The only performer to have won six Tony Awards—three before the age of 30—and the only one to bring home statuettes in all four acting categories, Audra McDonald is a singularly talented actor and singer. She is equally at home on Broadway—whether in A Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess, or unleashing her riveting performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill—as she is on the concert stage. Having graduated from Juilliard in classical voice training, McDonald has been accompanied by some of the world’s greatest orchestras. She has won two Grammys. Her film career began in 1996, and she recently appeared as Aretha Franklin’s mother in Respect. She has also worked extensively in television, notably as Dr. Naomi Bennett in Private Practice and attorney Liz Reddick-Lawrence in The Good Wife and The Good Fight. She donned a doctor’s lab coat once again in The Bite, a satirical drama shot during the pandemic. McDonald talks to World Screen about the innovative techniques used to shoot that series, the fifth season of The Good Fight and the differences between acting on stage and in episodic television.
WS: I’m not into zombies, but when I watched the first episode of The Bite, I was hooked. What appealed to you about the project and the role of Dr. Rachel Boutella?
MCDONALD: I love and adore working with Robert and Michelle King. When they came up with this idea, I, too, was not into the zombie genre, but this idea appealed to me. Because we are learning something new every day about this virus, the variants and whatnot, it didn’t seem that far-fetched. I think something connected with what’s going on in terms of the zeitgeist, the anxiety and [disinformation]. It’s just that crazy. I was quite attracted to that type of project.
WS: I understand that The Bite was shot during Covid, making innovative use of iPhones.
MCDONALD: It was wild the way we shot it. Taylor Schilling, myself, my husband [Will Swenson], Steven Pasquale and Phillipa Soo all shot on set. But most of the supporting cast and guest artists were sent a kit to their apartments or homes. And they had to set up the kit, set up the lights, do their own hair, do their own makeup, and get on Zoom with the directors and producers and the cameramen, who helped them and guided them through. The rest of us were shooting in the townhouse they were renting in the city, and the iPhone cameras were placed all around the set. We were housed in the basement, and the camera crew was on the sixth floor. They would come down, set everything up and then go back up to their floor. Then we would get a text saying you can now come up. So, we would go up, and there would be nobody there. The only person on set with us would be the director, who was being tested on the same schedule as we were. This was pre-vaccines. We had to do our own hair and makeup, put on our costumes and all that stuff. We would shoot and then they would say, “We have to change the cameras,” so we’d go down and hide out, and the crew would come down. We doubled up and stayed safe. It was kind of amazing that we got through it that way, but we did.
WS: You started working on season five of The Good Fight when the vaccines were already available, so was it a little easier on set?
MCDONALD: Vaccines started to be available as we started shooting, so everyone was still being tested every day. The only people allowed to take off their masks were the actors and that was only when they said, “And we’re rolling,” and we’d take our masks off. Otherwise, our masks were on. People started to get vaccinated during that time. I got both of my vaccinations between shooting episodes two through four.
WS: Season four was cut short because of the pandemic. For anyone who hasn’t seen the beginning of season five yet, tell us how the writers were able to fill in the blanks and bring the audience up to a Biden presidency instead of—I’m going to be political—the nightmare of the Trump presidency.
MCDONALD: Yes, yes! They had a wonderful device to do it. They decided to use “previously on The Good Fight,” but instead of showing scenes of episodes we had already shot, they showed scenes of what happened to the characters between the pandemic and everything shutting down to rolling into the Biden presidency. It was a series of vignettes that took you from that time, but all considered as “previously on.” It was a smart way of [filling in the audience]. They could defy convention and they didn’t have to make it linear. Just provide bullet points of what happened to these characters and what happened in the world and get us to this moment. Then with the second episode, they started with, “OK, we’re in the Biden presidency.”
WS: The atmosphere is a little bit lighter compared to previous seasons! There’s a little more normalcy!
MCDONALD: [Laughs] But only a little!
WS: Mandy Patinkin is fascinating as self-appointed Judge Wackner in his alternate court.
MCDONALD: Yes, with his, what do we call it? Kangaroo cookie court! It’s interesting! Again, as usual, the Kings are putting a mirror up to serious issues and doing it in a way that seems slightly absurd but makes a point.
WS: What different creative “muscles,” so to speak, does theater stretch compared to episodic television?
MCDONALD: The creative impetus is all the same. But as to the muscles that are stretched, when you are doing theater, usually you want to achieve the same thing, the same commitment, the same beats, the same emotional journey, and you have to do it on a nightly basis. You have to bring it alive in that same way every night, and you need to hit the back wall and make sure that everybody in that entire theater—be it 200 people or 2,500 people or even more—receives the same performance. It’s grueling in a different way than in television, where there are long hours on set. You do 5, 10, 15, 20 takes, but once you get it, then it’s in the can; it’s there. You don’t ever revisit it. In television, in front of the camera, you have to think loudly but not be as big as you usually would in theater, because it would be too big for the camera to take and the audience at home would think, Whoa, what’s going on there? In that sense, it’s the same beat, but there are different muscles that you have to flex.
WS: Do you have a preference? Do you enjoy them both?
MCDONALD: I enjoy them both. The theater is my first love, my first playing pitch; it’s the first thing I did. Both hold special places in my heart.
WS: I’ve always found it interesting that some Hollywood stars have tried theater and have not been received well by critics. It’s a different way of performing, isn’t it?
MCDONALD: It is. You can’t use the same muscles that you use for film and television. You have to be able to lift off the stage into the audience. What you’re doing may be brilliant, but if it’s so small that someone beyond the second row can’t see it, or feel it, or experience what you’re trying to get across, then it’s a moot point.
WS: You are a co-founder of Black Theatre United. How did that come together and what are its goals?
MCDONALD: Black Theatre United was founded by Black members of the theater community. Lots of friends and colleagues with whom I have worked for 20 or 30 years [came together] in the wake of the George Floyd murder. We formed Black Theatre United to bring awareness, accountability, advocacy and action to see if we can change the industry to make it more inclusive, more diverse and more anti-racist for everybody. These are issues around the country that affect Black bodies, Black talent and Black lives.
WS: What upcoming projects do you have?
MCDONALD: I’m looking forward to getting back to the theater, and hopefully, that will happen within the next two years. I am a member of the cast of Julian Fellowes’ show The Gilded Age. That stars Christine Baranski, too, with whom I’ve been working a lot. We just shot the first season of that, so I’m looking forward to that getting out into the world as well.