By Greg Cahill
This article appeared in 2012 in Strings magazine. Treme is now in syndication
The mark of a good actor is when the audience confuses fact and fiction. For actor and violinist Lucia Micarelli, 28, who plays an aspiring street musician named Annie Tee on the hit HBO series Treme (pronounced Tre-may) that has caused concerned fans to accost the violinist at concerts to offer relationship advice for her TV character.
“Everyone has something to say about her relationship choices,” Micarelli says of her character, during a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. She speaks quietly and the conversation is punctuated by a girlish laugh. “It’s funny.”
Less humorous were those fans who believed that award-winning show co-creator David Simon—known for the gritty HBO crime drama The Wire—had modeled Micarelli’s character after Addie Hall, a real-life murder victim allegedly killed, chopped up, cooked, and eaten by her Iraq War veteran boyfriend a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
Fans worried that her character had a similar fate in store.
Dismayed, Micarelli decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with the show’s producers. She asked Simon about those rumors and was assured that he and co-creator Eric Overmyer had much more benign plans for Annie Tee.
So far, so good.
Over the course of the Peabody Award–winning Treme’s critically acclaimed seasons (the third season premiered on September 23), Annie Tee has left her deadbeat boyfriend (portrayed by Michiel Huisman), gotten off the streets, and started playing with more established musicians, including former cast member Steve Earle (whose ill-fated character Harley served as a mentor to Annie, a role Earle played off-camera with Micarelli as well) and such guest stars as John Hiatt and Shawn Colvin.
This season, Annie is showing newfound confidence.
“The third season is great because my character has her own band after a couple of seasons of always having to jump in and play with different people on each episode,” says Micarelli, adding that filming for the season wrapped up in May. “This year, I got to work with the same group of people for the whole season.
“It was a good time.”
Playing with the elite Crescent City musicians that populate the cast of professional and amateur actors has been a challenge for Micarelli, who had never acted before landing the role on Treme, which chronicles musicians and others rebuilding their lives in the post-Katrina neighborhood of the same name that serves as a hub for Creole and African-American culture.
Nor had she delved into New Orleans’ famously diverse gumbo of musical styles. But Micarelli did have classical-music training—a plus and a minus, she says.
Micarelli, who is half Italian and half Korean, was born in Queens, New York, and began playing violin when she was three years old. She studied with legendary violin teacher Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School’s pre-college division and then for a year with Pinchas Zukerman at the Manhattan School of Music. But she left school before graduating.
“I felt like I needed to figure out how to apply all the technique and skills I learned in a real way,” she told Strings in 2010. “School felt a bit myopic.”
She soon built a reputation as a go-to rock and jazz violinist, touring with the popular progressive-rock band the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, pop singer Josh Groban, classic-rock artists Jethro Tull, and pop-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, among others.
She also released two major label solo albums: 2004’s Music from a Farther Room and 2006’s Interlude, both of which combine pop, tango, jazz, and classical selections.
In 2009, she appeared on Botti’s popular PBS-TV special Chris Botti in Boston—the video excerpt of her star-turn solo on the plaintive Botti ballad “Emmanuel” has received more than 2.7 million views on YouTube.
Landing the role on Treme that year proved fortuitous in unexpected ways. Initially, Micarelli’s management had received a call from a New York casting director looking for a violinist to fill the part. Micarelli had no acting experience (Simon often uses amateurs to add authenticity to his projects), but the violinist began considering the offer after watching a video interview with Simon (who Esquire has dubbed “the greatest man in television writing”) and being impressed by his intelligence and serious nature.
Then, on the Fourth of July, Micarelli tripped and landed on a wine glass, severing several nerves in her left hand and leaving her worried that she may never again be able to play professionally (she still has only partial feeling in three fingers).
She went into physical therapy and decided to pursue the Treme offer.
“This show has so much more gravity than shows that are just out to entertain,” she says. “It’s in David Simon’s style to create these studies in sub-cultures. As a complete work, I think the show will continue to speak to people and to be a true picture of this particular sub-culture in America. It’s exciting to be a part of something like that and to know they’re doing something that’s honest. It feels nice. I’m continually impressed by the choices made by David and Eric and all the writers—they come from a place that has a lot of integrity. I know they make choices based on the truth they’re trying to tell and nothing else.
“They’re amazing artists and it’s very cool to be a part of their work.”
Despite a reluctance to discuss her own accomplishments as a performer, critics have singled out Micarelli for her gifts.
Of the two talent-laden Grammy-nominated soundtrack albums released thus far—one each for Season One and Season Two—Micarelli can be found on five tracks, more than any other performer, including the standout instrumental cover of the Ella Fitzgerald song “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” on which Micarelli plays a tender Stephane Grappelli–influenced swing-jazz violin part.
Her acting chops haven’t gone unnoticed either.
Slant magazine called her “consistently astonishing.”
Esquire declared, “If you had any doubts about sticking with David Simon’s epic tribute to New Orleans, this charming violin-impresario-turned-actress will make you feel a helluva lot better.”
And, in 2011, TV critic Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter tapped Micarelli as a dark-horse candidate for an Emmy Award. “What Micarelli was able to bring to Annie—elements that weren’t really there in the writing—was that aforementioned sweetness and light,” he wrote in a glowing column about the first season. “Micarelli imbued Annie with a lover’s compassion, but also a musician’s ability to understand when advantage is being taken. . . . While not a traditional striking beauty, Micarelli’s eyes, lips, and delicate gestures exuded a combination of sultry sexiness, guile, playfulness, and inner strength.
“Scenes where she was called on to perform—and there were many—highlighted her expressive face as she played the violin (the instrument being perfect for her in so many ways) and wrought out of it an epic amount of emotion. That’s the kind of acting that can’t be taught and Micarelli deserves a lot of credit for adding depth to Annie without needing words to do it.”
But it is New Orleans’ celebrated music that is central to the show’s plotline and Micarelli helps to drive that. During her time on Treme, she has developed an abiding respect for the complexity of traditional music, so often snubbed by classical players. “It’s been a very humbling experience, coming into this project with a classical background,” she says.
“No offense to the classical world, but you grow up believing that the kind of music you’ve learned is the most complicated or the highest form of music. And on a technical level classical music can be more complex, but I’ve been amazed over and over again how complicated these traditional forms of music are. The whole fiddle world is complex: the tunings are complicated, and playing in perfect tuning is just wrong, because there are a lot of quarter tones and such.
“It’s been really nice to get in there and hear these other kinds of music and to play with a lot of other musicians and realize that this world of New Orleans music is so vast.”
These days, Micarelli feels like she’s finally getting the hang of it, to the extent that she’s thinking of adding a couple of New Orleans–jazz style tunes on her next album. “I’ve gotten more comfortable, but I feel like it will take a while longer before I feel like a proper New Orleans street musician who can just jump into any situation,” she says.
“Still, I’ve gotten to work with so many local musicians and they’ve all been so generous and so welcoming. As a result, in my own life and in my own career, I’ve become so aware of all this music that I had never known about. I mean, I had never really listened to Cajun fiddle or any other fiddle music, and now I’m able to identify the various styles. Two years ago, I had no idea about any of this music, so I’ve had my whole musical horizon broadened by this experience.”
Yet, one thing that still stands as a major challenge is improvisation, a fundamental component of fiddle music, and especially in the birthplace of jazz. “I’m very uncomfortable improvising. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to a musician and said, I’m uncomfortable doing that, and they’ll respond, I don’t know how to do it any other way,” she says with a laugh. “It’s something I haven’t quite wrapped my brain around.
“As a classically trained player, I have all this technique available that I can apply, but where is that mental switch that allows all that information to be available in this other way, where you can bypass having to know exactly what you’re going to play but instead dream it and apply the technique? It’s so strange to me that it’s such a different mindset. It’s very, very hard. I think a lot of people have a hard time getting around that.
“I’d love to unlock that secret.”
What has given Micarelli hope that she might get there someday is the way the New Orleans music community opens its collective arms to the younger generation and outsiders like herself. “I have to say that fiddlers are very open, very welcoming. If I hear something that catches my ear, I can just go up to them and say, what is that? And they’ll spend time teaching me. It’s very sweet,” she says.
“And that’s something I’ve seen a lot in New Orleans: one generation teaching another their musical traditions. I know that happens in the classical world also, but that doesn’t feel as intimate as those times when a New Orleans band will invite a younger musician to sit in and watch and talk between songs. Ireallylike that—there’s something so pure and right about that.
“To me, that’s the story of music—and it’s been good to see.”