- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Jennifer Carpenter is happy: She’s finally been given permission to cry.

The actress, currently starring opposite Pablo Schreiber in the off-Broadway dark romantic play “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” had to stifle her tears on stage while rehearsing the role of Kayleen, a young woman suppressing her inner turmoil.

“There was one rule: It’s that Kayleen doesn’t cry. That’s a lot to swallow all the time. It was actually unhealthy for a while, I think. During one rehearsal, I did cry and I felt so much better. I said, `I may need to leave a little on the stage.’”

Director Scott Ellis eventually relented, finally allowing Carpenter to release her pain _ but only at the very end of each performance. “I think the journey that she goes through, she looks forward to that moment,” Ellis says.

Carpenter, 31, is flexing her tear ducts and theater muscles for the first time since she made a name for herself on Showtime’s serial killer series “Dexter” and in films such as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “White Chicks.”

“This has been a historic moment in my life. This whole period of my life is going to change the course of everything in a really positive way,” she says during an interview in her dressing room. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m looking to be surprised. I’m looking to do things that I hadn’t expected to do.”

Something resonated with Rajiv Joseph’s strange, off-kilter script about a couple whose personal demons prevent them from ever really connecting. Even though the play is only 90 minutes long, Carpenter’s tears often come from fatigue as much as emotion.

“I’m exhausted at the end. I mean, I run marathons _ I should be able to do this,” she says, laughing. “This was literally the play that I could not say no to. And once I had said yes, I had knots in my stomach.”

Ellis was thankful Carpenter took the job. “I’m just so crazy about her. She’s just so unique and special and of herself. There’s no one like her,” he says. “I just sort of fall for her. She’s very funny and quirky in a wonderful, healthy way.”

Carpenter is pulling herself out of the wreckage of her two-year marriage to actor Michael C. Hall and throwing herself into work. Beside the play, three of her movies are coming out: “The Factory” opposite John Cusack; “Hungry Rabbit Jumps” with Nicolas Cage, Guy Pearce and January Jones; and “Ex-Girlfriends,” an Alexander Poe comedy, something that’s been missing from her resume of late.

“When I was in school, I was always cast as the clown. I thought that is what I was going to do,” she says. “I can’t seem to make my way back to it. I guess once people hear you scream, they can’t unhear it or something.”

The Juilliard-trained actress came to New York from Los Angeles in November, arriving early to run the New York City marathon after just three weeks of training. Though coltish, lean and delicate, with wide almond-shaped eyes, Carpenter is no pushover.

“All I’ve ever done my whole life is chase work _ since I was 8,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s an addiction, or if it’s just ambition, or maybe I have something that I really need to say and haven’t quite been able to say it in a way that’s satisfying yet. Maybe it’s a calling and I can’t seem to plug into the right line.”

The quirky play is the first time she’s been on stage since the Broadway production of “The Crucible” opposite Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in 2002. After that, she moved to California and found herself in movies and on TV.

She is due to return to Los Angeles to start filming Season 6 of “Dexter” and is excited that executive producer Scott Buck has been named its new showrunner. She thinks there’s at least another season or two to go.

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