Renée Elise Goldsberry Shares the Secret to Dreaming Big and Rapping Fast
Renée Elise Goldsberry admits she blurted out "Fuck" when she first heard the Hamilton demo tape. The production was looking for a Nicki Minaj type to audition for a new hip-hop musical about the founding of America. "I saw the breakdown and disregarded it immediately because I thought I was too old," says Goldsberry in her InStyle Badass Women video, above. "When I heard that rap, my brain exploded. It was like this seismic change of what you can do in theater and storytelling and I couldn't believe that it existed. And then I said 'fuck' again."
Goldsberry almost didn't audition. She was focused on her family, she didn't think she fit the Nicki Minaj type they were looking for, and she only got her hands on the demo the night before the audition. The next morning, she landed the role after singing and rapping Angelica Schuyler's confessional number "Satisfied," for a casting table of "cute, curly-haired young men'' Goldsberry refers to as the dream team.
According to Goldsberry, the secret to really fast, intelligent rap is knowing where to breathe. "People think it's about the words and how fast you're moving, but what you score when you're doing a rap are the moments that you stop and you take a breath. Which is really a metaphor for life. If we have learned anything in the last year, what's most important are the moments in between where we catch our breath."
Goldsberry knew Hamilton was going to change the world, and it did. Since its release, the musical has been a Broadway's smash hit, a quarantine must-watch on Disney+, an awards magnet, and become a part of the cultural zeitgeist during the most politically polarized era of our lifetime. "What we continue to learn about Hamilton is how possible it is for a musical to change the world. It's what artists used to do, they would perform for the king. We got to perform for Obama. We got to perform at the White House," Goldsberry says.
Performing at the White House was a dream come true, but growing up, Renée Elise Goldsberry had two dreams. "I had the dream where I was with my brush in front of the mirror trying to learn how to be a recording artist," she says. "And then I had the dream where I played with my baby dolls. I mean, they're both my dreams, they both matter. And I shouldn't have to choose."
When she took home the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Angelica Schuyler in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, Goldsberry's acceptance speech oozed with the same combination of gratitude and unapologetic candor. Through tears, she said, "If you know anything about me, you know I've 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. I get to testify in front of all of you that the Lord gave me Benjamin and Brielle and then he still gave me this," she sobbed as she clutched her Tony Award.
Badass women come in many forms, but Goldberry's variety should be an example to us all: "A badass woman is perhaps afraid but she does it anyway," she says. "A badass woman is unapologetic about the things she believes in and the things that she's passionate about. A badass woman recognizes other badass women, and they understand that the more badass I am, the more I lift them up. And the greater they do, the greater we all do. A badass woman is not threatened by other badass women."
Feeling afraid but doing it anyway seems to be a mission statement for Goldsberry who started flexing her theater muscles when she was just 8 years old at summer camp. She went on to attend The Carnegie Mellon School of Drama after braving a humbling audition and barely making the cut. "The most important thing to remember is that you don't give up," says Goldsberry. "You don't stop, you don't let the humility make you believe for a moment that there isn't an audition that you will succeed in."
She studied alongside Billy Porter who was a few years ahead and whom she credits with paving the way for so many at Carnegie Mellon. It was there that she was able to realize the difference between being talented and having a craft and what that meant as an ingénue working toward fulfilling her passion. "I came right to New York City, came right to the Big Apple with a huge dream," Goldsberry says. "And I'm still here, I had a break in between, but I'm still here."
Before taking over Broadway in hits such as Lion King, Rent, The Color Purple, Good People and Hamilton, Goldsberry sang backup for studio session work. That's the break to which she alludes. She lived in Los Angeles where she scored a role on Ally McBeal, which turned into a five-year spot. Subsequently she moved back to New York City where she secured the role as Attorney Evangeline Williamson on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. "I had about every wild storyline," she recalls. "That was the best thing that could happen to you on a soap opera is that you would go bad, or become a twin and you'd have an evil twin of yourself and then you would come back to being wonderful. Probably my best soap opera storyline was when my character went blind. In the end, I got my eyesight back, but not before I found the love of my life. All in an hour."
After questioning why there wasn't more investment in the storylines of Black women on soap operas, Goldsberry says, "Somebody told me that they had heard television producers say, Black women will tune in to watch paint dry, which is why we don't worry about them. We just tell the stories to the people who are going to buy soap." Goldsberry had grown up loyally tuning in to daytime soaps everyday. "I swallowed that and recognized how ridiculously wrong it was," she says. "Years later there are no soap operas. Because they didn't understand that audience." Her most recent role, of Wickie, a has-been girl group member trying to make a comeback in the Peacock series Girls5eva, is proof there's been some evolution here.
Goldsberry is a testament to many things, but resiliently dreaming big seems to be her super power. "Sometimes my brain will have the audacity to dream something crazy. Like, what if I got nominated for a Tony, what if I got nominated for an Emmy? Sometimes my brain will stumble in there, and I'll be like, no, no, no. Come back. Don't dream that big, you don't want to be disappointed," says Goldsberry, who's taken home a Tony Award and a Grammy Award and is now up for an Emmy Award.
"What I learned with the nomination for Hamilton, and how to manage that moment, was, you know, why do women do that? Why do women police themselves from getting disappointed because they dream too big? Prepare yourself to win. If you don't win in the way that you thought you would, guess what, you'll win some other time. But always be prepared to win. That is our job — risk big and you will be okay."