She’s been a TV star since she was three years old, and now Raven-Symoné is taking on a new challenge, making her Broadway debut as aspiring disco-diva Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act. The decidedly un-diva-like Symoné got her start as a youngster on hit sitcom The Cosby Show, and went on to star in Hangin’with Mr. Cooper and headline her own Disney Channel show That’s So Raven, TV movies The Cheetah Girls and The Cheetah Girls 2 and most recently the ABC Family series State of Georgia. The actress has always been a singer, as well, and between screen stints she has released four studio albums. Broadway.com chatted with Raven-Symoné about her upcoming Rialto debut, her love for Julie Andrews and Janet Jackson, distaste for drama and what she’s loving (and hating!) about life in New York.
How are things going in rehearsal for Sister Act?
They are going! It’s about to happen. I’ve got my nun costume, so you know it’s going down.
This is your first time in a Broadway show. Has anything really surprised you?
Nothing unexpected, actually. I’d talk to people right before I was gonna come out here and they’d say, “This is gonna be crazy! You’re gonna be so scared!” and I get here and I’m like, “This is fun!” So I’ve been pretty cool. Now I just want to get up there and make it happen.
You announced you were doing Sister Act on The View with [original Sister Act film star] Whoopi Goldberg. Did she give you any advice on playing Deloris?
No, she just said to listen to [director] Jerry Zaks and really concentrate, and that’s what’s going on here. The character is written so well and the musical is directed so well, so it’s fun to be able to just slip on the clothes of this fabulous character. I’m really proud to be a part of something like this.
Did you get any words of wisdom from [original Sister Act star] Patina Miller?
I was asking her and she was like, “Girl, just have fun. This is the role of a lifetime.” She worked that role, and to follow her I really need to know my stuff. To come in and only have three weeks when she's been doing it for five years, I’m like, “Whoa, I’ve gotta get it together.”
Is Broadway something you grew up wanting to do?
I don’t know? That sounds really crazy, but I say that in a question because I’ve always wanted to do a musical that I grew up with, like Mary Poppins or Funny Girl. Now I get to do it, but on a stage and not in front of a camera, so I get the same satisfaction.
Well speaking of Mary Poppins, you got to sing with Julie Andrews…
...and it was the first time she sang since she had throat surgery! Tell me about that day [filming The Princess Diaries 2].
I have to say, I am very happy with myself that I said yes to that. I grew up with her, because Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka were my two favorite movies of all time. Well, until Pootie Tang and The Matrix came out, but that’s another topic [laughs]. But standing next to Mary Poppins, I just wanted to sing “I Love to Laugh” with her! I flipped my head when I found out I was going to do that. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
What was she like to work with?
She was the best thing in the world. She was sweet, the accent was popping, every piece was royal.
The YouTube clip of that scene is pretty amazing.
I really don’t watch myself, but I have to say I did watch that. I wasn’t watching me, I was watching Mary Poppins. But I feel bad because that’s not her name! Her name is Julie Andrews.
Is it hard to avoid watching yourself, considering you've been acting since you were three?
Yeah, I watch the Science Channel.
Deloris has some serious comic moments. When did you realize that comedy was really your thing?
I don’t think I’ve had that realization. I like making people laugh, I pick scripts that I like to read and that makes me laugh, so when I do it, hopefully you’re laughing like I laughed.
Do you ever find yourself hankering for a big heavy drama?
No way. I don’t like to deal with my issues in public!
Do you have an earliest performance memory from The Cosby Show?
I don’t really have a great memory, to be honest. I remember the color of the floor there, I remember my teacher, I remember the very, very last episode when Mr. Cosby and Phylicia Rashad walked off the stage hand in hand. I remember that because I was thinking,“Hmm. I don’t have a job anymore!”
After Cosby, you did Hanging With Mr. Cooper. Can you give me a sense of what it’s like growing up on the set of a TV show?
I don’t really know how to explain it—it’s just my life. I go to work and I go to school and I go home. When I wasn’t working I was in Atlanta going to normal school and I had to go home and do chores.
So, did your family try to keep your childhood pretty normal?
I totally had a normal childhood. I went to school, I failed out of algebra, I did some movies and a concert. My normal life was that.
Did you have any growing pains, making the transition from child actor to grown-up actor?
I’m a grown-up? [Laughs.] I’m 26, I’m not really a grown-up. Being a grown-up starts at like 30 or 40, right? I’m still questioning if I’m a grown-up or not. I have the responsibilities of one, but my attitude really isn’t that grown up.
Where is home for you now?
L.A. is home now.
I read that you’re a car fan, and now you’re in New York, which is not a driving town. Is that making you insane?
You know what? What’s driving me crazy is that like 90% of the cars here are yellow and their hubcaps are weird! I miss driving or sitting in the passenger seat and looking at cars driving past, and I’m over these orangey-yellow cars. It’s so funny you bring that up, though, because when I drive in my two-block radius here, it’s all car shops everywhere! I’m like, “Well, thanks for putting me there!”
What else are you loving or hating about life in New York?
I love the food, and I love how close I am to the theater. I don’t really go out because I feel like I have too much on my plate right now. I’m definitely exploring different restaurants, but I’m here working; this is not a vacation.
Is there any truth to the buzz that you have an album coming out in 2012?
No. There’s nothing. I was trying to, but I was just being lazy, I couldn’t quite get it together, and the style I have wasn’t going to be something sellable.
[The album] might come later in life when I'm able to say what I need to say. How do I say this the nicest way? When you do an album, you’ve gotta go full force. You gotta have the whole moment, and I was not fully prepared to do that.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations at this point?
I still love Meshell Ndogeocello, Janet Jackson, Sting, Enya. I love Brazilian Girls and Adele. I’m everywhere.
Anyone who would make you super starstruck?
Janet Jackson. Every time. She knows I have an issue. I’ve tried before, but I can’t quite say anything to her. I ran away from her and cried last time; I was a hot mess. I haven’t quite grounded myself to deal with the power of Janet Jackson.
Did you ever consider giving up performing and doing something else entirely?
Yes, and I still have my aspirations of that. It wouldn’t be giving up, it would be like taking a really long break, and if I want to get back in, I hopefully will. But, yeah, I think I want to have a family, and I really love painting so I might do that. I always have dreams to do other things, because this isn’t the only part of me.
See Raven-Symoné in Sister Act at the Broadway Theatre.