NEW YORK — Nikki M. James isn't about to let the fact that she grew up idolizing Patti LuPone stop her from trying to beat the Broadway icon at the Tony Awards.
James may be nominated alongside Lupone in the same category — best featured actress in a musical — but she's not shy about wanting to wrest the trophy from the woman whose face adorned her walls growing up.
"She has two," says James, with a laugh. "She can share the wealth."
To win, the young star of "The Book of Mormon" will also have to beat three other actresses — Laura Benanti, LuPone's co-star from "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," Tammy Blanchard of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and Victoria Clark from "Sister Act."
"It feels really special to be finally sort of welcomed as a member to a really elite club," says James, who is enjoying her first Tony nomination in her third appearance on Broadway. "It makes me feel light in my shoes. I've been floating."
James says she loves every minute of being in "The Book of Mormon," created by "South Park" masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in collaboration with "Avenue Q" composer Robert Lopez. The musical follows the travails of two Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to try to convert locals, and James plays a potential love interest, getting to sing everything from the torch song "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" to the sexy "Baptize Me."
"When that girl smiles, she lights up a stage. Her energy is just infectious," says Casey Nicholaw, the choreographer and co-director. "When people are that smart they help everything be better. She helps the show be better. She makes the material be better."
James, who will turn 30 in June, got involved in the show in 2008 when it was just a one-act sketch that the creators were testing. "I remember thinking, 'If they can pull this off, this is going to change the face of the American musical,'" she says.
It has earned a whopping 14 Tony nominations and has certainly changed what can be sung about: AIDS and warlords, and sex with babies. James compares the show to "Rent" or "Cabaret," taboo shows that once pushed the envelope. "I think that's the exciting thing about being an artist in any sort of medium — to challenge everybody's boundaries."
James has at least one big-name fan: Patti LuPone. The two met for the first time at a press reception in a hotel following the Tony nomination announcement. James posed for a picture with her idol, which is now her prized Facebook profile shot.
"I stopped her and I said, 'Thank you,' basically, 'Thank you for doing what you did all these years and for inspiring me.' Then she said, 'You are wonderful in your show.' And then I cried. Like a baby."
James also ran into Clark, another rival, at the hotel. The younger actress was very familiar with Clark, admitting that "for lack of a better word, I stalked her" when she was starring in the 1995 revival of "How to Succeed in Business." James sent Clark multiple letters and collected many autographs. They've since become friendly.
"There was a twinkle in her eye when I said, 'Can you believe it?' And she said, 'I can. Good work,'" says James. "So dreams do come true."
James may be young but she's been dreaming of this day for a long time. She got her first headshot at age 12 and her Equity Card in 1995 at age 14. Asked if she's driven, James doesn't hesitate: "Singularly focused, absolutely."
She graduated from New York University with a degree in drama and made her Broadway debut in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," appeared in "All Shook Up" and received critical acclaim at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008 as Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet," and Cleopatra opposite Christopher Plummer in "Caesar and Cleopatra."
James grew up in New Jersey not far from Manhattan and was a bookish girl who adored theater. One day she informed her mother she wanted to be an actress. "What a weird kid I was," she says. "I really was a weird, strange child."
She spent $75 of her baby-sitting money for headshots (she now deems them "terrible") and landed an agent, then booked commercials in between school and made it her career, much to the astonishment of her parents, who initially thought acting was just a passing fad. James never wavered.
"I never, ever believed that I couldn't accomplish it as a young kid. It didn't occur to me that I was going to audition for jobs that I wouldn't get," she says. "I didn't know that it was difficult. And thank goodness, because it is hard. But I keep that little girl around with me a lot because she's much more brave than I am."
James was slated to return to Stratford last year to star opposite Plummer again in "The Tempest" but pulled out when her nephew Ozzie was born with kidney problems. He faced a poor prognosis, and James elected to stay and help care for him.
"The idea of leaving my family was too much to bear," she says.
Now Ozzie is 19 months old. "He is this miracle — he's doing really great. And he calls me diva," she says. "I force him to call me diva, actually. At least one person thinks I'm a diva."
At the Tonys, James will be bringing her mom. "My mom is my hero," she says. Her other big champion, her dad, died while she was in high school, though James says she feels his presence every day and sings in his honor every night.
The Tony nominations even came out on the 12th anniversary of his passing.
"I can't rule out the fact that he had something to say up there for me," she says. "I think that naive arrogance that I had as a 12-year-old is a testament to my parents always telling me that I was the best at everything I did. So my dad gets to travel with me every day. He's like an angel on my shoulder. I'm sure he'll be there."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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