination.
More than a decade later, Twyford is happy that she stuck around. But she's tired of a question she often gets: When is she going to try to make it in New York or Hollywood?
"If success is being a movie star," she says, "then I'm not in the right place. But I've done some of the greatest roles in theater. Would I go up and do a show in New York? Sure. Would I go do a movie in LA? I'd love to. Will I come back here to live? Yes."