Amber Gray & Maysoon Zayid
Hosted by actor and writer Lynne Marie Rosenberg (HBO's "High Maintenance"), in “Famous Cast Words” stars from stage and screen discuss representation and inclusion issues facing the entertainment industry. Hear how actor Amber Gray from “Hadestown” navigates being a mother while juggling a Broadway schedule. Laugh along with comedian Maysoon Zayid as she breaks down the method to her comedy.
[ Laughs ]
Hi, welcome to "Famous Cast Words."
I'm Lynne Marie Rosenberg.
I am here today at the home of actress,
singer, and devised theatre maker Amber Gray.
You might know Amber from her Tony-nominated performance
as Persephone in Broadway's "Hadestown,"
which also itself won eight Tonys.
You might not know her from her aggressive performances
of Seal's hits from the early '90s
in the back of my mother's Oldsmobile.
Good morning. Morning.
I can't take you serious. [ Laughs ]
...on your Tony nominations. Thank you.
We've known each other for 27 years, I think.
Yes, that's exactly right.
Yeah, 27 years.
I've always been good at math.
So, we went to middle school together.
You arrived at Wayland middle school as an army brat.
Yep. Not in style, that's how I arrived.
[ Both laugh ]
But I was thinking today,
if there's ever a time to arrive new at a school,
it's when all the kids are starting middle school
and converging from various elementary schools.
Like, you weren't the only new kid at that point.
And everyone feels, you know, the deep shame
The horrible, horrible experience of being 11.
So, you were recently nominated for a Tony.
Mm-hmm. I want to talk
a little bit about the Tony experience,
because it's a six-week period, basically, right?
This is the first time
I've had a very close friend nominated
and the first time I've experienced
just how the incredible level of stress
that those six weeks can put you under.
You're doing the show eight times a week.
Yeah. You are doing press
for the show proper and press as a nominee, right,
as an individual nominee.
So you're doing morning shows,
you're waking up at 4:00 a.m.
for a 5:30 a.m. call where you're running --
you're tacking something for an hour till 6:30,
and then you don't go on till 8:00.
Then you have to do press junket things throughout the day,
and the amount of singing you do, over-singing.
The lack of sleep you get.
It's really intense for six weeks.
Yeah. These are all the things
I feel like people don't realize.
You know, they go see the show,
it's this big, beautiful, splashy show.
You're wonderful in it, you know.
The set's incredible. Everything's incredible.
They don't realize -- It's a real athletic event.
Yeah. And you have to --
we already live our lives carefully so that
we can be ready for that event at the most two times a day.
But then when you're adding, like -- you figure
we're there 40 hours a week performing,
when you're adding another 40 hours of work
where you're also singing on top of that,
it's just not how a voice works.
Like, people get sick during awards season for a reason
because you can't overuse your voice that much, you know?
I wonder also because "Hadestown," of course,
is a brand-new piece of theater.
It's not like -- it's invented it's own wheel, right?
It's its own creation, and I wonder if the press
was even more intense because of that,
because you're trying to get a community
to understand what this new piece of theater is.
Yes, I think that's true.
I think especially for the producers,
they weren't -- we knew the audience response was great,
but there was still, I think, a bit of a paranoia
that we still had to keep promoting it,
even though the audience response was great
because we weren't quite sure that the community at large
felt that way about it, you know?
♪ Let's not talk about hard times ♪
♪ Pour the wine, it's summertime ♪
♪ Hey! ♪ 'Cause now we're livin' it
♪ Now I'm livin' it
♪ Livin' it, livin' it up ♪
♪ Oh, brother, right here, we're livin' it ♪
♪ Where are we livin' it?
♪ Livin' it up on top
♪ Who makes the summer sun shine bright? ♪
♪ That's right -- Persephone ♪
♪ Who makes the fruit of the vine get ripe? ♪
♪ Persephone! ♪ That's me
♪ Who makes the flowers bloom again, in spite of a man? ♪
♪ You do
♪ Who's doing the best she can? ♪
♪ Persephone, that's who
We have a very special segment for you that we've created.
And by "we," I mean "I,"
because I'm the only one who could create this.
Oh, no. That means you found photos from the past.
I did. I did.
I like to call this segment
"Amber guesses what's happening in the photo."
I don't actually know what's happening.
All you have to tell me is what the building is behind us.
What if I didn't know?
Okay, well, this is the Wayland High School little theater.
Yeah. Look at our little Cherubic faces.
That's when we had meat in the face.
[ Laughs ] So beautiful.
I was dyeing my hair back then
and it was came out a bit too black.
Okay. I used to dye it all sorts of colors.
Used to, like, bleach the tips peanut butter-y.
There's one thing I don't ever want my hair
to be referred to as, it's peanut butter.
We are about to sing for home girl.
Cutie patootie, shorty, country pop.
Shania Twain. Shania Twain!
We were her backup gospel singers.
Which, by the way,
when I first moved to New York City,
that was on my résumé as, like, a credit.
But I sang one song backup with Shania Twain.
Oh, Lord, if I stared at the clothes long enough,
I would remember this is in my freshman year dorm.
Why is it so tan?
I went to tanning beds.
Yeah, I was prescribed to go to tanning beds
in late middle school to clear up eczema.
And then I just loved them
because they made my skin look better.
♪ And they cause cancer and wrinkles ♪
[ Laughs ]
You have two little ones.
How has it been navigating
the schedule of a Broadway schedule
with being a mom, and then in addition to that,
the Tonys schedule and being with your kids?
"Hadestown" alone has let me be postpartum
for two productions and pregnant for one,
which is no small thing, man,
because even just, like, on a logistical front,
you are taking in or letting out costumes once a week.
They're still taking in my costume,
because once you start doing a show eight times a week,
you just lose a ton of weight and they have to refit
And I'm nursing still, right,
so I pump, and who knows what size
I'm gonna be throughout the day?
It's like a really tricky thing to design for even.
Always during rehearsals, I don't even ask.
I just, you know, every three hours
go into the corner, start pumping.
But I bought a pump
that doesn't have to be plugged into the wall.
You can charge it and walk around with it.
And I have my little robe, and nobody cares, you know,
and I just, like, I keep doing the scene
or I'll sing from the corner if I'm, like,
not as needed or whatever.
That kind of support is very, very rare.
I've had lots of girlfriends get fired for way less because,
you know, there's legal language --
must always be able to fit the costume
right in the contract.
So they don't care why you don't fit the costume,
but they will fire you for not being on the costume anymore
because you gain too much weight or you lost too much weight.
It's messed up.
During awards season, forget about it.
Like, the extra promotional stuff,
the extra press you have to do,
doing the show eight times a week.
And I have a sick kid who was in the hospital
three times for five-day stints.
That's why my mom's here.
Like, it takes an army.
My partner has been helping a ton,
which, you know, whatever.
It's a weird thing to be like,
"I'm babysitting my kid." You know, it's like --
but he's had to pull a lot of extra weight
because my schedule's the unforgivable one,
that there's zero flexibility there.
My mom, I had a meltdown before Mother's Day and I was like,
"Can I put you on a plane tomorrow?"
She was like, "Yeah."
And I was like, "Do I have to buy a return ticket?"
She said no, so she's been here for six weeks.
There was a day a photographer came
and took photos of backstage life.
And so at intermission, he was like,
"Is everybody decent on the floor?"
I was like, "Oh, yeah, I'm pumping, but yeah."
It's not like you see anything, you know?
And he's a kid.
He's like, I don't know, 25, an amazing photographer.
And he was like, "Oh, Amber, I'll send these ones to you."
And I was like, "Wait, what you mean?"
And then and then I realized he wasn't planning on sending them,
submitting them to his editor as pieces
to actually put into the world.
And I was like, "This is what I do every single intermission
and have done since 2016,
you know, between the two kids."
I'm like, "You can put this into the world."
And this is just working motherhood.
Like, lots of people do this, you know?
There's nothing weird here.
And then the photo totally went viral on social media.
I would love a moment when that photo does not go viral,
when it's not, like, empowering to people.
It's just normal, right?
And people were like, "What's your agenda?"
I'm like, "There's no agenda."
A quarter of the world are working mothers.
Like, it's just -- this is normal life.
And then people are like, "You should promote that photo
because there's a thing called an empathy vote
during awards season."
What?! Which we don't have to get into.
But yeah, yeah.
That was advice given to me to make the photo
go even more viral because of the empathy vote.
And I'm like, "I'm sorry, parenthood -- no."
I'm grateful I've gotten so much support, but I don't --
it's not a card I'm playing. It's my life.
Yeah. You know?
A friend of mine once said something has to be a thing
before it can not be a thing anymore.
And I think that's the moment we're in with this photo.
So I'm happy for that phase to help move that along.
But I am not interested in it being a thing
'cause it's just my life.
It's nothing like -- I'm not --
There's no agenda. Yeah.
I probably got more text messages about that photo
than I ever did about getting nominated for a Tony.
I'm just like -- it's all comical to me.
So now we're gonna look at some breakdown language.
And of course, a breakdown is essentially
a character description, and so this language
is from real character descriptions
from the entertainment industry.
What I have here is some language
that you may have encountered at some point,
both as a mixed-race person in the industry and as a mom.
We're gonna look at some mom language, as well.
When it comes to mixed ethnicity,
the industry seems to have a particular fascination
with not knowing what people are and all the ways to say it.
There are different spectrums of ethnicity
to encompass from the only just sort of...
Just a little paprika.
Just, like, toss it in. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Just like a chef's pinch, basically.
To the opposite extreme.
Horrible, and doesn't mean anything.
Though sometimes I'm afraid it just won't be your turn.
What is this?
It's just an abbreviation. Oh, my god.
[ Laughs ]
Just deflated. [ Chuckling ] I know.
As a mom, your identity seems to be cut and dry.
Right down to your individual body parts.
I've got a ganglion cyst. [ Laughs ]
I have some scars where my eczema used to be.
[ Both laugh ]
As a mom, you might have to play against type.
That there is one commercial idea that we have of mom.
Need to straighten my hair.
But lastly, the most popular word I found
for moms in our industry isn't really a word
so much as a charming little acronym.
[ Laughs ]
One of the things that we've talked about in the past,
and I wonder if you could talk about a little bit now,
is being mixed race in the industry
and how that affects role availability
and where you do and do not fit in.
I think -- you know, it's funny
because you and I have also talked a lot
about, like, colorblind versus color conscious.
And I -- people -- I have in recent years realized
people throw those terms around
for different reasons at different times.
So it's, like, hard to say anymore.
Yeah. But for me, I think
the real beauty is making an effort to have the stage,
the screen, look like the streets
and making zero comment about it, right?
Just letting people do their work.
Just letting me be an actor.
Luckily, the gigs I've had, yeah, it hasn't come up at all
and I'm just able to be myself, and in a lot of the jobs
I get through an agent and through casting directors,
it does specify, and it typically
doesn't want me to be in the middle.
It wants me to --
I'm not white enough or I'm not black enough, you know?
Thank you so much for being here with me today.
My pleasure. There is nothing that brings me more joy
than the fact that, after 27 years,
we are still close and in the same industry
and still working through it.
I know. Yeah.
So, I love you very much.
Love you, boo.
Thank you so much for joining us today.
Take care of each other and be professional.
Hi, my name is Maysoon
I am a Palestinian Muslim
Virgin with cerebral palsy
Virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey.
from New Jersey.
If you don't feel better
about yourself, maybe you
* * ing should.
That's brilliant because
it's so subversive.
I'm a really f * king brilliant comic.
You're really brilliant.
I am here at the home of actor,
writer, producer, comedian,
and tap dancer Maysoon Zayid.
And also her cat Beyoncé,
who has picked the perfect spot on the couch to join us.
You might know Maysoon for her TED talk
"I've Got 99 Problems; Palsy is Just One,"
or from her digital video series
"Advice You Don't Want to Hear" or from the New York
Arab-American Comedy Festival.
There are a thousand things you could know Maysoon from,
or you may have heard all the buzz about her upcoming
TNT series "Sanctuary."
You might not know her from the back of her head,
as a diner in "As the World Turns."
Also look at what Beyoncé's doing.
I mean, come on.
She's like, "Oh, yeah. You think you got a show?"
Thank you for coming to Beyonce's lair.
There's been so many examples of able-bodied actors
playing disabled roles.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
A large swath of the disabled community
feels like, "You can't actually act disability."
And there's visible disability
and invisible disability.
And we tend to be talking about visible disability,
because what you're doing when you're trying to act
those things is you're mimicking a physical replica
of what disability is
and not addressing at all that those physical manifestations
come from something internal and that you can't imitate them.
So think of how uncomfortable it would be for someone to sit
and play me, like, for you to have to watch
someone try to move their mouth the way that I do.
You can't do it. It's not something that you can act.
So we say, you know, much like race,
it can be played, and onstage, I always say
if a wheelchair user can't play Beyoncé,
then Beyonce, I can't play a wheelchair user,
and she can usually slay anything.
Just not that. You know what I mean?
And in addition to the fact that it's inauthentic,
it's cartoonish, and honestly, it's offensive,
people with disabilities are 20 percent of the population,
but we're only 2 percent of the images
that you see on television.
95% percent are played by non-disabled actors.
So there's no opportunities for us.
That's right. You're taking what
is such a small pool of characters,
and then you're taking the opportunity of that employment,
because ultimately, all this boils
down to employment opportunity
when you're talking about the entertainment industry,
and you're saying, "No, even these roles
that we could have had you portray,
you cannot portray those, as well."
Now, you had a situation like this in college.
I know you talk about it.
Could you talk a little bit about that?
So, I was getting A's in all my acting classes
and I wasn't getting cast in any of the shows.
And then my senior year, they decide to do a show
called "They Dance Real Slow in Jackson,"
about a girl with cerebral palsy.
I was the girl with cerebral palsy.
So I was like, "Nailed it!"
And I didn't get it.
This girl named Sherry Brown got it.
And the head of the theater department said
I couldn't do the stunts.
And believe it or not,
that really is a big reflection of Hollywood --
the idea that we can't do it,
that we can't remember the lines,
that we can't handle an 18 hour shoot,
that the insurance is not going to cover us.
There's a lot of challenges with disabled actors and insurance.
There's a lot challenges in sets being accessible.
So, you know, I do a live news commentary.
None of those sets are accessible.
But that's the thing.
It's like you you can't call this an H.R. issue
if what you could be doing
is changing your sets to make them accessible.
But also making sets universally accessible
just makes it easier for the entire crew to navigate.
I mean, cameras tend to be on wheels, too,
not just people, you know what I mean?
No, it's true.
And then you could potentially --
we've got Beyoncé...
Beyoncé's eating snacks in the background loudly.
Beyoncé decided that this would be the perfect time
to drink from her red Solo cup.
I'm so glad that she did that live
so that you could see that my cat really does drink
out of a red Solo cup.
Which I feel works way too far into the Jersey stereotype.
Am I a cliché and caricature of myself
because I have trained my cat to play pong
and drink out of Solo cups?
This is the cat episode of --
Wait, what is your show called?
"Famous Cast Words."
"Famous Cats Words!"
That's what we are doing, right?
"Famous Cats Words."
We have to write over the logo.
Come on. Focus.
[ Laughs ]
So, Maysoon, you are self-described on your TED talk,
specifically, as Palestinian, Muslim, female, disabled,
and most challenging, a resident of New Jersey.
So we're going to take a look at some phrases
and words that pop up in casting notices
for characters with these various demographics.
Are you ready? I am.
"For a variety of disabled characters,
there seems to be a recurring theme of confused parallelism."
"Even though she is deaf, she lives a fulfilling life."
That's right. All right.
"As well as a strange belief that one's mobility
might affect one's brain."
"Will be wheelchair-dependent,
but amazingly sentient."
"Your competition will encompass a wide swath of humanity."
"Seeking special-needs actors and also skilled actors
who can or have played this type of role before."
I don't know why you would have stopped.
I don't know what possibly
could have pissed you off about that.
What could have shocked me?
[ Laughs ]
"Because your lived experience
is really just an able-bodied talent waiting to be developed."
"Actor must be able to portray the symptoms of cerebral palsy."
"Must also know how to Google
symptoms of cerebral palsy."
"As a Palestinian, there are a few recurring words
I found with which you should become acquainted."
Tell me it says "rocks."
Aah! There's no rocks.
"Terrorist, militant, hijab."
Rocks? What do you mean? Throwing rocks?
If you do Palestinian, usually "rocks" is in the top three.
Oh, my God.
"As a woman, though,
there's really just one word you need to know."
Yes! I got it! It's "boobs"!
[ Both laugh ]
And lastly, "As a resident of New Jersey,
your character type is cut and dry."
And this genuinely did come up
in a bunch of breakdowns I saw.
When I started going to auditions in New York,
it was funny because I had no idea
that people weren't going to cast me as,
say, one of The Real Housewives on a Lifetime movie.
So I would go out for, like, Italian characters,
Jersey characters, of course, all the Middle Eastern,
you know, hijabi characters.
And I never realized the fact that I was disabled
was getting disqualified me until I started auditioning.
So I would go into auditions, and sometimes I would walk in
and they'd just go, "No, no, no, no."
And they wouldn't even let me read.
That is horrendous.
And they wouldn't let me read.
And then I would memorize the sides
because turning the pages was too hard.
So then when I did have to get sides
that I had to turn the pages,
it would be, like, a fight to the finish
to get the pages to turn
because it's really hard to do.
And, like, I never had anyone take me even slightly seriously,
which is why I became a comedian.
Part of the reason I've always been drawn to comedy
is you get to take ownership of what you are
before anyone else is allowed to say anything about it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And if I can get you to laugh at that first,
then I own it and you don't.
And that was my exact experience when I first started
doing standup comedy in my comedy class.
The teacher, who was such a great guy,
named Mike Irwin Russell.
So he's gone now, but he was an amazing teacher,
and he made us do five minutes of comedy every class.
And the first time I went up, I was inspired
by, like, Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy.
So it was basically just, like, slurs and misogyny in a box.
And it was really funny and I got good laughs.
And when I was done, Mike looked at me and he goes,
"What is happening?"
And I was like, "Oh, I have cerebral palsy."
And he said, "You're going to have to talk about it,
because if you don't, the audience is going to think
you're either drunk or nervous.
And neither of those things are funny."
And I was like, "But I don't want to talk
about being disabled."
So what I did was the next class,
when I introduced myself, I said,
"Hi, my name is Maysoon Zayid,
and I'm a Palestinian Muslim virgin
with cerebral palsy from New Jersey.
And if you don't feel bad about yourself,
maybe you f * king should."
And the idea was bury the "palsy" so deep
in everything else that they heard it,
they got it, and they got to move on.
That's brilliant because it's so subversive.
I'm a really f * king brilliant comic.
You're really brilliant.
No, I mean, you are.
There's something to comedy
that allows you to slip things in
and get people comfortable with things in manners
that they didn't even realize occurred.
I always say onstage that if you have someone laughing,
they're less likely to kill you.
They may still do it, but they're less likely.
They're less likely. I'll buy that.
Who has no idea who I am?
[ Audience members cheering ]
I'm just saying something really quickly.
I'm not drunk. But check on me in an hour.
If I'm walking straight. Then you'll know I'm wasted.
[ Laughter ]
'Cause, like, here's the thing.
I'm not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was,
so I have CP, which means I shake all the time.
So I shake it, shake it, shake it like Taylor Swift.
But she just wants to shake, shake, shake,
and mine is totally involuntary.
[ Laughter ]
Like, let's be honest. I'm not Taylor Swift.
I'm the lost Kardashian.
[ Cheers and applause ]
They moved me away because I couldn't keep my legs open.
So you had a situation where you had one pilot,
you had gone through a process with a producer,
and they insisted you work with another writer
who was just sort of a white,
able-bodied, inexperienced in terms of anything
that you're dealing with writer.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
What happened was when they put me with the head writer,
I was really excited to be collaborating
and I was very, very excited
that I was writing with another woman.
Unfortunately, she decided
that she wanted to write the show without me.
So the production company cut me out of the process.
And now suddenly, my semi- autobiographical comedy series
was being written by a non-disabled, non-Muslim woman
who hadn't spent 17 years on the comedy stage.
Like, I've been a standup comic for 17 years.
I learned how to write about disability,
how I write about religion, how to write about, you know,
so many things that are really difficult to tackle
and get very uncomfortable very quickly,
if done incorrectly.
And I was completely silenced.
And so, when we finally got to the stage
where the network decided
whether or not to shoot the show,
they passed because it was not funny or good.
[ Laughs ]
It took seven years for the series I developed
to finally be sold and picked up.
And the first stumbling block was for years and years
and years, people said, "Your writing is amazing,
but you can't star in it. We need a big name.
The only way that we're going to do this
is if we have a big name."
And you know, they would suggest people like Salma Hayek,
and Penelope Cruz.
And I'd say, "If I can hold their head underwater
for three minutes
and they can become palsy, then they can play this part.
But otherwise, you need someone who's disabled.
And news flash, I'm the most famous, you know,
palsy person in the game right now.
So you're not going to find a woman
that's going to be able play not just palsy,
but an ethnic role.
Like, you need a brown disabled woman.
It's me. Like, that's who it is right now."
And so, that was the first stumbling block.
I swear to God, the story I'm about to tell you is true.
One producer suggested that my love interest heal me.
And I said, "Well, I think the CGI
is going to be really expensive
because it can't be healed."
And also, how do you keep going with the series?
"It's a permanent disability," you know.
But, God, I mean, that just has "paternalism"
written all over it.
And she was, like, a legend in Hollywood.
And I had to, like, look at her lovingly
and be like, "So, I can't be healed.
And I'm playing the role."
And she was like, "Yeah, I don't think this is a good fit."
You know what I mean? And she was gone.
I always say disability --
you only get to tell three stories.
Either, "you can't love me because I'm disabled,
heal me, or kill me." That's it.
So, when you come in and you're like,
"She's super successful, and her dating life is good.
And the problem is that her parents
are conservative Muslims who don't let her date
and she's 35 years old and has to sneak around
and pretend she's not on Facebook."
You know what I mean? It's just something different.
And they're like, "But when does she cry
about being frustrated from being disabled?"
She has vulnerability.
It's simply not tied to her disability.
She has vulnerability.
And it's not because she's an oppressed Muslim woman.
So even though she comes from one conservative family,
it's not the images that you see on TV of these women
with no voices and no independence.
It's more like, "Just like everyone else,
she doesn't want to disappoint her parents."
Not, "Just like everyone else,
she's going to get honor killed."
By the way, there's no killing that's honorable.
So she's not gonna get murdered by her parents.
She just doesn't want her mom to be sad, you know?
I think the simplicity of that
is so important, is seeing people just as humans
and how we're all just humans and it's still really hard.
I am so excited about all the content you're making
and all of your standup
and everything that you're doing.
I want a Netflix special.
I want you to have a Netflix special.
But I'll do it for Showtime.
What if we do one together?
We're both women. We're both very funny.
Okay, I'll give you the funny.
I have black hair.
You have brown masquerading as blonde.
I have cinnamon skin.
You're see-through. [ Laughs ]
See-through?! How dare you.
I've got olive undertones.
Every makeup artist I've ever worked with is...
I love you.
You can say, "I love you, too."
[ Both laugh ]
That's my worst nightmare.
I'll say "I love you" to someone,
and they just stare at me.
[ Laughs ]
I can't believe you just said,
"You can say, 'I love you, too.'"
It's like Jeb Bush telling people to clap for him!
[ Both laugh ]
Thank you so much for being here today.
This was so much fun.
Thank you for coming to Jersey,
and thank you for allowing Beyoncé to be on set.
She is the most important part of our show.
She's joining the crew now.
Thank you for watching. Take care of each other.
And be professional.
[ Laughs ]
"And be professional"?! That's the one I did!