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One on 1 Profile: For Broadway Star Audra McDonald, Getting On Stage is About More Than Acting

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At the age of 43, Audra McDonald has already won five Tony Awards. She's nominated once again for her role as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," the latest chapter in one of theater's most compelling and successful careers. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

For Audra McDonald, in the hours before she hits the stage, there's no such thing as a casual conversation.

McDonald: I try not to do a lot of talking during the day. It's very, very hard. I know, you got to talk eventually.
Mishkin: We'll shut this down in about an hour and a half. (laughs)

"I find the hardest thing to me, opening nights and things like that, where everybody's wanting to chat with you and you're in a big, loud space, and you're trying to give everybody attention and speak to everybody, but at same time, all you're thinking about is what's going on in this teeny, tiny little space in your throat on the size of a dime, your two little vocal chords, and you're thinking, 'Are they safe? Are they OK?" McDonald says.

Those two little vocal chords belong to one of the most beloved voices on Broadway. In her latest show, McDonald plays a struggling Billie Holiday performing at a small club in Philadelphia, only months before her death in 1959.

"I warm up with kind of Billie's voice, and then with my own voice as well, just to make sure that it's all there," McDonald says.

"By the time I step on stage, it's the last place I want to be. I'm just dreading it, because it's just, it's so hard. It's this really weird thing I go through. And I also know once I hit that stage, that's it. I don't get to leave for 90 minutes. So as soon as she's gone, she's gone. It's over. I just shake it off immediately."

McDonald enjoyed extraordinary early success in the 1990s, the only actress ever to win three Tony awards in five years, all in her 20s. She played the millworker Carrie Pipperidge in "Carousel," the Juilliard student in "Master Class" and the tragic working woman Sarah in "Ragtime."

Her New York journey started at Juilliard, where we conducted the interview. She has a lifelong connection to the school, but she resisted its classical training.

"I kept thinking, 'What am I doing? I have just gotten off my path. I don't want be an opera singer. I don't want to sing in Italian. I don't want to sing in French. I want to sing Broadway. I want to belt. Why won't they let me belt?'" she says.

"When I was singing musical theater, that was right. It felt right. I knew who I was, and I don't quite know who I am in this world. And while I stayed there and tried to figure it out, I went back to musical theater because I knew who I was there, and who I was made sense to me."

The stress at Juilliard eventually got to her.

"I had a breakdown while I was here, and I had to go spend a month in a mental hospital while I was here. I had a true breakdown," she says. "I'm really open about talking about that because it's my closet, it’s in my closet, and if I pull it out and say, 'This was what happened,' no one can shock me with it later. I can say, 'Yes, that's true, and it happens.'"

She took some time off, got her first Broadway role in "The Secret Garden," and returned to Juilliard, graduating in 1993.

Shortly thereafter, she was cast in "Carousel" at the Lincoln Center Theater right across the street.

Mishkin: That's pretty good. You go to school here, your first gig is right over there. If only it could have been a little closer.
McDonald: (laughs)

Turns out the Juilliard training was pretty important.

"I needed somewhat of a classical, sort of legitimate sound to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Carrie Pipperidge has not full-on operatic, but certainly legitimate sound. And I think, I know for a fact that that was Juilliard that helped me find that," she says. "Before that, I would have just been trying to belt."

McDonald grew up in Fresno, California. She says there were a lot of big voices in her family. Her parents encouraged and supported her acting dreams, but they would not allow her to audition for parts that they deemed demeaning to a young black girl.

"They wouldn't let me audition for 'Showboat,' and I did sneak in an audition for 'The Miracle Worker,' which had a little slave girl in that, and I got cast, and they said, 'Congratulations. You're not doing it.'" McDonald says. "I was like, 'Why are you stomping on my dreams?' and they're like, 'You can do better than that. You don't have to play those kind of roles."

For McDonald's parents, it wasn't just about the roles she played.

McDonald: You have to study. You have to research. You have to know what you're talking about. You have to work twice and thrice as hard as the next person because you're African-American and you're female, and so people are going to think less of you to begin with. So you got to be just way on top when you shoot out of the box. 
Mishkin: And this is a constant spoken or unspoken piece of advice to you as you're growing up?
McDonald: Spoken. Absolutely spoken.

It's a lesson that McDonald may have forgotten as she took her SATs. She fell asleep.

McDonald: I remember telling my mom, "What is your problem?"
Mishkin: That's a tough one to go home with. "Hey, how was the test?"
McDonald: Yeah, and when your dad's a high school principal and your mom works at California State University, it’s really bad to go home and tell them you fell asleep during the SATs. That's really bad.

The SAT incident was yet another indication that all she wanted to do was perform.

After Juilliard, roles on Broadway came rather quickly, but she still had a bit of trouble staying conscious.

"I passed out here. I passed out across the street in Vivian Beaumont. I passed out at the Pierre Hotel," she says. "Passed out all over this city. (laughs)"

Her fainting problem was eventually diagnosed as a low blood pressure condition brought on by nerves. She now takes medication for the condition and hasn't fainted since 1999.

As her career grew, McDonald occasionally appeared on film and television. In 2007, she began four years of commuting back and forth to Los Angeles, playing the role of Dr. Naomi Bennett on the ABC show "Private Practice."

"It was at a really sort of turbulent time in my life. I was going through a divorce and my dad had just passed away, and I got this opportunity, and I was terribly afraid of working in front of a camera," she says.

"It'll be interesting to learn what it's like to be on camera and to get over your fear of it, to get over my fear. So that's why I went out and did it, and I had no idea that it would end up running as long as it did."

McDonald is married to fellow actor Will Swenson. She's a mom, raising her daughter from her first marriage, a role McDonald calls her favorite. And she's back where everyone knows her best, and where she has quite an impact: on stage.

"Especially when I have African-American women, young women come up to me and say, 'You're the reason I started doing this. When I saw you up there, I knew that there could be a place for me because of someone that looks like me is up there making it,'" she says. "That's when I think, 'OK, this is why I'm doing this.'"

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