Back at the turn of the decade, when our poor, unjaded souls still believed the return of the Roaring ’20s was in sight, we interviewed Broadway living legend and cinematic leading lady Audra McDonald ahead of her then-headlining performance at Theatre Under the Stars 2020 Gala.
The soiree, like basically everything else, was swallowed into the black hole that became the last 18 months of our lives. (A true shame since McDonald believes so deeply in arts fundraising. “As long as we have the arts in our lives,” she told Houstonia during our March 2, 2020, interview, "we will stay in touch with our humanity.”)
But the six-time Tony winner didn’t sit around during the pandemic, showing us all up by performing in an Audible audio play; filming a new season of her hit-show The Good Fight, which premiered in June; and, possibly most importantly, helping co-found Black Theatre United following the death of Houstonian George Floyd.
With the world remerging from its coronavirus-induced cocoon, some of us recently returned to the office … only to find a notebook of interview notes from the “before times.” And with McDonald’s next major project—Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect—preparing to take movie theaters by storm on August 13, we figured now’s the perfect time for you to read it.
We chatted with McDonald about complex characters, her 2006 Houston stage debut, and the fear that keeps driving her.
You've portrayed countless characters onstage and on screen. Is there one you most identify with or been most inspired by?
Well, I’ve played some pretty messed up ladies (Laughs), so to say I identify with them is giving away a bit of myself. But in truth, that is the truth. Obviously, I didn't have the rough life that perhaps Bess in Porgy and Bess or Billie Holiday had, but, at the same time, I certainly understand and can identify with a lot of their insecurities and flaws. Every single character that I've played, I am inspired by, from Ruth in Raisin in the Sun to Lottie Gee in Shuffle Along. A lot of these characters I've played have had to overcome a great many things and have had to show strength in ways that I don't think I could have shown strength, and so, for that, I am incredibly inspired.
Every performer has milestones. So, what is that standout moment for you? The one you think back on that still gives you goosebumps.
Opening night of Carousel at Lincoln Center in March of 1994. As the curtain was down, and we were all in our positions on the stage and hearing the first three chords of “The Carousel Waltz” being played by the incredible Lincoln Center Orchestra, that incredible Rodgers and Hammerstein score. It was just at that moment that I thought, I feel like my life is about to change, and when I think back on that moment, I still get goosebumps.
When talking about pushing yourself as an actress, you've been quoted saying, “Whatever is the scariest is almost always what I end up choosing.” Why take that approach?
You go towards your fear. That's where the lesson is; that's where you'll learn. If you stay in comfort and what you already know, there’s no evolution there. That's why I tend to go towards things that I know are going to teach me a lesson. Those aren't necessarily things that I'm guaranteed success at, but they are things that I'm going to learn from, and that's what's most important to me as an artist. Like, playing Billie Holiday in a one-woman show when I had no idea I could sound like her or carry a one-woman show for an hour and 45 minutes onstage every night. (note: McDonald won Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance and was nominated for an Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards for HBO’s filmed version of the show).
You’ve performed in Houston before, having made your opera debut at the Houston Grand Opera in 2006. What was it like stepping from the world of musical theater into opera?
It was frightening. Again, it was one of those situations that, when the opportunity came along, I thought, Two one-woman operas in one evening? That’s frightening. It was a wonderful experience. That first night, when I first stepped on that stage for opening night, I very much thought that I could end up basically flat on my face by the end of, not only that evening, but maybe by the end of the first act. I was terrified, absolutely terrified, but I look back on it, and I'm proud of myself for doing it.
See, that's never what it seems during your performances. You always look so composed.
Oh, no. Never. That is never, ever, ever the case. (Laughs). I'm always not in control in my mind and frightened, but that's the thing. When you get catch the theater bug, you keep running into fire because you're like, “There's cool things in fire.” It's just so hard to explain, but once it gets ahold of you, it has you for life. It really does.