Two Actors Find the Perfect Parts in Love
Although her childhood ended long ago, Holly O’Brien, an actress, has clung to her belief in the value of all things Disney and in the promise of happily-ever-after.
She stuck with it in her post-teenage years, celebrating her 20th birthday with a Barbies-and-princesses sleepover, her room covered in glitter and her guests attired in pink pajamas. When it came time for gifts, each friend unveiled a Disney Barbie, except for one, who, a couple of years older, presented Ms. O’Brien with a fake ID and suggested they go bar-hopping.
“What?” Ms. O’Brien replied quizzically. “A princess wouldn’t do that.”Then, with dreams of ascending to Broadway and finding romance, too, she moved to New York, where some dreams flourish and others are crushed.
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She found theater work in New York and on the road, performing a signature role as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” in regional productions. “I used to tear up onstage,” she said, “because I thought I was never going to have my fairy-tale ending.”
Prince Charming, it seemed, had crawled under a rock.“I had a guy take me on a carriage ride in Central Park and then tell me to pay for it,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Dismayed, she and a friend made up a song called “Whatever Happened to Chivalry?”Then along came an unwitting fairy godfather and matchmaker, the actor, director and playright Paul Navarra, who in 2009 cast Ms. O’Brien alongside Mike Roche in a staged reading of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Drama Book Shop in Midtown Manhattan.
His fellow actors competed for Ms. O’Brien’s attention by bombarding her with questions: Was she married? (No.) Was she dating anyone? (Yes, as a matter of fact.)
Mr. Roche, who was also in a relationship, sat back and took it all in. “Everyone was aware that this gorgeous woman had entered the room,” he said. But soon he and Ms. O’Brien were cutting up backstage over missed queues and fumbled lines and whatever else captured their fancy.
“I thought he was the nicest guy I’d ever met,” she said. “I was totally captivated by how infectious his kindness is and his smile and his passion for the business. He makes you feel really excited about what you’re doing.”
But she wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to date him,” she said, though they did promise to stay in touch and connected from time to time on Facebook and attended each other’s shows.
It was after a reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird” two years later, when their previous relationships had fizzled, that Mr. Roche suggested dinner at Vynl on Ninth Avenue.
She was coming from a modeling convention where she had helped her agent spot new talent; he was coming from the Public Theater production of “The Merchant of Venice,” starring Al Pacino, for whom Mr. Roche also works as a driver and an assistant.
“Everything about Mike was so interesting,” she said of Mr. Roche, who also works in Queens as the after-school coordinator for the Leadership Program’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers at Long Island City High School.
He was also a baseball player at Ramapo College in New Jersey before working as a production assistant and an actor for Estelle Parsons and then winning a 2010 Drama Desk Award as a member of the Godlight Theater Company.
Adding intrigue to their encounter over dinner was the cast of characters dropping things off for Mr. Pacino throughout their meal.“He was just so positive and full of light and energy,” Ms. O’Brien, now 36, said of Mr. Roche, 41. “The fact that he listened and was interested in things outside of himself was incredibly rare among the people I had been seeing.”
But Ms. O’Brien, who studied opera at the Interlochen Arts Academy and musical theater at the Hartt School in Hartford, had been plotting to abandon New York and return to her home in Oregon, her confidence at an all-time low.
“I was explaining to him, ‘I’m going to leave, I’m burned out, I can’t handle auditioning anymore and the rejection and the roller-coaster lifestyle it entails,’” she said. “And within about 20 minutes, he turned my whole perception of life around. All of the sudden out of nowhere, I had this guy with a big heart sitting right in front of me, cheering me on.”
They closed down the restaurant, then laughed some more as she regaled him with stories on the street corner. And as they hugged goodbye, Ms. O’Brien wondered what on earth she had been thinking when she decided to move.Temporarily putting her packing on hold, she joined her mother in the Berkshires for a few days and quickly discovered that she longed to return to the city, and to Mr. Roche.
“Holly has been through hell and back with men,” said Susan Hilerio, a friend of Ms. O’Brien’s who has known her since college. “She loves to heal people, she loves to help people, she wants to be the person who saves everyone. She would get her heart shattered and just pick right back up and let it happen again.”During their second date, at Joe Allen in the theater district, Ms. O’Brien declared that she was staying.
“I had never had a boyfriend who supported what I did in this business, who understood about traveling out of town for work and didn’t consider it a pipe dream,” she said. “It hit me that I needed somebody in my corner, and I wanted to see where it went with Mike. I was reinspired.”And when they kissed good night, they each described it as something out of a movie.For their third date, Mr. Roche showed up at the Port Authority with a Zipcar to drive Ms. O’Brien to her apartment in Astoria, Queens, after a long bus ride from an audition at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut.
“I remember telling him, ‘You know, this is some serious Prince Charming type of behavior here,’” she said. “It was the most chivalrous thing any guy had ever done for me.”After that, they were inseparable. “We had essentially fallen in love,” he said. “We got along so well, in fact, that we didn’t argue and could almost finish each other’s sentences. There was no drama, which was very new for me.”
Not only did Mr. Roche understand Ms. O’Brien’s dreams, but he was also determined to make her life easier as she pursued them. While she was out of town with a show, he moved from Manhattan to her street in Astoria so that they could see each other more often.And when, not long after their August 2014 engagement — he proposed in front of the castle at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. (where else?) — she was offered a performing gig on a European cruise that would keep them apart for nearly seven months, he encouraged her to go.
“If someone offers you that contract as a singer, you have to take it,” Mr. Roche said.He missed her dearly, with their relationship suddenly virtual. “But I’m very aware that if you’re dating an actress, they’re going to go away and do shows, and Holly is aware that I may go away, too” he said. “To be quite frank, you just find a way to make it work. What I really appreciate about her is she gets that. And I feel it’s my job to support her doing her work.”
Not only is Mr. Roche a talented actor, but he is also “a nice, normal guy in a business that’s not normal and not nice,” said Mr. Navarra, their unintentional matchmaker. “Holly is the same kind of person, not only talented and beautiful, but sweet. Together they’re a breath of fresh air.”The change in Ms. O’Brien has been remarkable, Ms. Hilerio said. “I feel like someone is finally taking care of her and has her best interests at heart,” she said. “He grounds her, and she seems at peace.”
On Aug. 28, Ms. O’Brien and Mr. Roche were married beneath the celestial ceiling of the Church of St. John Nepomucene on the Upper East Side, in a ceremony officiated by the Rev. Richard D. Baker, a Roman Catholic priest who had helped Mr. Roche research the role of Father Flynn for a revival of “Doubt.”
After the ceremony, guests uttered the passwords “one true” to Mr. Navarra, playing the role of a Brando-esque doorman at 202 East, a reception space on East 77th Street that had been transformed into a Gatsby-era speakeasy with a swing band.
The bride’s crystal-adorned strapless gown cascaded into a skirt worthy of a princess, a pink ribbon encircling her waist and a tiara on her head. As the couple took the floor for their first dance, two friends sang performed the theme from “Beauty and the Beast,” which begins with the lines “Tale as old as time / True as it can be / Barely even friends / Then somebody bends / Unexpectedly.”
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