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Audra McDonald on Diversity, Marriage Equality and How to Be Meryl Streep

Audra McDonald is not only the winningest actress in Broadway history (with six Tony Awards and counting), she’s also a vocal activist and a new mom. A Variety Power of Women New York honoree for her work with homeless teens charity Covenant House, McDonald spoke to Variety about some of the issues closest to her heart.

Last season was the most diverse Broadway season in recent history. What kind of progress do you think has been made on that front?
I think there’s been a shift, at least in consciousness. People are much more aware. And every once in a while you’ll have a year that’s an anomaly where you have lots of diversity, and the next year you’re like, “Where’d everybody go?” But I think now, in the years that we have a “where did everybody go?” season, everybody’s aware that there’s a lack of diversity. I lucked out when I first started. At least Nick Hytner [who cast McDonald in her breakout role in “Carousel” in 1994] was thinking about it. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have had my start.

You’re also a very active and vocal supporter of marriage equality. Why is it so important to you?
Some of the closest people to me in my lift are LGBTQ. I have family members that are LGBTQ. That they don’t have the same rights that I do is heartbreaking to me, and wrong. I just feel it in the very core of my being, the injustice. I think about the fact that it would have been illegal for me to be married to Will [Swenson, her husband and fellow Broadway actor] just a few decades ago. I can’t be silent. These are my friends. These are my family.

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What issues in particular do you think we need to be vigilant about during Trump’s presidency?
All of it. All of it. We’re turning into an era with people in power who aren’t about taking care of others, or being their brother’s keeper, or sharing. It’s a very selfish time that we’re steamrolling into. We have to take care of each other. That’s everything to me, especially being a mom.

How do you fight against that selfishness?
Stay loud. Stay active. Keep also reaching across the aisle. That’s very important too, to make sure we recognize that there’s more commonality than we realize.

You just appeared in the mega-hit Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast,” and now you’re off to do “Lady Day” on stage in London. How does your screen work influence your stage work, and vice versa?
When I do the screen work, I go back to the stage with more focus on specificity, because stage things can often be big and broad since you’re having to hit the back of the house. But commitment to character, you get all that from theater. I find there’s more focus on 100% diving into something in the theater, and then I can take that back to screen work. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to marry the two perfectly, so I’ll have really subtle, specific stuff with full 100% commitment. Then I’ll be Meryl Streep.

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