With four Tony awards, a hit TV show, and an operatic prowess that makes her the go-to headliner for symphonies from New York to Berlin, Audra McDonald is, technically speaking, a diva. But even with that burgeoning career, she doesn’t expect you to know who she is. ”Ask any black actress in Hollywood, and they’ll tell you the same thing: ‘There is a glass ceiling,”’ she says over dinner at a French bistro. ”And every once in a while, a Queen Latifah or a Halle Berry can break through.” And now, perhaps, an Audra McDonald.
Before the writers’ strike, people were getting to know the 37-year-old as Dr. Naomi Bennett, a fertility specialist and sidekick to Kate Walsh’s feisty Addison on ABC’s Private Practice. And on Feb. 25, she’ll clue viewers in to her theatrical roots with the ABC TV movie A Raisin in the Sun, in which she reprises her Broadway role alongside Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad. Raisin exec producer Neil Meron thinks the movie shows off ”the magnitude” of McDonald’s dramatic chops, but also says, ”I don’t think people have scratched the surface of what else is there.”
Under the surface is a bit of an Everywoman who grew up in Fresno, Calif., the daughter of two academics who encouraged her to channel her hyperactive, oversensitive nature into the arts. By the time she was 9, McDonald was acting nightly at a dinner theater; she went on to a performing arts high school and then Juilliard — an opportunity she admits she took lightly. ”I was not into classical music, so I was a real dumb-ass for being at Juilliard,” she says. ”You don’t say no to Juilliard, and I figured, ‘I’m in New York, they’ll let me do my musical theater thing, too.’ We didn’t mesh.”
But McDonald did end up being a great fit for Broadway, winning the role of Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel in 1994, within a year of graduating. Of the color-blind casting, which has become a recurring theme of her career, McDonald laughs, ”One of my aunts is like, ‘White people like you.”’ The folks who give out Tonys have taken to her too, doling out statuettes for that performance as well as for her turns in Master Class, Ragtime, and Raisin over the next 10 years. Kenny Leon, who directed the actress in both the stage and screen versions of Raisin places the credit squarely on McDonald’s undeniable talent. ”When we were shooting, she could emote on a dime. I would say Audra has eight different ways she can cry.”
Despite the praise, the actress has managed to avoid acquiring those other diva-esque attributes. ”As performers, we’re insecure, that’s why we get up on stage. It’s like, ‘Love me! Love me! Love me!”’ So she skirts temptation, choosing instead to live in upstate New York (when she’s not shooting Practice in L.A.) with her husband and 7-year-old daughter. ”I love being able to go home to trees and leaves and grass and deer s—. My garbagemen are so used to me running after them because I’ve forgotten that it’s Tuesday morning and my garbage cans need to be out. Literally, with my Afro out to here, no bra on, in a muumuu, in my bedroom slippers, I’m going, ‘Wait! Wait!‘ If there were paparazzi, I would never work again.”
That scenario seems highly unlikely — once the strike is over McDonald will be back on the job at Oceanside Wellness. And she has hopes that her turns as Dr. Bennett and Raisin‘s Ruth Younger will pave the way for beefier onscreen roles, and may even inspire other black actresses to success. But don’t call McDonald a pioneer for her ambitions, or for those many Tony wins (a feat accomplished only by a handful of women — all white). She laughs at the mere suggestion. ”I’m not naive enough to think, I’m Rosa Parks, I’m Harriet Tubman, I’m leading the African-American theater women through the Underground Railroads to theatrical award-winning nirvana.” Besides, with McDonald around, there might not be awards to spare.
HOT OFF THE SET
McDonald on life behind the scenes of Private Practice
The role of Dr. Bennett was originally played by Merrin Dungey (Alias), and when McDonald took over, an uproar ensued. ”People said, ‘She looks like a man. She’s not pretty. She’s fat. She’s not talented.”’ It upset McDonald — at first. ”I started to joke, ‘I’m just your average transvestite trying to get a job on TV.”’
When Practice premiered, Kate Walsh was newly married and her private life seemed to be public property. ”We’d read these bulls— stories, and we’d be like, ‘Kate, I know Alex is trying to throw you this simple birthday party, but you’ve got these demands, and it’s putting a wedge between you.’ We can laugh at it.”
The technical side of playing doctor can be tricky, as McDonald and Walsh discovered during one late night of shooting. ”Kate had to say ‘testicular extraction,’ and we couldn’t do a take where one of us didn’t lose it. Maybe it was four in the morning…. We just couldn’t say testicular anymore.”