Photography by Josh Lehrer
Styled by beckiemartina, re-stylists
A yellow and red friendship bracelet is loosely twisted around Audra McDonald’s wrist, a daily reminder of her daughter Zoe, now 11. On the same hand, her engagement ring—an opal-set family heirloom from her fiancé, Priscilla Queen of the Desert’s Will Swenson—sits proud. This is Audra McDonald’s quiet.
Now for her loud. McDonald, a four-time Tony winner and two-time Grammy recipient—perhaps most well-known for her earlier performances in Carousel, Master Class and four-season run as Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s Private Practice—is a woman of dynamics. Just close your eyes as she takes the stage in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. With operatic grace, even when she stands completely still, McDonald’s voice cuts the air.
It’s this steadily swinging balance, of crescendos and decrescendos, which brings Audra McDonald into focus—no matter if she’s singing or Tweeting about her daughter’s latest one-liner.
Is it true that your daughter Zoe was born on Valentine’s Day?
Yes, best Valentine’s present ever!
Do you two have any special traditions?
Usually the night before her birthday, she likes to hear the story of her birth—[it] was crazy, I went into pre-term labor [when I was] 5 and a half months pregnant with her. [Before], I was on bed rest for three and a half months. I had to cancel everything and lay on my back or left side. It was during the presidential election, the year with George Bush and Al Gore.
You got to keep up with your politics, at least!
And I watched a lot of TLC’s A Baby Story. I was starting to get so emotional that my husband at the time [orchestral bassist Peter Donovan] was like, “You can’t watch this anymore. It’s making you worse.” I [also] ordered her entire nursery online and had to meet her doctor on the phone.
What’s it like raising Zoe in New York even though you had a Fresno, California childhood?
We moved out of the city [to Westchester] when she was not even a year. So she has been growing up in the woods. She has a backyard but also has the added luxury of an apartment in the city. She has her piano lessons in the city, she’s seen every Broadway show that’s appropriate for a child to see—and maybe some that are not. I want her to be a theater kid. Her dad plays in orchestras everywhere. She’s been to Carnegie Hall, The New York Philharmonic—she’s getting all this incredible culture. She’s seeing the diversity of the city but she’s also fortunate enough that she’s getting the woods, catching frogs and hearing coyotes howl at night. The best of both worlds.
So she loves the arts.
Yes! She plays so many damn instruments—piano, violin, mandolin, saxophone and she’s working on the guitar now.
That’s quite ambitious of her!
Since her dad’s a musician, she just wants to do everything her daddy does. She just got cast in her school musical as one of the orphans in Annie. I don’t force any of it on her. It’s all Zoe-generated. There will never be a time in [her] life again when [she] will have the luxury and the time to explore because [then] real life comes into play.
Do you have any advice for parents who want to nurture creativity in their children?
If dance or music lessons are a little difficult to afford because it’s a terrible economy right now, see what’s available within your community: check out community centers, the YMCA, your church and school activities. But follow the child and encourage it. Let it grow. Someone that studies music already has a different look on the world. Diversity and tolerance comes along with pursuing the arts.
Besides her artiness, what other qualities do you love in Zoe?
She’s a really kind, sensitive soul. She’s very concerned about other people’s feelings and puts other people before herself—a bit too much. And then she’s got this fierce wit on top of it, which usually doesn’t go hand-in-hand, so the combo of the two is hysterical.
Tell me about it.
We were at Disneyland and a couple of people were asking for my autograph. So she said to the person who was leading us around, “All I wanted to do was ride some rides and now my mom’s Mickey Mouse.” She’s got lots of great one-liners like that that come flying out of no where.
Your Twitter feed is also full of hilarious one-liners from her.
Every single quote is verbatim. This way I remember them all, too.
What’s the most hilarious thing she said or did lately?
She and my soon-to-be stepsons [Bridger and Sawyer] occupied the living room. It was time to go to bed and they decided that they didn’t want to. This was right when Occupy Wall Street was starting and they were studying the Constitution in school. So they established their own Civil Rights group and they wrote out a Declaration of Independence. They went into the living room, shut the doors and said they were occupying it. And I said, “This is not a Democracy. Who’s your President?” And they said Zoe. Then they marched into the den, where I was, and had a petition with six signatures on it—but I only had three kids in the house!
Ha, what were the other signatures?
They put Butler, who is our dog. It cracked me up! They went on and on until finally they passed out. The Occupation was over because they fell asleep.
How do you balance such a hectic career with being a parent?
I think that any working parent will tell you that any time spent away from your child is frustrating. We miss each other a lot when we’re not together. It’s hard if you’re a theater performer because your child is gone at school during the day and then you perform at night. So we cherish all the time that we do have together.
You’re remarkable in Porgy and Bess. How do you do that day after day?
It’s hard. If you thought about it, you couldn’t do it.
You trained at Juilliard. Did you always think that you would be doing what you’re doing now?
Being on Broadway is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Julliard felt like a little bit of a detour but it turned out that it was part of a higher plan—something I definitely needed.
What drew you to the production, besides the timelessness of it?
[Bess] is a role that I always dreamed about doing someday. I figured I would do it somewhere even if I sang it with myself. I just wanted to come back to Broadway. I was tired of commuting back and forth from LA [for Private Practice]—twice, sometimes three times a week. It was horrible but I had to; my daughter was here so I had no choice.
Do you bring Zoe to the theater with you?
Yes, she’ll hang out backstage—reading, playing on her iPod or with my make-up. So [that way], at least I’m getting to be with her and she’s feeling like we’re together. [Plus], she can hear me. She’ll even say things like, “Mommy, you sounded like you were a little scared in that one scene.”
She sounds like quite the little critic! And with a trained ear to boot.
She’s really good. We listen to the Broadway station on Sirius XM and I’ll say, “Who’s this singing?” And she’ll usually nail it. I love that she’s getting that type of education.
Who do you admire most within and outside of the theater world?
Zoe Caldwell, I named my child after her. Lena Horne, Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Christine Quinn, I hope she’s our next mayor. I think she’s as smart as a whip, passionate and she’s living her life fully and truly.
Speaking of passion…you’re engaged! Congrats. Is there a good story behind that?
We were having dinner the night when Will proposed and he just seemed really distressed and preoccupied. The Denver Broncos just had a game and he thought they lost their playoff spot. So I was getting a little annoyed because I thought he was really upset about the Broncos and I was like, “Dude, you’ve gotta let this go. They haven’t been able to go to the show for a while now.” It turns out he was a little stressed out because he was going to ask me to marry him after dinner and I didn’t know. When we got back to the place where we were staying, there were roses all over the bed, chocolate-covered strawberries, champagne and it was a moonlit night. And he proposed. I cried and cried and cried like a baby.
And the ring?
It’s a very unusual engagement ring in that it’s opal. His mom was born in October and Will and his sister were born on the same day three years apart so opal is all of their birthstones. His mom passed away from cancer almost six years ago, at 62—nine months before my dad passed away in a plane crash. He was 62 as well, so we always kind of felt like our parents met…somewhere. She for some reason left this ring. Will didn’t even know me when she passed away—it was nine months before we met—and she left this ring to Will for some reason. He said it was always on her finger. I love it so much.
Will has two boys of his own. How has it been joining the families?
We’ve been hanging for a long time now. We kind of have a silly little name for the family—the Eggfartsons. It’s a name that his little boy Sawyer came up with. Three years ago, he was playing with Photobooth on the computer. We found all these videos and decided that would be the family crest and the motto was, “Always be an Eggfartson.”
You played a mother on Private Practice while being a mother off-screen as well. Did that affect you at all?
The whole arc with Maya getting pregnant and seeing how Naomi reacted to that—I got a lot of angry, angry mail. People were so furious that a mother would hit their child and then force them to have an abortion. For me, it was what Shonda Rhimes wrote. As far as Naomi saw it, her child’s life was now ruined and she wasn’t going to get to live a normal life. And in the heat of the moment, I totally understood that reaction. I was kind of glad that Shonda wrote that, because it was a real reaction. It was raw, but it was real. Some people just got really upset, but I understood it.
In terms of audience reaction, it must be so different being on stage versus television. Do you live off of the energy of the live performance?
The audience will let you know immediately how you are doing, by responding or not responding!
How do you adapt?
The only thing you can do is settle in, focus, listen to each other and make sure you are doing your job—which is telling the story. And if they don’t react, that’s not your concern. It can affect you, but at the same time, you have to stay focused. You can’t let it throw you.
What lessons have you learned from motherhood—the good and the bad?
Motherhood means never sleeping again. Because for some reason, even if you are not with your child, you are still thinking about them. It’s something you don’t know until you give birth. I also never knew how fiercely protective I could be. I would kill for my child. You don’t see that inside of you until you have [one]. And the level of love—it’s spiritual. Even on those days when you want to put them somewhere, find a mute button and say “STOP TALKING FOR 30 SECONDS!” Even on those days, the love is unbelievable.