Back to the turn of the decade, when our poor unblase souls Still believing the roaring twenties comeback was in sight, we interviewed living Broadway legend and cinema grande dame Audra McDonald ahead of her then-headlining performance at the Theater Under the Stars 2020 gala.
The evening, like everything else, was swallowed up in the black hole that has become the last 18 months of our lives. (This is such a shame since McDonald’s believes deeply in fundraising for the arts. “As long as we have the arts in our lives,” she said Houstonia during our interview on March 2, 2020, “we will stay in touch with our humanity. “)
But Tony’s six-time winner didn’t sit still during the pandemic, showing us all by performing in a Audible audio playback; filming of a new season of his hit show The good fight, which premiered in June; and, perhaps most importantly, help co-found Plain black theater following the death of Houstonian George Floyd.
As the world emerges from its coronavirus-induced cocoon, some of us have recently returned to the office… only to find a “before” interview notebook. And with McDonald’s next big project, the Aretha Franklin biopic, The respect– getting ready to storm theaters on August 13th, we thought this was the perfect time for you to read it.
We spoke with McDonald’s about the complex characters, about his Houston stage debut in 2006, and the fear that continues to drive him.
You have played countless characters on stage and on screen. Is there one that you identify with the most or that has inspired you the most?
Well i played some pretty messed up checkers (Laughs), so to speak, I identify with them, it is giving a little of myself. But in truth, it is the truth. Obviously I haven’t had the rough life that maybe Bess in Porgy and Bess or Billie Holiday had, but, at the same time, I certainly understand and can relate to a lot of their insecurities and flaws. Every character that I’ve played, I’m inspired by, from Ruth in Grapes in the sun to Lottie Gee in Mix along. A lot of these characters that I played had to overcome a lot and had to show strength in a way that I didn’t think I could have shown, and so for that I’m incredibly inspired.
Every artist has milestones. So what is this defining moment for you? The one you think back to that always gives you goosebumps.
Opening night of Carousel at Lincoln Center in March 1994. As the curtain was drawn and we were all in our positions on stage and we heard the first three chords of “The Carousel Waltz” played by the incredible Lincoln Center Orchestra, this incredible Rodgers and Hammerstein Goal. That’s when I thought, I feel like my life is about to change, and when I think back to that moment, I still get goosebumps.
When you talk about pushing yourself as an actress, you’ve been quoted as saying, “What’s scariest is almost always what I end up choosing.” Why take this approach?
You are moving towards your fear. This is where the lesson is; this is where you will learn. If you stay comfortable and what you already know, there is no evolution there. That’s why I tend to go for things that I know are going to teach me a lesson. These aren’t necessarily things I’m sure I’ll be successful at, but they’re things that I’m going to learn, and that’s what is 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 wear a one-woman show for an hour and 45 minutes on stage every night. (Note: McDonald’s won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for her performance and was nominated for an Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Awards for the filmed version of the show by HBO).
You’ve performed in Houston before, having made your opera debut at the Houston Grand Opera in 2006. What was it like to move from the world of musical theater to opera?
It was scary. Again, this was one of those situations where, when the opportunity arose, I thought, Two solo operas in one evening? It’s scary. It was a wonderful experience. That first night, when I first took the stage, I really thought I could end up on my stomach by the end, not only of that night, 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.
You see, it’s never what it seems during your performances. You always seem so calm.
Oh no. Never. It’s never, never, never the case. (Laughs). I’m still not in control of my mind and I’m scared, but that’s the problem. When you get the theater bug, you keep bumping into fire because you think, “There are some cool things in fire.” It’s so hard to explain, but once it takes hold of you, it holds you for life. It really is.