No matter what your artistic appetite, there is something on Tracie Thoms’ eclectic resume to satisfy, from films like rom-com The Devil Wears Prada and Quentin Tarantino's thriller Grindhouse to TV police procedural Cold Case. For musical theater fans, Thomas has Rent on her resume not once but twice. The Juilliard-trained actress played lesbian lawyer Joanne first in the show’s film adaptation and later on Broadway. Now she’s back on the boards in Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, playing a young post-doctoral student meeting her boyfriend's family at their home in Martha’s Vineyard. The actress recently chatted with Broadway.com about her musical theater past, tough chick typecasting, and dealing with the expectations of a return to Broadway.
What do you love about Stick Fly?
There’s a line in the play in which we call it “mirthful dysfunction.” I love how this family functions like any other family, with all the love and the crazy issues that often aren’t seen in a family that happens to be African-American. Their problems are very complicated and very complex, and the characters are human and layered, so it’s really fun for us as actors.
What about your character, Taylor?
Taylor is so complicated because she’s dealing with a lot at once. On the one hand, she’s a little socially awkward and much too smart for her own good; she’s an entomologist who’s more comfortable around insects than she is around people. But she has found this man, Kent [West Wing vet Dule Hill], who loves all that, which is new for her because she has severe daddy issues and abandonment issues. I love the idea of young black girls who are atypical. We tend to have women who are either very urban, the really struggling and downtrodden chicks, or you have the fierce diva, and in the middle you have the normal people. Not that downtrodden women don’t exist: Those stories are very, very important, but they’re told more often than stories of women who are somewhere in the middle.
Had you been looking for a project to bring you back to Broadway, after your recent screen work?
Well I knew Stick Fly was coming and I’ve had my eye on it for a while. It’s been around for several years. When it first came out, I met Lydia and she said, “Oh my god, you’re perfect for Taylor.” But I was still doing Cold Case so I wasn’t available. It really hurt my heart, and it happened again with the Arena Stage/Huntington Theater co-production. I feel like I’ve been on a collision course with this play for a number of years, so I’m just happy it all worked out.
How is Stick Fly a different experience from your earlier turns on Broadway?
When I did my first Broadway show, Drowning Crow, there were no expectations on me. Now that people kind of know who I am, there’s more pressure. When people come to the stage door and say, “We came from the U.K. to see you because we love the Rent movie,” I’m like “That’s a lot of money you spent,” and I don’t take that lightly! That’s a responsibility, to make it worth it for them.
While you were training at Juilliard, did you imaging you’d end up working so much on screen?
I assumed I’d have a career based primarily in regional theaters. I didn’t see a lot of people that look like me on film and TV, and it’s hard to go after something where the path isn’t already set. It’s easy to say you want to do it, but you have to figure out how.
Do you think of yourself as a trailblazer?
I look at myself as someone who’s tried to make things happen regardless of the medium. I’ve had some younger people coming out of training programs now who say they look up to me, and that’s the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten.
Who were your role models when you were just starting out?
One of my biggest role models was Alfre Woodard, so getting to work with her just a few years out of school in Drowning Crow blew my mind. Now we’re rehearsing in the same place we rehearsed that play, and it’s the same bathroom where I sat and wept and told her how much I loved her. I made a complete ass of myself. Luckily, she didn’t think I was a stalker and we’re still friends.
Didn't Drowning Crow overlap with your first big TV role in Wonderfalls?
It did. I’ve had this weird way of having two or three things happen at the same time. I did Drowning Crow and Wonderfalls at the same time, I shot Grindhouse and Cold Case at the same time, I did Rent on Broadway and Cold Case at the same time. This play now is the only thing I’m doing at the moment, which is a blessing.
Does that feel luxurious?
It really does. The Rent movie was the only other thing I did on its own. I had to drop out of two other things to do that, which is a different kind of torture. It’s a sexy problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Turning down jobs is like killing babies. I don’t have any babies, so I can say that nonchalantly. I’m very happy I chose it; it changed my life.
You had an interesting trajectory with Rent, doing the movie before you did it on stage.
I did, and I think it’s in part because Joanne is one of the older characters, and when Rent was happening I was auditioning over and over and over again, I was just too young. I was 21 trying to be a lesbian lawyer. The lesbian part wasn’t a problem, but lawyer? That was problematic. I had to grow into it.
So you were a fan first?
I was totally a Renthead. While shooting the film we had to do these blogs for the website, and fans were like, "Who is this girl?" and I said, "I’m a Renthead who auditioned nine times!" So then I became kind of a Renthead hero because I made it. Living the dream.
You and Rosario Dawson (who played Mimi) were the new girls in the movie. What was it like joining a cast with that much history?
It was terrifying. I got the role before I knew that the original cast was in it. I must have blacked out that day, it was so overwhelming. I walked like 40 blocks in a daze calling everyone I’d ever met. Then I found out I was going to be with the original cast and that was a whole other freakout.
You got to duet with Idina Menzel!
And I got to put my hands on her while she was wearing rubber. It’s a perk of the job! People were like, “What’s it like for a straight girl to play a lesbian?” and I said “Well, Idina Menzel is my girlfriend, so it’s easy.”
Then you and Rosario got to reunite and beat the hell out of Kurt Russell in Grindhouse.
Wasn’t that cool? We went into the audition together for that.
We made it allowed! I had already done my callback and then she was going back in for hers, and we had this crazy idea to go in together. We both got it, so I guess it was a good one.
What was that shoot like with Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Russell? It’s the most badass film ever.
Um, did you see how we kicked Kurt Russell’s butt? It was awesome.
You play some tough ladies.
I do play a lot of tough ladies. I just filmed Meeting Evil, where I play a detective chasing Samuel L. Jackson and Luke Wilson, and Safe House, where I played a CIA agent helping track down Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. I’m always holding a gun.
Are you tough?
Not at all! Which is why I love these characters in the plays I do, who are more fragile and vulnerable and not so sure of themselves, because the truth of me lives somewhere in the middle. People love me to be these tough, badass chicks, and I’ve never been in a fight in my life. I don’t even get in arguments with people. Somehow people believe it, so I guess I’m doing my job.
See Tracie Thoms in Stick Fly at the Cort Theatre.