Table for Three
By PHILIP GALANES
“Not to be dramatic,” said Audra McDonald, fluttering her hands around her face in a comic pantomime of theatricality, “But it is our work.” She had just tracked whether a tornado watch that was in effect in New York City posed any threat to her teenage daughter, enrolled in a summer program in Connecticut.
Meanwhile, several blocks away, Zachary Quinto was ditching his taxi in the gridlocked traffic of Friday afternoon before the long Fourth of July weekend. He jogged the rest of the way to the Lambs Club and bounded into the private Stanford White Studio.
Count on actors to bring the drama.
But Ms. McDonald, 46, is no mere actress. She is a Broadway legend, having won six Tony Awards, more than any other actor in history and at least one in every category for which an actor is eligible.
Her current hit show “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” will close unexpectedly early on July 24, when she begins maternity leave for a surprise pregnancy. (Or as she tweeted: “Who knew that tap dancing during perimenopause could lead to pregnancy?”) Ms. McDonald also has a thriving concert and recording career. And for four seasons, she co-starred in Shonda Rhimes’s TV show, “Private Practice.”
On the same weekend that “Shuffle Along” closes, Mr. Quinto’s latest film will open. The actor, 39, co-stars in the third installment of the rebooted “Star Trek” film franchise, “Star Trek Beyond,” reprising his well-reviewed role as Spock. Between films and TV work — notably, “American Horror Story: Asylum,” for which he received an Emmy nomination — Mr. Quinto has been highly praised for his stage performances in the revivals of “The Glass Menagerie” and “Angels in America.”
Over fruit salad and cool drinks, the pair discussed the childhood difficulties that drew them to acting; their shared commitment to young people at risk and L.G.B.T. issues; and the emotional dividends of that work, as well as becoming role models to younger women of color and gay men.
PHILIP GALANES: The two of you started acting so young — at just 7 or 8. Do you remember the lure of it?
ZACHARY QUINTO: I don’t know if it was divine intervention, but it was bigger than any decision on my part. My father died when I was 7. And I had a music teacher in the third grade who recognized how damaged my family had become. She sent me home one day with an article clipped out of the local newspaper and said, “Give this to your mother.” It was about auditions for a performing group for kids at the Civic Light Opera in Pittsburgh. I had never performed in my life. But my mom took me. She knew I needed something. It was like an immediate epiphany. From then on, there was no turning back.
AUDRA McDONALD: My story is similar — not born out of tragedy, but a crisis. I was severely hyperactive and having a terrible time in school. My parents were struggling with what do with me. They were being told that medication was the way to go. But they happened to go to a local dinner theater in Fresno to see a show, and there was a kids’ group that performed beforehand. A light went off.
PG: Is that a thing: Treating hyperactivity with activities?
AM: What they knew was: We’ve got to channel this girl’s energy.
PG: Ingenious parents.
AM: They were great. Both educators. My dad was a music teacher, and both of their mothers were piano teachers. They knew I had a musical ability, but it wasn’t until they saw that troupe of kids …
ZQ: I think it was my troupe of kids.
AM: (laughing): Except I’m 900 years older than you.
PG: So, what were you performing, “South Pacific: Junior Edition”?
AM: They were preshow cabarets. We were called the Junior Company. There was always a theme: Irving Berlin or Top Hits of 1980. I remember practicing “Fame.”
ZQ: We were called the Mini Stars — a little more aspirational. And we wore these outfits like ice-cream salesmen: white pants and turquoise shirts with purple sleeves and suspenders. We would sing with microphones, standing on ladders.
PG: Was it effective? Did you calm down in school?
AM: Well, I had an outlet. And some of the people I met at that theater are still my closest friends. That’s going back 35 years. I ended up staying there until I graduated from high school. It was like: click, boom, bang! For me, that was it.
PG: It brings me to why I was so keen on pairing you: the advocacy you do for kids at risk. Homeless kids, bullied kids, L.G.B.T. kids. Audra is a board member at Covenant House. Zach is deeply involved with the Trevor Project. I don’t mean to overstate your personal challenges, but was there some identification that drew you to children’s causes?
ZQ: I think my traumas as a child became my greatest reserves of strength as an adult. For me to recognize that in other young people, to try to help them see it, is a huge motivator. I was more fortunate than kids struggling for survival on a basic level, but emotionally, I felt serious threats as a young person.
PG: Related to your father’s death?
ZQ: It started there and evolved into my sexual identity. I was bullied all through junior high and high school. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, so it was really magnified. But for some reason, the bullying fortified me. My reaction was not to cave into myself. I expanded. I don’t know why. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw or my father’s hand reaching down from above. I’m a big believer in spiritual connections. And when I talk to kids now who are in a similar position, I see how much people like us can help.
AM: With just the tiniest bit of attention. It takes next to nothing. And I often feel like I’m getting more out of it than they are. When I first went to Covenant House, I wanted to make a donation for the opening night of “Lady Day [at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a play about Billie Holiday]. They were doing an intake, welcoming a kid who came in and really needed help. They were trying to get me to the person who could take my money, but they were more focused on this kid in crisis. Something inside me went, “Oh, this is where you belong.” I couldn’t get it out of my mind and threw myself into the place. I’ve been so lucky, with incredible mentors along the way, that now I need to be that for someone else. When you see the brilliance and light in these kids, and how circumstances nearly squashed it, how can you walk away from that? You can’t.
PG: I watched your “It Gets Better” videos. You both made me weep.
ZQ: I had so much fear in me back then. I was doing “Angels in America” and pulled [director] Michael Greif and [playwright] Tony Kushner aside and said, “Doing this play is possibly going to facilitate my public coming-out.” They were very supportive. And that summer, all these bullied kids started killing themselves. That’s what motivated me. But I was still so afraid. The one thing I hadn’t said — “I’m gay, too. It gets better. Trust me” — is the one thing I couldn’t say.
PG: You weren’t out when you made the video?
ZQ: No, I came out the next year — after another boy killed himself, just months after he made an “It Gets Better” video. I felt slammed by my hypocrisy. Here I was, hedging my bets. What was I protecting? I had already arrived at the point of being able to work consistently. There was no way around my fear, except through it. And in the same way Audra got involved with Covenant House, I got involved with the Trevor Project. I did the training and had all these amazing conversations. I was someone there to help. And the freedom I feel now, I would never give that up for anything.
AM: It had to have deepened you as an actor, too.
ZQ: When I came back to the theater, as Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” I had that sense of what you have to sacrifice in yourself to set yourself free.
AM: And a sense of surrender in your roles because you have that in your life. This is it: This is who I am. You can get all the way to the bottom because you’re not blocked.
PG: That’s exactly what comes through in your video, Audra: this luminous clarity.
AM: Well, for me, there is clarity and absolute honesty about how I participated in that video. Because I did try to kill myself. I was at the end of my rope. And I attempted suicide when I was at Juilliard. But what was waiting for me on the other side was this entire life. It was waiting for me even during that darkest time. You only have to look in my eyes to know it gets better — because here I am. I was where you are, but here I am now. So that’s where the clarity came from.
ZQ: I was walking in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago, and a kid rode by on his bike. Then he circled back to me. He said: “I just want to let you know that I’m gay, and I know you’re gay, too. I’m having a really hard time with my family, and you’ve helped me.” We talked for, I don’t know, 10 or 15 minutes. But for the rest of the day I was so deeply moved — and so grateful for what he had given me.
PG: I read an interview with Louis C. K. recently. He talks about how annoying it is when celebrities speak out on politics and social issues: We give them a microphone for one thing, and they use it for something else. I disagree. You?
ZQ: Look how many celebrities are using that microphone for utterly vapid, meaningless purposes.
PG: “Buy my ringtone.”
ZQ: Totally. We’re in a position where people listen to what we have to say. Like Audra said, I’ve had so many people in my life who represented something good, with so much integrity. I want to be part of that now.
AM: Michelle Obama once said something like: When you get through the door of opportunity, you don’t slam it shut behind you. You reach back and help the next person through. When I do concerts, I always talk about Covenant House. People may go and learn more about it, give some money to an excellent organization. I don’t see the bad in that.
ZQ: I don’t want to impose my personal political beliefs on anyone. I’m not interested in that. It’s not for me to tell you who to vote for. It’s for me to say: I’m taking the initiative to learn about this person that I believe in. And I encourage you to do the same thing, whether it’s my candidate or not.
AM: About 20 years ago, I had a friend who was just starting to make it big, and she was chatting with another friend and said, “Yeah, I have a photo shoot, and I have to go here, and I have to go there.” And her really good friend said to her: “No! You need to go to a soup kitchen.” That has never left my mind.
ZQ: When I was in the middle of the first “Star Trek” movie, I started getting caught up in the things that might come along with it: the press opportunities, what a franchise might do for my career. And I had that same awakening: I need to do something for someone else. So I went to this retirement community in my neighborhood once a week and spent a couple of hours visiting with people.
AM: I love talking with elderly people. Anyone who’s made it to that age has a story.
PG: Let’s end with diversity. You’ve both achieved great success. Do you still feel boxes around you: African-American woman, gay man?
AM: I’ve spent my whole career trying to stay out of any box that anyone could put me in. “I’m going to do a play now.” “Now I’ll do a musical.” That was my instinct. So I don’t feel boxed in. But African-American woman is part of my identity. I don’t want to relinquish that — especially as a mother, helping my daughter find her identity. She’s biracial, so she’s just as much African-American as she is Caucasian. I want her to embrace herself in her entirety.
ZQ: After I came out in 2011, I gave a lot of interviews saying I’ve never worked more and how it hadn’t adversely affected my career. And I believe that. But I also believe that I would have had more mainstream Hollywood opportunities if I were straight or didn’t come out. I haven’t allowed it to limit me, but I think there’s an inherent resistance to gay men in Hollywood. Which isn’t to take anything away from the mind-blowing progress since I got out of school.
PG: What kind of resistance?
ZQ: It’s not explicit. It’s more a matter of opportunities. Lists of actors being considered for roles that I have to fight to get onto or that I won’t be on altogether. This isn’t a complaint. I’ve come to accept my journey. It’s just an observation. But what can you do? You keep doing the work.
AM: What I always say to students, especially African-American women or girls who ask, “How do I have the career you have?” I say: “First of all, you have to be you. You can’t be me. There’s already one of me. You’re what’s unique.” But I also say: Never say no to yourself. Because there are plenty of people who are going to say no to you. Don’t you be one of them. Don’t put yourself in a box. You knock down barriers wherever you can, even if it’s in a tiny way.
ZQ: And don’t forget the joy. It’s in the work, whether in a tiny Off Broadway play or giant $200 million film. And then you can unplug your expectations and go: I got this. And other things will come — either for me or someone else. We’re all part of the same continuum and seeing where we fit in, that’s our privilege and our responsibility.