The Broadway and screen legend talks to Guardian Weekend about her forthcoming show, how ‘wow’ moments in life make her cry and why she missed out on a Tony award for Best Actress
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
[Producer] Lew Mientus. A black producer put it in his hand and said, “Don’t think of yourself as a black entertainer, think of yourself as a product of America.” He said: “I want people to recognise you as being a great entertainer, and then you can get to the other things.”
Do you still have trouble seeing yourself in the mirror?
I can see a lot better than I used to but I’ll never say I’m not afraid of looking. I have been married for 22 years and then when I was dating in my late 40s, I realised I couldn’t imagine marrying the same person anymore. I can see myself in a lot of characters and women I’m more like. I have a better understanding of the complexities of what I look like.
Do you still get nervous before a performance?
I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not happening in real life. You make them do it again for you.
When did you realise what you are here for?
I went to see [Ugly Betty creator] Silvio Horta for an interview. I saw the country’s changing – with these green policies and affirmative action – and it made me rethink all the barriers for women. I wondered if there was anything I could do to help. I thought, “Am I a consultant, or just one of those wonderful audiences who comes and wishes the show all the best and complains about the blocking?” I thought, I’m here to help.
What made you decide to talk about your show?
When people walk into the matinee and they say, “I don’t understand it, but I liked it.” That’s what I hear most, when they say, “Thank you, that was so good.” It’s important for me because it can be very intimidating to go on and talk about a particular piece of work. That applause in real life made my professional life unforgettable.
How do you cope with all the boobs?
The rehearsals are very detailed and it’s great that the songs are short. I’ll skip things I need to call out to the musicians and not need to talk about the steps because it’s all there. The vocal coach says, “I can’t believe you can do this.”
How do you cope with all the handbags?
It helps me avoid being in situations where I’m expected to be focused.
What advice would you give to someone about not freaking out when something doesn’t go to plan?
The screen is about to be turned back on, film is about to be put on, which means the future is about to happen. When that day comes, you have to be ready. You have to plan. You have to believe in what you are doing and in yourself. You have to have a sense of humour.
Is performance different at the Met?
They always say we sing in English and swear a lot, but that was in Spanish and we wanted to stay true to our Latin roots.
Is there any other profession that leaves you shivering?
When I was in a room all by myself, I felt as though I was doing standup. Being alone in a room is very frightening. It always makes me cry.
The one thing you missed out on …
I did not win a Tony for [playing] Anita in West Side Story. But I had a large contract and got paid well, so I was very happy with what I did. I did a lot of other interesting roles.
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