It’s often hard to argue with a juggernaut of pop culture.
Beauty and the Beast is dominating the global box office with ease as audiences are flocking to see this updated and live action version of the 1991 animated classic.
In advance of its opening I got the unique pleasure to sit down and talk with Broadway icon Audra McDonald who got tapped to bring her booming voice to the role of Madame Garderobe. We talked about her experiences on set, the chance to be a part of an iconic Disney franchise, the difference between performing for the stage and the screen, the current state of musical theatre and so much more.
Dave Voigt: Obviously congratulations on the film and I guess my first question would be that for a performer with your background and pedigree is being able say you’ve been in a Disney movie like taking something off of your career bucket list?
Audra McDonald: (Laughs) Oh yes, absolutely. Not even necessarily because I am an actress but I think more so because really anything Disney just brings out the kid in all of us. I’m sure in many ways you feel the same way, if you got to be a part of a live action Pinocchio or something I’m sure you’d go weak at the knees, because I know I still do. I’d have probably done this part if I had just been a school teacher with a walk on part, anything Disney is always something special.
DV: Was it a big audition process for you or did they come to you directly about the role?
DV: This is probably a dumb question, but it’s something I’ve been curious about. As a performer you have such incredible vocal range and is there a difference in your preparation for something like Beauty and the Beast when you are spending most of your time in a recording booth, versus being on stage and you know that you have to hit the back of the house with your voice?
AM: Yeah, there is a bit of difference but it just comes down to dialing it back a bit because you don’t have to project the same way because with the mic right in front of you, they can do quite a bit of that work for you. But that being said because I was playing such a larger than life character in Madame Garderobe, I really didn’t hold much back because she was so over the top, especially in her ‘enchanted form’. Other people had the opportunity to be a little more…subtle (Laughs), I really did not and everything I did was just very big.
DV: The film really does have a certain sense of joie de vivre that admittedly caught me a little off guard. Granted you aren’t on screen for most of the film, but there are a handful of moments where everyone is…were those shooting days basically as fun as they came across on screen?
AM: (Smiles) Oh absolutely, ABSOULTELY. Shooting those opening and closing scenes were just an absolutely joyous affair. Mostly because it was about sharing screen time with this amazing cast that the film has, I honestly don’t think that you’d be able to get all those people together again in the same room. With Ewan (McGregor), Ian (McKellen), Emma (Thompson), Emma (Watson), Dan (Stevens), Kevin (Kline), Luke (Evans), Josh (Gad), Stanley (Tucci) & Gugu (Mbatha-Raw) all in the same room together, it will be pretty impossible to make something like that happen again. We just had a ball, I mean it might have been hard on poor Bill Condon our director to get us all to shut up (Laughs) but we just had a grand old time.
DV: How was it working with Bill (Condon) especially considering that this is probably one of the bigger film productions that you have ever been involved with so far in your career?
AM: Yeah, Bill…I mean considering how big of a production this truly was, he really had such a sense of grace and joy. We never saw him sweat and really was quite happy the entire time. It felt like a very easy going process and he was a joy to be with because he truly made everyone feel very safe. Yup, there’s no scandal, nothing! (Laughs) I had a great time.
DV: I’ve got to imagine that’s so important though, because the animated version of this film is obviously so overwhelmingly beloved that even despite the loaded ensemble it could have felt, at least initially like a bit of a risky project to undertake?
AM: Oh yeah, I mean it’s a complicated and difficult task to be sure and while I obviously don’t want to speak for Bill, at least for me it felt like no one was trying to erase, or get rid of or improve upon something which in many ways was already a perfect film in the 1991 animated version. I think it just came down to wanting to see what kind of Beauty and the Beast could be made given the tools that we have at our disposal today that we didn’t have then. And at the same time it was very important that we honor that classic film, but definitely don’t think anyone was trying to ‘fix’ it anyway, just creating the same story with a different set of brushes to work with.
DV: Especially considering your role as well, given how much bombast the character has and that you bring to the screen. Were there any moments where you were worried about taking it too far or at least making sure that you had the right note to it all?
AM: (Laughs) Let’s put it this way, Stanley Tucci and I who spend most of our scenes together were convinced by the end of production that we were both going win Oscars for our work (Laughs). There really was NOTHING subtle about anything that we were doing. Thankfully that was completely right for the characters and we trusted Bill to reign us in. We’d always ask him to tell us if we were going too far, and he always assured us that he had a close eye on us both the entire time. He trusts who he casts as well and you get that from him very early on in the process as well.
DV: Did you get a lot of interaction with the rest of the ensemble, outside of those scenes where you are all together in the same place?
AM: We only had about a week together for all the scenes where we were all human but otherwise we didn’t have any time together because for all the voice over work you are just by yourself. However this whole press tour and promoting the film really has been quite a lovely reunion for us all. Reconnecting with everyone has really been a lot of fun.
DV: Throughout your career it always seems like you have managed to maintain a certain degree of balance between doing TV, Stage, Music & Film; making sure that you aren’t always on set, or doing 6 shows a week. How key has that been for you in building and maintain a career all these years?
AM: Oh sure, it’s been very important to me, especially being a parent. I mean I will never stop doing theatre, but sometimes you like to be at home with the kids so I’ll go do some concerts where I get to at least be home most nights in the week. I tend to just trust that the right opportunity comes along in the right time in my life for the right reasons. I know it sounds a little mystical or something, but I really just trust that it will all come at the right time for the right reasons. If I need a break from theatre, then something like Beauty and the Beast comes along and I’ve always managed to make it work out that way.
DV: Now granted you’ve probably heard this to death but I loved the ‘Carpool Karaoke” that you got to do with James Corden before the Tony’s and considering what someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda has done with Hamilton giving the musical a little more pop culture sway and currency in the current media landscape outside of the major cities like New York and I am curious to hear what you perspective on it all is.
AM: Oh I think it’s absolutely wonderful. Given what Lin-Manuel has done and the fact that my daughters and my nieces and all my friends kids who were all so desperate to see Hamilton are now doing better in their American history classes because of Hamilton. Lin then becomes a gateway for people who may not have necessarily looked at any kind of musical theatre before either as a career or even just as an art form and as entertainment has really revitalized the art form and given it some really longevity. For me it’s all good and I think it just adds decades if not centuries on to the life of this art form.
DV: Just to wrap it up and this is a bit of a loaded question but if there was one role across any medium that you Audra McDonald would want to play, what would it be? What’s your dream job?
AM: (Laughs) I can never answer this question, I mean playing in Gypsy would be really interesting and then of course maybe getting to revisit Bess in Porgy & Bess which was such a huge bucket list moment for me but I think I would love to play a Disney villain at some point, it would be too much fun.
DV: I would lobby for that, I like it! Thanks again for the time today and congratulations on everything.
AM: Thanks it was great to talk with you.
Beauty and the Beast is tearing up the Global Box Office as we speak, go see it…and then go see it again.