Audra McDonald is #BlackGirlMagic personified. Why? Because the singer and actress has racked up a laundry list of awards, honors and accolades, including a record breaking six Tony Awards—more than any other actor. Because President Barack Obama awarded her with the National Medal of Arts. Because she’s been an ally, advocate and tireless supporter for equal rights, LGBTQ causes and underprivileged youth. And because now she is sprinkling her Black girl magic all over Disney’s latest film, a live-action version of the classic tale, Beauty and the Beast.
EBONY sat down with McDonald to talk about her role as Madam Garderobe—the Beast’s Italian opera singer who has, along with the castle’s other inhabitants, fallen under a curse and now exists as a very animated, inanimate object—but the conversation quickly turned from light-hearted banter to what it means to be a Black female entertainer, a feminist living in these tumultuous times, raising two daughters to be bold and independent in their brown skin and standing for those who cannot stand for themselves.
EBONY: You’re known for your ability to transform yourself for your roles, especially in your last project as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and now in Beauty and the Beast. But how does one go about preparing to transform into a wardrobe?
Audra McDonald: (laughs) It helps that they’re humans first so you’ve got that basis for the character and so here I am, an African American woman playing some sort of wild, crazy Italian operatic diva from the 1800s, who then turns into a wardrobe, so talk about transformation!
Basically I just went off of what I know about opera singers and characterized that. I had a really great Italian diction teacher when I was at Julliard, and she taught me how to sing in Italian—I used that for my inspiration. Then when you’re doing the voice work as the object, the director is in there with you saying, “Ok she’s trying to get down the stairs now so I need to hear the ugh,” or, “She’s falling asleep but she’s still trying to sing so can you snore.” The exploration is very freeing. You just feel very safe and you’re in a Disney film, it’s like you’re playing. It’s make believe.
EBONY: Emma Watson characterized Belle as an activist, and even possibly a feminist. Where do you stand on the feminist spectrum?
McDonald: I consider myself to be a feminist. My hope and goal is that I’m going to raise two very strong independent women that won’t need anybody, unless they chose that. I want them to be mistresses of their own destiny. But I don’t judge people on the other end of that spectrum either. It’s just where you fall.
EBONY: On Twitter you have the now-famous Senator Mitch McConell quote that Senator Elizabeth Warren “was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.” How do you see that manifesting in your own life?
McDonald: Oh, I was constantly [told], “You’re too dramatic,” and what do I do? I turn it into a career. In terms of being an African American woman, I was raised being told by my mom, “This is how society is going to see you. You MUST rise about that. Rise above the way society is going to see you and society is going to see you at the absolutely bottom of the totem pole because not only are you female, you are Black. Never believe it and never give into that, that that’s where you live or that’s who you are.”
I was being colorblind casted in roles. I played Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music and everybody’s like, “Well she wouldn’t have been this and that, she shouldn’t be playing it.” Well I’m going to do it and I did it. I’ve been warned my entire life and I’ve persisted and that’s what I hope my children will do as well.
EBONY: Speaking of your children and playing roles that they can possibly be proud of, how important is that for you to either embody “Black girl magic” or find those images for your little girls?
McDonald: It’s all of it. It’s absolutely important. My daughters are biracial, so I probably maybe went a little too far early on. When my 16-year-old was young all her dolls were Dora and darker. They were all brown, brown and black dolls and one day she started crying. She must have been three or something and was like, “None of my dolls look like me” because my daughter has lighter skin and I realized, oh I’ve gone too far in that direction. I have to make sure that I embrace all that she is.
And so it’s a constant awareness to make sure that she is embracing her whole self and that she is seeing absolutely Black girl magic and that is something that is very important to her. In fact we did the Women’s March in New York and she had a shirt that I got her that said “Danger: Educated Black Woman” and she wore that as we marched down the street and she was very proud. So Black girl magic is a very important thing in our household for sure.
EBONY: The Beast—and the story of the Beast—represents tolerance of a whole person, of who they are, not just what they look like and that’s an important message in today’s narrative when there’s a ban on some Muslims and taking away personal freedoms to simply use the restroom in your full self. What do you say about this message of the Beast?
McDonald: It’s very important that this story’s out there and in a time when we need to make sure that we’re looking past just the surface and looking into the soul. Also, the allegory in this story is with the Beast is the most beautiful package—Gaston—is the monster so we should not judge books by their cover. Because if that’s the case then you’re going to have a monster living and being in control of everything as opposed to a good soul.
EBONY: You’re an LGBTQ activist and this film certainly is more inclusive than any other Disney film that we’ve seen. There’s been some hubbub about that but I’m sure for you, being an activist, this was a great move on Disney’s behalf.
McDonald: We know what the message of Beauty and the Beast is, but more importantly Disney is reflecting the world that is. In the end the message is to learn to love others and learn to love yourself and that’s what’s most important. And that’s what Disney has encapsulated with this film.
Beauty and the Beast is in theaters nationwide.