Toward the end of Nine Perfect Strangers’ first episode, the titular group—all guests at Tranquillum House, a remote wellness resort—finally meets the place’s shadowy leader. A wave of silence descends as Masha, played by Nicole Kidman with a bold Russian accent, bids the strangers welcome. Described by one character as a kind of “mystical Eastern-bloc unicorn,” Masha is meant to provoke the same sense of awestruck wonder as the woman playing her.
“Nicole walked in, and the hairs on my arm stood up because that was also the first time a lot of us were meeting her,” Grace Van Patten recalls of her costar during a recent Zoom call. “It was like this force walked in and took over the whole room. Everyone went quiet, and it threw us all into the story right away.”
Adapted from another best seller by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, Nine Perfect Strangers follows a collection of individuals who’ve arrived at Tranquillum House with a lot of baggage. While most have signed up for 10 days of relaxation and rejuvenation, Masha has other plans that will force her guests to confront their demons. The limited series is stacked with standout performances, including Melissa McCarthy as a disgruntled romance author and Samara Weaving as a self-obsessed social media influencer. Van Patten too is a revelation as Zoe Marconi, who arrives at the resort with her parents (Michael Shannon and Asher Keddie) on the three-year anniversary of her twin brother’s suicide. Drowning in their individual sorrows, the family has struggled to communicate with each other ever since.
“I really appreciated what the show had to say about grief and the necessity of a support system,” Van Patten tells Vogue. “Just because people are grieving from the same situation doesn’t necessarily mean they’re working through it together.”
The 24-year old caught the acting bug early thanks to her father, a longtime director for series like Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos. Van Patten made her screen debut in the latter, acting opposite James Gandolfini when she was only eight years old. After graduating from the famed LaGuardia High School (where Ansel Elgort and Timothée Chalamet were among her classmates), she booked her breakout role as Adam Sandler’s daughter in The Meyerowitz Stories. With Nine Perfect Strangers now streaming on Hulu, the feminist-revenge fantasy Mayday due later this year, and a buzzy new series in the works with Emma Roberts, Van Patten’s path to stardom is only just beginning.
Currently based out of her parents’ home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, the actor recently caught up with Vogue to discuss the new show, helping to celebrate Regina Hall’s 50th birthday, and her fondness for farce.
Vogue: I don’t know how any job will top getting to spend five months at an Australian resort with Nicole Kidman during a pandemic.
Grace Van Patten: It was honestly life-changing. Seeing a name like Nicole’s attached was already too good to be true. I was such a huge fan of her and David E. Kelley’s other shows. I got an email about the audition and just thought, Well, I guess I’ll give this one a shot…
It takes a few episodes for Zoe’s story line to kick into motion. What was your initial impression of her on the page?
I didn’t get to read the scripts at first, but there was an incredibly long and thoughtful character description [explaining] who Zoe was and what she’s going through. That really caught my attention because those are typically just one sentence, without much detail. I ended up reading the book and fell in love with the story of the Marconis. I had a little book club with my friends where we all read and talked about the book each week. Being able to discuss the text and hear their opinions helped me process it, and now they’re all so excited for the show.
How much would you say you relied on the book’s depiction of Zoe to find your way into the character?
I mostly relied on my time with Asher and Michael. We got into really deep conversations about the Marconis’ family dynamic, how they existed before tragedy, and how they were changed by it. That gave the three of us a ground to work from. Our characters are all dealing with grief in such different ways, to the point that they’re not able to connect. Zoe lost her brother, but she also kinda lost her parents. The point of them coming to Tranquillum House is so they can reconnect again.
Compared to some of the other guests’ experiences, a lot of Zoe’s journey is internal. What can you tell me about calibrating your performance to work within such a big ensemble, particularly one with so many big characters and tonal shifts?
Everyone on that set is the best at what they do. The director, Jonathan [Levine], really set the series up in a way where the tension is bubbling the entire time. It’s structured to slowly reveal everyone’s pasts, and it feels like it could turn into a slasher film at any minute. I loved that aspect of unpredictability. Jonathan did such a fantastic job of working with us to carefully lay out the characters’ pent-up emotions and insecurities over the course of us getting to know one another.
How did you and the cast develop a sense of camaraderie?
We were all shipped off to Australia and had no choice but to connect with each other because we didn’t have any of our families or friends with us, so it was very much a case of life imitating art imitating life. They’re all such good humans, so it was really easy to build a sense of chemistry with them. By the end I really felt like we’d created a little family. Me, Samara [Weaving], Tiffany [Boone], and Manny [Jacinto] each had our own little houses in a row, and we would hang out all the time. I was anxious about leaving home during a pandemic, so I feel really thankful that I had all of them.
My first hint that you all got along was when Regina Hall went viral on Instagram for that video of her singing with you and some other castmates. How did that come together?
It was all Regina’s idea—she was turning 50 and felt that she needed to make a video before anyone else could comment on it. We all said, “You got this! Whatever you need, we’re your backup!” She wrote that song, and it turned into a whole family affair once Melvin [Gregg] said he’d direct it. The pool was my house, and the trampoline was Regina’s place. We had a whole location scout for a full day of filming.
I’m not even exaggerating when I say that I’ve probably watched it 50 times.
I’ve probably watched it even more. It was the absolute highlight of my entire Australian experience. We had a screening of it and a nice little party for Regina afterward when it was all done. I love her so much—I’ve seen Girls Trip like 40 times. She makes me laugh so hard that it’s painful.
I read that Nicole stayed in character for the entirety of shooting and would only respond to the name Masha.
She spoke with a Russian accent the entire time, and it was amazing. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to keep up an accent for five months, but she pulled it off. I’ve never been on set with an actor who really committed [like that], so it was fascinating to watch. But even in character, she was so down-to-earth. She threw herself into the work as hard as everyone else did. There was no hierarchy, which I admired a lot.
Your first acting gig was an episode of The Sopranos that your father directed. I know you were eight years old, but I’m curious if you have any memories from that experience?
I remember it perfectly. I have a memory of seeing Jimmy Gandolfini start the scene as this big, beautiful, soulful teddy bear and then just shape-shift into an absolute monster. I remember being so in awe and thinking, How did he do that? I was fascinated by the idea of transformation and realized early on that’s what I wanted to do.
Given how much time you spent on your father’s sets as a child, was it always a given that you were gonna grow up to be a performer?
I went through a phase where I wanted to do nothing but that. I think because I was exposed to the realities of the industry at such a young age, I saw that it wasn’t all glamour. I saw the stress and unpredictability that comes with it firsthand, so I feel lucky every time I get to act—you never know what can happen in this line of work. I never expected any sort of lavish lifestyle, which I think has done some damage control.
Do you have any specific goals in terms of characters you’d like to play or filmmakers you want to collaborate with?
For my final play in high school, I did A Flea in Her Ear, which is this Georges Feydeau farce that all hinges on comedic timing. It’s wild, and I had so much fun doing it, so I’d love to do a broad comedy someday because I know it would push me. I’m so afraid of not seeming like a real person when I act, but I also just love the performance of it all.
I enjoyed the virtual production of This Is Our Youth you were in with Lucas Hedges and Paul Mescal last fall. Are you interested in pursuing more stage work down the line?
Absolutely. Stage acting is something that makes me feel so fulfilled because it takes so much discipline. The first time I did a play, I went in thinking, Will I get bored doing the same material? But it’s always so different, to the point that I wish it were the same. It’s like doing a different show every night with the same character. I’m dying to do another play as soon as it’s possible, even though they terrify me. But more than anything else, I’m just trying to do different things with the characters I play and sharpen all the tools in my toolbox.