Art Talk with Anika Noni Rose
Actress Anika Noni Rose arrives at the 42nd NAACP Image Awards held at The Shrine Auditorium on March 4, 2011, in Los Angeles, California. (Source: Jason Merritt/Getty Images North America)
If you don't recognize her face---from her Tony-winning turn in Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, her sizzling Maggie the Cat in the all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Debbie Allen, or from giving Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson a run for their money in the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls---then you're bound to recognize Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Tiana in Disney's The Princess and the Frog. Add in notable runs on hit shows such as The Good Wife, Private Practice, and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and it's clear that Rose is a triple triple threat. She may have gotten her first starring role through a combo of stage fright and outright nepotism---okay, she was only in the single digits at the time---but it's her sheer talent that's brought her to the notice of Broadway and Hollywood alike. We caught up with Rose by phone to chat about the artist's life, why being a Disney princess was a dream come true, and where she keeps her Tony award.
NEA: What does it mean in your day-to-day life to be an artist?
ANIKA NONI ROSE: It means alternately intense and strict discipline and absolute freedom. When working, I think there is a level of discipline that is higher than many people would base as their standard. The joy of that is when the job is over your day is free. So when you're watching your neighbors trek off to their 9-5, you're deciding what to do that pleases you or what to do to keep your career moving---be it physically taking care of yourself or auditioning or whatever, but there's a little bit more freedom in your time when it's not strictly in a work mode.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience/engagement with the arts?
ROSE: I don't remember not having arts as part of my life. My parents were very much into music and theater and dance. I have an uncle who is a visual artist, a couple actually, and so it was never not a part of my life. The first time that I remember doing something on a stage though I didn't have it in my mind to be a performer was when I was invited to my cousin's church play to play an angel. [My cousin] had the solo to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” which was one of my favorite songs as a kid for Christmas. He went up to sing and he had his little drum and he stood in front of the stage and he became mute. He was just petrified looking out at the audience. The story is I walked up to him, softly pushed him to the side, and sang the song. You know I don't remember doing it, but I remember my outfit because I remember my dad made me a halo that he built himself, he fashioned himself, and he made me my very own fabulous pair of wings. I remember that much more than moving the cousin out of the way, and I have a keen memory of not being invited back to be part of that church pageant until I was a teenager.
NEA: What was your path to becoming an actor and deciding this was what you were going to do professionally?
ROSE: I wasn't one of those kids who was in ballet lessons at four; I didn't realize I could sing until I was 14, that I could really sing. Randomly a director came to our school and directed [the musical Fame], and I decided, like you do when you're 13, that I was going to do it because my mother had that music and I knew that music and I was just going to do it. I auditioned, and I actually didn't get the lead part, but that person had to drop out, and I ended up taking the lead. That was my first time really feeling myself as a performer…. I knew in that moment that that was what I wanted to do.
NEA: You perform on stage, you've done TV, you've done film. How do you think each of those media differ in terms of acting for them? And is there one that you love more than the others?
ROSE: I have to say that I don't approach them much differently, at least I don't think about it when I'm doing it, that I have to tone down for this and bring it up for that. I think naturally you sort of adapt to your space. If you're on a stage with 1,500 seats in the audience, you cannot be so intimate that the audience is like "What? What are they saying?” But as far as the craft of creating the character and within the world of what you're doing, I approach that the same way. Film is interesting and television because you're not working in a timeline that makes sense. For example, when we shot Dreamgirls, we would be 22 at the beginning of the day, and 17 after lunch, and you'd come back and it would be a totally different year. So that's always interesting to me.
As far as [a favorite medium], I really love theater. I love the stage. I love the live energy of a performance, and the challenge of finding something new every night and rolling with whatever comes; omething's always different whether you want it to be or not. I love the exchange with the audience, and with my fellow actors. You can work on a film and never see somebody that's on the film…. I really love doing film because there's a dramatic aspect to doing a film anyway just because everything is so intense and fast and important. Everything needs to happen right now…. And then you chill out for four hours… and then it's important again. But there's a hugeness… around a film that makes it exciting. I love traveling to different places with a film and immersing myself in different cultures, and I think there's something very thrilling about that.
TV is probably my least favorite thing to do. I don't dislike it, but of the three, theater and film are at the top, and then I can do TV too. The interesting thing is that TV right now is so---to repeat a word---interesting. So it is something that you want to do because the quality of TV has gone up substantially in the past few years. It used to be you had a couple of good shows, and you'd say, we'll watch such and such on Thursday night. But now, HBO and AMC and all of these different [networks] have really revitalized what's happening on television and made it a catch for actors who probably would not have thought of doing television at another time. I don't love the schedule of television; it's so grueling. But I do love where television is going, and as soon as we can get rid of these reality shows, it'll be even better.
NEA: You won a Tony Award for Caroline, or Change. Can you talk about how you got involved with that project? I'm also curious what it’s like to originate a role as opposed to stepping into a role that other people have previously played? We also need to know where you keep your Tony!
ANR: My Tony is in Connecticut with my family. I have my nomination certificate at my apartment but you know, there's nothing like the moment and being at that ceremony and having it happen and holding the actual statue. That is incomparable. And even though I don't have it up, it's not like I'm not proud of it and don't feel anything about it. You just really can't touch the moment. But also I've been waiting to have a place, a special place, to put it…. I don't just want to have it sitting on my bookshelf. I don't know. I always felt that I needed some place special, and right now that special place is with my family.
There is something very special about creating a role. When you step into a role, which is fun as well, the guidelines are set, and you're… like the cookie dough being poured into the cutter that's already there. You're still trying to create a shape that is your own, but you only have so much wiggle room. The amazing thing about creating a role, and I think everybody in the cast of Caroline would say this, everyone that was there from the beginning, that music is written to us, it's tuned to our voices. Emmie wasn't actually even supposed to be as large a character as she ended up being. She grew as Tony [Kushner, the play’s author] saw her potential within what we were doing together in that room, and I'm not giving myself credit for that, but when you're creating something together in a room, everybody vibes off of what people are bringing. So they expand and contract and turn corners you didn't necessarily know were there because of the life that's in the room. And it's amazing to have songs written to your voice, and it's always going to be harder for the next person stepping in because they're trying to make their voice do what somebody else's does. Even if you have the range that somebody else has, it doesn't mean that your voice is going to do what they do. So, in that, you need to make something your own. Because you can't be the other person, and that's a challenge that you're giving yourself that you just can't fill. So you have to be your version of what that role is.
I would say there's nothing like taking a piece from page to stage. It's really phenomenal, and I met Tony Kushner when I was at [American Conservatory Theatre] in grad school. He saw me in my first show there, which was Robert O'Hara's Insurrection: Holding History, so he offered me a role in Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Doctor Browne, and I did that at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I moved to New York a couple of years later, and I was called in for Caroline. [Tony] knew me so he called me in for the [part of] "The Radio," and I didn't really know how to be a radio in an audition. I didn't really know… how to bring that into the room. As somebody who comes into the room as fully immersed in that person who I am playing as possible, I was a little confused. So I went in as myself and sang the cycle of music that I was supposed to sing. And they looked at me as myself and said, "We want you to come back as Emmie.” And I said okay. At that point, Emmie had like one scene but I read that scene, and I thought, I know exactly who this is. This I get. And the rest is history.
NEA: Is there a certain kind of character that you find yourself drawn to?
ROSE: I don't look for a specific character. What I do look for is somebody different from the last person I played, Somebody that is going to stretch me somehow and be a challenge in some way because I'm not interested in being the same person all the time. That's boring. And I have to believe that it would be boring for my audience…. I'm looking for something different when I read a script, and hopefully the character speaks to me somehow. I know that sounds very hoodoo but... Usually if I'm very connected to a character---some characters you don't get connected to until you've worked with them for a while and then you have a moment where you're like, oh, okay---but there are some characters for which I hear the voice as I am reading the piece. I hear what that voice is going to sound like, and I know that if I hear that voice that I have an innate connection to that person. It doesn't mean that I understand the whole role, it doesn't mean that it's written out, it means there is something that connects me within this character and it's something that is really well written, and when that happens, it's very exciting.
NEA: Is there a role that you took on even though it really scared you?
ROSE: I have to think about that for a second…. I don't think I can say there was a role that scared me to death. There were moments in the rehearsal period of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, before we got on the stage, before we were physically able to be a part of the room, where I was stressed to death. I thought, okay, I have 50 minutes of monologue in the first act of that piece, and I understood what I was supposed to be saying and I understood what I was doing, and I loved Maggie---I've loved Maggie since [I was in] school---but it wasn't until I was physically able to touch things and move in the space and get my blocking that it really locked in with me and it felt right. Because those 50 minutes are something that have to, I think, flow from your spirit and your soul. There's no room to be thinking about what you're doing, and it wasn't until I received the physicality of what I was doing that it locked in and it felt all mine.
NEA: You played Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, making you the first African-American Disney princess. What was that experience like?
ROSE: I auditioned for that three times over a four-month period. One of those auditions was me flying to Australia to work for one day, getting on the plane and flying back to Los Angeles, receiving a new song that evening, and then going in the next day to audition. So that was pretty crazy. But I didn't care because I'd wanted to be a Disney voice my entire life, and I wasn't even aiming for princess. I didn't care what it was. So when this came up, I felt it was right, and I felt it from the beginning. There have been several roles where I've [thought], oh yes, this is for me. And I've felt it and there's nothing that could have shaken that feeling within me. It doesn't happen all the time but when it has, it's been true. And that was one of those times.
It doesn't mean it was an easy road to get there. When I first walked into the audition, I had sides and I must have sung six songs in the first audition. And then the second audition was the crazy Australia audition back and forth and a brand new song and different side, and the third audition was calmer than that because they knew what direction they wanted to go in and it was just a different thing. But I wanted that role so badly. I remember walking through Disney Studios, and I was shaking walking through that hallway looking at all of the gels that they have on the wall of Snow White and Fantasia, and all of these things that I grew up. [I was] shaking because the want in me for that role was so palpable.
I am so thankful that that it came along at the right time for it to be me! Having said that out loud, it sounds really selfish but, you know, it's the truth. If it had come maybe two years earlier, I may not even have gotten in the room to audition, so I am really thankful because that was a lifelong dream of mine and each step of the way of that process was more and more stunning to me. When they unveiled [the animation of Tiana] to me, the first time I saw her, she wasn't even in color, she was in black-and-white, but she moved and she spoke---I was sobbing. Then I had a toy fair and… [they told me], we need you to look at something at the end, we just need you to okay it, and I turned around, and there she was full-blown in color, and they played the opening sequence of her singing that song. I mean those people made me cry all the time. They made me cry all the time out of joy and just amazement. It's amazing when you are aware that your dream is living before you---it's awesome.
NEA: What does it mean to you to be a black artist, a woman artist, an American artist?
ROSE: You know as a woman actor, we have less opportunities just as a given, just straight out the gate. As a woman of color, you can cut that down some more. It's very interesting. Do I think about that every day? No. But you know I just watched theGolden Globes last weekend where there were five people of color in the audience. And I don't mean sitting in the back who bought tickets---I mean creatives, part of that process. I'm sort of exaggerating with the number five, but not much. So when those moments come and you're looking out and you're not represented, that’s always disappointing, and a bit of a let-down.
However, I've also been really really lucky with the opportunities that have come my way. I'm very thankful for the things that I've been able to do in spite of the odds that are always there….. I just wish there were more opportunities to just tell an every day story. Just a story. Not a story where I talk about being black or you have to mention somebody else's color or the Latino person has to make an enchilada or the Asian chick is either a sex queen or kicking through some damn tree---I mean people being able to tell an everyday story about living and loving and laughing or hurting without it being special that they look, sound, are what they are. The specialness is in what we bring to the role but it shouldn't have to be commented on all the time. And I'm still hoping that we get more of that cause it's lacking.
NEA: What do you think the role of the artist is in the community?
ROSE: To tell a story. It's telling a story; we're the griots. We tell the story of what happened before us, of what's going on now, of what could possibly happen. We shape the story. And I think the responsibility of the artist is to tell the story truthfully, whatever that means to them. Sometimes you're telling a fantasy. I hope to be telling a fantasy sometime soon; I hope to be a superhero or a villain in something. And, of course, no I'm not actually flying, but in the world of that story it needs to be truthful. It needs to be honest and it needs to be real. When I'm telling a story I want people to be so caught up in whatever I'm doing in that moment that they have no time to be worried about what's going on in their lives that's not good, wishing they could leave and go do something else, or thinking about taxes, and any of that stuff. I want you to be so engrossed in my truth that you are taken away for a while, for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, or 15 minutes, if that's the only time I'm there. I want you to be taken away.
NEA: What does Art Works mean to you?
ROSE: Art works to keep children off the streets, art works to help young people express themselves, art works to make a day better, art works to tell the stories for those who can't, art works as a necessity.