TRACIE THOMS: AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE

The New Year is a time of resolutions and goals.  No matter what you may be working towards, let Tracie Thoms be your inspiration.  A woman full of conviction and grit, Tracie has always had a fire burning in her to go after what she loves.  Her current project, Falsettos on Broadway, is all about love: its complexity and beauty. As Tracie has pursued her love of the stage and screen, she’s shown that just like any relationship, it’s hard work, but commitment and passion pay off.   You can see it in all of Tracie’s performances, including her’s in Falsettos.  Tracie brings calmness to a chaotic world as Dr. Charlotte–one of the “Lesbians Next Door.”  With humor and heart, she manages to be a scene stealer while still playing a quiet observer, making her an integral part of the Falsettos’ family.  The show has one week left.  For many actors, the end of a show means uncertaintybut as Tracie knows, to be a successful actor, one must be an “unstoppable force.”  Tracie is that and it’s exciting to think of the new roles that will come for her this year.  But for now, she’s still in Falsettos and in this interview, Tracie talks all about it and much more.

MC: When did you catch the theater bug?

TT: Back when I was a kid there was Jr. Star Search. I used to watch it and for some reason I really wanted to be on Jr. Star Search. I don’t know why. I was kind of shy, but I did. I just didn’t know which thing I wanted to do. There was singing and I couldn’t sing [Tracie laughs]. I was afraid I was going to crack or something. There was dance, but I wasn’t very good at dance. I took dance classes but wasn’t very good at it. There was the acting portion and I was like, “I think that I could do that—play pretend!” So I said, “Mom and Dad, I want to take acting classes.” They said, “Okay.” I started taking acting classes when I was about nine or ten and I just loved it. I had a lot of fun with it.

I didn’t think I would actually do it for a living until I got to college. I was a Communications major and Theater minor. I just didn’t like it that much. My dad was like, “Why don’t you transfer to Fine Arts? That’s what you love to do.” So I took a leap of faith and transferred to Theater. I was at Howard University. Then, I got into Juilliard for grad school. I was, “Okay, I guess we’re doing this. Here we go!” [Tracie laughs]

What training did Howard University and Juilliard give you to help set you up for success?

I think it was all of it. Text analysis was something I really took to well. I’m a very logical person, so I [really responded to] breaking down the text—the exercise where you write down your objectives, your obstacles, your beats. I used to love all that. I don’t do that stuff anymore, but breaking things down really helped me, particularly at Juilliard because that was all about classical training. It takes sort of the mysticism away from acting. You know, there’s this idea that you just become somebody else and whatever happens happens. It’s not like magic, there’s a method to it.

You stick with your same class throughout your time at Juilliard and I hear people get very close. Was it helpful to have that network of artists after you graduated and entered the professional world?

Yes, for different reasons. You keep working with your friends. They tell you that when you’re there: “These are the people you’re going to be working with.” I’ve worked with a couple of them since I graduated. They’re also just always there for moral support. We all stay in touch, we all reach out when things happen, we have little get-togethers every now and then. We love each other; we’re a family and we always will be.

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Tracie Thoms (center) and her Juilliard classmates

Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?

I just really loved to do it. When I was in college, I was always doing shows locally at the dinner theater and around DC. I always picked up work. My work ethic was really high. One thing always led to another. It didn’t matter to me what arena I was working in, as long as I was working and doing things I loved. It wasn’t like when I started my career I was like, “I want to be a movie star. I want to have a movie career. I want to do Broadway.” I wasn’t thinking that big. I was just going to do a show down the street. The feeling just kept moving as I kept moving with it. It’s a weird way to look at [a career]. Most people don’t look at it that way; they see it more long term, like, “I want to be in movies.” But that was a time where there wasn’t a whole lot of representation for people who looked like me. I kept my goals small and reachable. I kept the goals moving ahead as I moved ahead.

That’s interesting because I think you’re someone who’s been extremely successful in establishing a solid career in both the theater and TV/film world, which is not easy to do. What do you think has helped you be so adaptable to these two very different art forms?  

I try not to be away from any of them for too long. I bounce around on purpose. Like, right now I’m doing a show—Falsettos on Broadway—but after this I’d love to do some more TV and film stuff. And even when I was doing film and TV, I would come back and do theater in the summers just so I could have my feet in all arenas at all times. I didn’t stay out of any of them for too long. I feel like you can lose your confidence in any medium if you stay away from it for too long.

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Tracie Thoms and Idina Menzel in the Rent movie

How did Falsettos come about?

Falsettos, for me, was pretty by the book. In March 2015, the audition came up and I was asked, “Hey, wanna go in for Falsettos?” I was like, “I’ve never seen Falsettos. I know it’s a great show, so sure!” I went on tape for it in LA and never heard anything. I was like, “Okay, that didn’t happen. That’s fine.” Then, around April or May [2016], they announced that Stephanie [J. Block], Andrew [Rannells], and Christian [Borle] were doing it. I was doing something with some very close friends in LA who love Falsettos. They were like, “Dr. Charlotte is your part. You’re going to get this.” I was like, “No, come on guys. I’m not going to get this. I put myself on tape, they’re seeing people in the room in New York.”

When it came back up, my friend Richard said, “Alright, it’s come back up. Get on your people. I still fully believe that this is your role.” So I wrote to my agent, “Hey, I hear this is coming back around.” She’s responded, “We’re already on it.”

Then, out of nowhere I was asked to fly to New York and go in the room. So I flew here, went in the room, sang like five songs. I sang so much that day. It still fully felt like, “I’m not going to get it.” I hadn’t done a Broadway musical since Rent in 2008. Even then I only did that last five weeks; I was a put-in. For Broadway musicals, you’re in rehearsals for weeks and weeks, previews for weeks, and then you open it and run for weeks. I was not in that kind of shape. That takes a certain level of stamina that you can’t walk around with unless you’re doing it. I’m in the room going up against girls who were in shows and had that stamina. I thought, “You’re not going to give me this.” Then the next day they were like, “Uh, yeah you’re getting the offer.” I was like, “Are you kidding? Are you serious?!” So I just fought for it like everybody else did. I had no idea that I’d get it. You never know. Things you think that are going to come your way don’t and things you never think that will come your way do. This business is just so unpredictable that way.

 

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Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe, Andrew Rannells, and Christian Borle in Falsettos rehearsal

 

Once you started rehearsals, what were some things that director James Lapine did while working with you that you found helpful?

He just sort of met you where you were at. I, for this process, was like, “I need to just go slowly.” Some people go the other way: make big choices from the get go and then chisel it down. I was doing the opposite. I asked him about it: “Is it okay that I’m kind of going slowly.” And he was like, “Yeah, I actually appreciate that from you and for what I need to do with you for this character.” My character, I observe a lot. That was very helpful that he gave me that space to find my way.

He also encouraged us to connect with one another and the material. We did an exercise where we spoke the lyrics instead of singing them. He told us, “Play the room. The room is a small rehearsal room. Don’t play to the balcony yet. You’ll get to the theater and adjust later. I don’t want you to project and try to fill a theater space right now. Just fill this room, talk to each other, and really connect. Make that your goal.” I think that was really helpful and created this really intimate connection that we all have between us on stage.

Betsy Wolfe and you don’t come in until the second act. What do you do backstage during the first act and what’s it like to enter the world of the show after so much has happened?

Yeah, it’s really strange [Tracie laughs]. We still have to get there at half-hour like everybody else. We’re doing makeup very slowly and start warming up, look at Facebook and Twitter. Betsy and I end up posting a lot of things on social media during the first act. Basically what happens between the acts is we all kind of meet on stage. We ask, “How are they? How is it? How’s it going?” We’re listening to the show through the monitors, so we can hear whether [the audience] is vocal or not. It is a strange adjustment. We’re literally listening to the audience and each other for our first song, which is “Welcome to Falsettoland.” We try to get grounded and listen and feel where we are. It is a new experience trying to gauge the room halfway through.

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Betsy Wolfe and Tracie Thoms in Falsettos

I’m always so curious about the moments before actors go onstage. Some actors can really easily go on Twitter and then jump into it. Other people just have to think about the show and focus completely on that. Everyone has their own different process going into it. How did you find what works for you?

It’s just trial and error. In the beginning, the first couple weeks of previews, I’d spend a lot of time in the wings watching what was going on onstage—letting everyone else pull me into the world. I needed to do that. But as time went on I didn’t need to do that as much. It’s just in me now. I used to spend a lot of time watching, particularly the second act. The first act is hard because I’m not in the world at all. I don’t know [the other characters] yet, so there’s nothing that’s really going to inform me to do from the first act…

This is only your second Broadway musical, which may surprise a lot of people. What are some things that have surprised you about the process, if anything, this second go around?

I’m just more prepared this time. Rent was so crazy because I had the opposite hubbub with it. The show was closing, so I was the last Joanne on Broadway. I only had two weeks of rehearsal. I had all the knowledge from doing the movie first and I knew most of the songs except for “We’re Okay.” “We’re Okay” was new. The “Tango: [Maureen]” was different. I was going into a group that was already so well gelled. They had already been working with each other for so long. I was the new girl coming in but also not the new girl because I had done the movie. It was a weird process of trying to figure out how I fit in there. It was fine—everybody was happy that I was there and I was happy to be there. But I was also shooting Cold Case at the same time. I was half in the Rent world and then fly back to LA and shoot Cold Case, then fly back and do shows. It was insane for five weeks. It was kind of all a blur. There wasn’t really a time to just settle in and be. I was never that comfortable. I never hung out after the show; I always went straight home and was on vocal rest. I didn’t have time to build up that tolerance of singing everyday. I was just suddenly in it. But it was so rewarding and beautiful. It was so thrilling to finally do Rent on stage. I had been trying to do it for eight years [Tracie laughs]. I finally got to do it at the end! It was very stressful, but I was really grateful to be there.

[Falsettos] feels different. I am able to relax more. Also, the nature of the role is that I watch a lot. I don’t have to carry a lot. I carry my moments and make them important and grounded. But a lot of it is that there’s a family that I’m there supporting—a new family for me. A lot of what I have to do is watch Christian, watch Andrew. I get everything I need from them. I just have to show up and be open.

Tracie Thoms and the Falsettos cast performing “The Baseball Game”

What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

I always say, don’t let anything stop you—or anyone. You just have to go for it. It takes an immense amount of effort and conviction to do what we do because what we do is so strange [Tracie laughs]. It’s beautiful, but it’s strange. We pretend to be other people—people we know we’re not and people the audience knows we’re not. But we’re pretending to be those people and the audience is excited to believe we’re those people for those two hours that they’re there. They pay a lot of money to see you play someone they know, and you know, you’re not [Tracie laughs]. That’s what we’re doing. But they trust us to do it—to provide an escape and tell them a story. We don’t take that lightly.

In order to get there and earn that trust, we have to do a lot of work. It takes a lot of faith and conviction. A lot of people say, “My parents don’t support me. They don’t want me to do it.” I’m like, “Okay, well, are you going to be okay with that? If you’re going to be okay with that then maybe it’s not for you.” You can’t let anything stop you. You have to be an unstoppable force. I always say do the work. Train and learn the craft because that’s what’s going to get you through when other things don’t. Some people rely on their looks. That’s great if you have those looks, but you still have to deliver or else your career will be short. Or it will be just based on your looks. I wouldn’t want the kind of career where my only job is to look pretty. ♦

Get your tickets to see Tracie in the last week of Falsettos and be sure to check out her 54 Below show January 11th and 14th!

Photo Credit: Phil Bray, Joan Marcus, Jennifer Broski, Lincoln Center
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