The similarities between Lucia Micarelli and Annie Tee, the character she portrays on HBO's Treme, are striking -- obviously. Both are passionate, expressive musicians who slowly but surely are building a buzz after investing years of training as classical violinists.
Credit a team of talented and flexible writers for keeping it real by tailoring Annie's backstory to fit Lucia's background.
Micarelli, 27, is four years older than Annie, a bit more advanced and certainly more confident in her playing ability. If she has any self-doubts, it's in her acting skills. That's only natural for the doe-eyed, exotic beauty of Korean-Italian descent. She was the fresh-faced rookie on a team of veterans who joined the superb ensemble cast in the gripping series that blends music with mayhem while capturing post-Katrina New Orleanians in survival mode.
Watching anyone as endearing as Micarelli play someone as embraceable as Annie, who first lights up the screen 10 minutes into Season 1/Episode 2, it's almost impossible to see or hear one without thinking about the other.
Both are easy on the eyes and the ears, though Lucia (at left, photo: HBO/Paul Schiraldi) might be more hesitant to break into song than Annie, who occasionally provided lovely harmonies as a street musician involved in an ill-fated relationship with a troubled keyboardist named Sonny (Michiel Huisman) in Season 1.
While Annie is shy, soft-spoken and reticent, Lucia is engaging, outspoken, quick to respond and easily amused. No wonder Esquire heralded her last year as "The Woman Who Makes Treme Worth Watching" before the premiere that takes place three months after the devastating 2005 hurricane that forever changed "The City That Care Forgot."
Regarding the instrument she plays, Micarelli quickly reveals her candid self. She's befuddled when some folks argue whether Lucia/Annie is a fetching violinist exploring her roots or a slumming fiddler trying to perfect her craft.
She's determined to set the record as straight as the bow she wields.
"Everybody down in New Orleans always makes a big deal about that, where people apologize if they call me a fiddler," she says, laughing. "I don't understand. I don't think that there's a difference at all. ... I don't really know. I don't really care (what they call her). (laughs) Do you agree? There's no difference to me. We're all musicians and we play that instrument."
So Micarelli tackled that knotty subject and many more during an animated phone conversation in late March from her home in Los Angeles, where she was taking a few days off before returning to New Orleans to resume Episode 8 in this 11-episode Season 2. While discussing Treme, which premieres April 24, and her exploding career, the up-and-coming performer took some extra time to dispel rumors, debunk myths and separate fact from fiction (with mild spoiler alerts).
Fact: A former Julliard pupil who also studied with Pinchas Zukerman, Lucia is sure about her abilities as a musician. As an actress, not so much.
Fiction: A star on the rise in her musical universe, Annie still needs a ton of encouragement.
Micarelli admits she feels less intimidated and more secure in Season 2 ("I'm still very hesitant to call myself an actress," she says), but 2010 was a year of living precariously. It included moments of uncertainty and bouts of anxiety, often heightened by hysterical rants with series creators David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill, The Corner) and Eric Overmyer (Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire), who are the executive producers along with Nina K. Noble. Fortunately, she just cracks up laughing about it now.
"I had numerous conversations with David and Eric and Nina where I would just be like, 'What are you doing? How did you even think I could do this? You guys are crazy. I don't know what I'm doing!'
"And finally they would just get mad at me. And David would be just like (imitating his slowly raising voice), 'Lucia, I know what I'm doing. I've been doing this a long time. And when you tell me that you don't know why you're here, that's insulting to me. I know why you're here. And you're the person that needs to be here. So STOP it!' "
"It's just like when you watch a really amazing magician," she says, marveling about the many gifted performers -- led by Simon MVPs Wendell Pierce, Khandi Alexander and Clarke Peters -- she gets to see work. "And you're just like, 'I'm right in front of you and I'm watching and I still can't understand how you're doing that.' "
This season, Lucia/Annie has found a strong shoulder to lean on. Steve Earle, the Hardcore Troubadour who had a small recurring part in Simon's The Wire and wrote and performed the Grammy-nominated "This City" that touchingly closes Treme's first season, returns as street sage Harley Watt.
Harley, whom Micarelli describes as "the older guy with the beard," becomes more of a mentor to Annie and "plays a bigger role in sort of pushing her to see how far she can go."
The same can be said of Earle regarding Micarelli's career. "On a personal level -- this is me being a musician -- I am thrilled with having been able to spend so much time with him," she offers, grateful for his encouraging nudge to try other musical styles and bring out her singing voice.
"Because he's really taught me a lot. You know, outside of the show, I've learned a lot from him. He's that encouraging of me in my own life. We spend time talking about my own career and his ideas and he's really become a great friend in real life. It's really cool to be friends with Steve Earle." (laughs)
Earle has figured prominently in her development but, as far as Micarelli knows, he never was cast to play her father, as the Crescent City's OffBeat magazine reported before Season 1 (and subsequently changed online).
Of course, the series also employs a wide range of local performers in the production, with some (Trombone Shorty, Galactic) more famous than others (Treme theme songwriter-singer John Boutte, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins). While restaurants such as Bacchanal (in the Bywater district) and Dick and Jenny's (on Tchoupitoulas Street) get her attention, Micarelli says the most enjoyable part about this whole experience has been the generosity of numerous musicians.
They give her stacks of CDs and details about local clubs, turn her on to such artists as pioneer jazz violinist Joe Venuti and ask her to sit in with them. Among those helping hands are pianist Tom McDermott (who performs Jelly Roll Morton tunes with Micarelli in Season 1 and returns in Season 2) and the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, one of the first groups Micarelli played with on the show (seen in Episode 4).
"They were incredibly supportive," she says of the Vipers, noting that Los Angeles musicians might not be so patient. "And I was very green. They were just like, 'Well, we are playing every night this week at the Spotted Cat and you are totally welcome to just come down and fuck up all you like until you feel comfortable.' And I did," she adds, finding the art of improvising trad jazz to be fairly complicated.
"I would play with them and I would just make an ass of myself and I'd feel horribly embarrassed. In between sets, I'd go to them, 'I'm so sorry. It's so bad.' And they'd just be like, 'It's cool. You're not gonna get worse. Keep playing with us and you'll get better.' "
Fact: While focusing on straight-up classical, Lucia likes to explore other musical styles.
Fiction: While Annie does tour with the subdudes, Lucia isn't making such plans with any (fill in your favorite roots genre) bands.
The season opens on All Saints' Day 2006, 14 months after the storm, and Annie is in Connecticut with the subdudes, a group of New Orleans rockers who eventually (for real) migrated to Colorado. Micarelli sings on "Light In Your Eyes" and solos on "Carved in Stone" in a club setting actually shot in New Orleans, serving as a stand-in for the state known more for its national championship basketball team than its Cajun music. "We tried to convince all the extras to act like they were from Connecticut," Micarelli says.
And while she calls the subdudes one of her favorite bands to work with on the show ("They're really, really sweet"), Micarelli can't be convinced to go down that road. "I don't think I'm gonna do any of that," she says of touring. "I know the subdudes talked about it. ... I don't know if I want to tour just because I'd rather be in one place and work on a record or something of my own."
She agrees the experience "would be cool" though, leaving the door open. "If I do do something like that, it would just be a few shows here and there." (At right, Micarelli appears with the Pine Leaf Boys at the 2010 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, and the video for Homage A Poullard is available on iTunes.)
When filming for Season 2 wraps in late May, Micarelli will keep honing her musical skills. Pursuing an acting career, she realizes, is "going to be a long, slow burn and it will take me a long time to feel like I'm proficient." She likes the challenge of juggling careers, but "I definitely think of myself as a musician first."
Micarelli already has released two classical albums -- Music From a Farther Room in 2004 and Interlude in 2007, contributed to Treme's Season 1 soundtrack, toured with Jethro Tull, Josh Groban and Chris Botti and served as featured violinist and concertmaster for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
"I am sort of brainstorming on another album," she says, noting that this role has widened her focus despite having already added Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" to her crossover repertoire. "I've got like too many things that I'd like to try and do, so I'm trying to figure out where the natural pull is strongest. When I have a chunk of time that I can really dedicate to music, I really want to get into it. I want to do some really hard stuff and push myself. Classical music is always a really great way for me to get my chops to where I want them to be."
Whatever direction she takes, Micarelli knows her parents, Frank and SeonJu, will be watching. Currently living in Pennsylvania, they previously resided in Queens, N.Y., Lucia's birthplace, and Hawaii, where Lucia debuted as a soloist with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra at age 6.
Micarelli says "they're really thrilled" about her acting role. "This opportunity is a fantastic fit for me in my life. And I'm very grateful for that. My parents are very aware of that. ... They're just glad that there's some people that I'm working with who are challenging me as much as they did when I was younger."
Fact: Some of Treme's characters are based on actual New Orleanians.
Fiction: Some of Annie's plot lines may be ripped from the headlines, yet they don't turn into the gory story many locals have heard.
Playing one of the more compelling characters in a show filled with rich, juicy parts, Micarelli often gets stopped on the street by complete strangers. She appreciates the level of interest, with many fans obviously rooting for Annie. Then she hears the horrible news:
They all believe Annie is based on Addie Hall, the murder victim of her boyfriend, Iraq War veteran Zach Bowen, in New Orleans about a year after the 2005 hurricane. He reportedly strangled Hall, chopped her up and cooked her on the stove before jumping from the Omni Royal Orleans hotel roof to his death.
Repulsed and worried, knowing that Simon is capable of telling such a mortifying tale after having seen him capture Baltimore's underbelly in The Wire, Micarelli finally had to find out Annie's fate. Simon assured her Annie is not based on Addie. In the Season 2 premiere, NOPD Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse) references that grisly slaying, forever putting the Annie/Addie rumors to rest.
Micarelli is happy to hear that Annie's safe ... so far. "I don't think (my character is) going to be killed," Micarelli says, adding that she's been told Sonny and Annie were loosely based on Anders Osborne and Theresa Andersson, two natives on Sweden who made music together in New Orleans, broke up and went solo. "I have asked numerous times. ... For awhile there, it was my daily question (laughs). I would be like, 'Is there something I should know about, you guys?'"
"They were like, What's wrong with you?' "
Fact: Lucia is engaged and planning a summer wedding with Neel Hammond, a violinist, violist, arranger and composer.
Fiction: Annie may settle down with Davis McAlary (played by the manic Steve Zahn), but after getting kicked out of Sonny's place, she still could be a little gun-shy.
"We were actually best friends for many years," Micarelli says of Hammond, with whom she has performed professionally. "It's like that cute story. We were best friends for a long time. Finally one day, it was just like, 'I like you better than everyone else. Why aren't we together?' "
Micarelli is also pleased that Annie's toxic waste of a relationship with Sonny ended and she's making the most with Davis, even if the lovable, well-intentioned goofball and walking musical encyclopedia can't hold on to a job.
"I think (Annie) being in a positive relationship with someone who isn't threatened by her success and is very, very encouraging and supportive has a lot to do with her success musically," Micarelli says, standing by Annie's unemployed man.
If there are hints in the first three episodes that this relationship also is headed for trouble (in Episode 2, Annie pouts when Davis turns down her offer to order Popeye's deep-fried turkey for Thanksgiving, mentioning he's made plans with his family; she leaves a lasting expression in Episode 3), any not-so-simple Simon secrets seem safe with Micarelli.
Davis, she insists, is good for Annie -- and Lucia.
"Annie getting out of that other relationship and now being in a new relationship has been great for me as an actor just because it exposes me to more people," she says, still eager to learn from this diverse and seasoned group of actors.
And while Micarelli doesn't completely agree with Davis' assessment that "the fiddle goes with everything -- it's like hot sauce," she's willing to pour it on.
"On this show they certainly try to make it go with everything," she says with that irresistibly contagious laugh. "There've been a lot of times where I've been proven wrong when I thought, 'No, this song really doesn't need a violin,' and then, I guess, we figure it out."
So despite bringing all the classical credentials to her role as Annie, Micarelli still admits "I'm kind of learning along with her." And while neither are likely to be playing in Jackson Square any time soon, expect to hear a lot more from both in 2011.
Here's hoping for a Lucia/Annie encore -- and HBO's renewal of Treme for a third season.
Photo of Lucia Micarelli with the Pine Leaf Boys by David Simpson. See more of his photos from that performance on Flickr.com
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas