Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
July 26th, 2016
Heather Headley didn’t so much dip her toe back into Broadway after fifteen years living outside of New York, as she jumped in with a flying leap to the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple. She started performances during Tony season, a time of extra scrutiny on Broadway. The show would go onto win Best Revival of a Musical at the Tony Awards. Heather’s Broadway debut was equally auspicious. She originated the role of Nala in The Lion King and then originated the title role in Aida for which she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical at the age of 26. Between then and now she’s also earned a Grammy Award for her work as a recording artist and ventured to London to star in the West End production of The Bodyguard. We spoke to Heather in her dressing room at the Jacobs Theatre before a two-show day about her acting process, coming into The Color Purple, developing as an artist, and more.
What is your acting process like? When you see a character on a page what’s your entry point?
I think my entry point is finding out what everybody else says about the character. I kind of need to read through the whole script and have the other characters instruct me on the person. I think the person tells you a lot, of course, and their scenes tell you a lot, but I think the other characters can sometimes tell you about the history, about what they feel about this person. I think, just like in normal life, a lot of times it’s other people’s perceptions of a person that sometimes gives us a feel for them, whether they be positive or negative. I always think how great a man is by the way his mom speaks of him or his wife speaks about him. I think sometimes that’s my entry point. I like to kind of enter before the character gets there. Why is she where she is? Why is she behaving the way she is? Who is she before this starts? I love the subtext of the characters. Yes, the character is on the page, but there’s so much depth to that person. I want that person to be three-dimensional. She’s had a beginning, she’s had a birth, she will have a death at some point. Who is this person? How would she react? How would she walk? It’s all that kind of stuff you sort of figure out. I think my entry point is maybe through the eyes of the other characters, as well, trying to figure out what they think about the person and how that instructs me. With Shug, they say so many things about her that she doesn’t say. I think those other things are more important to me sometimes than what she says.
For The Color Purple did you find that you had to adjust your process coming into a show that was already up and running?
Before I even said yes, I asked to speak to John Doyle. I said, “I have to talk to [director] John Doyle. I need to find out how he wants to do this process.” I’ve never replaced before. I say that in all humility, and also proudly. I have a completely new appreciation for all the replacements that I’ve worked with and ask them to forgive me. However, I’ve never replaced before. I needed to know what he was thinking. The other side of this was I was coming in a week after the Tony nominations. To me, as a person who has gone through the Tony process, that’s when you want your show just clicked in. To throw in me, as the spoke in the wheel, could be a little scary for everybody involved, especially for Cynthia [Erivo]—I have the most scenes with her. John called and we spoke and I just said, “I need to know what your vision is for Shug. I need to know how you see her, if I have differing thoughts to that, and also can I be me? Can I change it? Is it a blank slate? Do you need it to be exactly the way Jennifer [Hudson] did it?” That kind of thing. He said, “No. Just bring everything to the table. It’s going to be carte blanche. You have fun.” Which I feel, especially at the time that they were in, was a great gift and a great just trusting of me to do that. Also, I think John Doyle is a great director and that he could maneuver us down the right line. That was a great gift in my case. I know other actors don’t get that. A lot of actors come in and get, “This is how you do this, this is how it’s going to be,” but it was good.
How do you find that balance between your interpretation of the character with coming into a company that already has their own interpretations of who your character is?
I feel like I’m in the back of the class sometimes, because I’m coming in midyear to school and you’re coming into the AP class. You have a choice to either become an A student, or are they going to kick you off? That’s how it’s been with these guys. They have been incredibly encouraging, incredibly open, incredibly accepting of whatever I would do onstage and would work with it. Now, needless to say, I have to also make adjustments. With Cynthia I said, “You tell me what you need for certain little things, and I’m going to give you everything.” She never really did. That part of it was a little scary. You want to be able to be a help [to the production], especially before the Tonys. But they’ve been very encouraging, very accepting as I said, very open to whatever I would bring in.
One of the things that has come up when I’ve talked to people who have either come into shows or who have been opposite people coming into shows is the fact that you also do so much more of the work onstage in front of an audience, rather than in rehearsal. What is that process like?
I don’t like rehearsals, I’m going to be honest about that. Some people love it. I hate it. I need an audience. They push me forward. I need to hear them laugh, I need to hear them sniffle, I need to see them look at me like, “What are you doing?” I need them. I don’t believe in the fourth wall, so I feel like it’s a symbiotic relationship. They help me move my character in a certain way. I’ve always had the rehearsal in front of the mirror where you get to kind of work out some of the kinks that they don’t need to see, that they didn’t pay for. For this, I didn’t have that much time in front of the mirror. It was ten days, I think. I had the rehearsals, and then came in. In front of the audience is a completely different experience, and one that scared me a little bit, made me very anxious, but also I embraced it because I love being in front of them. They really do help me. Just to be able to have them there and you hear them laugh or you hear them not laugh, and you’re like, “All right, well, that doesn’t work. Let’s try something else.”
Going off of that, something that’s come up periodically in interviews is the idea that theatre can do more to get audiences to engage in the material more, or be active participants, active listeners, active audience members.
I think some shows need it, some shows don’t. Sometimes the audience goes too far, where they start talking back to you. You’re like, “Eh, okay. We didn’t want you to be that much into it.” In our show, the first number is a church number, so it kind of tells them, “We want you to talk. It’s okay to make noises and talk back and applaud and do all that kind of stuff.” I think it’s according to the show. There are some shows that you don’t need it. Then, there are other shows that need it, require it. I think it’s just the opening of your heart. I do think you feel this gush of emotion, this wave of, “We’re here and we’re ready,” coming from the audience. I don’t think the audience needs to applaud for everything we do. If it’s not good, we don’t deserve the applause. Don’t applaud for effort. We’re on Broadway. We should give you better than that. They have the right to be like, “Didn’t like that,” which I hate saying that, but it’s not high school. In high school, we applaud for everything, but this is Broadway. I think as long as they know that it’s a symbiotic relationship. I can see you. To me, looking out in the audience and seeing you asleep or bored or playing with your phone kind of changes things even from our end. The Color Purple audience is a different beast. I’ve gone to the theatre and seen shows where the audience is very, very silent and they won’t applaud or speak back. That’s difficult for the actors, I think. All we ever wanted is to perform. From the time we were kids, we were in the mirror like, “Hey, I’ve got my brush and I’m going to sing.” That’s all we’ve ever wanted. When you get a group of people who are just kind of not wanting to be there, that’s tough, I think.
What’s your relationship with music like? Are you visual, do you kind of see it? Are you attracted to the lyrics or the melody first?
I am attracted to all of it. If you give me a song I’ve never heard, I’m always quite interested in the lyrics. If I had to pick which one I would go with first, maybe it would be that. I think a good writer gives you everything. A good musician actually puts in the commas and the full stops for you. I always think of the end of [the song from] Les Mis, for her [Eponine’s] song, when it’s like, “I love him,” I always think, “Comma.” “I love him, comma, I love him, comma, but only on my own. Period.” They do that for you. Somebody else might write it differently, “I love him I love him,” and it doesn’t work as well. I think a great musician writes that in for you. One of my teachers, when we were in college, he used to say musicals are beautiful because when you can speak no longer, you sing, and when you can sing no longer, you speak. The songs are an extension of the scene. If I get a lyric and it says, “You’re too beautiful, too beautiful for words,” that speaks to me. Then, all of a sudden, I need to figure out how to put the music on it. For me, personally, the way I work is that I will speak the lyrics in my head. I’ll figure out like, “Well, how would I say that?” and then try to sing it as closely to that.
What other areas of culture affect your work?
Everything. I think your life affects it. Being a mommy affects it. Being a wife affects it. Walking down the street affects it. Things that are going on in the news. Unfortunately, I have this television in here, and so that’s affected it. I watch the news and there have been a few days the past few weeks of going downstairs very heavy-hearted and carrying it on the stage. Then there are things that I see that are funny and I take it on. The beauty with this show, the beauty with Aida, was that I always got a chance to cry—I get a minute to cry things out that I see or deal with or anything. It’s incredibly cathartic.
You studied theatre at Northwestern and started working during college. I’m always interested in how that affects how you develop as a person. Especially in the theatre where you have a lot of people being like, “This is what you’re good at, this is what you’re not so good at. This is your type.” How does that affect how you view yourself as a person and how you kind of continue to develop as an artist?
A few times in my life—just a few, and I don’t want any more—I’ve had laryngitis. When I get laryngitis, my throat goes, “I’ll see you in two weeks. I’m going on vacation.” Nothing, nothing. It’s very scary because my voice is on shut-down. I cannot talk. The doctor is like, “Do not speak.” When I do start to speak again, your voice is almost atrophied. It needs a minute to get itself back. During this time, I’m incredibly depressed and despondent, and my husband said to me one time, “Who are you without your voice? Who is Heather without your voice?” It was the most poignant question for me, because from the time that I’ve known myself, I am Heather who sings. I am Heather who sings. “Heather? Heather who?” “Oh, you know, Heather who sings.” High school, “Heather who sings.” The guy who didn’t want to give me attention, I was like, “You should come to the musical. You’ll like me after that.” That’s what you use. You get to college and people are like, “This is your type. This is who you are. You’re Heather who sings.” I think it’s been the definition of who we are. When that goes away, sometimes it’s very scary to figure out, “Who am I?” I can’t even say it. “Who am I without… Who is Heather without singing?” That’s a scary place to be. I think it does mold who you are. You start protecting your voice like it’s a child, which you should. It’s a gift from God and so you should protect it. It does mold kind of everything.
Then in college people start telling you about your type. Now, that’s the scary part, because I have always said that I do not want to be pigeonholed. Do not pigeonhole me. The day that someone told me, “All you do is belt,” is the day that I would be like, “No, I’m going to sing soprano tomorrow night.” Now, maybe I don’t sing soprano as well as some other singers, but I think that’s sometimes what we do. We push people into this category and then, all of a sudden, the rest of your voice atrophies or the rest of your voice never gets any attention because you’ve always been told, “Well, this is all you do. You are a blonde soprano. Don’t ever venture over there.” That’s not what I wanted. I don’t want that for myself. I remember when they were looking for Aidas, they were kind of like, “We need a Heather Headley type.” I’m like, “Now it’s shifted. I’m the type.” It’s a very interesting question. It really does define you after a while.
Where do you think that kind of confidence came from, to be able to say, “Okay, you think I’m this, and now I’m going to go prove you wrong”?
I don’t know. My mother has always been like, “You could do that,” and maybe because I’m the first born? First born complex or something. I’m like, “No, you can’t tell me not to do that. You can’t tell me not to be friends with that person. You can’t tell me that I can’t be in show choir because I look different to everybody else in show choir. You can’t tell me that I can’t be Maria or Fanny Brice. Why not? I want to be.” I’m grateful for even my high school teachers who were like, “No, we’re going to make you Fanny Brice. You’ll be the first black Jewish Fanny Brice, but it will work out. It’ll be okay.” I won’t say that it’s always confidence. I think I go into it very trepidatiously, but maybe the first person that I’m trying to prove it to is me. I think maybe that’s the first person that I’m saying, “Oh, so-and-so says that you can’t do that,” and there’s a part of you that believes so-and-so. You kind of think to yourself, “Of course. Yeah. They’re right. I can’t sing that.” You go, “Well, now I’ve got to go prove it to Heather that you can sing it,” even if it’s just in the house. It’s just like, “Okay. I sang it. Maybe not well, I don’t want to sing it on stage, but here it is.”
It’s like that old adage, to never accept a job you know you can do.
Right, because what’s the point? Shug is completely different to everything I’ve played, or even me. She’s different. It’s just fun to kind of try something else. Who knew that she’d kind of live in my body? If you had ever told me, “Here are all the characters that you can play. Pick one,” I’d be like, “Not Shug Avery.” Who’d think that? Yeah, I think if you can do it, that’s easy. Why pick something you know you can do?
How does your spiritual life affect your work?
That’s part of my culture. Not even culture, it’s just part of me. It does affect my work. It affects what I pick. It instructs how I pick. It instructs what I pick. Then, after it’s picked, it has to instruct how I am within the theatre, on stage, what I hope to bring to the part, what I hope for the audience to see. It does instruct everything.
Coming back to Broadway after living out of New York, does it give you a different perspective?
I’m in awe of what we do. I think before when I was here, I think you kind of get used to New York. It’s kind of like the Statue of Liberty. We live here, but we never go see it. You have this attitude of kind of like, “Yeah, I’m on Broadway.” “What do you do?” “I’m on Broadway in a show. I’m in Aida. I’m Aida in Aida.” You’re just kind of like, “Aren’t you Aida in your show?” And they’re like, “No, I’m not.” It’s part of your life. Every now and then, you look up and you go, “Whoa, this is amazing.” Then you have to get back to it. I think in taking the time off, coming back, I’m in complete awe of the performers here, of this place. I’m in complete awe. I understand now that this is the crème de la crème, and that’s why I can say to you that the audience deserves the best. We are the Olympians. We should be the Olympians of our field. This is Broadway. People have Tony Awards here. Now, I’m not saying every day will be good. Every day, we’re not going to run the 100 in nine seconds, but we’re expected to be good. I just have this different appreciation for it. I’m in great gratitude. Not that I wasn’t before. I was incredibly gracious before. It’s a different gratitude now, coming from this side of it. There’s this great gratitude now, humility, awe that we do this, awe that people come on a Wednesday afternoon. Like, “Why are you here?” I think my head has been kind of spun around nicely. I like that part of it. I’m also very grateful and awed by just the journey that I’ve had. Even walking the streets coming to work, I’m thinking of Heather 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, just that girl coming into the city like, “I don’t know how I’m going to work this out.” It has.
This is a question that women get asked a lot, and men don’t, even though they should. What do you think the theatre community can do to make it easier for people to have kids and work in theatre?
We have a person who is pregnant in the cast [of The Color Purple] and I am very aware that she will leave to have the baby. Men don’t get that opportunity. She has to leave at some point. We hope that the show’s around when she comes back. It’s different for us. I acknowledge that, that it’s different for us. I think sometimes we have this slight stigma of, “Oh, I can’t get pregnant,” because we understand, “I have to leave.” It interrupts to some extent, for want of a better word, what I’m doing, and my journey. The truth is that now that I have the kids, I would have hated to turn around in 10 years and look back and go, “Uh-oh. I did everything, and I didn’t get to meet these two little stinkers.” That would be the worst thing that could happen. I hope that producers and people can be open to having mommies, to understanding. We, on our side, have to say, “Okay, look, this is how it is.” [The kids’] days are tough. I have to get a nanny. Today, I won’t see them at all until tomorrow. They understand that there are days mommy doesn’t talk and mommy is tired and we can’t run around the house. They also make a sacrifice for it. I would hope that producers can understand when moms come in and say, “Hey, I need a day because this is what’s going on.” The producers here have been very, very cool. My son has adopted a room across the way, so he has his own dressing room. I don’t think he understands he has a dressing room on Broadway, but he does. He hangs with Cynthia and thinks that they’re buddies. That’s been great, to be able to have him in the theatre and bring him in, and for him to be a part of this world, for him to be a part of my world, to understand what mommy is doing, for him to be a part of this world to understand theatre and see people and know different people, and just for him to be here is great. Tom Schumacher [President of Disney Theatrical Group] has always talked about the fact that he wanted to have almost like a nursery at the theatre, at Lion King, so that the mommies can be free to bring in their kids and do the show and get your kid and go home. I would hope it doesn’t limit women.
I’m really proud of Audra [McDonald]. Just to be doing it again and to do this [be in Shuffle Along]. At the Tonys, I was so glad they didn’t do a close up of my face because I was like, “…Are you tapping? At six months pregnant?” I will show you what I did, six months pregnant. I laid back and I ate. That’s all I did. I just think it’s great to be like, “If I’m healthy and I can do this.” Yeah, I hope it brings more mommies in, but don’t let me fool you. There are many people who have done it. Lillias White, I remember, had kids, and LaChanze had young babies when she did a show. I think she was feeding them between shows and stuff. It can work. It can work, definitely.
What’s something that you think the theatre community can do to improve how new work is developed?
We need new work. Right? We do. I’m a part of a revival, so I’m really happy about that, but we also need new work. The other day, these kids called me about Aida, and I thought to myself, “I’m it. I’m the original Aida. There’s not been a revival yet.” I understand that sometimes it’s easier to do a tested product. Even when I pick songs to sing, sometimes it’s easy for me to pick a cover song because I know what that is. I’ve heard it before. I know how to fix it. I know what I would have done if I had done it the first time, and all this kind of stuff. To have a new song, I have to kind of figure it out—the intricacies of it, would you belt that, would you not belt that? It’s a little tougher. I hope that the theatre community can provide the money, not only for some of these writers to put it on its feet and to hear it and to see what it sounds like, but then also to go, “Oh, that doesn’t work. Change it.” Even take it further from there, and to bring new work into the theatre. The audiences need to see it. The work needs to be up. Actors need to be able to do it. We need new work. Nothing against the old stuff, but it would be so great to get new work. We need new writers. We need new Sondheims and new Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flahertys and Brenda Russells. They’re sitting in their apartments trying to figure it out, and they don’t have an outlet yet to do it. If there was a way to be able to have their work funneled into something, and then that place says, “Hey, Heather, can you come and do a reading?” It would be just great for everybody involved, just for actors to put that up. I hope we can do more of that because I think the longevity of Broadway, the life of Broadway, depends on all that new work. How much fun is it to find a whole new character? You feel like, “All right. I’m going to figure this person out.”