Laura Osnes Wants You To Feel Things


The effervescent Laura Osnes joins Justin to discuss healthy competition, the value of kindness (and baked goods) in a difficult industry, and how Broadway absolutely didn't eat her for breakfast.

Laura Osnes is a Tony-nominated and Drama Desk Award-winning actor and singer known for her work in Broadway shows like Cinderella, Bandstand, Bonnie and Clyde, Anything Goes, South Pacific, and Grease. Her new film, "In the Key of Life," premieres July 1 on the Hallmark Channel. Connect with Laura on Twitter and Instagram at @lauraosnes.

Welcome to the second episode of Audition Secrets!

The Circle of Idol
Before the interview, Justin shares a story from the early 2000s and his early twenties. He left college to try to make it as a performer, and after auditioning for The Lion King on Broadway for years, he was offered a role the week Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson sent him to Hollywood for season one of American Idol. He eventually, somewhat reluctantly, turned down The Lion King; this was a major risk, especially since Idol hadn’t premiered yet and certainly wasn’t the juggernaut it is today.

Justin had a feeling, trusted his gut, and listened to the voice inside him. Years later, he would celebrate the opening night of his Broadway debut in the same hotel conference room he once auditioned for American Idol. What are you designed to do? What are you destined for?

The Mini Apple
Laura Osnes grew up in Eagan, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, and was very much a part of the creative and theatrical scene in the Twin Cities. She listened to cast albums of The Secret Garden and Les Misérables, so much so that she sang “Castle on a Cloud” from the latter in her kindergarten talent show. In second grade, Laura played a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and remembers looking up to the actor playing Dorothy, knowing that she wanted to do that some day.

It’s like normal theatre…but with dinner!
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is the largest in Minnesota (and maybe also the northern hemisphere). When Laura went there as a kid, it was a special occasion: dinner and everything!

She relives the joys of working there and, before being spoiled by Broadway, sharing a dressing room with the entire cast. Laura was performing at Chanhassen when she auditioned for Grease: You’re the One That I Want!

Justin relates with his dinner theatre tale: at age fifteen, he donned heels, a Carmen Miranda-esque fruit hat, and a sequined dress to sing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles.

Small Town Sandy
Laura unpacks the nickname she earned while competing on Grease: You’re the One That I Want! She describes how it was given to her on day one (along with a signature color: yellow) and likely informed by her being an engaged midwesterner putting off her wedding to be on a reality competition show. She remembers feeling defensive at first, especially since her town (a suburb of Minneapolis) wasn’t even that small, but she later embraced it and saw it as an opportunity to connect with the viewers (and voters) in America’s heartland.

Reality bites
Laura and Justin realize how much they have in common and further discuss their mutual starts in reality television. During her first performance critique on Grease: You’re the One That I Want!, judge (and producer) David Ian told Laura she had “the sweetness of Sandy in spades” but doubted that she had “the sexiness, the edge, and the thick skin.” She was 21, under lots of stress in a brand new experience, and being put through the wringer every week, but she found the power in being herself, staying true to who she was, and letting her talent and personality speak for itself: “Keep yourself at peace. You’re here for a reason. You’re supposed to do this. All the doors have opened. Don’t worry what anyone thinks. No one can do it like you can do it.”

I’m as corny as Kelli on Broadway
Laura shares what she’s gleaned from working with industry greats. When she was asked to replace Kelli O’Hara in South Pacific, Laura felt so intimidated, but the night she shadowed the track, she was struck by how open, honest and kind Kelli was to her. A few other cast members really took Laura under their wing and made her feel welcome, so Laura has tried to pay it forward in her subsequent work.

Penny for your wish
On the opening night of Cinderella, Laura and the cast threw pennies into a wishing well on their set, and they continued the tradition each time a new performer joined the company. Laura doesn’t underestimate the value of traditions that make everyone feel included and a part of something.

Sutton Foster’s bagels
On the opening night of Anything Goes, Sutton Foster gave a gift to the cast: bagels, one day a week, for the rest of the run. Laura shares how this encouraged her to find ways to be a positive leader; she’s learned to keep it light, have a good time, and leave her dressing room open. Oh, and baked goods go a long way. Justin and Laura reiterate that Broadway is full of people who take care of each other. Hard work and kindness go a long way.

Sanity outside of the theatre district
Laura knows that it’s good to get caught up in the work that she does, to an extent, but acknowledges the need for a grounding force outside of the theatre. For her, it’s her husband, her dog, her church community in New York, and her new lake house (read: escape) in Connecticut.

Who the hell is Nora Osnes?
Justin has always known Laura to be a living representation of sweetness and light, but he asks what makes her rhetorical evil twin, Nora Osnes, seethe. Laura reveals her competitive edge, especially when it comes to board games: if you don’t follow the rules, she just might have to put her foot down.

Don’t mistake kindness for weakness
During Cinderella, Laura was the subject of a profile in the New York Times. After inviting a journalist into her home and talking openly for six hours, the piece came out with the title “Glass Slippers and Goody Two Shoes.” She remembers feeling stunned and stung — after almost a whole day spent together, that was the journalist’s takeaway and angle.

Laura is frustrated by the fact that niceness has a shallow reputation (if not a negative connotation), and she tells us that it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, true. She shares that she, like so many others, has worked incredibly hard, been through shit in a crazy city and dark world, and still come out as a champion for light and positivity on the other side. Laura and Justin emphatically believe that kindness is our greatest asset.

Practice makes imperfect
It’s a practice to find the right balance between empowered outspokenness and being a doormat. Something that helps Laura is remembering that one person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. It wasn’t until she saw others speak up and challenge ideas in a rehearsal room that she felt the permission to initiate similar conversations. In fact, it took her three or four Broadway shows to really learn that.

Who do you think you are?
Sometimes Laura thinks about finding a show, finding a costar friend, pursuing the rights, and making it happen. Sometimes she thinks that’s impossible. Or crazy. And as Justin’s career expands to include mentorship, he admits to fighting the voice in his head that questions whether he is enough. The only thing that stops you from doing anything… is you. Throw yourself at it, take some imperfect actions, and see what works. The worst case: you learn something along the way. Justin and Laura agree that baby steps amalgamate to giant leaps, and what’s most important is having the courage to continue to dream big.

Patience is a virtue (really)
When asked what piece of advice she would give her younger self, Laura says, “patience.” She remembers auditioning for the role of Sandy in community theatre and not getting it. Three years later, she won a national competition to play Sandy in Grease on Broadway. During high school, she remembers seeing Kelli O’Hara in The Light in the Piazza, and five years later, Laura replaced her in a Broadway show on that same stage. If you see it, you can achieve it. Hard work pays off. Consistent dreaming pays off.

At least two roads diverged in a wood
Disappointment exists, even in the face of “success.” In fact, Laura used to perform an entire concert of songs from roles she didn’t get or couldn’t take: The Paths Not Taken. She says those losses made her spiritually richer and make her who she is. There is no five step plan to follow. You’ve got to plow your own path.

All the feels
In addition to her performance work, Laura coaches young performers. A common mistake she sees has to do with the fact that so many young actors have not yet experienced the full emotional spectrum in their short lives. Laura wants to pull out their ability to feel things and to tell a story through the song. If you can find a personal connection to the material, prioritize the story and the feeling, and remember that it’s about more than just technique, you will stand out from the crowd.

Tell me more… about getting the part I’m after
Justin and Laura agree that, when it comes to booking roles, whomever serves the story best wins. Laura remembers being one of six potential Sandys during Grease: You’re the One That I Want. But only Laura Osnes could give them Sandy as told through the experience of Laura Osnes’ life. How do you allow a character to play through you?

Love and craft services
Laura has done a handful of television guest spots, but her first movie, In the Key of Love, premieres July 1 on the Hallmark Channel. (It also airs July 4, 6 and 7). Laura plays an ex-singer-songwriter who has moved to an island to become a wedding photographer. When her ex-boyfriend (and the other member of their defunct duo) shows up at a wedding she’s shooting, they’re forced to reconcile their past, see how much they’ve changed over the years, and potentially (very, very probably) rekindle their musical flame.

Laura reminisces about filming in Vancouver, craft services, night shoots, and the luxury of having takes, She got her out of her comfort zone, felt greatly challenged, and wrapped the project with a new feather in her cap.

Survey says
One of the biggest pitfalls of going into the audition room is not being yourself. Justin discusses a survey he sent to his Broadway colleagues in which he asked about their most consistent audition mistakes. The most common result by far: trying to sound or be like someone else (read: not being one’s complete self). This is a common roadblock.

Oh! The humanity!
Auditions suck, and they’re the worst part of the business, but don’t forget that the other side of the table is comprised of humans, too! Actors are often so willing to impress that they lose sight of the equal playing field they walk in on. Casting teams just want to get their job done, and they are likely just as nervous, crazy, or tired as we are. Shed the pressure and remember that this is a dialogue between artists trying to make beautiful art. Simple as that! To go deeper on this idea, check out my book, Audition Secrets, for a three-step “Don’t Ever Lie” script to help you make a powerful first impression.

People, Places & Things mentioned in this episode:
Binder Casting
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre
Grease: You're the One That I Want!
David Ian
The Paths Not Taken
In the Key of Love

Follow Justin at @justinguarini on all social media!

Justin Guarini