Renée Elise Goldsberry, a Diva 5Eva

Riffs, car crêpes, and a last-minute substitution with the multitasking theater star turned sitcom breakout.

Photo: Sophia Wilson
Photo: Sophia Wilson

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At her most distinctively outlandish, Wickie Roy, a self-declared, self-perpetuating diva, drops what she calls a “riff rolodex” onto a table and starts flipping through meticulously catalogued vocalizations like they’re business contacts. In full glam, she pulls cards from the delightfully out-of-date prop, at one point unleashing a “yeeAAAAHHHhhh” so long its written-out vowels extend to the back of the card, landing comically on an unforeseen “oh.” The riff rolodex embodies the kind of absurdity that fuels Girls5Eva, the Peacock series created by Meredith Scardino about an early-aughts girl group scrabbling to reclaim its glory. It’s crucial, however, that Wickie really does sound incredible, so the riffs come courtesy of Renée Elise Goldsberry, the theater star turned sitcom breakout who finds a way to sell both trumped-up hubris and authentic charm.

“I texted a few of my friends, ‘Send me riffs, because I don’t want to use the same four I always do!’” Goldsberry tells me, un-diva-fied in a jean jacket and flip-flops, outside Joe Coffee on the Upper West Side. She worked through some of their suggestions on set, but over the course of many takes reverted to the classics, including the first riff she ever learned. “At the end of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,’ he does this very long riff on ’meeEEeeeEEEee,’” she sings over New York street construction in the distance.

We’re catching up before Goldsberry schleps over to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park to perform at a gala for the institution that certified her career: the Public Theater, where she played Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton before the musical moved to Broadway. Hamilton made her nationally recognizable, helped her buy a house outside the city, and won her numerous awards. Seven years later, she still feels the need to hop on its stage and refresh people’s memories of what she’s capable of. “Why can’t I just sit there with the guests and clap for my friends and let somebody tell me I was good as Angelica?” she muses.

Photo: Sophia Wilson

Wickie might do the same, though she’s hardly a mirror reflection of Goldsberry, who has, as far as I know, never been engaged to Carson Daly. In conversation, Goldsberry’s chatty and quick with a one-liner, occasionally shifting into Wickie-like theatricality for the sake of a joke, then sending herself up for doing so. The experience of promoting Girls5Eva, she explains, comes with the sort of humbling moments you might act out on Girls5Eva — there was the time she appeared on Today with co-stars Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell. “We thought we were killing it, and then we found out our segment had been preempted by Biden making a speech.” Or their appearance in last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, when their float hit another float and the sign identifying the show fell off. But she maintains a grounded sense of humor — decidedly un-Wickie-like.

Goldsbery and her Girls5eva character do share an infectious optimism, and a self-determination to forge onward in an unforgiving industry. The second season of the show documents the group’s attempts to pull together a comeback album that satisfies the demands of their record-label bosses, the Property Brothers (played by the actual Property Brothers), in six weeks. Wickie, taking on the role of the group’s “Amanda,” the name shared by every publicist in the Girls5eva universe, stages paparazzi shots and books the girls in a problematic celebrity’s music video. Amid the absurdity, a tender earnestness beams through, as the quartet learns they can’t sacrifice their humanity willy-nilly to the volcano that is pop stardom. Wickie learns she needs to bring some balance to her life, including a romance with a normie, played by Chad L. Coleman, who works at a school cafeteria and can’t prepare food in portions for less than a dozen people.

“I’m blessed to have an inspirational fictional group to mirror the answers to the questions you ask yourself embarking on a career in pop music at this stage of your life,” says Goldsberry, who’s currently working on a solo album of her own. “Well, I’ve been saying that for a long time,” she jokes, slipping into Wickie’s over-enunciation to describe the project she’s been developing for years. (She’s “finally almost finished.” It just needs a few more songs.) Goldsberry has developed the confidence in herself and her career to answer these questions — “What am I doing? Did this ship pass me by decades ago?’” — but says it’s easier to remain motivated in her real life when she’s “playing a woman surrounded by women who are just going for it” in her fictional one.

And Wickie goes for it. She capitalizes on the briefest bit of celebrity (in one instance, garnered from storming the stage during Jingle Ball), and repeatedly insists to the rest of the group that they commit fully to “album mode” (each syllable spoken as if she’s delivering Shakespeare at the Old Globe). Goldsberry is familiar with the mindset, though she doesn’t recommend it: After getting a BFA from Carnegie Mellon and a master’s in vocal jazz performance from USC, she expected to “give my 20s to my career and be tremendously successful and then in my 30s I would do my family life” — she slips into mock self-aggrandizement — “and they’d fly me in from my glamorous farm for movies, and I don’t know, concert specials.” Life did not work out that way. She tried to make it as a solo artist, putting out songs, as she jokes, from the trunk of her car in the ’90s (she released an album in 2001 and an EP in 2006) and in a failed girl group — unlike Girls5eva, one that didn’t make it past industry auditions — but a star was not suddenly born. It wasn’t until she started shifting out of album mode, getting married, and having children, that her career paradoxically got more exciting. “Every time I added a dependent to my tax profile, some great job happened,” she laughs.

As we prepare to make our way from Joe Coffee to the Delacorte, Goldsberry picks up a crêpe from the shop next door, then tries to make sure none of the cheese filling drips onto the floor of the rental car. We pass a Sweetgreen and she muses that might’ve been the more dignified and filling choice, but there’s a Girls5eva-ish ridiculousness to the challenge of eating a crêpe on the go. We discuss some of those great jobs: Her gig as a back-up singer on Ally McBeal, starting in 1997, was both a way to prove she was doing something her family could see on TV (if ever so briefly), and a chance to observe actors like Calista Flockhart, Lucy Liu, and Jane Krakowski, whose 30 Rock character, Jenna Maroney, shares a fame-hungry id with Wickie, up close. Krakowski, especially later, became a source of advice on performing in a show with a Tina Fey sensibility (Fey wrote 30 Rock and executive-produces Girls5Eva) as well as an example of a career that moves between theater and television. “Jane’s a great example of a New York triple threat, and I got to see her very close to the beginning,” Goldsberry says. McBeal ended up a fitting prelude to her forthcoming show, Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (“I don’t think they know I was in Ally McBeal!”), a project Goldsberry can finally confirm since she appears in the recently released trailer. She can’t say much else, except to point out that Girls5Eva pilot director ​​Kat Coiro got her the part. “She texted me, ‘Are you a Marvel fan? Are you interested in this thing we’re doing? And how quickly can you say yes?’”

After McBeal, Goldsberry took a more substantial gig on the soap One Life to Live, where she played the lawyer Evangeline Williamson from 2003 to 2007. The process of filming six hours of television a week was both an incredible on-your-feet lesson in learning how to act onscreen and a “game of Survivor.” If the audience didn’t like you, you got written off, so regardless of whatever heel-turn the writers gave you, you had to learn to sell it in a way that made the audience root for you. How did she do it? “I would slightly rewrite all my lines, and find a motivation that was understandable,” she says. She doesn’t rewrite the Girls5eva jokes, but the latter part of that idea is a lesson she uses with Wickie, who originally left the group to go solo and often insists she is far more talented than her bandmates. Wickie, in all her self-centeredness, could be easy to hate, but “I think anybody can understand how big a dream is, and how painful it is when it’s stuck inside you and not happening.”

One Life to Live gave Goldsberry her first acting award, for Soap Opera Digest’s Favorite Soap Opera Triangle, shared with Michael Easton and Melissa Archer. She was nominated for Daytime Emmys in 2006 and 2007, and for NAACP Image Awards in 2004 and 2007, but that first trophy stood alone (“I had it by my bed for the longest time”) until she started winning prizes for Hamilton. “It was the best thing for my career, and getting involved with them was the only reason my character blew up,” Goldsberry recalls. “But the hardest thing I ever had to do was play a Black character in a love triangle with two white characters and not be loved. They were a destiny couple, and my character was there to make their couple more interesting. It was painful for me that women of color would watch and not feel worthy of love.” Throughout her career, she’s said no to many auditions, concerned how the role would depict a Black woman onscreen. Goldsberry wants Black women “to see what I’m doing and feel good about who they are,” which is why she said yes to 2018’s Altered Carbon, where post-Hamilton she played a heroic soul who chooses to inhabit the body of a middle-aged Black woman. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a Black woman,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a 50-year-old Black woman!”

Photo: Sophia Wilson

Once we stop near the Delacorte, Goldsberry cheerfully puts me to work moving a large suitcase containing her wardrobe out of the car, and we hike through the park to the theater. As she shifts into glamorous gala mode — sitting for makeup, stepping into a pink and blue floral dress chosen to stand out against the stage’s green backdrop — the inevitable logistical hiccups that come with preparing for a gig emerge. Goldsberry was originally set to perform a song from Two Gentlemen of Verona, alongside one of her co-stars Norm Lewis (the other was Oscar Isaac) in the 2005 Central Park revival of the ’70s rock musical. She earned heaps of praise as the glamorous Silvia and wowed a young Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton director Tommy Kail. “I got a lot of credit for the fact that when my character came out, the stars and the moon came out,” Goldsberry says. Alas, Lewis dropped out of the gala at the last minute, so overnight she figured out a new song to perform, “I Can See Clearly Now,” referencing the Public’s plans for a musical involving the songs of Jimmy Cliff.

Before a brief rehearsal of that song, her guitarist registers a false positive on a COVID test on-site, but luckily tests negative on the next few. Then Miranda also drops out of the gala, and out of plans to appear alongside Goldsberry on a panel the next day. She reacts with more equanimity than Wickie might: As her assistant hurriedly talks through replacement options on her cell phone (among them, Jimmy Fallon, who notably exists in the Girls5eva universe), Goldsberry offers to make a statement on Miranda’s behalf. (His father ends up replacing him). Once the hiccups settle, she chats with Kelli O’Hara in their shared dressing room about TV gigs (O’Hara appears alongside a bevy of other theater actors on The Gilded Age) and their kids’ plans for summer camp. Soon they’re commiserating with fellow parent Liev Schreiber, the emcee for the evening. In the coming weeks, Goldsberry herself will present at the Tonys and host the Drama Desk Awards. Wickie’s influence again emerges: “The older you get, the less comfortable you get with taking risks,” she says. “I keep trying to turn that part of my brain off and jump in.”

I bid her good-bye as the guests begin to arrive and she prepares for a few quick interviews and the requisite gala step-and-repeat. Later, midway through the dinner, as the sun is setting, Goldsberry appears onstage, like her Sylvia in Verona, with the stars and the moon. In full glam, she’s made herself into Renée Elise Goldsberry: Star. She tells the story about being noticed by Miranda and Kail, and gets a big reaction from the crowd just by saying Hamilton. Then she sings. As the song builds, she incorporates more and more riffs, pulling the greatest hits from her own rolodex, a feat of vocal acrobatics. She leads the audience in clapping along, and closes to rapturous applause.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, a Diva 5Eva