August: Osage County’s Phylicia Rashad on Not Playing a Monster

By
Photo: Getty Images

Playing August: Osage County's matriarch Violet Weston requires a strenuous combination of pill-popping, havoc-wreaking, and stair-climbing from an actress. The latest to brave the role: Phylicia Rashad. Best known as TV mom Clair Huxtable, she’s taken on her share of iconic parts onstage — Lena Younger in Raisin in the Sun, Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — and last night she began her run in Tracy Letts's Pulitzer-winning drama. We caught up with Rashad last week to talk about the recent Cosby Show reunion and her new role.

Violet Weston is a pretty unsympathetic character ...
Well, that depends on your point of view. If you pay attention to the writing, she expresses a few things that give you a key to — people aren’t born like that, you know. [Tracy Letts] said to me in rehearsal, “She is not necessarily a monster.” And I nodded because I don’t think so either. Her behavior’s monstrous, that’s true. [Laughs.]

So what’s been the biggest challenge?
She’s an onion with many layers, and experience has taught me that you uncover these layers as you continue to work with a character, and that means in performance, not just in rehearsal. The most difficult challenge is allowing myself to breath in that understanding. Because a lot of things come quickly and I have to write them down because they’ll occur to me when I’m washing a dish or just performing little chores like going to the supermarket, not necessarily just when I’m reading the play. Things will occur to me when I’m in the yard. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. Oh, yeah, I see!” Information is coming all the time, and it’s like, “Okay, hold that, hold that, hold that.” But then, I don’t think this would be happening if I couldn’t receive it.

It’s a pretty physically taxing role — Deanna Dunagan cited exhaustion as a reason for leaving the production. Was there any concern about the physical toll it would take?
You know, I’ve done some pretty physically demanding works here. I mean, Aunt Ester was physically demanding — it took a lot of energy to be 287 years old. Big Mama is demanding. And there’s a lot of energy with the emotional life of Lena Younger. So I am accustomed to physically demanding work. The roles are all different, but I’m used to expending tremendous amounts of energy. It’s a lot to take in within a few weeks of rehearsal. It’s quite a different thing than, let’s say, developing it for the first day of rehearsal with the entire company, but it’s a joyful thing and I feel very comfortable and supported.

You’ve played a family matriarch many times. Is there something about that type of role that appeals to you?
Well, consider what you’re asking. How many women in the world are matriarchs? Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many. It’s not a role foreign to women, is it? So there. [Laughs.] So there.

You’ve done a lot of Broadway in recent years. Would you ever go back to television?
Well-written television, yes. [Laughs.] Nothing takes the place of good writing. Mr. Cosby said [that] on the Today show.

You were on celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Cosby Show on May 14 — what was it like getting back together with the cast?
We couldn’t believe 25 years had passed. Even when I looked at these people who had been so young and now they’re all grown up, owning houses and things. But it’s gone by very quickly. Our paths seem to cross, and we come upon one another and it’s great, but it was very, very special. I’m so very, very grateful that in this time that has flown, there’s been great work in it, great work with good people.

So August is a limited production for you and then you’re doing the London production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Anything else coming up?
Isn’t that enough?