Celia Keenan-Bolger Confronts Challenges of Motherhood: ‘Get Comfortable with Not Always Being Liked’ (Exclusive)

The actress talks with PEOPLE about her Tony-nominated role in Broadway's 'Mother Play,' and the tough lessons she's learned balancing her career and motherhood

<p>Jemal Countess/Getty </p> Celia Keenan-Bolger at the 2024 Tony Awards Meet the Nominees junket on May 2, 2024 in New York City

Jemal Countess/Getty

Celia Keenan-Bolger at the 2024 Tony Awards Meet the Nominees junket on May 2, 2024 in New York City
  • PEOPLE caught up with stage veteran Celia Keenan-Bolger to discuss her Tony Award-nominated role in Mother Play

  • The play exposes the difficult choices one makes in motherhood, something the actress says she can relate to as a mom to a 9-year-old son herself

  • Winners of the 2024 Tony Awards will be announced on Sunday, June 16, in a show televised on CBS and Paramount+

Celia Keenan-Bolger is embracing the imperfections of motherhood, eight shows a week.

The Tony Award-winning actress is treading the boards on Broadway in Mother Play, Paula Vogel's acclaimed drama about a daughter recalling the traumas of her childhood with her brother Carl (Jim Parsons) and their single mother Phyllis (Jessica Lange).

It's a piece that forces one to confront the idea of forgiveness — something Keenan-Bolger, who received a 2024 Tony Award nomination for her work in the production, tells PEOPLE she feels is one of the piece's biggest lessons.

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<p>Brooke DiDonato</p> Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Brooke DiDonato

Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Related: 2024 Tony Awards: Sarah Paulson, Jeremy Strong, Rachel McAdams and More Nab Nominations — See the Full List

"Paula is really asking this crucial question of, 'How can you forgive without abandoning yourself?' " the actress, 46, tells PEOPLE at the Tony's Meet the Nominees junket earlier this month. "Those boundaries are actually very important; because we don't just forgive to forgive. My character continues to come back to the table, even though there are a lot of reasons for her to wash her hands of that family. But she does it on her terms when she's ready."

"We have to be gentler with ourselves in times like this," Keenan-Bolger adds. "Even Paula has talked about this because the play is semi-autobiographical. And she's said that writing the play is actually one of the main ways that she's been able to forgive her mother, even after her death. So sometimes we come to forgiveness while our family is still alive, and other times, it's a life-long process. But giving ourselves the space to get there is key."

<p>Joan Marcus</p> Jim Parsons, Jessica Lange and Celia Keenan-Bolger in 'Mother Play'

Joan Marcus

Jim Parsons, Jessica Lange and Celia Keenan-Bolger in 'Mother Play'

Related: Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger Make a Move in Broadway's Mother Play (Exclusive)

Keenan-Bolger is a mother herself, sharing 9-year-old son William Emmet with husband John Ellison Conlee.

Performing in Mother Play each week forces Keenan-Bolger to face the reality that there will likely come a time in her life when her son might need to forgive her.

"As somebody who is a real people pleaser and a real perfectionist, that is one of the most challenging parts of motherhood — knowing that you aren't going to do things right all the time," Keenan-Bolger tells PEOPLE. "You have to get comfortable with not always being liked. And wrapping your head around that and being able to really sit in that is big, hard work."

To help her through that — and many of the other obstacles being a working mom on Broadway brings — the To Kill a Mockingbird vet has learned to lean a community of moms in the industry, including her close friends (and her Gilded Age costars) Kelli O'Hara and Laura Benanti.

"I look to them all the time for guidance and support," Keenan-Bolger says. "It's truly wonderful to have people like that in my life who understand it."

Conlee, who is also an actor, is a rock for their family too, his wife notes.

"It's funny, when I was working on The Gilded Age, Laura, Kelli and I were talking about our husbands and the kind of man it takes to have an ambitious wife and to be okay with being the full-time caregiver when needed," Keenan-Bolger recalls. "The three of us were just saying how lucky we felt, and that feeling is really never lost on me when I think about John."

<p>ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty </p> Celia Keenan-Bolger after winning her 2019 Tony Award for her work in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'


Celia Keenan-Bolger after winning her 2019 Tony Award for her work in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Related: Alicia Keys, Jim Parsons and More 2024 Tony Awards Hopefuls React to Their Nominations: 'This Is Wild'

"I really do think it requires a village," she continues. "And as hard as it is on the family system when the mom is not there for most nights for bedtime, I just feel lucky to have such an amazing husband and such an amazing kid who have been really understanding. It's meaningful to me that my son gets to see me do work that I feel so proud of and grateful to be a part of."

And despite having two parents in the business — and his uncle, Andrew Keenan-Bolger — don't expect to see William Emmet on stage anytime soon.

"It definitely runs in the family, but he hasn't gotten the acting bug yet," his mom says. "He's a really funny kid, but he does not like to perform on command. I think he's sort of like, 'Nah, not for me.' "

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Mother Play is up for four Tony Awards including best play. Parsons, 51, and Lange, 75, are also nominated.

The play, which opened on April 25, is now in performances through June 16 at the Hayes Theater in New York City. Tickets can be purchased through the Second Stage Theater company's official website.

As for the 2024 Tony Awards, they will take place on Sunday, June 16, at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater in N.Y.C. Viewers can watch the show on CBS and Paramount+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. Select awards will also be handed out on a pre-show that will stream on Pluto TV.

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