My Washington: Holly Twyford

The in-demand actress chats about D.C. theater, "House of Cards" and a rare on-stage goof

Dubbed by The Washington Post “hands down the go-to stage actress in the nation’s capital,” Twyford has earned 17 Helen Hayes Award nominations and four wins—sometimes competing against herself. When the Washington-area native isn’t on stage, she directs shows and occasionally appears on TV. Yes, that was Twyford as an outraged, expletive-spewing wife on last year’s “House of Cards” season opener. Starting January 27, she adopts a more regal bearing as Queen Elizabeth in Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” at Folger Theatre.

Holly Twyford

Growing up, did you expect an acting career?

I didn’t even know it was an option. My folks took me to the theater, but it didn’t register with me that people acted as an occupation. It wasn’t until college that I thought, “I’ve got to do this.” 

What was your first paid theater gig?

I was the wig mistress for a production of “Pygmalion” at Arena Stage.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals or superstitions?

I do a few vocal warm-ups, tongue twisters before every show, and I carry my script to the theater every day even if I never look at it after opening night.

Can you share a memorable on-stage moment?

During a performance of “Old Times” with Shakespeare Theatre Company, I wore my backstage slippers on stage. Perfect hair, beautiful makeup, elegant silk dress…and old, ratty, terry-cloth slippers. I wondered why my costar had the smallest hint of a smile on her lips. I sat down and crossed my legs with the utmost élan and sophistication. And then I saw what was on my feet.

Twyford in "Old Times"

How would you describe the D.C. theater scene?

“Vibrant” just doesn’t cover it. Over the past decade, this city has stopped being a place where actors get a couple shows on the résumé and then move to New York. D.C.’s now a destination. Actors, designers and directors can have not only a career but a life here. Consequently, the talent base is incredibly good, and audiences can find just about anything in the theatrical spectrum.

What can theater-goers expect from this new production of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart”?

Something much more timely and universal than they would think. The story takes place centuries ago, but it’s still one that modern audiences can relate to. And Peter Oswald’s new translation only makes it more alive.

Holly Twyford in Mary Stuart

What was the “House of Cards” experience like?

Being on a TV set is so different from theater work. It takes hours to do one 30-second scene. After hair and makeup, getting into costume and standing in place while the lights are adjusted, the actors may be ready to go, but then they have to stop because there’s a lamp accidentally in the shot or a jet’s flying overhead. You don’t think about all that when you watch a TV show.

What’s your favorite D.C. vista?

When I’m driving my daughter [Helena, almost 8] home from her school, we love to admire the beautiful view at the intersection of Clifton and 13th streets NW. If you look south, the whole city is spread out before you.

Can you recommend a “must-do” activity for visitors here?

A night-time tour of the monuments. It’s beautiful and quite moving.

When you travel, what do you never leave home without?

My iPad. Usually I’ve downloaded three or four plays that I’m supposed to read. And I like to have my music. Lately I’ve been listening to classical, because it doesn’t stress me out.

So, where next?

I’d love to go to Vermont with Helena and my wife, Saskia. The state’s natural beauty, plus skiing and hot chocolate…oh yeah.