Audra McDonald’s Words of Wisdom

April 1, 2016

Actress-singer Audra McDonald is in a league of her own when it comes to talent and achievements. She’s especially noted for her musical and dramatic stage performances in Broadway productions such as Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess. The 45-year-old star is the first person to earn a whopping six Tony Awards for acting, and on top of that she’s the first person to win a Tony Award in all four acting categories–and she’s still going strong.

McDonald recently was interviewed by Shanice Williams, who starred as Dorothy in NBC’s The Wiz Live!, for an Artist to Artist talk at Lincoln Center. In the hour-long interview, McDonald shares her artistic inspirations, describes several twists and turns she experienced along her creative journey, and reveals many important lessons she learned along the way.

For instance, McDonald recounts some of her influences as she was growing up, and through her determination to sound like others, she eventually learned to embrace her uniqueness. “I tried to sound like Barbara Streisand…I tried to sound like Judy Garland, I tried to sound like Lena Horne, I tried to sound like Ella Fitzgerald. I tried to sound like Patti LuPone. And what I eventually discovered in trying to sound like all of these women is that they sounded like nobody else. And as I got older, I realized that was the beauty in what their voice was–that they sounded like nobody else.” Thus, she learned the value of sounding like herself.

Although McDonald can say she’s a Juilliard alumna, in her case, she found the prestigious school limiting. “I felt that I was not on my right path, and studying all this classical music and opera…I didn’t feel good about myself, artistically.” She felt so close and yet so far from Broadway–where she truly aspired to be. While McDonald did make the most of the school experience by gaining classical training, she says, “In the end, what Juilliard taught me was that there was another side of my voice that I had not discovered yet.” As far as the importance of performers listening to their inner voice, she asserts, “If you love it, and it makes you feel like you’re flying or you’re soaring? Do it. Follow that. That is your soul telling you that this is a yes.”

Regarding the audition-room jitters, she advises performers to shift their mind frame. She suggests, “Go into the room being the solution to their problem. Instead of saying, ‘They’re going to judge me,’ say, ‘Hey guess what? I’m going to solve your problem for you. I know you’re looking for the right person, and apparently I am that right person.'”

As far as what attracts her to a role, McDonald says she goes for what intimidates her. Rather than staying in her comfort zone, she’s attracted to “something where I’m going to be challenged, something where I feel at the end of the experience, I’m going to know more than I did going into it. Evolution is very important to me as an artist.” Also, McDonald encourages performers to take the work that comes their way as this sends “out into the universe that you are accepting, and more work will come.”

Another tip she gives to performers is to be purposeful about who you keep in your life. “Friends and family will tell you the truth. Even if the truth hurts, they’ll always tell you with love. Keep people whose opinions you trust around you, and anybody who kisses your butt on a daily basis, keep far away,” she advises.

Watch the interview above for more of Audra McDonald’s words of wisdom.

Cut Cut Cut the Harsh Criticism

April 11, 2012

The image of an egocentric, demanding, never-satisfied Hollywood Director is so omnipresent and ingrained in our collective consciousness, it is considered a cliché. But anyone who’s worked in the business for any length of time will tell you this is no cliché; it is a living, breathing reality. A famous example of this syndrome is David O. Russell’s self-immolation on the set of I Heart Huckabbees while berating Lily Tomlin in an epic meltdown. But David isn’t the first to jump the couch–and he certainly won’t be the last. Stanley Kubrick was known to be inconsiderate and rude to the people he worked with. Legend has it he made Shelley Duvall do 127 takes of a single shot while making The Shining. Indeed, it is rumored he bullied her incessantly–a tactic many cineaste’s have credited for her harried, and unhinged performance. Cecile B. DeMille was such a tyrant he joked that he would use live bullets in a battle scene as a way to cut down on the cost of extras. And John Ford, an avowed curmudgeon, was said to have made the great icon of manhood, John Wayne, weep. These are not necessarily people you’d want to invite to your garden party. But what can we learn from these intimidating Titans? And what can you do, humble actor, if you find yourself in the maw of one of these monsters?

First, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. These people have a high-pressure job to do. They have an enormous responsibility: to deliver a great project. And often there’s a ton of money on the line. They are feeling that pressure every step of the way, from concept to completion. You, on the other hand, are there for the duration of the shoot. This is not to minimize an actor’s contribution, but if a director is giving you a hard time, it is wise to have a little perspective. He or she may be getting heat from the suits, and in turn giving you some degree of heat.

Secondly, remember you were hired to do a job. You’re expected to come through regardless of unpleasant personalities or boorish behavior. Keep your cool, and keep your eyes on the prize. Even if you get angry, be a pro about it and try not to become defensive. You can review in your own mind or with your family members or friends why the director is making an inaccurate judgement about you or your work. Make sure not to attack anyone personally or lash out in violent ways. This can be tricky when you feel someone’s being unfair or undermining your performance and career. But keep in mind, they picked you for a reason, and carry that confidence with you. Michael Douglas told Vanity Fair Oliver Stone approached him on the set of Wall Street and told him, “You look like you never acted before in your life.” Douglas was furious, but channeled his anger into the character of a ruthless Gordon Gecko. The rest is history. Some might argue this was Oliver Stone’s intention from the start.

And lastly, rely on your compassion and discernment. When someone is acting out in immature and unnerving ways, let’s face it, they’re suffering with personal issues. A director who calls an actor worthless may be worried about his or her self-worth; a director’s temper may blow if he or she believes an actor is threatening to cause harm to the project; perhaps the director is feeling jealous of the actor; or the director may simply be having a bad day. Many times, the more aggressive and emotionally charged the message is, the less it has to do with you, and the more it has to do with the director’s emotional shortcomings. Try not to get sucked in. Although it can be challenging in the heat of the moment, a little understanding can go a long way. And then try to decipher whether the critical comment actually contains a nugget of constructive advice or if it’s merely an emotional outburst coming from a person who is loaded with negative emotions in general. Then, only allow helpful advice to penetrate you, and collect your self-confidence to overrule any harsh criticism that’s intended to make you feel bad.

Some say Dennis Hopper had a nervous breakdown on the set of the western, From Hell To Texas. The Director, Henry Hathaway, decided to break the wild bronco Dennis by forcing him to do the script line for line, and to eschew any improvising. This was anathema for the budding Method actor and free spirit. After 86 takes and fifteen hours, Hopper finally broke and complied with the director’s wishes. “It was devastating,” Hopper later said. “It had a huge effect on my life. I learned that the director is the director, and you can’t really fight him very far. You just can’t.” If that’s not straight from the horse’s mouth, I don’t what is.