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‘The Bear’ star’s bloody stage mishap

Liza Colon-Zayas recalls losing place in New York play

By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
Published: July 22, 2023, 6:29am

In its first season, “The Bear” generated all kinds of sweaty, shouty drama inside a Chicago Italian beef sandwich shop. One of the kitchen’s key figures is longtime veteran Tina, played by Liza Colón-Zayas, who is initially skeptical of change. But by Season 2, which premiered last month, we see her raising her game and blossoming into a legitimate sous chef, which surprises even her.

Colón-Zayas says she loves to cook in real life. “I’m not anywhere near the skill of the characters on the show, but in my family, that’s how we show love: Cooking our Puerto Rican dishes for each other. And I do love watching cooking shows.”

Her credits include the recent reboot of “In Treatment” and “David Makes Man,” as well as appearances on “Law & Order: SVU,” “Blue Bloods” and many other shows.

When asked about a worst moment in her career, she recalled a memorable night on stage. “You would think with this long career, I would have a lot of embarrassing stories. This is the most recent one.”

My worst moment …

“I was doing a play off-Broadway called ‘Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis. This was early 2020. The play takes place in a halfway house and I play this character who is ex-Army and has PTSD. And in this house, the women would have these group therapy meetings, with everyone sitting in a circle.

“I was supposed to make my entrance for that scene, but instead — I don’t know what happened — I got confused and I prepared to go on for a later scene, where I’ve just had an episode and I’ve slaughtered an animal offstage and I make my entrance covered in blood. I’m supposed to come walking out with a knife in my hand looking like ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Just insane.

“But that was the wrong time — we hadn’t gotten to that scene yet!

“So I’m covered in stage blood. And it’s sticky, it’s like this jelly, and it’s all over my shirt too. It’s makeup that I normally do really fast by myself. And I’m standing in the wings ready to make my entrance.

“But man, thank goodness there were a couple of stage managers who snatched me before I could go onstage. They were like, ‘This is not that scene!’ I flipped out. I didn’t know what to do.

“They were such angels, they really had my back. They dragged me into the bathroom and scrubbed me down with the help of a couple of actors. I think I went into shock. It was the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone move. And luckily the bathroom was right there near the stage.

“I get cleaned and changed really fast, but I’m discombobulated. My face is still wet. So I’m wet and I look crazy — it’s funny, but it’s not funny — and now I have to make my entrance. And on stage, the actors are making up random dialogue because they don’t know what’s going on, they only know I haven’t made my entrance yet. I remember hearing one of the actors improvise a line that sounded like it was from ‘Law & Order,’ because she said: ‘What’s next on the docket?’ (Laughs) They were really struggling.

“Finally I strolled on stage looking all crazy and sweaty and terrified. I don’t remember what I said to try to cover for my delay, it’s all a blur. I do remember their eyes looking really big. I was just glad we had washed all the blood off, so it didn’t look like I had committed a crime. But when we finished the scene and I made my exit, I was close to tears, because it was a lot.

“I made a ton of apologies to everyone during intermission (laughs).

“But that panic is an experience I’ll never forget.”

Despite the chaos backstage, was she able to pick back up and remember her lines?

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“Yes! Somehow the ancestors delivered me into my right mind and we were able to get on with the scene. I was able to pull it together because you’ve got to — you gotta be able to shake it off as soon as you get back on stage. And I got an Obie Award (an off-Broadway theater award) for that role, so maybe that experience helped me play the PTSD a little better.

“But I was a little anxious after that night about making the right entrance. I did not want to make that mistake again — or any others! The thing is, I’m the type of actor who goes through the script every night ahead of time anyway. I don’t go in willy-nilly. So I really don’t know what happened that day and why I got so confused. But if I had gone out covered in blood for that scene, it would have completely rewritten the play (laughs) so it was better to let them improvise while I got cleaned up.

“And I still had to do the covered-in-blood scene later. The blood was supposed to be all over my face and my hands and there was preset blood on the shirt. So you can picture how much we had to clean off, and in no time really.

“What we do is so collaborative. But as an actor, you have to be responsible for your props and make sure everything is there.

“I’m just remembering, in another play, I was supposed to answer one of those old rotary phones. And one night, the phone wasn’t on stage. So when I needed that phone, and it was ringing, I literally had to take a few steps toward the curtain and a hand popped out holding the phone. The whole audience could see it! This disembodied hand popped out, like something from ‘The Addams Family,’ holding a phone and everybody started laughing! It was hard to recover after that.

“But there’s an adrenaline rush that you get doing theater. And for me, ‘The Bear’ and ‘In Treatment’ have been the closest to having that feeling.”

The takeaway …

“Just stay ready. I go over my script before every show — it doesn’t matter how many weeks or months I’ve been performing it — and this taught me to be even more OCD about it (laughs).

“I can’t pinpoint why I got distracted that night. But anything can go wrong, so it’s always better to go over things and double-check. Take a few deep breaths and don’t be casual or on autopilot.

“I just think as an artist, you shouldn’t do anything casually.”