Audra McDonald has more Tonys than any American stage performer, and she’s the only person to have won the awards for all four acting categories. Best known for her roles as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and the original Sarah in Ragtime, McDonald has recently had a turn on the small screen as Liz Reddick-Lawrence in The Good Fight. On September 28, she’ll be performing classics from Broadway and the Great American Songbook with her trio at George Mason University as part of its ARTS, by George! benefit. Washingtonian caught up with her a few weeks before the show.
What made you want to get involved with the “ARTS, by George!” Benefit?
I’ve never performed at George Mason, and I don’t think I’ve ever performed in Fairfax. Going to a new city is always exciting to me. I’m looking forward to getting to spend some time with the students there, to talk to them and see what their interests are and what questions they might have and to see how I might be able to help them.
You’re a board member for Covenant House International, where you’ve wrapped Christmas presents and helped new moms on Thanksgiving morning. As part of that organization, you recently spent a night on the street to raise awareness about homelessness among at-risk youths. What did you learn from that experience?
I’ve been on the board for about six years now, so that was my sixth time doing a sleep-out. The evening starts out with spending time with the kids that are under the care of Covenant House. You hear their stories and their testimonials, and you get to know them personally and [learn about] the struggles they’ve gone through and what their hopes and aspirations are. You learn about Covenant House and how you can help, and then you get out there on that cardboard, on that hard concrete, and you’re humbled beyond belief. The kids are so filled with hope but have gone through so much, and you have no idea what they’ve been through. [The sleepouts are] not about saying, “Now I know what your life is like”; it’s just a way to say, “I am here with you, I have solidarity, I see you, you are cared for, you are loved, I want to help in any way I can.” It’s humbling every single time that I do it. And in the morning, if I’ve slept at all, I wake up very grateful for the things that I have and feel even more determined to help those who don’t have what I have, so that they can live full, happy and productive lives.
You’ve been a huge proponent of improving diversity on Broadway and have been somewhat of a trailblazer in playing traditionally white roles. How have you seen representation on Broadway change throughout your career and how do you think representation still needs to improve in the industry?
Obviously since I first started in 1994 there’s been a lot of change. I think a lot of people thought that director Nicholas Hytner was pretty wild for casting me as Carrie Pipperidge in his revival of Carousel, and I don’t think that’s something that would be considered as that big of a deal anymore on Broadway. [In the most recent Les Mis revival] the people playing the roles were of every creed and race, and I think in some ways we’ve come quite a long way. I think where we need to go a little further is in terms of the creative side, [having] more women, more people of color. [In] writers, directors, music directors and lyricists, that’s where we need to see more change. If you get [women and people of color] behind the scenes, then you get more representation because there’s representation in the creative process, not just in what’s up on the stage.
I understand you’ve been busy helping your oldest daughter move into college. What does it feel like to be sending your baby off to school?
Oh my gosh, it’s horrifying! No, it’s amazing. My step-son also went off to his first year of college as well, so we had two leave the nest. You want to stay strong and say, “oh, it’s all good!” and encourage them, but it’s very difficult to let go. I had a friend back in California who just sent her son off to school, and she said, “it felt like I ripped an arm off.” And it does, it feels like your heart’s out in the world somewhere. When they go off to college or they leave home like this it means you’ve done your job and they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but it’s hard because they don’t communicate with you as much as you’d like. My husband and I feel like stalkers right now, we’re like, “Text me! Call me! Pleeeease!”
You do still have a toddler and another step-son at home, though. How do you balance caring for children that are in such different stages in their life with a thriving career?
I don’t know. You literally take one day at a time. I’ve learned to know that it’s basically always going to be chaos, that I’m not always going to have the answer and I need to ask for help more often than I do.
You just closed Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune on Broadway. What was your experience like with that?
My experience with Frankie and Johnny was a beautiful one. It was a very difficult show to do and to learn how to do it. Being up there with an incredible performer like Michael Shannon made it really fulfilling. It was very scary having to be nude on stage and to do very intimate and intense love scenes and fight scenes, as well as to eat meatloaf on stage night after night. It was a very vulnerable place to be, but it stretched me as an actress so I’m very, very glad that I did it.
What upcoming projects are you really excited about?
I’m looking forward to starting my next season of The Good Fight. We start shooting later this fall, and I’m very excited about seeing where our show creators take us. There’s always something very new and exciting with every script, we have no idea where we’re going, so I’m looking forward to that.
It seems like there’s been a trend lately where Broadway has gravitated toward shows with a big production value, especially with “based on a movie” musicals. What do you think about the general shift away from truly original musical material?
I think from what I’ve seen in my career it comes and goes. No musical is easy to produce. They say you invest 10 million dollars in a show and that’s how you end up with a million dollars. There’s never a guarantee that anything is going to work or get big with an audience. But I think that we go in cycles. Movie musicals become a little more popular and it seems like you have more of a shot [of succeeding] with the name recognition, and then a sleeper hit will sneak in like Dear Evan Hansen or Hadestown or Hamilton, and you’re in new musical theater territory all over again. So as long as we’re continuing to nurture that art form and nurture the new young musical theater composers coming up, I think [new material] will be there. I’ve heard people talk about the death of new musicals over and over again throughout my 25-year career, but they’re still there.
You’ve played a wide range of roles throughout your career. Which do you think required the most emotional labor to portray?
Probably Billie Holiday. That was a lot to prepare for night after night, and the depth of the pain and the extraordinary height of the joy she felt in her life were extreme. Trying to open myself up to feel that and experience that and to also manipulate my sound so I could sound like her and look like her was exhausting and probably took the biggest toll on me out of all the roles that I’ve played.
What advice do you have for young actors who are looking to make it in the theater industry?
Don’t say no to yourself. That sounds cliché but it’s very important. If you think you’re right for something, advocate for yourself. Go out for the role, study the role, do your work. There will be enough people in this business who say no to you—don’t you ever be one of them.