Famous Cast Words

S1 E1 | FULL EPISODE

Amber Gray

In “Famous Cast Words,” stars from stage and screen join host Lynne Marie Rosenberg (HBO's "High Maintenance") to discuss issues of representation and inclusion facing the entertainment industry. Hear how actor Amber Gray from “Hadestown” navigates being a mother while juggling a Broadway schedule.

AIRED: February 05, 2020 | 0:13:48
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TRANSCRIPT

[ 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 ]

Congratulations... Thanks.

...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

of adolescence.

Oh, yeah.

The horrible, horrible experience of being 11.

Yeah.

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."

Oh, okay.

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?

You 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.

Peanut butter-y?

There's one thing I don't ever want my hair

to be referred to as, it's peanut butter.

Oh, oh!

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.

Hell yeah.

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.

You did?

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.

Yes.

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

the costumes.

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.

That's right.

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?

Eth. Eth.

Eth ambiguous.

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.

Mom. Mom.

Need to straighten my hair.

Exactly.

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.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

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