Lorraine Toussaint is the kind of actor you can’t look away from. The minute she steps on screen she captures you. The specificity she brings to her characters, the intensity that lies within her performances, is nothing short of riveting. She is undoubtedly one of the greats. Beyond what she can do when she’s playing a role, it is striking how she can articulate and describe her craft with such precision. Every sentence she speaks is its own mini master class. Tonight the season finale of her show, Rosewood, airs on FOX. As Donna Rosewood, Toussaint brings the same power and ferocity she brings to all of her roles–it’s not to be missed. In this interview, read all about how the Yellow Pages helped Toussaint get her start and how she’s been living the life of an actor ever since.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
LT: I was 10. I caught the acting bug from the Yellow Pages. I was an immigrant child coming from Trinidad. I came to America when I was 10. I grew up in Brooklyn. I was a Latchkey kid. My mom was working two jobs, so I was spending a lot of time on my own. I was an avid reader. Once I was in the land of infinite opportunity, I felt like I could reinvent myself on arrival. I was never a particularly good student academically in the traditional sense. One day I asked myself, “What am I going to be when I grow up?” Again, I felt like I had this opportunity to reinvent myself. I loved the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages had all of the potential that America held. I didn’t know what there was to be in America, so I thought, let me check out the Yellow Pages to figure out what there is to be. It listed all the careers in America. I went to A and saw “accounting,” and thought, no, no, no….Then it said “acting,” and I said, “Okay I’ll do that.” I called the largest ad on the page. I knew absolutely nothing about acting, so I thought, let me find a school that could teach me…
Did anyone or anything inspire you to become an actor?
When I declared I wanted to be an actor, everyone—with the exception of my mom—said, “Don’t be ridiculous. There aren’t black actors or actresses.” I said, “Yes! One. Diahann Carroll. I remember seeing her in Julia.” Everytime I see Diahann Carroll, I embrace her, thank her, and we have a good laugh. Diahann was a visual—a visual of a black face on television. I think something in me was inspired by that. I was also addicted to old movies. I grew up on Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons—all of the great actresses of the 40s because I was addicted to old movies, once we got a television.
You studied at the High School of Performing Arts and Juilliard. How did that training help set you up for success?
After I found acting in the Yellow Pages, I was in school for the next 12 years just for acting. When I went to the High School of Performing Arts, by then, I was an actor. I wasn’t a working actor, but in my soul and in my craft, I was an actor. The discipline that it fostered, after that going on to Juilliard was such an easy transition for me—a natural one and an extremely organic one. It just felt like a continuation of where my high school left off. It was pretty seamless for me. I was so young. I didn’t know what I was missing. All I knew was the discipline of the craft.
Were there any specific techniques that resonated with you?
Oh sure. I’ve been a hard-core devotee of Stanislavski. This was well before the Meisner Technique and all the other techniques that were derivative of those original books….We followed those books to the letter at High School of Performing Arts. I can’t think of a better foundation for an actor to this day…
Once I got out of Juilliard, I went to Japan to study. I felt sometimes that American training could produce a level of indulgence that I found somewhat irritating. I really loved the quality of stillness that this particular sector of Japanese acting had mastered. I wrote to their sensei and asked if I could go live there and study with him. I wanted to master a level of stillness. I didn’t want to rely on what I call “Scratch and Sniff” acting. I did that for a while. I kind of have a pretty full and mixed bag of training. My go to is basic Stanislavski. It’s not complicated.
What do you mean by “indulgent” when it comes to American training?
I’ll qualify it by saying, training for the stage and training for on camera work is different. I don’t think you can sustain any kind of longevity without a really solid training base. The ability to consistently and spontaneously repeat a performance—though no performance is ever repeated—but to be able to chart a map that you can use, especially the night you’re not feeling it you can depend on does require a very strong training base. That’s for the theater.
There is an approach that I called “Scratch and Sniff” because I’ve certainly encountered numerous actors who have sketchy training and seemed to do fine because they have to just figure it out for that one take—tap into something for that one take. They never have to revisit it. I have also found my training to be very helpful when I do take, after take, after take, after take. I’m such a proponent and supporter of actors being trained. It also irritates me that because we make it look easy most people think it’s easy. And I come from a generation of actors where this work was a sacred craft. We are craftsmen. Including many years of apprenticing. I mean you apprenticed with the masters. I took that very very seriously.
I just came off of a film in New Mexico called Fast Color. It had wonderful writers and director. Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz, who did La La Land, were at the helm. Julia was directing. At the wrap party a few days ago several of the young actors on it came up and said, “Thank you for allowing me to witness your craft—watching you work.” I’ve gotten that comment more often than not, that watching me work is interesting. That’s the best part when you’re in the trenches with master actors. You got to see their process. That’s invaluable. For young actors really wanting to improve their craft, there’s nothing more valuable than watching a master work. I’m unapologetically a master. I know what I’m doing. I know I’m a master. I don’t take that casually. I don’t mean that egotistically either. It just is.
Your body of work definitely shows that for sure.
I also live the life of an actor. In an old-fashioned way, in an almost turn-of-the-century obsessive way where it isn’t so much who I do anymore, It’s just what I am. I perceive the world from the eyes of an artist. Training young artists to do that is—I think that’s also a lost art. It is the art of living, the way and artist lives. It does much as part of the artist how you perceive the world. I take little for granted and sensorially interpret the world.
Can you talk little bit about bringing all of that craft to a TV show, like Rosewood? What was it like going into the second season Donna Rosewood already in your bones? Does it take much craft?
Rosewood is, I’m careful to say easy, but I will say easier than some of the other characters I played because Rosewood doesn’t cost me a lot of pain. Every role has a price. My body pays a price, my psyche pays a price, my spirit pays the price. Donna Rosewood is in my wheelhouse in a really joyous kind of way. I love playing Donna because she’s very similar to me. I have not had a lot of opportunity to play characters who are as closely aligned in wiring as Donna Rosewood and I are. She’s lovely in many of the ways I think I’m lovely, she’s flawed in many of the ways I’m flawed. I made her a little bit of a mirror image. I get a good chuckle out of her— especially in the moments when she’s behaving very badly. I can certainly see myself in those moments in a way that I go, “Hey, look at that!” Oh Lorraine. And it’s so Lorraine!
Check out the promo for Rosewood‘s season finale tonight!
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
That question is an odd question. When young actors come up to me and say, “What’s your advice?” I don’t think I ever asked that question of anyone. I just, I knew I was an actor. I knew that the way I was going to do it was probably never done before. There was no one else like me. I wasn’t going to follow anyone. There were actors I admired, but there were no actor I looked up to. I was busy training and holding this instrument. I’m far more interested in pushing the boundaries and envelope of this instrument. That was fascinating to me. I was never interested in being like anybody else. When the young actors ask me for advice, I’m always a little taken aback by the question.
That’s an unanswerable question. Other than, know yourself. You must know yourself. Know yourself inside and out. You must be willing to be fully committed to this craft—seeking it as a craft and living the life. A lot of that is very clean living. I’m sorry, but you cannot pollute your body with drugs and alcohol. You cannot burn the candle at both ends and take care of the instrument…I perceive the instrument as something that must be delicately balanced and tuned. It doesn’t just happen. I don’t know how many young actors are actually willing to commit to their instrument. I don’t think the culture supports that anymore. It’s no longer fashionable to seem committed to something sacred—the art form. Actors have the ability to bring about change that could change the world overnight. Artists have an extraordinary power when we take the craft seriously. Not take yourself seriously, not take your ego seriously. Take the purpose very seriously. ♦