She may be a newcomer to prime time, but Audra McDonald is already winning rave reviews from her costars. We speed-dialed the four-time Tony winner, who plays fertility specialist Dr. Naomi Bennett on Private Practice (tonight at 9 pm/ET, ABC), to talk about life after Broadway, replacing actress Merrin Dungey and her real-life relationship with sex symbol Taye Diggs.
TVGuide.com: How is life on Private Practice these days?
Audra McDonald: I don't know if it's fortunate or unfortunate for the producers: The cast is a group of people who really like each other. So when we do group scenes, it's very difficult to get anything done because we're having too much fun. They always need to tell us to shut up.
TVGuide.com: Any scenes where that happened recently?
McDonald: Any group scene you see, especially ones in the conference room. Those scenes probably took a long time because we wouldn't shut up.
TVGuide.com: You've won four Tony awards. How does TV compare to Broadway?
McDonald: Well, the live audience certainly gives you a barometer in terms of how you're doing. It forces you to focus in a different way than you focus when someone yells, "Action!" The muscles that are flexed are the same, but there's something about the danger of being in front of a live audience — you only have that one chance; whereas, if you mess up, you can do it again on film. So that's different.
TVGuide.com: Does your experience on stage help you nail scenes faster?
McDonald: Not necessarily, because it's different. You're doing something over and over again. So you get a lot of chances to do it different ways. What's hard for me is the lack of continuity. You shoot a lot of scenes out of order; you shoot the end before you shoot the beginning.
TVGuide.com: Have the other actors given you any advice?
McDonald: You just have to make sure you've done all your prep work way ahead of time, which can be difficult because with a weekly television series, you don't get scripts far in advance. You get them three to four days before you start shooting. On the other hand, when you're doing a series, it's one character you're living with for a very long time. That makes the work a little bit easier, because the more comfortable you are with a character, the easier it is to get into the rhythm of a scene. I think a lot of Naomi is very close to who I am anyway. I'm a working mother, and a lot of her drive and independence and her strength are certainly things that I can associate with. Naomi is so desperate to do the right thing and be the good girl. That's something that I identify with as well.
TVGuide.com: You and Taye Diggs have great chemistry on screen. Do you get along off screen?
McDonald: Oh, god, yeah! I've known Taye for 14 years. Taye is like a brother to me. It's funny, when he became this huge sex symbol, I was really happy for him. But, at the same time, I was like, "Oh, man, it's just Taye!" When I got cast, I was so excited because I knew I'd feel comfortable with him. I know his wife really well and it's just a very easy situation. You couldn't ask for a better situation in terms of the chemistry on and off screen. That makes a big difference when you're shooting 16-, 17-, 18-hour days.
TVGuide.com: Did you and Taye work together on Broadway?
McDonald: We worked together in Carousel back in 1994.
TVGuide.com: Wow, you weren't kidding when you said you've known him forever!
McDonald: Yeah. We started rehearsals in the fall of 1993.
TVGuide.com: Did you ever imagine you'd both come this far?
McDonald: It's fate. It's fantastic! I guess it makes you a bit nostalgic, too, when you think, "My gosh, we were just kids when we met!" Look how far we've come...
TVGuide.com: Almost everybody else had meetings — not auditions — with Shonda. Since Naomi was recast, did you actually audition for this role?
McDonald: I came into the game very late. Everybody else had been cast and they'd already shot the pilot. I was doing a show on Broadway at the time. When I flew out for the audition, I knew that I was going to have to read. So while I chatted with everybody else, the main thing was to see if Kate and I clicked. In a way, I think Kate got me the job because I immediately felt comfortable with her. She and I were basically doing what was on the page, but we started improving. We just clicked immediately. So I thought, "Well, if I don't get it, I've met a really cool chick."
TVGuide.com: Were you surprised when you heard they were recasting the role?
McDonald: I heard about it through my agent. When they were first casting, a lot of my friends were going in for it. There was part of me that wished I could go as well, but I was already committed to the Broadway show that I was doing. So when it came back around, I felt like, "Oh, maybe this is meant to be!" I think Merrin Dungey is a very talented actress and I have been in Merrin's shoes before, too. I have been the one let go from a pilot. It happens to everybody. It's not nearly as uncommon as it looks to the outside world.
TVGuide.com: Do you know why they decided to recast Naomi?
McDonald: They didn't volunteer that information to me, so I don't know. I don't know who made that decision. You never know and, even if someone tells you, you don't know if that's true.
TVGuide.com: Were you a Grey's Anatomy fan before?
McDonald: Yeah, as much as I can be considering I don't watch TV. Most folks on Broadway have a hard time keeping up with TV. I caught Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends in syndication. I would never have seen those shows first-run. But, having said that, I was familiar with it. Sara Ramirez is a friend of mine and Chandra Wilson as well.
TVGuide.com: Shonda seems to have a real affinity for casting Broadway stars. Did she express that to you during your audition?
McDonald: I don't know that she's expressed that to me, but I certainly know that, being an actor, I enjoy delving into Shonda's work because I think the characters she writes are very three-dimensional. They're fully realized, fleshed-out characters with all kinds of foibles, strengths and weaknesses. There's a lot to play with. It's rare to find that on TV, especially for us African-American women. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.
TVGuide.com: Did you do anything to research fertility doctors before shooting?
McDonald: I have a couple of cousins who are doctors, so I get a lot of my research through them.
TVGuide.com: Were they excited to help you prepare for the show?
McDonald: I think they're just excited for me to have this opportunity!
TVGuide.com: What types of questions did you ask them?
McDonald: Just general questions. I've also spoken to people who have been in infertility situations. Not only does Naomi have to be really good at what she does — being a fertility specialist — but she also has to have a credible bedside manner. People spend thousands and thousands of dollars with no insurance coverage for this. The pressure that puts on her to achieve a miracle is huge.
TVGuide.com: Did the show hook you up with patients?
McDonald: Oh, no! They were people I knew who had gone through it. So I went straight to them.
TVGuide.com: Any spoilers about how Naomi will evolve?
McDonald: Basically, you're seeing her life fall apart for the first time. It unravels who she is and shapes who she becomes. They don't give us that much into the future. Certainly, she's still very much in love with Sam, very perplexed yet curious about the fact that this young, beautiful boy has this crush on her at a time when she's feeling completely unattractive because she's been rejected by her husband. Yet there's this gorgeous, hot young thing who's into her. So she's not quite sure what to make of it. Her only life raft right now is Addison.
TVGuide.com: Will she be led astray by Dell's crush?
McDonald: We'll see [Laughs]! I'll tell you what: As far as I've seen, for lack of a better term, it hasn't been put to bed yet. So I don't know.
TVGuide.com: No elevator scenes yet?
McDonald: There's lots of room in this office space. There's lots of room!
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