Sutton Foster is finishing up a 15-week run at the Barbican as Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” a role for which she won a Tony a decade ago, and she is preparing to return to Broadway later this year to co-star with Hugh Jackman in “The Music Man.”
But before we got into all that, she wanted to show off a washcloth.
“They didn’t have any washcloths here in the flat,” Foster said during a video interview from London last month, “so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll make some!’” She plans to give them as Christmas presents.
When she isn’t performing onstage or onscreen (recently as one of the stars of the television series “Younger”), there is a decent chance that Foster is crocheting, cross-stitching, baking, drawing or gardening, hobbies she explores in her new essay collection, “Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life,” which Grand Central will release on Tuesday.
The chapters are craft-themed, but this book is not all about Mod Podge and Jo-Ann Fabrics. Foster, 46, writes about how keeping her hands busy has helped her cope with the stress and pressure of her career and the ups and downs of a life in which she didn’t always get what she needed from her family, loved ones or colleagues.
“Anxiety runs in my family — in me,” she writes. “I am the daughter of an agoraphobic mother. I make a living as a performer. It’s complicated. And yet, if I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I crochet, or collage, or cross-stitch. These hobbies have literally preserved my sanity through some of the darkest periods of my life.”
There are light moments, like when we learn that Foster crocheted an octopus toilet-paper-roll cover as a wedding gift for her “Younger” co-star Hilary Duff. But these are balanced with heavier revelations, such as when Foster writes about the baskets she cross-stitched for her mother as a means of escaping toxic cast dynamics early in her career.
She opens up about snowman-shaped holiday cookies she baked with the family of her first husband, Christian Borle, and the floral blanket she pieced together, one “granny square” at a time, when that marriage ended. She describes drawing interconnected circles with paint pens while undergoing fertility treatments, and the striped baby blanket she crocheted while waiting for her daughter’s birth mother to go into labor.
Foster taught herself how to crochet when she was 19, and estimates that she has eight to 10 projects going at a time. She has a yarn dealer who shipped three boxes of Lion Brand supplies to London, then flew over to see “Anything Goes.” (You know what a big deal this is if you’ve ever been a novice in a certain kind of a yarn store, where customers tend to be sorted into varsity, junior varsity and invisible.) Sometimes Foster works from a book or consults YouTube for assistance, but she also creates her own designs.
Growing up in Georgia and, later, Michigan, Foster got her start, like many thespians of her generation, in a community production of “Annie.” After performing in national tours of “Grease” and “Les Misérables,” she appeared in Broadway productions of both shows, as well as “Annie” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” In 2002, she won her first Tony for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Like her perennially cheerful “Younger” character, Liza Miller, Foster was a bundle of can-do energy and enthusiasm, until our conversation turned to her mother. Then she spoke slowly, eyes closed, choosing each word painstakingly.
Helen Foster’s health began to decline when Sutton and her brother, Hunter, were teenagers. She had a fraught relationship with Sutton and stopped speaking to Hunter for close to a decade; the siblings’ connection with their father suffered as a result. Since Helen Foster’s death in 2013, Sutton and Hunter have enjoyed a new chapter with the man known as Papa Bob, and “Hooked” includes his tips for growing the perfect tomato. (No. 9: “Pick the tomatoes when they’re near ripe but not quite ripe, so others can grow.”)
“Crafting was the way I could tell my mother’s story that felt most authentic to me,” Foster said. “A way to weave, pun intended, all the facets of my life together in a way that felt true to me today.”
In the book, she takes readers inside the squalid house in Florida where her mother spent her final years. “I flipped on the light and gasped,” she writes. “All of her windows had been blacked out with black garbage bags, secured to the walls with duct tape.” Her mother had been bedridden for months, refusing to seek medical treatment: “That explained the bedpan and pee pads on the floor next to her bed.”
“It was mental illness that was never treated, never dealt with,” Hunter Foster said in a phone interview. After mentioning that he spends as much time as possible outside, he added, “I don’t allow myself to sleep past a certain time because my mom stayed in bed half the day.”
His and his sister’s relationship with their mother is likely to surprise some readers, Sutton Foster said. “It’s a part of our story that people don’t know. It’s this underbelly: my mother’s illness and protecting her and being afraid of her. No one talked about it, and there’s this freedom now.”
Behind her on the wall was a framed poster that said “Breathe.”
Foster wrote “Hooked” with Liz Welch, who has collaborated on best sellers by Malala Yousafzai, Elaine Welteroth and Shaun King. “Sutton is a Broadway musical actress, my mother was a Broadway musical actress. Sutton’s an adoptive mother, I’m an adoptive mother. Honestly, I think we’d be friends anyway,” Welch said. “Crochet was the perfect metaphor for holding oneself together, taking all these different threads of her incredibly interesting, not-what-you’d-expect life.”
Suzanne O’Neill, a vice president and executive editor at Grand Central, said: “One thing that’s very hard for people who are writing memoirs to do is to excavate their stories, and Sutton was game for it, even if there were moments that were hard. She wanted the book to be excellent. She dove into it. It was a piece of art for her, and she worked really hard to make it the book it is.”
In “Hooked,” Foster recalls being 16, mesmerized as her idol, Patti LuPone, belted out “Being Alive” on TV. “There was something simultaneously terrifying and thrilling about her confidence,” she writes. Her mother, who had recently stopped driving and grocery-shopping, said, “You can do that.”
She later met LuPone, who also played Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” and LuPone inspired one of Foster’s favorite collages: a colorful confection of craft paper on plywood, spelling out BADASS.
“She’s a beautiful creature,” LuPone said of Foster. “She exudes a very positive light. We’re drawn to tortured souls, just to find out why they’re tortured. And we’re also drawn to the light, and the light is much more nourishing. You see somebody onstage that makes you feel better. That’s Sutton.”
Foster is set to open “The Music Man” in December, playing Marian Paroo opposite Jackman as Harold Hill. But before she embarks on more soul-soothing craft projects backstage at the Winter Garden Theater, she will have time to settle into the Orange County farmhouse she moved into last spring with her husband, Ted Griffin, a screenwriter, and their 4-year-old daughter, Emily.
She plans to bring at least one piece of her past into this next phase of life: a cross-stitched scene depicting baskets of various shapes and sizes that she made for her mother. For years, the piece hung in the front hallway of her parents’ house and was a stabilizing presence during difficult visits.
Foster recently collected the baskets from her father’s basement. “I have them now,” she said. “They’ll go in the new house.”