Telling Her Story

Photo by Karilyn Sanders Photography; Hair by Terry Mathis; Makeup by Nicky Saunders; Styling by Kareem James. Renée Elise Goldsberry wears a Hellesy top, Billy Reid skirt, and Dannijo earrings.

As Renée Elise Goldsberry watched the closing ceremonies of the Rio Olympics with her family this past summer, she mentioned to her son Benjamin, 7, and daughter Brielle, 3, that it was likely that the celebrated Final Five gymnasts would be paying a visit to her work soon—work, of course, being the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

“I said: ‘I think they’re all coming to see ‘Hamilton’ this week, and I’m going to get to meet them,’” she recalls, laughing, as she adds that her son emphatically proclaimed that he, too, wanted to go backstage to meet Simone, Gabby, Aly, Madison, and Laurie.

But as wonderstruck as Benjamin and Brielle were about their mother potentially introducing them to famous Olympians, Goldsberry explains that they are also quite excited at the prospect of having her home for a while after she wraps up her run in “Hamilton” on September 3— and the two are, for now, mutually exclusive.

“I told them: ‘Just so you know, when Mommy comes home, the gravy train is over! I’ll be home with you, but I’ll no longer have this access to the most famous people in the world,’” Goldsberry jokes.

She recounts the anecdote at our late-August cover shoot and interview, and it’s easy to relate to the delight she describes in her kids, and just as easy to laugh along as she hits the high notes of the funny exchange. Simply put: She’s as skilled at bringing to life a humorous moment with her family as she is at bringing the history of 1700s Manhattan to life onstage in “Hamilton.”

Throughout her career, Goldsberry, has used her musical and dramatic talents to breathe complexity and value into a variety of characters across mediums that range from the small screens of network television (think notable arcs as Geneva Pine on “The Good Wife” and as Evangeline Williamson on “One Life To Live”) to the stages of Broadway (her resume on the Great White Way includes stints as Nala in “The Lion King,” Mimi in “Rent,” and originating the role of Nettie in “The Color Purple”).

But for her, and for the entirety of “Hamilton’s” original ensemble cast, which included the show’s brilliant creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the critically acclaimed show has been a success like none other—both in terms of its cultural impact and its outsized popularity on Broadway.

“A major theme in ‘Hamilton’ is ‘who lives, who dies, and who tells your story,’ [and] Lin-Manuel Miranda show us, in this musical, the power of the storyteller—their perspective is the one that is passed on,” she says. “The beauty of being in ‘Hamilton’ is that we get to do more than entertain people—we’re actually informing them and exposing them to the work that some of our founding fathers and mothers did that, surprisingly, we don’t know about. We inherit so much without knowing who to thank for it all.”

As Goldsberry prepares to close the book on “Hamilton”—a turn that garnered her a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as a Lucille Lortel Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album with the rest of the original cast—she’s both humble about her part in the production, as well as proud of the history “Hamilton” has made.

Photo by Karilyn Sanders Photography

“I knew the show was the biggest thing I had ever come in contact with…I did not know, however, that anything could be as big as this feels right now,” she says. “I didn’t know how to anticipate the pervasive impact that ‘Hamilton’ has had on things that are not even typically related to theater or to music. ‘Hamilton’ has influenced politics and education and fashion and pop culture… It has been awesome to ride this particular wave and have access to such a wide contrast of people and experiences.”

While “Hamilton” may account for a particularly high-profile chapter in her own personal story, Goldsberry’s disarming humility seems, in part, to be the maturity of an experienced performer who knows the ups and downs of the acting life. But it also reflects a personal foundation in a love for her family that, as she tells it, has always kept her grounded.

Goldsberry grew up alongside an older brother, whom she considers her best friend (he now lives with his family in Charlotte, NC), and she also has two much younger brothers whom she adores. She spent some of her childhood in Houston, TX, before going to high school near Detroit, MI, and has long steeped her life in the arts and in her family. Goldsberry’s father is a chemist and physicist, as well as a successful auto-industry executive, and her mother is an industrial psychologist—and they brought the arts into her life from an early age by filling her childhood with music and enrolling her at the Houston International Theatre School at age 8.

“I remember, from my earliest days, my mother singing my name to me so I’d know how to spell it, and singing my phone number,” she recalls. “[My father] loves every form of music. My father is one of the only people I know who doesn’t get stuck in any one particular era of music… So I grew up with the best of the oldies and the best of the current jams playing in my home and in our car at all times.”

Not surprisingly, the home she’s created for her own kids with her husband, Alexis Johnson, follows a similar model. “All children are naturally very artistic and expressive. We definitely place a strong value on that in my home. My kids see me and their father being that way all the time,” she says. “Even when I’m not home, my husband is always playing music and they’re having dance parties and things of that nature. They are highly influenced by the arts. They love it.”

Goldsberry also takes care to relish the unique joys that raising kids in NYC offers, especially with the network of friends that she and her husband have cultivated. “We have a family that we’ve constructed for ourselves in Harlem where we live—good friends that we spend a lot of time with who have children the same age and have similar values,” she says. “New York is a wonderful city for children… You can literally go to any playground, at any time, and there’s a playdate waiting for you.”

Photo by Karilyn Sanders Photography; Renée Elise Goldsberry wears a Billy Reid dress and Dannijo earrings.

After finishing high school in Michigan, Goldsberry continued to pursue her goals in the performing arts as she went on to major in theater at Carnegie Mellon and get a master’s in jazz studies from the University of Southern California. “Everything was a goal for me. There wasn’t any one thing I wanted to do,” Goldsberry says of her early career aspirations. “I wanted to be on Broadway, I wanted to be a recording music star, I wanted to be a movie star—like any kid. There was nothing that wasn’t attractive to me in the arts.”

She met Johnson, who works in cable and television distribution, at church and describes their relationship as one based in mutual support and true partnership—especially when it comes to raising their children. “What’s really great is that our family—our marriage and our children—are our first priority. We believe that every member of the family has to be able to thrive to survive,” Goldsberry explains. “I don’t know how I would juggle all the things I do without [my husband] being invested in me being rested, for example, and if he’s going to go on a boys’ trip or take time to work out…it’s very important to me that he also gets to do what he needs. I don’t ever see anything that’s helpful to his mental and spiritual happiness as something that takes away from our family. We believe those things add to our family. This makes for a very loving and fruitful co-parenting relationship.”

The graceful ease that Goldsberry displays as a mother certainly suits her, and perhaps even more so because she faced a challenging path to parenthood. She had her first child, Benjamin, at age 38, after four years of miscarriages. And she doesn’t ever take her family or her professional achievements for granted, stating in her Tony Award acceptance speech this past June: “I have spent the last 10 years of my life, what some would consider the life blood of a woman’s career, just trying to have children. And I get to testify in front of all of you that the Lord gave me Benjamin and Brielle and he still gave me this.”

[gravityform id=”13″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”true”]

Given the road she’s traveled to build her family, Goldsberry is understandably reflective on the topic of women balancing their pursuit of motherhood with their career goals. “In a city like New York and in the times we live in, women are so empowered to follow their dreams, but I think the focus is narrowly on career dreams, and we’re taught that having a family and being a mom is a threat to that… But in reality, there are so many women who have accomplished every career dream they’ve ever pursued, but there’s a hole in their life because marriage and family didn’t just happen,” Goldsberry explains. “My mantra is: Spend your life fighting for both things, because you don’t have to choose. Chase your family and your career. And most importantly, don’t wait! We don’t have to have success in our career before we focus on our family. In my experience, every time I committed to taking a step forward in my personal life, something remarkable happened in my career.”

If Goldsberry shows an attitude of strength and sensitivity when discussing her views on family, it’s equally present in influencing the professional choices she makes. “My family is particularly proud of me and very supportive of what I do, so I try to honor that with the things I choose to do,” she explains. As she puts it, she has a career that is sometimes at odds with keeping things continuous and structured at home—so she aims to select roles that are “responsible and important.”

The obvious example is “Hamilton’s” Angelica Schuyler Church, the mature and quick-witted eldest of the three “Schuyler Sisters,” and Alexander Hamilton’s intellectual match, close friend, and sister-in-law: “I aspire to be like Angelica… She’s extremely intelligent, extremely positive, and she uses her power for good. She’s relationship-oriented. She’s very influential, and she uses her influence to benefit her family and the world around her. She’s brave. She’s beautiful. And she values the love of her family. She’s witty and fashionable and world-traveled and connected and a bunch of things that everybody would want to be,” Goldsberry says. “It’s wonderful to know there was a real woman who was all of those things so long ago, even before women had any rights whatsoever. It’s a joy to find things within me that bring her to life.”

Goldsberry’s two upcoming post-“Hamilton” projects—the titular role in an HBO movie called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (based on Rebecca Skloot’s acclaimed book of the same name) and a Netflix series called “Altered Carbon,” based on a buzzworthy sci-fi book series—offer her similar opportunities to portray multifaceted female characters.

Photo by Karilyn Sanders Photography

“Henrietta Lacks,” which also stars Oprah Winfrey and is slated to air in the spring of 2017, tells the largely unsung true story of a woman whose cervical cancer cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line in the early 1950s. Like with “Hamilton,” the story of Henrietta Lacks is one that’s a vital piece of American history but yet is widely misunderstood and underplayed. “It’s another phenomenal, unbelievable story that you just can’t believe you didn’t know,” Goldsberry says of the project.

Swinging in the opposite direction—from historical storytelling to science-fiction storytelling—Goldsberry’s upcoming role as Quellcrist Falconer in “Altered Carbon,” which she’ll begin shooting in Vancouver, Canada, in October, may not have a heroine from the history books at its core, but there’s quality of character and a purpose of story that’s right in line with her past choices. “I’ve been at home in New York City telling a story about the past and playing a heroine from the past, and now I’m going to be in another country telling a story about a heroine in the future,” she says of the series, which is set 500 years in the future in a world where human personalities can be stored and downloaded into new bodies. “But whether I’m playing Mimi in ‘Rent’—a heroin addict dying of AIDS; Angelica Schuyler Church—a founding mother of our country; Henrietta Lacks; or Quellcrist—the fierce rebel leader in ‘Altered Carbon,’ all my characters have a lot in common. They are all powerful women who love hard, and whose love changes their world.”

In the present moment in her own world, with her new projects still in preproduction and her “Hamilton” tenure at an end, Goldsberry is mostly looking forward to taking herself out of the limelight for a moment and adding a chapter to her story between projects that’s devoted to quality time with her family.

“My favorite thing is just being with my kids and my family,” she says with a relaxed smile. “It’s been an amazing couple of years giving birth to this awesome show. But the focus has been on me, and we need to balance that out. I want more time to cheer on my family. Whether it’s my son doing his school musical, my daughter when she’s dancing around the house, or my husband in any of the wonderful things he’s doing in his profession. That’s what really recharges me the most. I’m looking forward to this coming season, where I don’t always have the spotlight and the responsibility. The greatest joy is supporting the people I love.”