Coral Peña ’11: Feeling at home among Hollywood elite

“I’m sitting there,” Coral Peña ’11 says, describing her first day on the set of the political thriller “The Post,” “in my 70’s lawyer outfit and my big hair, and I see someone walking towards me. And as they’re getting closer, I realize: that’s Steven Spielberg.”

Spielberg introduced himself to Peña (“You don’t have to introduce yourself,” she said. “You’re Steven Spielberg.”) and personally introduced her to Meryl Streep, who Peña would be acting opposite the very next day. “So that was the first day,” says Peña, “which was an easy way to come in.”

Peña discovered acting during her sophomore year at Peddie when she appeared in the school’s production of the musical “Working.” She took acting classes with theater teachers Elizabeth Sherman and Harry Holcombe. By junior year, she realized she wanted to make acting her life. “Everyone was talking about colleges and careers, and it just hit me: I didn’t want to do anything else. [Acting] was the thing I was interested in, the thing I was best at. So how do I change it from a hobby into a career?”

Peña attended New York University and found acting work steadily after college, eventually taking on a significant role in the television series “24: Legacy” from 2015 to 2016. Last winter, she made her big-screen debut in “The Post” as Nancy, a lawyer representing the United States government in its case against The Washington Post. Although Nancy works for the government, she’s sympathetic to publisher Katharine Graham’s decision to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. “The Post” has a deep cast, including Meryl Streep (Graham), Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Alison Brie and Zach Woods. And Coral felt entirely at home working alongside them.

Coral Peña visits Peddie's William Mount-Burke Theatre in Spring 2018.

Coral Peña ’11 visited Peddie's William Mount-Burke Theatre in Spring 2018.

“When you’re working with people who care about the craft so much and care about the work they’re doing, there’s no ego,” she says. “They’re just trying to make art. It was really amazing to be on a set so big with such amazing actors and to realize that that’s the way they carry themselves.”

If you look at the photographs hanging in the lobby of Geiger Reeves Hall, just outside the William Mount-Burke Theatre, you’ll see Coral Peña among the casts of “Working,” “Grease,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and more. The experiences she had at Peddie that turned her into the actress she is today are writ large on the walls of our theater.

“In high school,” Coral says, as she looked at the photographs, searching for familiar faces, “everyone loves theater. Theater is so much fun. And you don’t really know who is going to decide to turn it into their career. So it’s always nice, as someone who decided to do that, to come back and see which kids from Peddie are saying, ‘I’m going to do this!’ Yeah, you are!”

Next up, Peña will appear in NBC’s new spy-hunting thriller “The Enemy Within” in 2019.