How Audra McDonald overcame depression and became one of Broadway’s biggest stars
On Monday, Audra McDonald will return to her husband Will Swenson’s home in Utah, performing two concerts at Utah Valley University and working in a master class with theater students.
SALT LAKE CITY — Audra McDonald could bask in her six Tony Awards — the most wins by any actor or actress — or how she’s defied racial typecasting on Broadway, but what she really likes to talk about is the time she was “a cool mom.”
While playing Madame Garderobe in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” McDonald introduced her stepsons and oldest daughter — all “Harry Potter” superfans — to Emma Watson. McDonald walked a little taller that day.
“I was a cool mom for about 10 seconds,” she said with a laugh.
While driving to Worcester, Massachusetts, where she performed Wednesday night for a tour that will also bring her to Utah this week, McDonald bounced back and forth between talking about her family and her career — two of her greatest joys.
Lately, the balancing act has become more of a challenge for McDonald, who at 46 unexpectedly became a mother to Sally James McDonald-Swenson. But that’s a challenge McDonald said she and her husband, Utah native and Broadway actor Will Swenson, are happy to have.
On Monday, McDonald will return to her husband’s home, performing two concerts at Utah Valley University and working in a master class with theater students. Ahead of the performances, McDonald chatted with the Deseret News about her family, struggling with depression at The Juilliard School, diversity on Broadway and being cast in “Beauty and the Beast.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: Why is it important to take time to work with students, and for students to have this kind of opportunity to work with someone that has had a career like you’ve had?
Audra McDonald: When I was at Juilliard, we had incredible master classes from people like Barbara Cook and Robin Williams, Luciano Pavarotti came … you get all kinds of people from all different walks of life that are out there doing the thing that these students are wanting to do at some point.
It gives (students) the chance to pick their brains and hear their real-life experiences and stories right from the horse’s mouth. You’re actually in their presence, and I think that’s a valuable thing for students. ... And also the students are usually just so full of hope and incredible talent, so that’s inspirational to me.
DN: Did you participate in the master class from Robin Williams?
AM: No, I just got to attend it. I was never able to participate in any of them — I was low on the totem pole at Juilliard. But you get something out of it even if you’re not actually up there on the stage working specifically with them.
DN: Will you be coming back to Utah later in October when Will is in “Sweeney Todd?”
AM: I’m not, but because I am married into the Swenson and Hale family, I am in Utah a lot more than people think I am. At least two or three times a year I’ve been showing up there, but none of you would ever know that. I was there this summer. I was there not even a month ago, maybe two months ago.
DN: How does all this traveling back and forth work now with a 3-year-old in the family?
AM: She’ll be 3 later this month. It basically means tag-teaming because she’s getting older, and so it’s not fair for mommy and daddy to kind of drag her around to work everywhere. ... Will (Swenson) will be at home while I’m out working in a different city or state, and then if he has to travel somewhere or go somewhere out of town for work, I stay home with the baby. It was easier when she was a little potato; a little potato you just carry around everywhere. It gets harder as they get older.
DN: Has that been a pretty challenging adjustment, having a younger child and then dealing with a busy performing career?
AM: Yes, it’s challenging, but I’m not complaining. She’s the most amazing surprise and joy that we could’ve ever hoped for and asked for, and certainly something we weren’t expecting. We’re so grateful that she’s here and she exists that it’s a challenge we’ll take happily.
DN: You struggled with depression while you were at Juilliard. Could you talk a little bit about why that was a challenging time and how you got through that?
AM: I was having a hard time believing that I was in the right place doing the right thing — that I was on my path. I was getting very, very depressed and starting to feel like my ultimate dream of being on Broadway and singing the way I wanted to sing and this life that I had tried to have in New York wasn’t going to happen. It was a hard time, and I had a really big bout of depression, but I got through it by the help of one of the services at Juilliard.
They had a wonderful therapist at Juilliard that was there to serve the students, along with the Student Affairs Director who I had grown close to. The two of them got me the help that I needed, and helped me to take a leave of absence ... and get me professional psychotherapy and get to a place of mental health so that I could come back and finish my degree, which is what happened. So I reached out for help and received it.
DN: Is this something that you’ve been able to share with students in your master classes?
I want kids to see that it gets better, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that life is worth living.
AM: Yes, I’m very open and honest about that. I want kids to see that it gets better, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that life is worth living. A lot of times in my master classes when I’m doing Q&As, students will say to me, “I know that you’ve talked about your depression in the past, your suicide attempt in the past. What would you say to someone who is struggling with similar issues?” For me, just sitting there and listening to them and being there as evidence that there is light beyond that darkness makes me feel that I can help and perhaps help inspire.
DN: What are some other causes that you use your platform to advocate for?
AM: I’m on the international board of the Covenant House, which houses homeless youth throughout three countries: Canada, United States and various places in Latin America. I’ve been an advocate for Covenant House, doing what we can to eradicate homelessness among youth and help shine a light on their struggles and get them loved and protected and taken care of, and polish them up and then send them out into the world to do great, wonderful things that they deserve to have and do. So I’ve been involved with the Covenant House since 2014, so that’s very important to my heart, and I’ve also been involved in LGBTQ causes, too. Especially dealing with equality issues for the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ youth. Those are causes that are all very, very important and close to my heart.
DN: How do you think Broadway is doing in terms of diversity in its casting?
AM: I think Broadway has made some nice gains and big strides in the years that I’ve been performing on Broadway. When I first started on Broadway, it was pretty big news that they cast an African American woman as Carrie Pipperidge in the production of “Carousel.” And I think that wouldn’t be that big of a deal now, but back in 1994 it was a huge deal. A lot of people had a problem with it.
Now with the help of just more open thinking in terms of colorblind casting and then welcoming new talents like Lin Manuel-Miranda and the big success of “Hamilton” ... I think we’re just in a more open place. Casting directors and directors and all the creative forces out there, as well as producers, I think are all more aware of the fact that inclusion is important.
Then you have someone like the great director Rachel Chavkin, who directed “Hadestown,” saying (diversity) “is not a pipeline issue.” The talent is there and it’s not just about getting them on the stage, it’s getting them in the creative process as well — women directors and people of color in casting positions and writing and directing so that the more you include in that part of the stratosphere, the more you will see on the other side as well.
DN: Did you ever encounter racial barriers on Broadway?
AM: Oh sure. When I was still up-and-coming there were lots of roles I couldn’t have gone out for. I remember there was talk of a revival of “My Fair Lady” that I was really interested in, and it was just like, “Oh no, they won’t see you for that.” I absolutely experienced that, but at the same time, I was also very lucky and in some ways I didn’t experience it. Obviously I was lucky enough that (director) Nicholas Hytner said, “No, I think you should play Carrie Pipperidge in my production of ‘Carousel.’”
DN: You auditioned and were rejected for a role in the ensemble for Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Was this early in your career?
AM: Yes, this was right before I auditioned for “Carousel.” I didn’t get cast in the ensemble of “Beauty and the Beast,” and then I ended up getting Carrie Pipperidge in “Carousel,” so it all worked out. I look at that as there was a part of me that wasn’t dreaming big enough, you know? Why not go for the big role?
DN: What was your reaction when you landed a role in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast?”
AM: I was tickled. I thought it was amazing and hilarious. I was thrilled and I had admired Bill Condon’s work for a long time. And then of course I had worked with Emma Thompson before and she’s still one of my closest friends, so it was fun to get a chance for us to work together again as well and just be silly on set. And Kevin Kline and I had worked together, we had played husband and wife in a film, and so it was a lot of fun. We had too good of a time on that set.
DN: Has your love of theater and performing passed on to your children?
AM: My daughter, yes, it absolutely has. I think she’ll do different things with it than I did, but she absolutely has an incredible love of theater because she’s grown up in it. And my little baby, I see it already. Let’s put it this way: She’s got like five microphones already, and she knows how to bow and she sings quite a bit. So I have a feeling that we definitely have another performer in the house.
DN: Could you talk about your upcoming performances at UVU and what audiences can expect?
AM: It’ll just be a journey with me through the Great American Musical Theater Songbook. I like to talk to my audiences and I like to sing songs that are old gems and old favorites, so I’ll be singing songs written long ago in the ’30s and songs written as recently as 2008 and everything in between.
If you go ...
What: Audra McDonald
When: Oct. 7 and 8., 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Noorda Center for the Performing Arts, UVU, 800 W. University Parkway, Orem
How much: $55-$75