When six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald's face and name appeared onscreen during the credits of a recent preview screening of Beauty and the Beast, the audience erupted in cheers and applause. So deep is the love for the powerhouse actress and singer that in a film full of favorites, she still inspires adulation. Perhaps you know her from Master Class or Ragtime or the recent Shuffle Along on Broadway. Perhaps you caught her incredible work on Shonda Rhimes' Private Practice or the HBO version of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, or as Mother Abbess in NBC's Sound of Music Live. No matter where you last saw her, chances are you were totally captivated. Maybe you even broke into cheers and applause, too.
McDonald plays Madame Garderobe, an opera singer who is transformed into a wardrobe in the new Disney live-action film (out on March 17). She's the first voice we hear and one of the last, and if you've ever heard her sing, you know that's a wonderful thing. She lends her considerable pipes to a new song, "Aria," written for the film, as well as parts of the classic title song. And, on a recent Sunday, she also lent her voice to a telephone interview about her work, her character, and a role that once got away. My phone still hasn't recovered.
Can you talk a little about how you got involved with the film?
It was pretty simple really. I heard that the film was going to be made and I was very excited about seeing it as a general audience member, a member of the general public. And then about three months after hearing that the film was going to be made, my agent called me and said, "So, about Beauty and the Beast." And I said, "Yeah, isn't it exciting? They're going to make it into a live action film." And he said, "They want you to be in it." I said, "You're kidding me! What? Why?" And they told me that they were doing something different with the part of the wardrobe and they wanted me to play the part. And before he finished that sentence, I was just: "Yes, yes, yes yes yes!"
Garderobe is such a fun, vibrant character. This is a character that weaponizes her voice. She attacks people with fashion. I'm hoping to see her on RuPaul's Drag Race next season. And you've played larger than life characters recently-Shuffle Along's Lottie Gee and Garderobe come to mind-but your career has, in some ways, been defined by the quieter characters. Are you drawn to one more than the other?
I find that I'm just drawn to anything that's going to challenge me as an actress. So, anything that's going to help me grow. Lottie Gee was not only about playing that role, but learning about this incredible talent that existed that history has basically erased.
And I know a lot of my earlier work after [Carousel's] Carrie Pipperidge tended to be very dramatic, so any time I get a chance to do a little comedy, that's also a nice change for me. Most of the time people think of me as a dramatic actress and singer. And there's a challenge there because comedy is hard. What do they say? "Dying is easy; comedy is hard."
"What do they say? 'Dying is easy; comedy is hard.'"
You're such a natural at it, or at least you make it look natural. Is that something you want to do more of or are you taking opportunities as they come?
I'm taking opportunities as they come; I really am. Not to get too sort of mystical, but I believe in fate. I believe when roles are presented to me in my life they're for a very specific reason, something for me to learn. And it's coming at the right time. So, you know, it was time for me to play a wardrobe. Time for me to learn about furniture.
Speaking of roles in 'Beauty and the Beast,' I recall you saying once that you auditioned for it on Broadway years ago.
That's right. [Laughs.] I did not get cast. I had auditioned to be in the ensemble and I didn't make the cut.
Is this a little bit of recompense for the past then?
[Laughs.] I told [composer] Alan Menken that the night before we started shooting. We were all out to dinner in London and I said, "Hey Alan, I auditioned for this musical on Broadway." And he went, "I know! I know! I know! Does this help? Does this make up for it?" I said, "Heck yeah."
The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice, I guess.
That's right. [Laughs.]
Can you talk a little bit about the filming? Were you doing motion capture? Recording your voice?
[It worked] a couple of different ways. Dan Stevens has more of an intricate way of how he had to film it. So, I was on set for when I was human. And the work I did when I was a wardrobe was done in a recording studio, but they videotaped me when I was in the recording studio. About a year later, I went back in after they had done a lot of the comping together and the CGI, and I did some more, being able to look at the work they had done. But when I first went in to do the voiceover work, they hadn't shot any of my scenes as the wardrobe. So, if it's the chicken or the egg, I think the voice came first and then I went in after they had done the work. It's sort of a wild process. But I didn't do any motion capture.
And then when you're a human again, you're wearing about a hundred pounds of hair. It's amazing. What was that experience like?
When I went in for the first costume fitting, and the hair and makeup consult, the wonderful wig designer said, "Here's what we're doing." She put on the first piece of the wig, and it was high, and I was like, "Oh, that's cool." And she said, "Hold on." And she added the right side part of it. And she said, "Hold on." And then she added the left side. I was like, "You gotta be kidding me." Then she started adding birds and things to my head. That's when I realized, "Okay, this is big." Which is an understatement.
It weighed so much and my dress was so large that I could not fit through doorways. I had to move sideways and completely squat to get through. And I couldn't sit down between takes. So the lovely set carpenters built a lean-to for me with a bicycle seat on it. So I could sort of perch on the bicycle seat and lean up against this large slab of wood on incline between takes.
That's astounding. That's real physical commitment. I have a random question about physical acting. So you did this hands-free cartwheel in '110 in the Shade' and you did that high-kick in 'Shuffle Along' even though you were, like, 12 months pregnant. What is your pilates routine? How are you able to do this?
Well, I used to have a really good pilates routine. I used to be really into Bikram yoga. And then I had a baby at age 46 and now my exercise consists of lifting the baby up and putting the baby down. I gotta get back into pilates; I'll get there. I'll get that leg up all the way back up against my face. It just might take a while.
The fact that you did it at all is incredible. You should win all the awards for that. So, one last question: You've been a huge advocate for the LGBTQ community and your character helps to facilitate a slight queer moment in the film. But you play a closet. So, generally coming out of the closet is good, but are you okay with people saying, "Nah, I'll stay in, if Audra is the closet"?
[Laughs.] If I make them feel comfortable and safe and loved, then I'm fine with it. But hopefully they would feel safer out in the sun.
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